SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY

Sshhh! There’s a library full of dark horrors in this week’s Doctor Who, as guest star Alex Kingston gets a creepy introduction to the show…

This article originally appeared in Radio Times for the week 31 May-6 June 2008.

Outside Swansea Library, it’s February 2008 and the sun is bright in a crystal blue sky. But inside Swansea Library… it’s the 51st century; it’s dark, dusty and crawling with shadows. It’s a city made of books. Every book ever written is in here. (Except The DaVinci Code – that’s illegal in the 51st century.) Amidst this Terry Gilliam-esque nightmare stands ER’s Alex Kingston – effortlessly hip in a slim-fitting astronaut’s suit – playing Professor River Song. If Clint Eastwood were a woman, this would be her.

She’s the guest star in Silence in the Library, the first instalment of a two-parter written by Steven Moffat. He recently won a BAFTA for last year’s terrifying episode Blink, in which statues came to life. This time, it’s shadows that bite. “It’s scary stuff,” says Kingston, “but quite esoteric in places. Grown-ups will be scared, too!”

For this scene, David Tennant is on all fours. The Doctor is temping a shadow out from under a desk… with a chicken leg. “Not sure how long I can hold this position,” says Tennant, flinching. “Bit uncomfortable.”

“Try wearing a spacesuit!” teases Kingston. For the close-ups, though, she’s removed her boots. “Why wear boots when your legs aren’t in shot?” she reasons. “After a while, you want to tear the whole suit off. Some days we’ve had our helmets on in every scene. That’s claustrophobic.”

“We’ve got a live one!” the Doctor roars, tossing the chicken leg into the darkness. In post-production, it’ll rattle to the ground as a desiccated bone. This “live one” is a flesh-eating shadow.

“Just remember, when that meat is devoured, this is new and frightening,” director Euros Lyn tells the actors.

“After I’ve examined the shadow, I’m suspicious,” says Tennant. “I don’t know what’s happened, do I?”

“Not yet. Not until later,” says Lyn, “when you see the [astronaut’s] fossilised skull clunk against the inside of his helmet.” And he nods towards one unfortunate character, whose days are surely numbered.

The Who team is thrilled to have Kingston on board. Even Catherine Tate (Donna) is star-struck: “I’m a huge ER fan. I just want to sit and talk to Alex about everything she knows! When you hold people in awe, it’s almost a disappointment when they come in and they’re utterly normal. But Alex isn’t disappointing at all. She’s such a lovely person.”

But Tennant has a confession to make. “I’ve never actually watched ER,” he whispers. “I know, it’s sacrilege! But Alex is terrific. When she’s telling you stories about hanging out with George Clooney, you know she’s pretty cool. Actually, I remember her from Moll Flanders [ITV, 1996]. It was quite saucy, so I’ve some particular memories of Alex that I’d best not discuss with her…”

“We hit it off immediately,” says Kingston. “We just clicked before we’d even finished the first day’s filming. I’ve done guest roles on other shows, but rarely have I felt such a warm bond.” Does this sci-fi city filmed in Swansea compare favourably with LA, where she now lives? “The budgets are smaller, but everyone works just as hard. Hey, somebody told me that I’m going to get a River Song action figure. I don’t quite believe it. You don’t get that on ER.”

Between scenes, in the green room, Kingston does The Daily Telegraph crossword, while the cast play card games. “A large barrel,” she wonders out loud. “Three letters.”

“KEG!” replies absolutely everyone.

“We’re all into games,” explains Kingston. “We take them very seriously. Last night, we all did the pub quiz in the hotel. I had Catherine and the astronauts on my team. We called ourselves ‘River and the Ripples’. We came second,” she adds, proudly.

Back on set, the skull has now clunked inside its helmet. “Professor, is there anything I can do with the suit?” asks the Doctor.

“You can increase the mesh-density of the chest panel,” replies River Song. “Dial it up 400 per cent, making it…” Kingston breaks off. “No, wait. I got that line wrong.”

Tennant is laughing. “It can’t be harder to say than the ‘what’s-it drip and 200ml of oxygen’ babble on ER!”

“In a funny sort of way, Doctor Who dialogue is more difficult,” Kingston smiles. “I’d work with a medical consultant on ER, who’d explain what we were saying, so I’d say it with a purpose and a truth. On Doctor Who, I’ve no idea what some of my lines mean! David is brilliant at it, though. He seems to understand every word.”

SHADOW MAKER

This article originally appeared in Radio Times for the week 7-13 June 2008.

Doctor Who monsters tend to fall into one of two categories: those born of grisly make-up (this series, we’ve had Ood, Sontarans and Hath) and those brought to life by computer graphics (Adipose, Pyroviles and Vespiform). But last week’s episode claimed something of a first: a creature made from… lighting?

Director of photography Rory Taylor explains, “Lighting, like music, is often overlooked by the audience. It should blend into the picture, creating an impression, a mood. Usually, if the audience doesn’t notice my work, it means I’ve done a good job. So these shadow monsters were something of a departure for me.”

Last week, when the Doctor said, “We’ve got a live one,” he wasn’t lying: the Vashta Nerada – shadows that melt the flesh – were created “live” on set. “A brilliant opportunity to show off what I do,” says Taylor. “These aren’t monsters in the traditional sense. It’s more of a psychological thrill. The director of photography is always trying to get rid of shadows; this time I was asked to add them in!”

“It absolutely felt real,” confirms Alex Kingston, who plays River Song. “When you go for a take, you’re aware of the camera team, but the shadow monsters moving about added to the feeling of immediacy and reality. Your heart’s beating and the adrenalin kicks in. It’s great fun.”

In post-production, visual effects company The Mill blackened and deepened some of the shadows, drawing the eye towards them, and painted out the occasional lighting rig, but otherwise the creeping, crawling Vashta Nerada – hungry for more this week – were Taylor’s responsibility. “I hope people are scared,” he says. “That’s the idea of Doctor Who, to terrify everyone. All of us, when we’re young, we’re scared of the dark. You’re supposed to grow out of it, but how many of us really do?”

Kingston adds: “I remember growing up and being petrified of Doctor Who. I watched it through the crack in the door. My mum would get cross and say, ‘Why don’t you just turn it off if you’re scared?’ But I never did. I wanted to watch. I wanted to be scared. And I still do.”

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