Intergalactic Bedside Manner
Doctor Who came back for its twelfth series this week and here’s its showrunner Chris Chibnall talking about what we can expect in the new run…
After writing one series, how did you approach your second series?
When I came in I had a long term plan for the show: With the first year, there were mainly standalone stories and no old monsters. It was really about introducing the Thirteenth Doctor, and her new friends and getting people to fall in love with those characters.
Phase two of the plan, which is this series, is taking the audience that have joined with Jodie and taking those who have been on that journey with Doctor Who for a number of years, and going deeper into the wonders and mysteries of the Doctor Who universe. We knew we wanted to bring back old monsters this year, and do some two-part stories.
Then the challenge becomes the brilliance of Jodie Whittaker, to be honest! She is so extraordinary, and my job is to feed her brilliance and to take the character into places it hasn’t been before, while still retaining the essence of the Thirteenth Doctor.
Is there anything you are approaching differently this year?
It’s really about keeping the ambition high. We achieved so much of what we wanted last year and the audience responded so positively, so now we’re going: “Right, how do we keep raising the bar? How do we surprise and delight people? How do we make Doctor Who look like it’s never looked before?”. We know how much Doctor Who means to people, so we want to give them new treats.
So we’ve kept raising the ambition, challenging ourselves and challenging the production team. They’re the big, unsung heroes in of all this process: this incredible production team at Roath Lock in Cardiff who create all these worlds and characters and surprises.
Is there going to be a different theme to the show this year, what’s different?
Yes, although it’s funny because I don’t really want to talk concretely about what the theme is until after the series is over. You want to see the audience figure it out: That’s part of the viewing experience, how that evolves.
I think it was pretty clear that the big theme of last series was family: Different versions of family and different ideas of family. There is a different governing theme this year but I’m not going to talk about it at the start. People will be able to figure out what it is. It’s pretty clear by the end.
There are some returning monsters this series, including the Judoon, why did you decide to bring them back?
Oh I love them! They’ve never come back properly before. When I started saying to people I’m thinking of bringing back the Judoon, I’d see massive smiles spread over their faces. I think they’re an incredible creation by Russell T Davies. Rhino-headed space police in leather: They stomp about the place, they scan people and they zap people who don’t cooperate – what more do you want from a Doctor Who monster? They’re both really enjoyable and quite scary as well. They’re a great one for kids of all ages.
We have a great story for them, set in Gloucester. Everybody on set was just delighted, that delight went through the whole production. Seeing them stomping around outside Gloucester cathedral is glorious. They are brilliant, and it’s a really exciting episode. I’m really pleased to bring them back.
You also have the Cybermen who are one of the Doctor’s biggest enemies, so what can you tell us about them?
It’s the Thirteenth Doctor’s first meeting with the Cybermen! It’s a story in which you’re going to be encountering a particularly relentless and ferocious set of Cybermen.
How do you find the balance between introducing new monsters but also returning monsters?
We deliberately kept to new monsters in Jodie’s first series because it was so much about the focus being on her and the gang, and giving those people and particularly those children who came to the series that year their own monsters.
It’s interesting, because although you can talk about it as old versus new, that’s slightly a false definition. Because even if you bring the Cyberman back, that’ll be the first time for some kids and for some viewers. So you have to make sure that they feel fresh and there’s an idea behind them. I feel like we did a really nice job with that and with Resolution and the Dalek – that was a new spin on a Dalek story.
I think, with any series of Doctor Who, you want it to be this wondrous array – a bit of old, a bit of new and some surprises. You want a bit of everything – stuff for kids and new viewers, and stuff that, if you’ve been watching Doctor Who for 50 years, there’s a line or an image that you’ll understand the resonance of. We’ve got all of that this year.
There are some terrifying monsters this year, what can you tell us about this? We’ve heard that episode three is particularly terrifying…
Yes, there are some pretty fearsome new monsters in episode three. We have a lot of new monsters this year, alongside the returning ones.
I think all the kids need to get that little space behind the sofa ready, for their parents, so the parents are ready to hide there.
It’s the beautiful thing about Doctor Who, it’s that scary bedtime story for the whole country.
How do you get the balance right between the scary monsters and aliens, but also having a show so many people can relate to?
I think that’s the essence of Doctor Who, and it’s how it was created. The DNA of Doctor Who contains everything. It’s got drama, warmth, humour, emotion, scares, action and excitement! You want every episode of Doctor Who to have varying degrees of all those components. That’s what makes it different from almost every other show in the world.
It’s a show about somebody who fights monsters, so you want to have a high scare factor, but also you have that amazing reassuring presence of The Doctor. The Doctor is the person who fights and vanquishes the monsters and Jodie’s Doctor is particularly strong and hopeful and reassuring and heroic, so that’s important.
But also I think it’s a mainstream BBC One drama that plays to audiences all around the world. So the relationships between the characters, both the regular cast and also the guest cast that come in every week, are really important. We pride ourselves on the amazing guest casts we get and that’s down to having good strong human characters – and good strong alien characters. Because every actor always wants to be in a prosthetic! [laughs]
How does creating a new a monster come about, what’s the process?
It really varies. Sometimes it’s an idea. Sometimes it’s an image. Sometimes it’s a thing that you think: “Oh that would terrify me if that happened.” It can really, really vary. You get a kernel of something and then you start to build it out from there.
Then it will be written into a storyline or a script, after which it gets conceptualised by a concept artist. They’ll do the first drawing, based on the description in the script or the storyline, and that first image gives us something to talk about. Once we’ve nailed what we think it is, we start to think about how it’s going to be created. That’s when we decided it’s a big physical prosthetic mask and costume, or if it’s entirely CG. It can be a really varied process.
Monster creation is one of the great bits of the job, because each time it’s different. You’re using all the disciplines of all the departments who are involved – costume for example is a really important part and underappreciated in terms of monster design. If you think about the Thijarians in Demons Of The Punjab, the amazing costumes that they wore were as important to their identity as their amazing alien faces, so it’s a real team effort.
Doctor Who has always been a global show on a massive scale, are we going to see more of that this year?
You’re going to see a lot of the world on screen. You’ll see in the two part opener, Spyfall, a huge global spy thriller and action adventure movie. It’s got global locations, big stunts, big villains, monsters, laughs, car chases, the lot.
For a show that has been going for so long, how do you make it feel so fresh and exciting for a brand new series every year?
The scope of Doctor Who is infinite, so there are always more stories. Whatever’s happening in the world, whatever people’s preoccupations are at any given moment, that refreshes it. Any new Doctor, any new cast members coming in, refreshes it.
I think it’s also down to our writing and directing team – their voices, their attitudes and concerns, their stories and characters and ways of telling stories keep it feeling a modern show. A big part of my job is to keep it feeling fresh. You’ve got an amazing heritage to call on, but also you want to be creating the stories for the ten-year-olds today to reminisce about in 40 years’ time to their kids.
What does Doctor Who mean to you?
So many different things! It means an amazing character, probably the richest character in the history of television drama, if you think about how that character has been going for 56 years. In terms of the show, it’s such a vast, brilliant, simple, beautiful idea.
I think what it means to me is the collective labour of every person who’s ever worked on Doctor Who. It’s this incredible collage of every person who’s ever touched it or made a contribution to the mythology of Doctor Who in large and small ways.
But mostly I guess what it means to me is childlike wonder. Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old again. Whether if you’re 28, 58, or 98 it lets you tap into that memory of what it feels like to be a child, during the most exciting bedtime story, with the most exciting scary monster coming round the corner.
It’s sort of everything really.
How would you describe Series 12 in a few words?
It’s an epic, entertaining, action packed, emotional rollercoaster of a journey.
For viewers who have never watched the show, why should they watch this year?
If you’re new to the show, episode one this year is the perfect starting point. You don’t need to know anything, we’ll explain it all as we go. And episode one is the most exciting way to start 2020! If you’ve never seen Doctor Who before meeting The Doctor and her friends on the journey that starts with Spyfall, you are going to have a blast!
here’s our review of the first episode too