"She's a Very Democratic Doctor": Doctor Who's Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens on Jodie Whittaker and Taking Helm of a Classic

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"She's a Very Democratic Doctor": <i>Doctor Who</i>'s Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens on Jodie Whittaker and Taking Helm of a Classic

In the 11th season of its new incarnation, Doctor Who doesn’t just get a new Doctor—Jodie Whittaker is the 13th performer, and the first woman, in the title role—and a new set of companions—bus driver Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), warehouse worker Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and rookie police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill). The show also gets a whole team of writers and producers: Chris Chibnall is the third showrunner since Russell T. Davies re-launched the series in 2005, succeeding Steven Moffat, who took over from Davies in 2010. And he’s joined by executive producers Matt Strevens and Sam Hoyle.

A couple of days before the season premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Paste talked to Chibnall and Strevens about dreaming up new adventures for good Doctor and her new friends.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Paste: I just got a chance to watch the first episode this morning, and I really enjoyed seeing our first woman Doctor. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to be part of this landmark in such a long running series?

Chris Chibnall: It’s really exciting. It’s exciting and it’s liberating but, most of all, it’s still a continuation of Doctor Who. And what I hope is that it feels as much like Doctor Who as the show ever has—that it’s funny, that it’s emotional, that it’s action-packed and the fact that it’s an awesome actress instead of an awesome actor doing huge stunts and leading a gang and fighting monsters. I hope that… will just become sort of irrelevant. Because what you always want in these things is a great performance. I think Jodie has been saying this a lot: It’s an amazing moment. What would be more amazing is when we get past the moment and we’re in the new normal.

Paste: Speaking of that, aside from the obvious fact that she’s a woman, each of the actors has brought something different to the personality of the Doctor. As the Doctor is reborn, there’s something new and different. What do you think Jodie brings that’s unique to this role?

Matt Strevens: I think what’s incredible about Jodie, from the minute she sort of crash-landed into the episode, is how much she sort of is instantly the Doctor. I think specifically you have to sort of boil her Doctor down. I think she’s constantly delighted and fizzes with energy and curiosity. Although she’s an alien, she has a great humanity about her. I think she has something which—we call it sort of a “duty of care.” She cares about the people she encounters, she cares about the friends she goes traveling with on her journey, and I think that’s it, really. I think she fizzes with delight and she is a very human Doctor.

Paste: Chris, you’ve been involved since 2006 with Torchwood, and while it was part of the Doctor Who universe, it had its own tone and its own sort of spin on this. There are so many different aspects of Doctor Who, from horror to adventure to comedy. Is there a part of this job that you’re particularly excited about tackling?

Chibnall: You’re right on the money, Doctor Who does everything, and, actually, the most exciting thing of many exciting things about being showrunner on Doctor Who is doing all of them, and doing all of them within one series—doing a lot of them within an episode. What I hope—and I hope the first episode in particular does this—is you’ve got horror, you’ve got scares, you’ve got emotion, you’ve got humor and big laughs, you’ve got a great sense of action-adventure, you’ve got surprises. So actually, for me, Doctor Who, you want it to be the show with all the emotions and all the feels, really, and that you’ve had a good emotional workout, from laughter to tears to fear and excitement. That’s what we’re trying to do in every episode, and that’s what we’re trying to do across the series as well. The range of Doctor Who is, I would argue, bigger than the range of any other television program or movie franchise. It can take you anywhere, anytime, and I feel like our job is to make it the most emotional ride in all the normal meaning of that phrase, a huge rollercoaster of emotion and excitement and enjoyment. So, really, the tone, I hope, is really varying, but always inclusive and entertaining.

Paste: In the first episode, we don’t just meet a new Doctor, we meet new companions. Can you talk a little bit about what these new companions bring to the table?

Strevens: That was a double part of the fun, really. It’s a great honor and a great joy to cast a new Doctor, but bringing on new friends of the Doctor and populating the episode with a few more than is usual—though obviously other incarnations have had multiple companions and friends to travel with—was fantastic. I think the key thing, something Chris was going for when he was creating those characters, was that we want very much to root them in the real world and for them to feel really relatable… Their POV is our POV, in the sense that the audience, we travel, through the friends, with the Doctor. So we wanted the audience to be able to relate to them. You have Ryan and Graham, and they bring something different. They each have something they need maybe to learn; they each have something that they need to gain, so they’re going on a journey. As the series progresses, they get to know each other better in a much more intimate way, and they get to know the Doctor. Each one finds the strength that they had in the beginning but maybe didn’t know that they had. So the Doctor takes them out of their, in a way, everyday lives, challenges them, helps them to grow. But again, the Doctor always believes that they had those gifts and those talents from the start. So she’s a very democratic Doctor. She wants the team around her to help her solve things, and she needs them as well. It’s not just that she’s being kind by letting them have their moments; she actually needs them. So you really do feel like there’s a real game show element to this version of the show; there’s a real team element. The three actors we’ve cast—as you will have seen from the first episode—were an absolute delight, and they each bring something very, very different. It helps make the show an incredibly rich and varied show emotionally because we can explore lots of different emotional parts and points of view other than the Doctor’s.

Paste: In a lot of science fiction, the main characters are physicists or high government officials or, in some way, the elite. Doctor Who has always been populated with working-class people, ordinary individuals. We’ve now got a warehouse worker, a bus driver and a rookie police officer. Can you talk a little bit about why that is and what you enjoy when creating these characters—what you wanted them to be?

Strevens: Part of it is, for me, as I came into the show and was creating a new sort of characters to go alongside the Doctor, [I[ was thinking back to the origins of the show back in 1963. And you know, the POV characters that you come into the very first episode of Doctor Who [with] are two teachers at a school in London in 1963, and they follow one of their pupils home to a junkyard. It’s incredibly ordinary, and Doctor Who lives, I think, in the collision between the ordinary and the the extraordinary. It finds extraordinary things in our ordinary world; it finds ordinary people going on extraordinary journeys with an extraordinary character. And the Doctor is sort of the ultimate infusion of both ordinary and extraordinary. I think that Jodie embodies that dissonance incredibly well. That’s the sort of, the historical nod to the DNA of the original creators of the show. I think, for me, that’s one of the pure joys of Doctor Who—that it’s not military, it’s not government, it’s not establishment. It’s about the people outside of the system. It’s about the ability of people who are not empowered by their jobs, people who are just living their lives, to go out and affect the universe in all myriad ways. To me, it’s very, very important for Ryan, Yas and Graham to be people like us and like the viewers watching around the world. And also to go, “There are no things such as ordinary lives and ordinary people. It’s the circumstances you find yourself in.” So I think what united Yas, Ryan and Graham in this series is very much the moment they get the opportunity and the circumstances in which they have to respond and be extraordinary, they can absolutely do that. I think Doctor Who, for me, is a show that celebrates the human spirit and human endeavor and our ability to change the world—sometimes with small actions, sometimes with big actions—but that one person or one group of people can change the world, and you don’t need to be part of a super-powered, or like a military or governmental or establishment or space organization to do that. The really important thing for me, as well, is the Doctor’s pacifism—that is really central to the show. These are stories that are not resolved by punches or by shooting; they’re resolved by wit and thought and intelligence and teamwork and sometimes a little bit of crazy humor.

Paste: When creating art, I think a lot of times constraints can help. You guys have—more than really most other TV shows I can think of—a lack of constraints. You can go any direction in time, anywhere in the world, the tone can be any kind of thing. How does that affect you as writers? Is that something that you’re giddy about? Is that something that can be terrifying? How do you approach it?

Chibnall: I think that the joy of coming on to Doctor Who is we can go anywhere at any time, so the choices you make speak to what you might want to talk about in any particular series, or with any particular set of characters, or with any Doctor. I will say we do have a constraint in that we have a budget and we have a schedule. We only have access to human actors, which is also a constraint when we are doing our science-fiction stories. So, I think, in terms of writing the show, what I think for this year with our writing team—they’re all new to the show this year—was to showcase the range of what the show can do. So, as many different places and times that contrast with each other, that show the visual, emotional, spatial, temporal range of Doctor Who. What I am also very interested in doing—and I think our team of writers and everyone in our production is interested in doing—is telling stories that speak to the moment in our lives now. So you’re telling universal, hopefully universal, stories that have a specificity to where we are in the century, where we are in our lives, and the issues that are affecting us right now, and we don’t have to do that in a big, bombastic way, but just resonance and echoes with why we’re telling these stories now. It’s an incredibly broad canvas. The joy is in being able to make the choices that will hopefully speak to audiences now, this year, rather than five or 10 years ago, and that will hopefully resonate in the future as well.

Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

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