In New York city this weekend to attend Comic-Con, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” writer Toby Whithouse was kind enough to speak with me about creating stories for Doctor Who. Along the way, we chatted about whose advice he seeks, and the wonderful response he’s received to these particular episodes. Whithouse, who created Being Human ,The Game and No Angels has been writing for the Doctor since 2006’s “School Reunion,” and worked with three incarnations of our favorite Time Lord.
For his two-part Series 9 episodes, Whithouse and actress Sophie Leigh Stone (who is deaf) received recognition from the British Deaf Association. The atmospheric ghost story wound up this past Saturday night with a glorious opening performance recalling Peter Capaldi’s punk rock days, and twisted into a wonderfully fun, timey-wimey experience involving a broken fourth wall and the Bootstrap Paradox (“Google it!”).
Before he writes for the Doctor, Whithouse said he always speaks with his 14-year old daughter about what she’d like to see.
Toby Whithouse: “I’ll ask, between seasons, I’ll ask, ‘If I write another episode, what kind of story would you like?’ and she always says that what she wants is a scary story. I think that’s…occasionally, Doctor Who gets in trouble in the UK for being too scary for children. But, it’s always grown-ups who perceive that it’s too scary and actually, children love being scared. They love, they love the kind of excitement of watching a scary story. And like I said, my daughter is always very keen that whenever I write an episode, I make it as scary as possible.”
CD: “I saw this morning that you received recognition from the British Deaf Association…”
TW: “That’s been a massive response to this episode, by the deaf community, has been absolutely amazing. and completely kind of unexpected. It’s been really gratifying and humbling, the way that they’ve responded to it so positively.
I wanted her deafness to be kind of incidental, really. There’s that moment in part one where she lip reads what the ghost is saying, and there’s a moment in episode — part two where her deafness is a factor, but apart from that I was very keen for it just to be incidental, and for her deafness to be just a facet of the character, but not a defining factor. And I think also, credit must go to the actress, Sophie Leigh Stone, who is absolutely remarkable, and who carries the part off with such passion and such conviction, and such strength. I think she’s genuinely extraordinary. Yeah, and like I said, it’s just a real delight to see how well the episode has gone down with that community.”
CD: “Writing [across multiple series] with different actors playing the Doctor, do you approach it that he’s one continuous character, or do you take into account each different actors’ style? How do you approach a character that has such a long history, but different traits because of different actors?”
TW: “It’s definitely the latter, in that Peter’s interpretation of the Doctor is wildly different from say, David Tennant’s. You have to be mindful, of whoever is playing the Doctor, you have to be mindful of their interpretation of it. And… you respond to different aspects of that interpretation. So for example, with Peter’s, the way that Peter is playing the Doctor, I really love his…the awkwardness, the way that he is — in terms of his ability to assimilate into society — the way that he’s almost slightly regressed. David; David’s doctor was the most human, I think. Where, and I think Peter’s is one of the most alien, in a way. I really enjoy that. I really like his kind of weirdness, and his sort of, social ineptitude.”
CD: “And where do you put Matt Smith on that scale?”
TW: “I guess sort of somewhere, the thing is that Matt was also sort of very alien. His Doctor was sort of very odd, very eccentric, and he’s got this incredibly positive and optimistic, and whereas Peter is more — it’s more of a tragedy Doctor. And again, you find those characteristics, you find the differences, and you kind of concentrate on them.”
CD: “Did Steven Moffat — I read that usually he’ll usually give you some kind of one line pitch — are you able to share what the pitch was for this series?”
TW: “Yeah…there was wasn’t even a line, it was just this year, it was just kind of ‘ghosts’ — just do ‘ghosts’. And the thing is, that’s just always how the conversation starts, and then after that, there’ll be kind of many weeks of emailing back and forth, and me kind of pitching ideas, and gradually refining it and refining it. And then throwing in other ideas and other thoughts and so on, but you know, the starting point is always a very kind of brief couple of words or a couple of lines, and from that I’ll start trying piecing the story together.”
CD: “All three episodes this series, there’s a lot of talk about the Doctor’s death, and obviously, “Under the Lake” ended on a kind of a cliffhanger…is his [Death] also a theme of this season?”
TW: “Not really; it’s not one that I was kind of told to put in. I think that inevitably, if you’re telling a ghost story, that by definition you’re dealing with life and death. It wasn’t…if it’s a governing theme of the series, then it’s one I kind of lighted upon by accident, rather than something Steven specifically told me to include. But, uh, as I said, I think with a ghost story, inevitably — and particularly a ghost story which involves time travel — so in part two, when they go back, um, for example, the moldy guy in the top hat who’s been haunting the underwater base, they meet him before he dies. So, that is very much a presence in all this, within the story.”
CD: “There’s a big to do on the internet about a couple of things. The first one; what’s your feeling on sonic sunglasses, and Peter getting rid of the screwdriver?”
TW: “[Laughing] Oh I’m sure the screwdriver will be back at some point….the sunglasses, I think, are quite fun…I don’t think they’ll be around forever. I think it was quite fun, and it was quite useful for me, for my episodes. I managed to find, kind of a proper use for them, which was kind of helpful. I’m sure the screwdriver will be back at some point.”
CD: “The other big question I think fans have, that maybe you could just weigh in on, is how do you feel about the possibility of a female Doctor in the future?”
TW: “I think anything is possible in the world of Doctor Who. I think it all depends, just as Steven said many times, casting the Doctor is incredibly difficult, and the pool of actors who can play the Doctor is tiny. I think it’s not really a question, as he said, it’s not really a question of going out and finding, you know, specifically finding a female Doctor. I think that if the right female actor came along, then why not? I think that, I’ve talked to my daughter about it, and she personally feels that actually, we shouldn’t have a female Doctor. Actually, her thing is that what I should do is create other fantastic female characters. Personally, I think that’s what we should do.”
CD: “Which they’ve done with Michelle Gomez, who is absolutely mind-boggling…
TW: “Yeah, I know, I think she’s — now there — that’s a perfect example of casting the right actor regardless of gender, and so her interpretation of the Master is just phenomenal, and it’s completely revolutionized that character. And I’m sure that there is a female Doctor out there somewhere.
She’s a joy to watch.”
CD: “I read that you started out as a stand up comedian?”
TW: “No, well, I started as an actor, and I trained as an actor for about eight years. And then, kind of stumbled into writing, really, and …along the way I did stand up — I did stand-up for about eighteen months, from about 2006 through 2008, and loved it, absolutely loved it, but my writing schedule meant that I couldn’t write, didn’t really have time to write new material and stuff like that. So…stand up is great. Stand up is one of the most terrifying and exhilarating things I’ve ever done.”
CD: “[Performing stand-up and television writing] seem like such opposite ends of the spectrum, one behind closed doors and one in front of people.”
TW: “Yeah, but also, for me it makes perfect sense, because having trained as a performer, it felt completely natural that I combine the two. I think that I kind of also wanted the challenge; you know, when something I’ve written doesn’t go down well onscreen, I can blame — and often do — the directors or the actors or something like that, whereas when doing stand-up, you know, if I die, there’s absolutely no one else. But if it really goes well, then I’m, then it’s just my pure, undistilled genius, as opposed to anyone else.”
CD: “Do you already have plans to write any more episodes for Doctor Who?”
TW: “It’s not really up to me, it’s up to Steven. But, I’ll keep going back as long as they want me.”
CD: “And do you have anything in the works that we don’t know about — for yourself?”
TW: “I do, but I can’t talk about any of them. I really can’t. I’ve got some really exciting things coming up. I’m developing, and I think all of them are kind of high concept or science fiction things, which is my kind of first love, so I”m really excited about all of them. And um,hopefully we’ll be talking about them in a couple of years.”
CD: “Do you have aspirations or plans to get into other areas — are you interested in directing?”
TW: “Yeah, I would love to, I’d love to do some directing. I think that it would be the perfect fit for my ego and control freak…for a megalomaniac like me, it feels like the next logical step.”
CD: “Oh, well that doesn’t come across at all.” (He really was lovely.)
TW: “[Laughing] Thank you, well believe me, it’s always very carefully concealed. It’s amazing what I can pull off.”
CD: “You’re excited to go to Comic-Con; are you going as a fan of any other series?”
TW: “Oh yes, so many shows. I’m a huge comic book fan, so…that’s a big thing for me. Probably to name — there’s just so many — I’m a huge fan of the genre. So, in whatever form, be it comics or books or TV series, so er, that’s why I love Comic-Con so much, it’s just so much there, and it’s such a thrilling, exciting and strange…experience. The people I meet just love the genre, and it’s enormous fun.”
CD: “Did you watch Daredevil, and will you watch David Tennant in Jessica Jones?”
TW: “Yeah, I loved that. I’m really looking forward to Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and yeah, I can’t wait for them to come. I really loved the first season of Daredevil, it was fantastic.”
CD: “They just put out a little teaser with David Tennant for Jessica Jones this morning.”
TW: “Yes, I’ve seen it, and yeah, I’m really excited about that as well.”