Change is in the DNA of Doctor Who. The popular sci-fi show has remained on screens for so long because of its central conceit: its time-traveling Doctor regenerates. As such, 12 actors have embodied the role over its history. This fall, Jodie Whittaker goes where no woman has gone before as the Thirteenth Doctor. The new season also sees Chris Chibnall, best known for his work on Broadchurch, assuming the mantle of showrunner. The acclaimed writer is a lifelong Whovian who penned several episodes under previous executive producers Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. He tells TV Drama about what’s in store for the new Doctor and her companions on the TARDIS.
TV DRAMA: At what point did you decide you wanted to write? Has Doctor Who opened up possibilities for you of what storytelling could be?
CHIBNALL: Yes, my first memories of being alive are of watching Doctor Who! It’s ingrained in me and built into my DNA. I was a fan of it in my teens, and I started to think about being a writer when I was 17, 18. That wasn’t connected to Doctor Who, but it built out of that love of drama. I did a drama degree at university and then I started to write for fringe theater. Doctor Who was the first piece of any kind of drama that connected with me. I suppose that’s the amazing thing about Doctor Who. When we talk about the universal appeal of the show, it’s because for some children—and I started watching it at 4 or 5, in Tom Baker’s first year—it’s kind of forbidden when you are 4 or 5. There is nothing better when you are 4 or 5 than a forbidden thing that is slightly scary, slightly funny and slightly mad that takes you to other worlds! It’s almost genetically engineered to be the best piece of dramatic forbidden fruit for kids and family! That’s what I always loved about it. It always felt slightly scary, slightly more adventurous and slightly more intelligent than other things you would watch at that age. That’s the exciting thing about the show and what always inspired me to love it. Now, as showrunner, I am trying to keep those values of being thrilling for everybody from 4 to 104; it’s the most inclusive drama in the entire world. You really can watch it with everyone and different people will take different things from it.
TV DRAMA: You wrote several Doctor Who episodes while Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies were showrunners. What were some of the things you learned from how they worked with their writers?
CHIBNALL: They didn’t have writers’ rooms. It was much more the British way of working, which was how both of them ran it when I was writing. They gave you a line or an idea and said, Go away, work it up; send us an outline. You’d do an outline and then you’d go to script. It was very different from the American system. We are running it slightly differently from that. It’s a hybrid of the British and American systems. I get a little bit superstitious about talking about it, because we have devised our own hybrid process. I almost feel as if the walls of the room are slightly sacrosanct! And if you describe [the process] it becomes locked and fixed in and people say, Oh, that’s how they work! [But] it’s so fluid and so dependent on the writer and the day and the story. What I aim to do is create a production that is collegiate and collaborative where everybody feels, hopefully, a part of it. I wanted to bring in a lot of new writers to the show and make sure there is representation on the writing team and open the door to the next generation of writers.
TV DRAMA: Do you prefer if viewers watch once a week or binge through a bunch of episodes all at once?
CHIBNALL: Number one, I’m just happy for the work to be enjoyed! That always feels like a bonus [and an] extra level of privilege! I’ve had both experiences. The last show I did, which was Broadchurch, for ITV in the U.K., played once a week, Monday night, all three seasons. It did become that watercooler show, and we ended with 12 million people watching the very final episode. That was a joyous thing, so I love the communal experience of a live transmission and feeling that everyone is watching the same thing at the same time. That is amazing.
Having said that, I know in America the response we’ve had is that everyone has watched Broadchurch all in one go, bingeing it on Netflix. It had its first run on BBC America and they did it once a week. As a showrunner, you can’t control it. All you’re trying to do is make people come back for the next episode. Whether they are watching once a week [saying], We have to be sitting here next Monday at 9 p.m., or they are saying, Just one more episode before we go to bed, even though it’s 2 a.m., your job is really to keep [them] watching. And keep people compelled to your story. So I’m agnostic, to be honest. What’s great is that I’m not sure you have to choose nowadays. In the U.K. and on BBC America, Doctor Who is going to go out once a week, but I know, come the end of the season, we’re going to box-set it and it will end up on all kinds of platforms all around the world. I hope the first transmission has a watercooler feel to it.
TV DRAMA: What is the key to maintaining continuity from one Doctor to the next, so you can keep returning fans happy but also bring in new viewers?
CHIBNALL: That’s the balancing act, but Doctor Who has renewed itself every three or four years across its entire history. In 1969, at the end of Patrick Troughton’s reign, it went from black-and-white to color and Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee, and the two series feel drastically different from one another. If you put the final episode of Patrick Troughton and the first episode of Jon Pertwee next to each other, you would say this is not the same television series. And yet, it just carries on under this amazing umbrella. So change is built into Doctor Who. The history of the show allows you to make changes and sort of demands it. The biggest thing for us coming in this year was, how we make sure that Doctor Who is keeping pace with the changing nature of television: the increasing production standards, the quality of shows on Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and everywhere. How does it keep pace in a global world and still make sure it’s as good as its peers, is leading the way and is still essentially and recognizably Doctor Who? Luckily, it’s the greatest and most versatile format in the world because you can go anywhere and you can do anything. The key to the change is to make sure you have a great Doctor and a great regular cast. And for me, what’s important is that the stories we’re telling connect to the world we are living in now—stories of hope that resonate with all our lives.
TV DRAMA: How did the decision to bring a female Doctor come about? Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
CHIBNALL: I never really thought about it until they asked me to do this job, and that coincided with Peter Capaldi deciding that he would be moving on. Once that situation was clear, it was something I wanted to do, so it just felt like the right thing to do. I felt that the audience was ready, the world was ready and the show was definitely ready, so it was very clear. We made a list of actresses and it was a very long list of brilliant women, so wherever we ended up it would be a really exciting process to go through.
TV DRAMA: You wrote episodes for David Tennant and Matt Smith, two very different Doctors. How did you write for those unique personalities, and how is writing for Jodie’s Doctor different?
CHIBNALL: The Doctors are always the same and always slightly different. [For] all of us who have written for the show and for the different Doctors, it’s quite hard to quantify, you just know when you are writing it. The thing about Jodie’s Doctor is, Jodie brought that Doctor along with her to her audition. The interesting thing about casting a Doctor from the single experience I had is, you know a Doctor when you see it. Jodie’s audition and her reading of the part are inherently Doctor-y and also new and fresh and funny and exciting. As much as anything, it’s a symbiosis between her and me. I wrote the audition scene; she brought lots of herself to it. The Doctor is a star part for a character actor. What you need is an actor who can do anything and is limitless; who is funny, who can make you cry, who can move you, who is brilliant at exposition and spaceships and diffusing bombs. My job is to challenge Jodie and make sure we are giving her enough so that she can play her whole range in all the colors and flavors of performance. In terms of writing for Jodie’s Doctor, it becomes a dialogue between the writing and the acting and fuses in the end, and that started right from her audition, to be honest.
TV DRAMA: Is there an extra comfort zone because you worked with Jodie on Broadchurch?
CHIBNALL: I don’t know that it’s a comfort zone; there definitely is a trust. The most exciting thing about it is that the parts that Jodie has been playing up until now were quite different from who Jodie is as a person. Jodie is incredibly funny. She’s got incredible energy. She’s very principled, she’s incredibly smart, she’s just a brilliant person, and she’s brought so much of herself to the Doctor and brought so much of the Doctor to herself. Where she and the Doctor meet is a really exciting place.
TV DRAMA: The companions play such a significant role on the show. Why did you opt to have three, and what can you tell us about them?
CHIBNALL: The reason for having three was that I [want] Doctor Who to be a big, inclusive, populist, mainstream show that is entertaining and accessible for everyone. I wanted to make sure that in the ensemble alongside the Doctor are characters that everyone can relate to, so that everybody has an access point, everybody can say [about one of the companions], Oh, that person feels like me. This is a story about humans who are taken on an incredible journey with an incredible character through all of time and space. What you get with Ryan [played by Tosin Cole], Yasmin [Mandip Gill] and Graham [Bradley Walsh] are very different points of view, different ages, different backgrounds and [they are] obviously very different from the Doctor. What you get is a range of emotional dynamics; they’ve all got their character journeys across the series. But what I want more than anything is for the audience to feel like these are your new best friends. These are the people you want to hang out with more than anybody in the world. They are a little family unit among themselves and are just great fun to have adventures with.
TV DRAMA: Because viewers are increasingly sophisticated, have you upped the level of special effects?
CHIBNALL: We worked very hard this year to ensure that the show is as cinematic as it can possibly be. We’re shooting on anamorphic lenses for the first time. We changed the aspect ratio to 2:1. We’ve changed our special effects company. We’ve been very conscious that we have to keep up with the times, and I think all these things have made subtle qualitative differences. In the end, what audiences come back for are great characters and great actors.
TV DRAMA: Will Doctor Who be your entire life for the next few years, or are there other projects you are working on?
CHIBNALL: The project I’m working on most is having a holiday! Doctor Who has certainly been my life for the past 18 months. It’s very all-consuming but in a great way. There’s no story you can’t tell in this show, so it’s just a joy to be on it.