Exclusive: Chris Chibnall & Jodie Whittaker on the past, present and future of ‘Doctor Who’

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor

Mark Layton talks to outgoing Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall and stars Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill, who reflect on their time on one of the world’s longest-running scripted series

It’s the end of an era for BBC sci-fi adventure series Doctor Who as this weekend’s feature-length instalment marks the exit of star Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall from the programme.

For 99% of scripted series, the simultaneous departure of the lead actor and showrunner, along with the supporting cast, would probably mean the end – or some major retooling – but change is all part of the DNA of this iconic British show.

The Doctor, its titular traveller in time and space, is an enigmatic alien who periodically changes their appearance and ‘regenerates’ when they near death – meaning they can be portrayed by anyone.

It is this creative idea that makes Whittaker the 13th actor to take on the role and has kept the show going on-and-off the air since 1963. It ran for 26 seasons until 1989, with a one-off backdoor pilot attempted in 1996, before the show was finally brought back in 2005.

For close to 60 years, The Doctor has hopped into their time machine, the TARDIS, and embarked on adventures across the universe, back into the past and forward into the future, battling more than a few villains and monsters along the way.

Whittaker and Chibnall’s time in the TARDIS, along with that of co-stars Mandip Gill and John Bishop, will come to an end on Sunday with a 90-minute special, The Power Of The Doctor, which is airing as part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations.

Jodie Whittaker & Mandip Gill

A brief history of time travel

It is this decades-long legacy that Chibnall tells TBI he looked to celebrate in his final Doctor Who story, marking not only the end of his time on the show, but also the BBC centenary, for which he sought to represent the “past, present and future” of the programme.

“It’s the culmination of all the stories we’ve been telling; it’s the climax of the 13th Doctor’s story,” says Chibnall of The Power Of The Doctor.

“When we were asked to do it as a BBC centenary special, when it became a 90-minute feature length instalment, it enabled me to do a lot of the things I wanted to do,” he reveals.

“You have the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master back, the most iconic villains – instantly that makes it feel a little bit more epic. Then there were other things; telling multiple stories and bringing back characters from the show’s past, from what we’d call the classic series, into the modern series and to see where they are today.”

Chibnall refers to returning actors Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding – both will make their first appearances on the show since the 1980s, which the showrunner describes as a “golden thread back into the past”.

Whittaker, who became the first woman to play The Doctor when she took on the role in 2018, tells TBI that while her own time on the show has come an end it is “just so exciting that that it continues on after you; you’re not the book end of something.”

Indeed, change, and the knowledge that the show can keep going after its heroes leave, has become one of its defining elements, says Gill, who plays Yasmin ‘Yaz’ Khan: “The audience is open to change, the whole thing is about regeneration and change and that’s a big part of why it works.

“They want it, they know it’s happening, they’ll stay with you for your journey and then will be open to change. Lots of times that shows are being remade, people don’t really want change, they like the version that they had, but Doctor Who is just carrying on. That is what it’s all about, the acceptance of change.”

Sophie Aldred returns to the show for the BBC centenary special

Diversity & internationality

After four years at the helm, Chibnall thinks he managed to achieve “more than I thought we would” on the series. “Even in our first season, the range we did, the risks we took; we got there a lot quicker than I thought.”

The showrunner also arrived on the series in 2018, alongside Whittaker, with some specific goals both in terms of storytelling and inclusivity: “We wanted the first female Doctor; we wanted to make sure that the writing and directing team were really diverse and that we stepped that up in terms of inclusion; we wanted to do more historical stories and bring those back to the show; we wanted to connect it to the world out there and really feel like the show resonated with the world that you’re living in.”

As the show “didn’t have a brilliant track record” of gender diversity, as producer Nikki Wilson told TBI last year, Chibnall made addressing this a priority: “I definitely felt coming into the show that was my responsibility, I really wanted lots more women writing and directing the show and writers and directors of colour feeling like it’s theirs, and feeling like their perspectives are shown within the stories and that they are represented behind the scenes.”

Chibnall also sought to make the series feel more global, with more foreign shooting, not necessarily to help break into new markets, but simply because the show’s Earthly adventures all-too-often took place in the UK, when its premise allowed for such international adventures alongside the intergalactic ones.

“There are stories that are ripe for the telling, [that of American civil rights activist] Rosa Parks being the prime example of my approach to show. One of the first things that I said to the BBC when we were talking about me taking over was that’s the sort of historical I wanted to do. [The episode] Demons Of The Punjab, set in India during Partition, I’m just struggling to see any other British television dramas about that subject before or since.”

Chibnall explains: “There are loads of stories that are waiting to be told that the show can offer new perspectives on. It was a creatively driven decision, but hopefully if you’re watching around the world, you can also feel that it’s not just a British domestic show.”

The Doctor faces iconic foes the Daleks

A timeless challenge

During the four years of Whittaker and Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who, the scripted sci-fi landscape has seen the rise of some strong competition, including heavyweight US franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars returning to the small screen in force.

However, as Chibnall notes, this is not the first time that Doctor Who has had to contend with bigger-budgeted and equally iconic US sci-fi.

Doctor Who has had this challenge from the start; in 1977 when the first Star Wars movie came out or when Battlestar Galactica, the original TV series, was on ITV opposite it; it’s a historical challenge for Doctor Who and it has thrived against the challenge.

“What Doctor Who has going for it is its incredible format; it can go anywhere and it can do anything. It has that incredible variety – you are not doing ten episodes in a sci-fi desert, you’re doing ten episodes all across everything.”

Whittaker agrees: “You never know what you’re going to get; it’s not set in a certain period, it’s not set in a certain time, it’s not set with a certain group of people, it continually evolves and changes and that is why it lasted so long.”

Going some way towards explaining this mounting competition, producing this kind of high-concept sci-fi – or fantasy – series is getting easier all the time, notes Chibnall.

“There are things you can do on television now if you have the budget that you just could never do before – you look at [Amazon Prime Video’s] The Rings Of Power and that’s just incredible what they’re able to do, the same with Star Wars and all of their [Disney+] shows. The great thing you can do is the world building, you can really do that well now.”

The advances in production technology have made great strides just over the course of his time on Doctor Who, reflects Chibnall: “We could do things in our third season that we couldn’t do in our first season; I can think of one shot in a story set in the Crimean War where had the army running across a battlefield and fighting Sontarans – we could not have done that; the technology didn’t exist.”

Janet Fielding, Jodie Whittaker & Sophie Aldred

“Celebration of change”

Whittaker says that she hopes her time as The Doctor will be remembered as “a celebration of change” and for its inclusivity, and Gill agrees: “I hope that we came across as accessible – I hope it has been in a time where people have seen themselves in our characters.”

The show, of course, will go on. Whittaker’s version of The Doctor may be about to embark on her final adventure, but actor Ncuti Gatwa has already been cast to play the 14th incarnation of the time travelling hero, becoming the first Black actor to play the role full time.

Meanwhile, Russell T Davies, who brought the show back from hiatus in 2005, and shepherded it until 2010, has returned as showrunner following Chibnall’s exit. A change in the production team is also underway, as BBC Studios will partner with Sony-backed prodco Bad Wolf for the show’s 2023 season.

With the keys to the TARDIS placed in a safe pair of hands, Chibnall makes his own prediction for Doctor Who’s future: “It just needs to keep its creative ambition high and its budget as high as it can get, and I have no doubt – the opposite of doubt – that Russell will smash that out of the park and will do things that are surprising and innovative, as he did last time.”

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