Caroline Skinner has become one of the most important people in British television science fiction and fantasy, almost overnight. She produced The Fades, the horror-fantasy series which took Britain by storm, and which hits BBC America this Saturday. And now she's the new executive producer of Doctor Who, replacing Piers Wenger and Beth Willis.
We were lucky enough to talk to Skinner exclusively on the phone today, and she told us what to expect from both Doctor Who and The Fades.
Before working on The Fades, Skinner had a long track record on other sorts of television shows, including the BBC's versions of Bleak House and Jane Eyre. She worked on The Fades from the beginning, developing the original pilot and then spending a year turning that into an actual series. And once she finished work on The Fades, she went over to Doctor Who, where she took on a role which lead writer Steven Moffat described as the "Prime Minister actually running the whole thing."
Joining Doctor Who
With The Fades, Skinner came in on the ground floor — but with Doctor Who, she was joining an established show. She says it's been "hugely exciting" to join the team, and she started with the recently transmitted Christmas special, with Wenger staying on to ease the transition. "That was an absolutely fantastic one to start on. And now, I'm thrilled and slightly daunted at the scale of what we're achieving in the next series. We're not too far away from starting shooting, and I think it's going to be the biggest series ever."
When you ask her about Doctor Who's 50th anniversary in 2013, Skinner won't say much about what's planned — it's all up in the air — but she does say that "the plans for the anniversary are going to be absolutely huge," and "2013 is going to be the biggest year in the history of Doctor Who so far."
She also can't say whether the seventh season, filming soon, will all air in the fall, or whether some of it will air in the following spring. "At the moment, we're just embarking on shooting more episodes than we have done before. But in terms of the schedule, it's just too early to confirm anything."
So what happened with the Doctor Who movie?
While we had a producer of Doctor Who on the phone, we were curious to ask what actually happened with director David Yates. Where did Yates ever get the idea that he was going to be directing a big-screen Who movie in the first place? Had he been having discussions with the BBC's Jane Tranter, who's been in L.A. since early 2009 trying to develop BBC properties in Hollywood? And how did the brakes get put on this process? Here's what Skinner told us:
Who knows what will happen with the Doctor Who movie? I think that obviously, [David Yates] had been talking with Jane [Tranter] about the possibility of it. I think that if a Doctor Who movie ever happens, that's something that will be done hand-in-hand with Steven [Moffat] and the production team. But any movie's a very, very long way off.
The Fades: Not Your Typical Ghost Story
The thing that jumps out at you when you watch The Fades is that it's wildly different than any ghost story you've ever seen before. The spirits of the dead are hanging around instead of "ascending," and their accumulating presence threatens to cause the end of the world. Only a few special people, such as a young man named Paul, can see these dead people, much less deal with them.
As the six episodes go on, the show just gets madder and more apocalyptic and insane. "It's a story which starts quite personally and then takes off," says Skinner. "We always said we never wanted to constrain the ambition of the show." And the mythos of the Fades is pretty unique, and the Fades are "a completely new creature." Says Skinner:
You've seen a ghost before and you've seen a vampire or a werewolf before, but you've never seen a Fade before. And they are almost ghosts, but not quite, because they're Jack [Thorne]'s version of what that means. And they're almost zombies, but they're not quite, because they're Jack's version of what that means... The battle between the living and the dead is something he's drawn up with his own philosophy of the world.
As the show goes on, you're supposed to ask what's really good and what's really evil, and you come to realize the Fades aren't just simple monsters. The show aims to take all of the ghost and zombie lore you know and "turn it on its head." And just when you think you've figured out the rules and complexities of the Fades, the show turns it around and reveals a new layer to the mythos, so that with each passing episode, things get more complex. "Viewers seemed to like the fact that the mythology deepened and changed every week."
The show also pushes really far in both horror and comedy, and Skinner says that's meant to reflect the fact that you find both things in real life. "It was very much our intention to be able to push the show, and the tone of it, from one extreme to the other. Because I think the audience enjoys being challenged like that, particularly in a fantasy."
Will the Fades get a second season?
British fans are already dying to know if this show will get a second season, and Skinner says that she really wants to know the answer to this question as well. "There's been a hugely positive response to it in the press and among the fans over here. And also the BBC were incredibly pleased with the way that it went down. We're just waiting on decisions at the moment." But she does describe it as potentially a "big trilogy of stories" — before the first season was even shot, they were already thinking in terms of storylines that could continue in seasons two and three. She promises that if the show does get two more seasons, it will just keep getting bigger and more insane. "All you can do is get bigger."
The Fades changed a lot from its pilot
Writer Jack Thorne had been developing The Fades for years, and it had "grown and gotten darker and more sophisticated." And eventually he ended up with a "completely and gloriously bonkers pilot script," which the BBC finally green-lit. And then Thorne and Skinner had to spend most of 2010 figuring out how to turn that one-hour film into a six-episode series, with the potential for more. "We talked a lot about what worked and what didn't, and also about what would be in the next five hours' worth of television."
The biggest change from the pilot? The main characters got older. Paul and Mac were much younger in the unaired pilot, and "the main thing we did was grow it up." Making the two boys older "was one of the things that made it feel more sophisticated.... The guys who played those parts were absolutely brilliant, and I was really happy with what they did in the pilot," says Skinner, "But when you looked at the series as a whole, what we wanted to do was grow up the tone of the piece. And to really be allowed, in the second half of it, to push the elements of horror, push the darkness, and the questions about what a Fade actually is."
Also, between the pilot and the aired verison, Thorne, Skinner and director Farren Blackburn spent a lot more time developing the setting, trying to create a place that felt like "a nowhere land kind of town, which could be anywhere in the U.K.... one of those midsize towns where people just sort of get lost." The landscape in the show feels like "everywhere and nowhere." There are a lot of chalk pits and lonely nondescript streets and blank rooftops. And when you do see a street scene, the shops in the background are always sort of timeless and non-specific — you never see a Starbucks or McDonald's in the background. The location manager spent a lot of time finding places that felt like "anywhere and nowhere."
And she would love to see an American remake of this show, because you could easily transplant that kind of feeling to the Midwestern rust-belt towns full of "long American motorways and petrol stations" in the middle of nowhere.
The Fades' MVP, Daniel Kaluuya
The actor you'll probably notice most in The Fades is Daniel Kaluuya. (He also appeared in Skins and Doctor Who's "Planet of the Dead," and had an amazing turn recently in episode two of the dystopian anthology The Black Mirror.) Kaluuya plays Mac, the best friend of the main character Paul, and he also narrates the "previously on" segment at the start of every episode. Mac is sort of the stereotypical awkward nerdy kid who drops in random science fiction references and talks a mile a minute. But Kaluuya manages to turn this somewhat obnoxious role into the heart of the show, thanks to a really subtle, layered performance.
Daniel is an absolutely fantastic actor. I remember the first day that he walked through the door for his audition. Mac was a difficult role to cast, because A) he talks so much, and B) he's so much the center of comedy of the show. One of the things that Jack and I talked an awful lot about in the year that we were developing the show from pilot to series was absolutely nailing what the tone of the world should be. And I think that the essence of his writing is that absolute blend of horror and comedy, which is not an easy thing to pull off whatsoever. And obviously, Mac is very very central to that. He's the key to getting the comedy to run. We saw lots of people for that part, and then there was just one day where Daniel just walks through the door, sat down and nailed it. He's an actor that you just can't help but fall in love with, really.
It's a story about male friendship
The mythos on The Fades is deep and intense, but Skinner says the real focus is elsewhere:
I mean, the truth is that for all of the fantasy and all of the horror and the scares and the madness of what's in the show, the thing that Jack [Thorne] and I have just endlessly talked about was our team of cool characters. That's really the story he wanted to tell, was about that community. And most specifically, about the relationship between Paul and Mac. Which in many ways, it's a kind of story of friendship, I think. That's the thing that I'm most proud of in terms of what we achieved in the first series, was telling a story that — though it does get very big and though it does get very exciting and though it's got its horror elements, and though it's got the mythology of the Fades around the edges — I think that what it's really about is what it's like to be ordinary and extraordinary. And what it's like to be a teenager growing up at the moment. And I think that Jack did a beautiful depiction of what that male friendship in adolescence is about. Right in the middle of the apocalypse. [Laughs]