By Adam Garcia
Doctor Who has been a staple of British culture for well over fifty years. First premiering in 1963, the show had something of cult following here in the United States during its original run. Since returning to the air in 2005, it’s become an international hit. Currently in its Ninth Season (Or Thirty-Fifth, depending on your measure) the series follows the adventures of the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman).
The premise of the show is simple: an alien known as the Doctor journeys through time and space with his human companions in a ship that is bigger on the inside. When the Doctor is near death his body regenerates, effectively turning him in a complete new character. So far thirteen different actors have portrayed the Doctor, including John Hurt, who first appeared in the show’s fiftieth anniversary special as the War Doctor.
This past weekend at NYCC, BBC America held a special screening of this week’s episode “Before the Flood” with writer Toby Whithouse on hand. In addition writing for Doctor Who, Whithouse is accomplished showrunner in his own right. He made a name for himself with such shows as Being Human and No Angels. As a longtime Whovian (Doctor Who fan), I jumped at the chance to sit down with Mr. Whithouse and discuss what it is like to write for a show with such a storied history.
Adam: Let’s start by talking about the difference between working with current showrunner Steven Moffat and former showrunner Russell T. Davies, as well as writing for three different Doctors (David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi).
Toby Whithouse (TW): I think Steven’s approach and Russell’s approach is—is… They’re different, but they probably have more in common than differentiates them. I think the difference is where I am as a writer, because when I wrote [the second season episode] “School Reunion” for Russell it was much earlier in my career and I was much less experienced. And I think that the difference has been my approach and my confidence and my—hopefully my technique. I think that I’m the one who’s kind of changed in a way, because running a show like Doctor Who is just a colossal huge monster of a job and both Steven and Russell have carried it off with extraordinary skill and brilliance and so like I said, there’s not a colossal amount of difference between them. They’re both incredibly generous, incredibly smart. Doctor Who is something they have both grown up with and loved all of their lives and it’s in their DNA. And their love for the show, for both of them is kina of almost tangible. So yes, I think they’re quite similar.
In terms of writing for the different Doctors, I always imagine them as completely different characters. So you know David’s Doctor is infinitely more kind of socially adept, shall we say, than Peter’s and so y’know the gag in Part 1 [“Under the Lake”] about the emotional cue cards—
Adam: I loved the touch about [Fourth Doctor Companion] Sarah Jane.
Adam: That was amazing.
TW: I know. I’ve got to start taking credit for that. But I didn’t write it.
Adam: I take it back.
TW: Because I didn’t write what was going to be on the cue cards apart from the one that gets read out. So yeah it infuriates me when people bring it up. No, I’m kidding… That’s your last question. But the thing is David’s Doctor would never need those. David’s Doctor was much more human and much more able to interact. And whereas Peter’s is more kind of weirder and stranger and more kind of spiky. And so yeah, it’s writing a completely different character and y’know even though there are many traits that the characters have in common there are huge differences. And so consequently when you’re constructing the plot you respond to that. So think okay, Peter’s Doctor would do this and that sort of leads you on the next chapter of the story.
Adam: From what I understand there’s no traditional writer’s room for Doctor Who, but what is the writing process for an episode of Doctor Who.
TW: It differs from writer to writer. But the process for me is, I’ll have an initial meeting Steven or initial email or phone call and with the one pitch and then we’ll chat about it, and then it’s meeting and emails back and forth and so until eventually from that we’ve got a big, messy idea. And then I’ll go away and start shaping that into something. And again back and forth and back and forth, and then we’ll kind of decide on something, an outline and I’ll do as many drafts of the outline as it takes and that’s the same for even my own shows, I’ll always do many drafts of an outline for an episode, because that is the heavy lifting, that is when you get the story right. And then writing the dialogue is easy. It’s putting the tinsel once you’ve erected the tree. So, I’ll do as many drafts of the outline as I can and then go to script. And the script process after that is pretty quick, because like I said, all the hard work is done.
Adam: Is there anything that you’ve wanted to do with Doctor Who that you’ve not done yet, whether that be use a classic Doctor or a classic idea, or just an idea that you had while writing episode but knew it wasn’t the right episode for?
TW: No, I’ve always wanted to write a timey-wimey episode, and so particularly in Part 2 [“Before the Flood”] it is quite timey-wimey, so I’m really pleased about that. Weirdly the one Doctor that I would really love to write for is the War Doctor (John Hurt).
Adam: Well… (audio production company) Big Finish is doing it, so…
TW: I know. I saw it being advertised, and I did think, “I could get me a slice of that.” I’d love to write something for him. So if I could combine—if I could do a story with the War Doctor and Peter’s Doctor, that would be—that would be amazing.
Adam: That would be.
TW: I don’t think we could afford it, but I think—
Which companions would you use?
TW: Ooh! Ooh…
I know it’s a big question.
TW: I think [the Fifth Doctor’s companion] Adric just to piss everyone off. We’re gonna reclaim Adric. No one likes Adric.
But bringing him back [is basically comparable to JJ Abrams bringing back Jar Jar in The Force Awakens]—
TW: Yeah. Exactly. Just to see the internet fall over.
The scary thing is I actually just came up with the story about how the War Doctor and the 12th Doctor save Adric just before the spaceship he was on crash lands into Earth. It’s like: “No! He survived the entire time!”
TW: And they actually going on, “Eh, fuck it. Let him die.” They’d just be like thirty seconds with him and say, “Oh God, I have forgotten how annoying that…” So there we are. Peter’s Doctor, the War Doctor, and Adric. Let’s do this.
Adam: Let’s call Big Finish right now.
TW: We’ll start a kickstarter campaign.
Adam: Well, you probably know [Big Finish Executive Producer] Nicholas Briggs. Make it happen.
TW: I do! Okay, we’re on this. This time next year, we’re going to be talking about the ill-fated special.
Adam: [Showrunner] Steven Moffat has nothing to do with it, that’s the thing. It’s just Big Finish and you can make it happen. I want to write for them, so you do it first and take me with you.
TW: Okay. This can happen. This is exciting.
Adam: Could you talk a little bit about writing for Torchwood? What always interested me about Torchwood was that it was Doctor Who minus the Doctor in a darker world. What were [creator Russell T.] Davies’s guidelines and what was it like writing for what is arguably the darker side of a children’s universe?
TW: Yeah, it was—It allowed you to tell a more grown-up story and certainly the episode I wrote was you know the most adult thing I had ever written to that point—Oh, no I had written a medical show No Angels, which was quite adult. Yeah, I think it was… The weird thing is that it’s not as if it gives you more freedom, it just gives you a different tone, because I suppose in the demands of Torchwood story are as constricting as the demands of a Doctor Who story just in a different direction, I suppose. But it was great to write a dark, gritty, sort of messy grown-up sci-fi story.
I really love Torchwood. I think was a really brave show. I think there were episodes that worked better than other episodes but I think when it got it right. It was—I know it has a lot of fans. But I think it doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves. I think it was a really courageous show that worked much more than it didn’t.
I mean, for example, there was that amazing story Children of Earth. Which I thought was absolutely fantastic. And it did everything science fiction should do in as much as it told an interesting story just in a science fiction way. There was this amazing scene in which the Cabinet have convened an emergency meeting and they’re deciding which children should be sacrificed. And one of the characters said—and I don’t know if this is something you have in the States—one of the characters said, “but isn’t that what league tables are for?” because in the UK they put schools into league tables [school rankings]. And suddenly that was a real punch in the gut moment.
I think—I’m really proud of my involvement with Torchwood. I think it was—and I would love to see more shows like it. I think it was a really interesting piece of television.