Interview: BEING HUMAN Showrunner Toby Whithouse

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Toby Whithouse

We recently caught up with Toby Whithouse to discuss his latest episode of Doctor Who for an interview that will appear in an upcoming issue of Starburst magazine. During our conversation, however, we wandered onto the topic of Being Human and Toby’s previous Doctor Who story The God Complex. As a teaser for the rest of the interview, those portions of the conversation are reproduced here...

Starburst: Congratulations, Being Human has gone to a fifth series.

Toby Whithouse: Yes, we heard a couple of months ago. We’re quite heavily into storylining now. Scripts are being written and yes, it’s very exciting. We’re really delighted.

A lot of people thought it was going to end after the fourth series.

We felt that if we could overcome the transition from Series Three and Series Four, we thought, if we can do that, then the series can run ‘forever’, so it was a real test for us, rebooting the show with a new cast. People ask me if it’s difficult creating the new characters, but the thing is, that’s my job. My job is to create characters and create stories, so that was fine. The problem was the pessimism, and the fatalism, of the fans. Although I must admit that after Series Four went out,  I saw on one forum that somebody had said, “Do you know what? I thought they were mad, I thought this series was going to absolutely bomb and I thought that nobody could ever replace the original cast. But I have to say I was completely wrong and I think the new guys are amazing, and I’m delighted and I hang my head in shame.” I actually got a sci-fi fan to admit they were wrong. That’s listed in the Book of Revelations as a sign of the approaching apocalypse.

You don’t avoid visiting the forums, then?

Occasionally I’ll dip in, and then run away weeping. It really amazes me that we’re all very passionate about a genre that is about leaps of imagination, and we will tell and listen to stories about creatures on other planets and strange monsters and so on, yet the notion of a show continuing with the same creative team, the same format but a different cast seems impossible. 

People just don’t seem to like change.

Interestingly, I was watching the interview with Joe Quesada at Kapow! and he was saying exactly the same thing, that particularly genre fans find change frightening, but actually, you have to always be moving forwards, you have to have a forward momentum, otherwise things stagnate.

But anyway, it’s been great. I’m really excited about the fifth series and delighted that the new cast have gone down so well, because I think they’re genuinely astonishing. I couldn’t be happier. The new guys are absolutely stunning.

On to Doctor Who. In The God Complex, the Doctor’s speech at the end to Amy/Amelia is actually for real, isn’t it? And that’s why Rita, specifically, is in that story?

Not just Rita, but all of the ‘fatalities’ within it. But I can see the resonance with Rita: almost, by looking at her, the Doctor was thinking, You know what? You’d be a brilliant person to travel with, so maybe, if it doesn’t work out with Amy, then maybe you’d like to come around with me. There’s that exchange where he says to Rita the thing about giving kids a suitcase full of sweets, and two lines later he finds himself offering her a bunk on the TARDIS as well, and she says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I have a feeling you’ve just done it again.” The scene where the Doctor leaves Amy and Rory, at the very end, was bizarrely the scene that went through the most redrafts, because Steven wanted it played absolutely for real. And I was saying, “But surely they’re going to come back at the end of the series?” And he was saying, “Yes, but even so, you have to play this as real, it has to look as though this is the end of the Ponds.” The sequence with Amy and Amelia, that is the moment where the Doctor realises that this story, his time with Amy and Rory, only really has one ending, and that’s with somebody dying.

Staying with The God Complex, was there any reason why you didn’t just say that the Minotaur was a Nimon?

I guess we never really thought about it. I wouldn’t like to swear to this, but, and I’m not saying this is the reason – it genuinely never occurred to us [to do it] – I think there might be a couple of reasons. I think it’s fair to say that the Nimon were not necessarily the most successful monsters we’ve ever had on Doctor Who, so it might have been more of a liability, to be honest. Personally I’m always quite keen to be moving forward, and to create my own monsters. Admittedly, I could hardly lay claim to the Minotaur being an original monster but also, to be fair, from what I remember of the mythology I invented around it, I think it was a different culture. So my Minotaur, the planet that it came from, that was a different culture to the one that worshipped the Nimon. And I think that the Minotaur in my episode was something particular to that planet and that culture that it came from, that put it in that weird prison. So I think it’s more likely they would have had their own God rather than leeching off someone else’s.

The other reason, and I’m not sure this is a reason but it might’ve been something we would’ve come up against had we wanted to make it a Nimon, is that weirdly the rights to some monsters are not owned by the BBC. I won’t say which, but there is one very particular, very famous, iconic Doctor Who monster that is not owned by the BBC. Consequently every time it appears, money has to change hands. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case with the Nimon, but it was a real surprise to me when I’d said, Ooh, can we chuck in a ‘blah’ into The God Complex, can we have a room full of this monster? And they said, No, we can’t afford that, because we’d have to pay such-and-such. I said, Oh that’s a shame – which I didn’t realise.

I believe there’s a similar situation with the Yeti...

But that’s weird because you would have thought that the Yeti is surely essentially in the public domain!

I suppose it’s to do with the specific explanation for its appearance in the Doctor Who universe. One more question about The God Complex, and one that you’ve been asked a million times but I have to ask it...

[laughs] I know what you’re going to ask and the answer is, it’s entirely up to you.

But did you have an idea yourself [of what was in the Doctor’s room]?

Yeah. Yeah, I did.

So there is a definitive answer to that question, then...

I would say that the person who gets to say what’s definitive, is the showrunner. I would say that deciding what the Doctor’s greatest fear is, is probably above my pay grade. [laughs]

Talking of showrunners, did Russell T Davies give you more notes than Steven does?

To be honest, I would say that the difference between the two of them... They’re really difficult to compare, because I’ve written for Russell and for Steven at completely different points in my own career, so obviously there was more ‘intervention’ from Russell, but that’s because back then I needed it, to be honest.

Did Russell have a more particular idea of what he wanted?

I’m not sure that’s true. I think Steven has incredibly specific ideas about it, and about the shape of a series of Doctor Who. I’m very lucky and honoured that essentially Steven lets me get on with it. Obviously he has notes and thoughts, but I’ll go away and write the script and he’ll give his thoughts on that, but Steven’s told me that I’m very low maintenance, which is I think one of the reasons why they ask me back. As I said, I was in a very different point in my career when I worked with Russell but I learned an enormous amount from him, in terms of speed and momentum, and how to structure an episode, which are lessons that I’ve then translated into everything I’ve written since, including Being Human

My problem with Steven’s first series was the tentativeness, as if he was just finding his feet.

To be fair, that’s completely normal and that’s what we found on Being Human. The first series was very successful, but that was more accident than design. And I think we made mistakes in the second season, but then we rectified those in the third and fourth. There’s no formula to making a successful show, because if there was then everyone would be able to replicate it.

Mind you, with Being Human you hit upon an astonishingly good idea.

It’s always in retrospect that one is able to say these things. In a parallel universe, someone made a stupid show about a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost sharing a house and it died the death of a dog. You look at something like Jekyll. I thought that was absolutely stunning, I absolutely loved it and thought it was wonderful. But Steven would be the first to admit, the public didn’t respond to it as well as he would have wanted. Similarly a show like Ultraviolet, which I’ve gone on record many times saying was a huge influence on me. I thought that was incredible, but clearly there were more people who didn’t. So the people who make successful shows are as mystified about it as the people who make unsuccessful ones.

No Angels was also, in my opinion, a great series.

I think I’m very lucky, in that I came into the profession at the right time. As I’ve said before, I think the return of Doctor Who and the success of it, changed absolutely everything for genre writers. Before then if you had a sci-fi or fantasy idea, you wouldn’t have got it past the script stage. And then Doctor Who came back and changed everything. The success of Being Human and all of that, we’re all hanging on the coat-tails of Doctor Who. It changed the landscape for us. I think television had been a bit complacent before then, that there was a reluctance to try anything new and as I said, I think Doctor Who coming back, and being as successful as it was, opened the door for people like myself, who have always wanted to write genre stuff. Personally I’m absolutely thrilled it did, because I wouldn’t want to spend my whole career writing medical dramas.

So, and even though personally I’m hoping it’s a long time before it becomes available, would the showrunner’s job be something you’d like to do, or would it be too daunting?

I think both of those answers are correct.


Being Human returns to BBC three early next year.

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