Writers Explain Why 'Doctor Who' is 'Like Writing Seven Shows At Once'
"Being Human" creator Toby Whithouse and "Broadchurch" writer Chris Chibnall talk about writing for the long-running BBC series -- and why they still love watching.
Tomorrow sees the 50th anniversary of the BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, television's longest-running sci-fi show and -- in recent years -- one of the fastest-growing genre franchises around the world (The anniversary is being celebrated with a global simulcast of a special episode, "The Day of the Doctor," with additional 3D screenings in U.S. cinemas on Saturday and Monday).
The longevity of the series means that those currently creating the show grew up watching it -- not that the familiarity makes their jobs any easier. "Writing Doctor Who is not like writing any other show. It's like writing seven shows at once. It's so extraordinarily demanding," said Chris Chibnall, who's written for the show since 2007 under showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat.
"Douglas Adams, who was a Doctor Who writer of huge renown, said the show had to be complicated enough for children and simple enough for adults, and that still holds true, I think. The target audience is everybody from 6 to 106," he continued. "You want it to be exciting and thrilling and have a lot of different takes to it. You want it to be emotional, and have great characters, and you also want it to be self-contained: Within 45 minutes, you're having to land on a planet, or a period of history, meet a whole bunch of people, solve a mystery, have an adventure and get back in the TARDIS -- and with jokes, and you can't afford to do any of it. That's why it's one of the hardest shows to write for, but when you even come close to getting it right, it's the most exciting show in the world to write for."
Toby Whithouse, who has written for the show in addition to creating the original British version of genre series Being Human, also praised the variety offered by the series. "Being Human always had to retain a certain shape, whereas with Doctor Who, I've written a chamber episode, a thriller episode, a western episode [and] a high-camp comedy episode," he said. "There's always going to be twists and turns -- It's never going to be the same show week to week."
Both Whithouse and Chibnall were fans of the show during its original run from 1963 to 1989 on the BBC. Whithouse called it "an absolutely fundamental part of my childhood and my nurture in terms of sci-fi and fiction," while Chibnall admitted that "literally, my first memory of life is watching Doctor Who … It's interwoven with me like nothing else." Both men talked about having to set aside their own fandom when it came to getting the job done.
"The moment you get too hung up about [the fandom] is the moment you start to do the job really, really badly," Whithouse said. Chibnall agreed. "You have to be writing a great mainstream drama. You're not writing fan-fiction," he explained. "Here in the U.K., it's a big BBC One show; it's traveling around the world. It has to be popular, accessible, fun, scary -- you can't let your inner fan take you prisoner. You can be delighted that you're getting to write 'Interior: TARDIS,' but it's about the craft, really."
Whithouse said that he's also learned to tune out the larger Who fan base while working. "The fandom is so broad and so wide, with so many different tastes that there's no way to please them all," he said. "All you can do is write the best story you possibly can, and hopefully most of them will like it. But there's absolutely no way on heaven or earth that they all will. Once you reconcile yourself with that, then it becomes a lot easier."
Despite that, he admitted that he feels "enormous pride" in adding to the show's legacy. "I feel enormous pride in the fact that I've made contributions to the Doctor Who universe that are now canon," he said. "I'm really, really delighted about that. I've added a couple of threads to the tapestry of the show."
The two men, who continue to write for the series despite their own success -- in addition to having run Being Human through its end this year in the U.K., Whithouse has written thriller The Game, which debuts next year on British television, while Chibnall has since worked on Law & Order: UK and created crime drama Broadchurch for ITV, which is currently being adapted for U.S. television by Fox -- praised Russell T. Davies for his work bringing Doctor Who back for modern audiences in 2005.
"I worked with Russell very closely -- I was on [Who spin-off series] Torchwood for the first couple of years, and they worked really hard to get that show up and running while Doctor Who was being produced at the same time," Chibnall said, adding that Davies "makes it enormous fun. That's the thing I tried to take onto the shows I run -- you know the job's going to be hard, you know you'll have days when you can't afford to make what you want to make, there'll be weather troubles, there'll be script troubles, so it has to be the most enjoyable job ever. I don't think I've ever laughed more than when I was working with Russell T. Davies. He's a very funny man, he's a very clever man and a genius producer."
Whithouse was equally filled with praise. "I think every writer has been influenced by what Russell did," he said. "For all of us who write science-fiction, fantasy, genre material, we all owe an enormous debt to Russell for bringing Doctor Who back and making it a success. Ultimately, [broadcasters] will always go where there is an audience, and until Russell brought Doctor Who back, they believed rightly or wrongly that there wasn't really an audience for sci-fi. When Doctor Who came back, it was a huge hit. I believe all of the [British] big sci-fi shows and genre shows that have happened since then have happened as a result."
Despite their experiences behind the scenes, the show remains as much a draw as ever for the two. "When I'm writing on the show, I will deliberately not read the other scripts," Whithouse said. "Occasionally, I'll be sent the other scripts to read, and unless I absolutely have to for continuity purposes, I won't read them. I want to have the same experience as the audience, I want to sit down with my daughter and watch it for the first time and not know what happens next."
Chibnall feels the same. "I'm always delighted by it," he said. "There's nothing better than sitting down and watching an episode of Doctor Who that I know nothing about and then it's a work of absolutely mad genius."
"It's such a British experience," Whithouse said as he tried to explain his relationship with the show today. "In a way you want to safeguard that, and ring-fence that experience as much as possible. There's no other show that gives you the same buzz, the same thrill and excitement as Doctor Who. Everything from the title music and the tempo and the tone, the style, the dialogue, the structure. I want to experience those as freshly as possible."
For Chibnall, the 50th anniversary is something to truly try and appreciate. "It's fair to say for all of us who are associated with the show at the moment, it is a crazy time," he said. "And for the fans, there has never been a better time to be a Doctor Who fan. It's overtaking the country [in the U.K.], it's being simulcast around the world. I think, as fans, we have the right to say, You know what? We told you so. We always said it was brilliant."