Doctor Who : The Power Of The Doctor | Interview with Chris Chibnall (Showrunner)

Can you tell us what audiences can expect from this special? 

You can expect a massive all action thrill ride from start to finish. There will be laughter, there will be huge jeopardy, and there will be tears at the departure of the Thirteenth Doctor. It’s the biggest threat the Doctor has ever faced – and that any Doctor has ever faced – to their life or lives.

Can you talk a bit about the process in putting this feature length episode together? What did you finally set out to achieve? 

It’s a particularly unique brief and a particularly unique episode because it’s a regeneration episode, but it’s also a celebratory episode for the BBC centenary and Doctor Who’s place within the BBC. So I really wanted to ensure that it had sufficient scale, but also that it was connected into the past, present, and future of Doctor Who.

We’re bringing back characters like Tegan and Ace, also there are lots and lots of easter eggs. Some are visual, some are verbal, some are so deeply buried that only few people will recognise them! But there are so many references to the past of Doctor Who in there that it’s got its own crazy movie length identity for the BBC centenary, whilst also saying goodbye to a very beloved Doctor.

We’ve got some exciting returnees such as Sacha Dhawan, Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding. How was it having those conversations?

One of the great joys are always the phone calls to people who’ve been in the show, or who might want to be in the show, and telling them what you think the story is how it’s going to play out and asking them back. So the calls to Janet and Sophie were wonderful and were incredibly emotional. They were amazing and thrilled and throughout the whole process have just been extraordinary.

It’s important to take a moment to praise their sheer bravery and guts – to come back to something you have not done in twenty or thirty years is incredible. To step onto a set where you don’t know anybody but to be going back to a world you thought you left behind is really extraordinary. And they are so amazing in the episode. It’s a delight to see them amidst modern Doctor Who. So that was fantastic. 

We talked about where we collectively thought their characters would be now. I really wanted them to feel comfortable with what had happened in the gap between when we’d last seen those characters on screen and where we meet them here. It’s lightly sketched in, but it’s really important for them as performers and for those characters.

Janet Fielding as Tegan, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace

Did you always want to bring back companions from the past?

It was more to do with being asked to do a centenary special, that I thought there had to be something from the past that felt strong, unique and different to what else we’d done during Jodie’s time as the Doctor. So it was just a brilliant opportunity, and as soon as we knew we were doing that, that was one of the things I wanted to do.

Those characters and those actors came to mind as I think they’re representative of certain times in the show’s history and they are both incredibly strong and vibrant characters. There are so many to choose from and in a way you want to do all of them but actually, I had to just pick two! And what both of them said separately was ‘Oh I think, Tegan would get on well with Ace’ and then ‘Oh I think Ace would get on really well with Tegan’. 

With Sacha, it was a long term plan that we had spoken about when he was last on the show. At the end of season 12 I had the conversation with him, knowing that we would be doing Jodie’s final episode at the end of the following season. The big conversation was about coming back for her finale, because it had always felt like his Master and Jodie’s Doctor instantly had that chemistry, and that it would be a really fitting last battle. It took a lot of planning and obviously then that was disrupted by the pandemic so we held on to it through everything, through all the storms. Obviously he’s incredibly in demand and he was also filming The Great but we made it work in the end. He made it happen and were just thrilled because that was the plan all along. He has rewarded everyone with the most incredible performance in this episode.

We have a focus on villains in this episode, was it hard to keep that balance of good evil? Will it be a dark episode?

I would say it’s a fast, lively and exciting episode. What you have with the three villains is separate plans and multiple threats for the Doctor. So the Doctor is really having to contain separate attacks on multiple fronts and it’s incredibly overwhelming. She’s running from pillar to post to try and sort all of these things out. And again, it was something I had in my mind for a long time, that it’d be lovely to do the axis of evil, the triumvirate of evil in Jodie’s final episode. We hadn’t done those, and I really wanted to hold that back for her finale.

The scale of this episode is huge, apart from the obvious COVID challenges, what were the other challenges faced during this process?

Every sequence is massive. So even the pre-credits – which is the longest pre-credits we’ve ever done – is like a mini movie in itself. And this episode has more visual effects shots than any episode in Doctor Who history. It was a huge demand on the visual effects team. There is a lot of action, there are a lot of locations, there are a lot of monsters, there’s a lot of things exploding! Really from the get go it had to feel constantly on the move, constantly exciting and I think it does. It was a lot of work and a lot of brilliant directing by Jamie Magnus Stone, who really is such an incredible talent and has such an ability to corral both of the emotions and the action and the scares and the humour. I think he’s done an extraordinary job.

How was it writing the Doctor’s final scenes, and did you see them being filmed?

Writing it, I always knew where we were going so I knew what I was writing towards. I knew what the final words were going to be, and where everything was going to happen and finish. So I wrote those quite early on and sort of just put them to one side. 

I was on set for the final day shoot, there were a lot of people on set and there was an outpouring of love. It was a very special and very fun-filled day, there was a lot of music being played, Jodie put on playlists. There was a real sort of party atmosphere on the final day, and then we ended with these incredibly emotional final scenes. It was just a great way to finish, I have to say the last few days we had a shooting were just delightful and particularly after coming through quite a challenging year of filming, it felt like everything landed in the right place. The production team had done a great job in scheduling the final scenes of that Doctor as the final scenes we were going to film which isn’t always the case and it felt very appropriate, very right, very lovely. It didn’t feel like a sad day, it felt like a very happy day, a sense of job well done and there was so much love for Jodie and Mandip.

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor

What do you think Jodie’s impact has been during her time as the Doctor?

She changed the game. She changed history in terms of Doctor Who. I think what she’s brought is a Doctor who is full of hope, and positivity and generosity and I think that these times really needed that. I think she’s shown off her incredible sort of clowning side, the humour that she can do, which maybe some people didn’t know her for beforehand. I think she’s enriched the character of the Doctor, as all actors who play the Doctor do, but it’s an incredibly bold and brave performance.

And she took responsibility for the Doctor being a woman, she took it on her shoulders and represented and that was not a given, that was her strength and decision and power. I think she has been utterly magnificent, she exceeded all of our expectations. She’s given a whole generation of young girls and women a chance to feel that they are the Doctor also and that was always the purpose from the start of this era, was to really widen that net.

If you could pick your top two or three favourite episodes, what would they be? 

I’d have to have a really long think about it but it’s definitely more than two or three! The ones that I really loved looking back were things like Spyfall, Rosa, Demons of the Punjab, Kerblam!, Fugitive of the Judoon, Ascension Of The Cybermen, War of the Sontarans, Village of the Angels, Eve of the Daleks. But actually, there’s loads of them that I really love and that I’m really proud of. I think it’s impossible to choose because on different days, you’ll feel different things! There’s quite a range in there, from out and out comedy to really serious drama and action in between. I feel like we really tried to make the most of the range of the stories. The whole experience is very hard to break down into components once you’re at the end!

What are you most proud of during your time on the show and what will you miss the most about Doctor Who?

It’s really hard to talk about what you’re proud of. I like the range of stories and the variety of stories. There’s a lot (to be proud of) – the first woman Doctor, a lot more women writing and directing the show, and a more diverse range of directors and writers on the show. That was the mission statement at the start for me, that’s what I wanted to do when we came in. And as I look at it now, in terms of the run we’ve had we absolutely delivered on that. That was really, really important. I’m really proud of that, but then there’s just certain stories that you think ‘We really landed that one!’

I think the thing I will miss the most is the madness of making the show. Because you can be shown the design for a monster one minute, then you’re in 1950s America, the next moment you’re getting the rushes in – you get to do things on Doctor Who you don’t do anywhere else. And the visual effects teams are amazing.

Did you take any mementos from set?

Yes I have a roundel of the TARDIS, quite a few of us do! I have a few little gifts that I was given, a front plate of the TARDIS – the plaque on the front. I didn’t take a lot, because I have a lot from the past couple of years! Weirdly the thing you take most are the memories and you kind of can’t explain those. That sounds really sentimental but it’s really true, it’s not the objects, it’s the experiences and the people.

This is also the end of Yaz’s journey, what can we expect?

It’s a big episode for Yaz and it’s the last chapter in her story, and there is a lot of things that she has to deal with do in this story. I really wanted it to feel big for Yaz as an episode, and I really think it does.

Mandip, there are not enough words in any language to describe how extraordinary Mandip is, and how brilliant she has been for the show. She is such an amazing actor. She is one of the greatest human beings, she is so smart, so funny, so kind and everyone in the television industry should be queuing up to have her as the lead in their next series because she is such a huge talent and such an amazing person. I cannot speak highly enough of her.

We really lucked out when we cast her because you never know, and to have her along for the whole of the Jodie’s era – she is as defining of it as Jodie is. The journey that her character has gone on, it’s so broad. My admiration for Mandip is unlimited.

Are you excited about the next era and being a viewer again?

I’m really looking forward to not knowing anything, I’m already enjoying it. And in fact, I had to say to Russell on a couple of occasions, ‘Please don’t tell me!’ I’m lucky enough to have seen the full ending of The Power of the Doctor and even the tiny bit of the end just made me thrilled about and excited and desperate to see more about what comes next. It’s a delightful prospect!

Can you tease what’s coming next for you? 

That’s the great thing now is I don’t have to tease anything. *laughs* I’m doing lots of different projects, I’m doing stage projects, quite a lot of TV activity and we’ll see where it goes. But I’m having a lot of fun doing very different things!

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.