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<i>Doctor Who</i> showrunner Chris Chibnall talks season 12 and the return of the Cybermen

Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall talks season 12 and the return of the Cybermen

Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: BBC America, Ben Blackall

Last year’s run of Doctor Who episodes were among the most anticipated, highly-scrutinized in the show’s 50-plus-year history. In addition to being a coming-out party for the first-ever female regeneration of the Doctor (played brilliantly by Jodie Whittaker) and her family of companions (Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole), season eleven served as a regeneration behind-the-scenes too. Series veteran and showrunner Chris Chibnall and executive producer Matt Strevens led an entirely new creative team unto the breach, refreshing the visual language of the show with modern lighting and sound techniques, and switching to anamorphic lenses. In the writers’ room, Chibnall and his team refreshed Who’s structure by scaling back some of the institutional mythos of the show, writing more self-contained, standalone stories, and creating an easy jumping-on point for new viewers.

All of that leads into season twelve, premiering on New Year’s Day with “Spyfall,” a globetrotting, two-part adventure written by Chibnall, and guest-starring beloved British icons Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry. Like its predecessor, this new season is another eagerly anticipated go-around the universe with the Doctor and her companions, albeit anticipated in a different capacity. The big question this year is: How will the Chibnall-Strevens team build on the success of their first season in a way that keeps the show feeling fresh? Thankfully, Chibnall answered our burning questions.

The A.V. Club: How does it feel to be returning for your second year? Any added pressure to deliver, or is it smooth sailing now that the first season is out of the way?

Chris Chibnall: I think it’d be very hard to match the pressure of our first season with the first female Doctor with a whole new team, a whole new cast, and a whole new team behind-the-scenes. It was a big shift for the show last season. And what was so great is the way, seemingly, the audiences really took to it. That’s very emboldening.

We had a very clear strategy for the first season, in terms of ten standalone stories—very much a jumping-on point for new audiences, which is always great with a new Doctor. I think this season is a different proposition. It’s taking those characters that hopefully people have fallen in love with, and now going deeper into the Doctor Who world: We’re bringing back some monsters, we’re going deeper into their lives, going deeper into the Doctor. Even structurally, we had a very clear strategy for this season; there are more two-part stories, there is a little bit more of a serial arc threading through. And the great thing is when you have a Doctor, a cast, and a production team who you know can deliver incredible things, then the task as the new executive producer and showrunner is, “Okay, how do we challenge these guys? How do we raise the bar this season? How do we do things we didn’t manage to do last year?” And I really think we’ve done that. It’s exciting what we’ve got to show people coming up.

AVC: Like you said, last season was a big jumping-on point for new viewers. For season 12, how did you approach keeping those newer fans engaged while still satisfying long-term fans of the show? 

CC: We open with a big two-part, two-hour event story, which is incredibly action-packed and fun and open to everyone, incredibly accessible. So we start with a big moment and a big story. I think that you’ll always find, if you’ve got a great Doctor and those great characters, that they can take you on a journey to anywhere. Hopefully what you’re doing is just bringing all your viewers on a journey into new corners of the Doctor Who universe.

That means for the people who joined last year, it’s going deeper into the characters of Graham and Ryan and Yaz and the Thirteenth Doctor. For longer-term fans, there’s some great returning monsters. We’ve got some iconic monsters returning this year, and there’s lots of little treats and surprises and things along the way that will hopefully keep them interested. It’s always the balance in Doctor Who, keeping both going, and it’s the joy of doing the job, to be honest.

AVC: Iconic monsters? Can you give us any clue into who they might be? Are we going to see the Cybermen, by any chance?

CC: Yes, you are. What a good question. We’ll have the Thirteenth Doctor’s first meeting with the Cybermen, and let me tell you, they are relentless and ferocious. We also have the Judoon, who are from David Tennant’s era on the show, from a story called “Smith And Jones,” which introduced Martha Jones. The rhino-headed intergalactic space police come to investigate something in contemporary Gloucester in the U.K. And that’s a pretty big and exciting story, so that’s exciting. So yeah, those two are the biggies.

We have some incredible scary new monsters as well. In the U.K., the phrase “behind the sofa” is always applied to Doctor Who, and I think we’re going to be wanting people to move their sofas away from the wall because there are a few monsters in this season that I think are going to have people—parents more than children, obviously—running for behind the sofa.

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall talks season 12 and the return of the Cybermen
Photo: BBC

AVC: You mentioned digging deeper into Thirteen’s journey this season. She started out last season very optimistic and outward looking. Will we see that outlook challenged?

CC: I think you always want the Doctors to have a journey through a series and through an era, absolutely. The Thirteenth Doctor is, you’re quite right, absolutely an optimist and a beacon of hope at her heart. Yes, the way to find out how deep those values go is to challenge them. She’s going to come across some quite profound challenges and questions this series, definitely, and that’s the question. How much will that make her stronger? That’s the journey she’s on.

AVC: Will that cause any rifts between her, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham?

CC: I think they’re an incredible family unit and I think if you really analyze the first season: She fell out the sky, she saved their lives, she whisked them away across the universe—not entirely deliberately to begin with—and showed them the wonders of the universe. They were really reeling from that and the events in their own lives. When we come back to them, they’ve been traveling in the Tardis for a while, they’re a pretty tight unit, and they’ve kind of got the hang of traveling with the Doctor. But equally then you start to ask questions of, who are they actually traveling with, who is this person, and is this their lives? And they’re examining the choices that they’ve made, really. If it’s true that they needed her in the first series, she’s definitely going to need them this year.

AVC: Speaking of needing each other, Ryan and Graham basically had to rebuild their relationship from scratch, and learn to lean on each other in the absence of their original unifier, Grace. How will their relationship to evolve in season 12?

CC: Well, they’re still having to navigate that, and the incredible thing about family relationships, particularly a step-family relationship, is [they’re] like no other. So you’ll see them continue to encircle each other, navigate each other, irritate each other, adore each other—it’s a constantly in flux relationship, really, in no small part due to that love and chemistry between [Bradley Walsh] and [Tosin Cole] who play Graham and Ryan. They also have a great comic timing together. I think it was something that really came out last year; I first noticed it when we were filming the Rosa Parks episode with the little scene they do by the river, where they’re ensnaring the bus driver in what we call a fishing take down.

They’re a great duo, and there’s all sorts of flavors that you can play with there. As you say, there’s a lot of pain in that relationship, but equally there’s a lot of humor and warmth and love as well. And having three characters as well, three companions, enables us to play different dynamics across different episodes. Also, you’ll see a bit more of them going off in little splinter units this year on various missions. So there’s lots of ways in which those things evolve, but we’re returning home as well.

AVC: Yaz, Mandip Gill’s character, was kind of in search of an identity last season, and eager to prove herself. She found some answers in “Demons Of The Punjab,” but she still has room to grow. What challenges will she face in the upcoming season?

CC: I think for Yaz, it’s that sense of, how far can she go? She’s been on quite a few adventures, quite a few missions now, she’s getting more independent. The Doctor trusts her to go off and do stuff by herself. So that thing you can see growing in her: She won’t always be doing exactly as the Doctor tells her, she’s got ideas of her own. She’s becoming an independent investigator on her own, occasionally.

AVC: Will that lead to a clash with The Doctor, or the rest of the team?

CC: I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’ll be clashes or risks between the companions. There are different approaches in different stories. But what I come back to is, this is an incredibly strong friendship group that they can have differences of opinion, but it’s not like there’s going to be some spectacular fallings out among this group. No, I wouldn’t want to lead you down any false trails.

AVC: The upcoming guest cast includes some heavy-hitters [like Stephen Fry, Robert Glenister, Goran Višnjić, and Sir Lenny Henry]. Who is Robert Glenister playing? He’s already appeared in Who, during the Peter Davison era, but his character died.

CC: Yeah, he’s already been in one of the greatest ever stories of Doctor Who. So your knowledge is excellent. You get another five gold stars. Yeah, from “The Caves Of Androzani,” which was apparently his second ever screen appearance, I’ve been told. I’ve worked with him previously on a film, The Great Train Robbery. He’s just one of the greatest British actors, to be honest. So, again, he hadn’t been in 21st century Doctor Who, so it was a great opportunity to bring him in. He plays Thomas Edison in a story about Nikola Tesla. Tesla is played by Goran Višnjić, so we’ve got a couple of amazing acting heavyweights in that episode, going toe-to-toe. He’s a beautiful, beautiful actor, Robert, and I’m really pleased he said yes to that and it’s a lovely little nod to the past, going, “Oh, you go all the way back to Peter Davison’s last story.”

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall talks season 12 and the return of the Cybermen
Photo: BBC

AVC: And then Stephen Fry, that’s a huge get.

CC: Yeah, it’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Brilliance, as always from Stephen Fry. He appears in the two-part opener. It was a part I’d written and I was talking to our casting director Andy Pryor and said, “Well, if you could have anyone in the world, you’d have Steven Fry for this, but he’s way too busy and amazing.” And, Andy, being brilliant: “Well, we can ask, the worst he can say is no,” and wonderfully, he said yes very fast with great enthusiasm. And it turns out, of course, he’s a huge Doctor Who fan and is achieving a lifelong dream by being in the show. So for both sides, this is a very, very happy arrangement, and I think the whole cast just lifted by having him on set. And there were lots of businesses to set on the days that Stephen was filming and he’s just everything you could wish for in that part.

AVC: What was it like reuniting with Lenny Henry?

CC: I know Lenny from working with him on Broadchurch, but also from being a lifelong fan of his work, both as a comedian and an actor. And I had a role in mind for him and asked him to have a read of something and he said yes to that, and he’s again giving a great performance. So the exciting thing is, again, he’s in the season opener, so we have an opener which is pretty big and has two great British icons heating up the screen, which is just fantastic. It’s an absolute huge treat, that episode.

AVC: What else can you say about the opener, if you’re able to talk about it?

CC: I would say it is epic, funny, action-packed, global thriller. And if I go much further, the snipers around this room will take me out. But it’s pretty big. It’s filmed all around the world. It has some great stunts, some great locations, some great actors. It’s an hour of excitement, and that’s just part one.

Web Producer, The A.V. Club