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He's been around the universe and back, saved Earth from countless invaders, but there's one thing The Doctor the eccentric hero of the BBC's long-running science-fiction adventure series "Doctor Who" has never done in his nearly 50 years of existence: Visit the United States for real.
That changes this weekend, as the sixth season of "Doctor Who's" current rendition debuts Saturday, April 23starting with a two-part episode filmed in part among the red rocks of southern Utah's Monument Valley.
"I was astounded the scale, it feels so vast and epic," said Matt Smith, who portrays the time-traveling Doctor in the show's current incarnation (it's complicated see link at left for some answers). "I thought it had a real spiritual energy to it. Monument Valley I could imagine the great dinosaurs in our time roaming the lands there."
The epic scenery also affected Toby Haynes, who directed the two-part episode. "I went to Monument Valley, and I sat there looking at those great big stones, and it just blew my mind," Haynes said. "I saw this was just a different scale, the likes of which I have never seen. You guys are used to it, you just live amongst it."
The BBC crew, along with 60 film crew members hired in Utah, shot for about a week last November in Monument Valley and at Glen Canyon Dam. And even if you don't recognize the southern Utah red rocks on sight, the first minutes of the second episode are clearly labeled, "Valley of the Gods, Utah."
"You know how huge that is?" said Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission, when told of the onscreen shout-out to Utah. "I sometimes catch a little heat when they film in Utah but never say it's in Utah." (The "High School Musical" movies, for example, were filmed in Salt Lake City and St. George, but the story is set in Albuquerque.)
The BBC took advantage of Utah's motion picture incentive program, as well as the state's wealth of talented crew members. Still "you can't replicate Monument Valley anywhere," Moore said. "That's why John Ford kept coming back here."
"It was iconic it was what I've seen in all my favorite John Ford movies," Haynes said. "I knew that we had to bring 'Doctor Who' to this place. It had a sort of monolithic feel to it, an epic feel to it, a legendary-ness. We've taken it to Stonehenge, I've done other planets. Now we've taken it to one of the biggest, great monuments of geography. You instantly knew where you were, and that we didn't cheat it."
In its early rendition "Doctor Who" was famous for filming on the cheap for example, any gravel quarry outside London would double for an alien planet. In this new version, shooting in Monument Valley represents a dramatic change..
"I just don't think you can CG [computer-generate] that sort of stuff," Smith said. "Either you've got the great big vast beautiful locations or you haven't. … It only makes us look better, to have that sort of size and scale in our show. It feels so beautifully filmic, and adds to the cinematic appeal of 'Doctor Who.' "
It took a cinematic strategy to shoot in such an open landscape. "In the U.K., we use a wide lens to make everything look bigger," Haynes said. "[In America], you have to use a wide lens just to get everything in the shot."
The rest of the two-part episode from a Utah diner to the Oval Office to a hangar in Area 51 was shot on soundstages back at the series' regular home in Cardiff, Wales.
The plot sends The Doctor and his companions adventurous Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), her new husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), and the mysterious and alluring archaeologist Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston, formerly of "ER") to 1969, the time of Apollo 11, as they learn about an elusive group of aliens called The Silence.
The story also involves Richard Nixon, who's not the first historical figure The Doctor has encountered. In the past few seasons, he has met Queen Victoria, Madame De Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh and Queen Elizabeth the Tenth.
The two-part opener, Smith said, sets up an exciting season-long story arc devised by executive producer/writer Steven Moffat "and his mad brilliant brain, on top form."
"We learn about key characters this season," Smith said. "We learn about River Song, just who she is. We learn a lot about Amy Pond and The Doctor and their relationship. I think we've got some of the greatest monsters to date. I think The Silence will be one of the great monsters in 'Who' history."
The season includes a big cliffhanger at the end of episode seven that will leave fans guessing until fall, when the final six episodes will air.
Haynes said shooting "Doctor Who" in America also acknowledges that U.S. fans are catching up to the rest of the world, where the show is already popular.
"We knew we had a small fan base here, and we wanted to bring 'Doctor Who' to that fan base and get more fans, get more people interested in it," Haynes said.
Smith said there was one more benefit to shooting in Monument Valley: "I think I had the best pancakes I've ever had in Utah."
The two-part season 6 premiere of "Doctor Who" part of which was shot in Utah's Monument Valley airs Saturdays, April 23 and 30, on BBC America (Ch. 162 on Comcast digital; 264 on DirecTV; 135 on Dish Network). The show airs at 7 p.m. Mountain time, and repeats at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
BBC America is running a marathon of past seasons of "Doctor Who" today and Saturday, leading up to the new episode. The fifth season is currently airing Saturdays at 11 p.m. on KUED, Ch. 7, in Salt Lake City.