What comes to mind when you hear the words "Doctor Who"? For most, the iconic aliens top the list. Daleks. Cybermen. Their threats of "EXTERMINATE," "UPGRADE," and "OBEY" have resonated with fans for decades.
The talented Nicholas Briggs has voiced the Daleks and Cybermen since Doctor Who's 2005 return. Briggs is also the Executive Producer of the Big Finish audiobooks, which add hundreds of adventures to the canon. I had the pleasure of meeting him at Chicago TARDIS 2012. We talked sci-fi, BBC 4 Extra, and of course, Doctor Who.
What was it like directing so many of The Doctors? Who is the next big Doctor Who villain? And... was that a hint about Jenna-Louise Coleman as Oswin Oswald?! Read on!
...and no, I did not wear my Rose Tyler costume for the interview. ;)
Geek Girl Chicago: "When you're recording a voice for a Dalek, a Cyberman, etc., what is the process like? What do you have in front of you? How do you get into the moment?"
Nick Briggs: "I will, quite often, do a read-thru where we all meet in a big room with a big table and the whole cast. A few weeks later, we'll do the shoot, and I will have my script. When we rehearse the scene with the Director, I will go around being the Dalek on the set, speaking without a ring modulator going "OBEY," "SIT DOWN," whatever. Once we've got it worked out, the First Assistant Director will call the whole of the crew in. Quite often, while we're doing that rehearsal, the Director will [point] where he anticipates the camera should be...
Then, after that, we go around the business of shooting it... I go off and sit behind a screen with headphones on. I hear the dialogue from all the other actors and I speak into the microphone. The signal goes into a speaker, comes out on set- they can hear it- and also it goes to a unit which sends a signal to the Dalek to make its ears flash in time with my voice.
GGC: "What are your thoughts on the 'Rainbow' Daleks that appeared in Victory of the Daleks? They had new builds, colors, and most important for you, a voice change! Then, in the most recent episodes, the classics were back."
NB: "That was fun! You know, no one said to me, 'We should do a slightly different voice for the new Daleks,' but I just thought, 'We probably should!' So, I made a technical adjustment to it. I added more low frequency oscillation, and also I did the voice in a slightly different way- only a slightly different way, 'cause hell, they're still Daleks, aren't they?"
GGC: "(laughs) They are!"
NB: "...And then, of course, in the new one- Asylum of the Daleks- we still have the Supreme Dalek..."
GGC: "What exactly is a Supreme Dalek? The 'Rainbow' Daleks all had different roles. There was the Supreme, the Eternal, the Drone..."
NB: "Well, [The Eternal] just waits around forever. (laughs) It's like the Dalek bus never arrives! The Dalek Supreme is the guy in charge, really. ...The Eternal never really did anything, did he? Maybe we'll find out. Maybe he's in charge of time travel."
GGC: "Several readers want to know- favorite Doctor?"
NB: "Favorite Doctor is Patrick Troughton, though I do love them all, actually. I don't have a Doctor I hate. Having worked with a lot of them, I think they've all got an amazing amount to offer. But yea, Patrick Troughton for me. It would be so thrilling if some of his old episodes that are missing were returned, particularly Evil of the Daleks."
GGC: "Similarly, favorite Dalek?"
NB: "I don't know. I quite like the Dalek in the first one I did, Dalek. That was good.
GGC: "Made me cry! Most emotional Dalek!"
NB: "He was just a conniving so-and-so, really. 'Twas Murray Gold who made you cry with his music. Also, I liked doing the Dalek Prime Minister this time around. That confrontation between him and The Doctor when The Doctor was so close- (softly) I was hardly speaking at all. I was really doing it very quietly, and I think that worked very nicely.
...Also, with the bit when Jenna Louise-Coleman- Oswin- was supposedly really a Dalek, for that big long scene that The Doctor had with her in the cell, I did her voice for all of that... Even though I didn't sound like a girl, I did act it. I gave [Matt Smith] a performance to bounce off of. If you don't do that, you get the First Assistant Director reading it, and they deliberately don't do it with any acting, as if not to comment on a performance. (dryly:) 'Oh dear. No. Oh dear. I am dying. Help me. Help me. Please. This is the worst moment of my (mimes turning a page) ...life.'
Matt very much wants everything to be real. They did try to do it without me being there... and it was Matt who eventually said, 'Can we just get Nick Briggs in, please, because I need to hear it!' I heard this on set, and I went up to him and said, 'I'm here because of you, aren't I?' 'No offense,' he said, 'but it can't be that expensive, can it?' (laughs)
GGC: "You're the Executive Producer of Big Finish-"
NB: "I am! It's my life!"
GGC: "Your whole life! ...and you've gotten to direct many of the Doctors. Do you have any fun stories? Are any of them particularly unique or even difficult to direct?"
NB: "Tom [Baker] sits me down before the recording [and] takes me through various speeches he'd like to alter. Colin [Baker] is very attentive to how much the story makes sense... Peter Davison turns up and hasn't read it, but he's such a smart, quick actor that, after the read-through, he's got it. Sylvester [McCoy]'s just a ball. He's hilarious and chaotic. Paul McGann does put in a little bit of work beforehand, he really throws himself into it.
Tom's an interesting one, really. All the stories you've heard about him being aggressive about scripts- he's mellowed a lot in his old age, but you do occasionally get a little flash of the old Tom Baker. He can be quite savage to a Director! ...He was suggesting something, you know, to the nth time, and it was quite a crazy suggestion. I said, 'OK Tom, I'm gonna go with that,' and he just said, 'Oh, Nick! I can't tell how happy it makes me when you accept one of my suggestions!" He sounded very moved... he said, 'I was rewriting my will this weekend, and I put something in it for you!'"
GGC: "What is the casting process like over at Big Finish?"
NB: "Sometimes we've got a great idea about who we want to cast in a role. One of us will say- usually David Richardson- 'Oh, you really need to get so-and-so for that...' Another way is, we deal with lots of actors' agents- we've struck up relationships with them...
Another way is, there is a radio acting competition that's run in drama schools in Britain called The Carleton Hobbs Awards. Every year, one student out of all the drama schools in Britain wins this because they've got great radio technique. Their prize is to have a six month contract with BBC Radio where they get to play every part under the sun. They've never let us down... actors who know their radio, they're amazing.
The final way we do it is to say to people, 'Send us either a link to you doing something on audio, or a CD, send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll have a listen.' ...it does happen! It takes quite a long time sometimes, but it's all chance.
GGC: "You're a presenter for BBC Radio 4 Extra. You do a lot of introduction of science fiction there. What is your favorite sci-fi aside from Doctor Who?"
NB: "OOO! Almost impossible to answer because I do really love science fiction. A lot of Doctor Who fans don't like science fiction. Like, David Tennant is a massive Doctor Who fan, but he's not really fond of science fiction. He's never liked Star Trek or Star Wars. I do love Star Trek. I really love Star Trek. I could tell you a few titles of stories from The Original Series. I think my favorite Star Treks are, controversially, The Original Series and Enterprise.
...I love really intelligent science fiction, you know? Stuff that really poses interesting questions about the human condition and society. I love Alien as well and Blade Runner. When Blade Runner first came out, I think I saw it 2 or 3 times in the same week. In those days, we didn't have videos and didn't know we were going to get a video of it. I thought this would be the last time I ever saw this film!
GGC: "If it were up to you, who would you choose to be the 13th Doctor?"
NB: "This won't happen and this isn't really my choice, but I've thought for years that Benedict Cumberbatch would make a brilliant Doctor."
GGC: "Fangirls everywhere just squealed. You thought this before Sherlock?"
NB: "Well before Sherlock. I'd seen him [play] a sort of strange, computer geek person who's being used by the State... and I'd seen him in loads of other things... The brilliant thing about him is he's young, but he sounds old. He sounds like a much older man. I've met him, and he did a Big Finish- lovely guy. So I thought him. Let's say that.
GGC: "If you could design a monster from your imagination to face The Doctor-"
NB: "Whenever I do that, I write one for Big Finish!"
GGC: "Of course! Do you have a favorite?"
NB: "A new one coming up in the next year... they're called the Eminence. It seems to be this gas that arrives in these dematerialization pods... it sort of comes out and takes people over and turns them into something ghastly and emaciated and stonelike and they become Infinite Warriors. No one quite knows who they are or what they represent, but it's appalling.
We've done an interesting thing; the first time they encounter The Doctor is in a Fourth Doctor story, which we've already recorded, but that's not going to be out until 2014. The Doctor next encounters them in his Sixth incarnation in a story that's coming out next February, so we'll get the sequel first. We're toying with the Eminence coming into the Eigth Doctor's life as well.
The idea about them is that The Doctor gets taken over by them at one point. He has this appalling vision of the future of the entire universe connected with the Eminence and what they want to do, and he's so appalled by it that he can't articulate it. So, it's this sort of awful threat of something terrible... which only I know about."
GGC: "I can't wait to hear it! Lastly, I have a widely female audience. Do you have any message specifically for female fans of Big Finish and Doctor Who?"
NB: "I'm a married man, for goodness sake! I can't say anything to females! (laughs) At this convention, a couple of women have spoken to me about the fact that there A. aren't many female writers of Doctor Who, and B. aren't very many black writers of Doctor Who. Female black writers? Well, nothing. My job is to get things done, and time is really tight, but it has had an effect on me. I'm going to try and do something to- as someone put it- just open the door slightly to let a bit of light in.
Nick Briggs was a joy to meet. His passions for sci-fi and storytelling are clear in his work. We Whovians are lucky to have him contributing to our beloved canon. Thank you, Mr. Briggs, and thank you Chicago TARDIS for the opportunity!
It has been confirmed that Neil Gaiman's 2013 episode of Doctor Who will feature Cybermen, so we'll be seeing (er, hearing) more from Nicholas Briggs very soon. ... and please, if you are a fan of the TV series, do consider diving in to Big Finish. I listen to audiobooks now. Audiobooks are cool.