Starburst recently caught up with television writer and producer Chris Chibnall in Dorset, in the very locations used for his new series Broadchurch, to talk about his writing on that and Doctor Who. But first, we discussed his role on the first two series of Torchwood...
Starburst: How did your involvement in Torchwood come about?
Chris Chibnall: I came through Julie Gardner, because I’d worked with her on Life on Mars. Julie had been the BBC in-house exec on Life on Mars so I knew her from that. Years earlier we’d developed something, very briefly, in Mal Young’s department when she was just a producer there. Life on Mars made a big difference I think. I was the only one to do both series as well, and we had a really good time on it. You don’t realise when you say yes to these things, suddenly you’re stepping into another world and your life is going to go down that route for a while.
Working on Torchwood must have been an amazing experience.
It was a real once-in-a-lifetime thing. Julie Gardner said, “Come and have a drink,” and we went to this Private Members’ Club in London and she said, “We have to sit in the corner because there’s this secret thing.” It was like all executive producers always do: “I have a secret thing to tell you; it’s very important.” And then in this case... She said, “We’re going to do a 9 o’clock spin-off of Doctor Who. Do you want to do it?” and I said, “What?” That was really out of the blue, really unexpected. There was no sense that there were going to be spin-offs. She just said, “We’re going to do a show, a spin-off of Doctor Who, it’s going to be featuring Captain Jack, it’s going to be much more grown-up.” So that was the first I’d heard of it, and that took me really by surprise. She said, “You can’t tell anyone. There’s a page, that Russell’s written, and that’s it.” I stumbled out thinking, ‘What on Earth are they going to do?’ and then a day later the page showed up.
Initially, Torchwood took a lot of flak from Doctor Who fans.
That’s why you can’t go on the internet, that’s why you can’t get involved, because you have to be writing for another reason, you have to be writing because you want to.
After the first Torchwood went out, I had a look at a couple of reviews – of Russell’s episode – and I just thought, ‘I don’t agree. It’s not the intended audience.’ That was the point where I thought, ‘You’re not going to gain anything from reading this stuff.’ If they’re going to be like that about Russell, who is a really extraordinary writer and this is seven years ago when I had far fewer credits – I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to be sniper-fire.’ The great thing about Doctor Who is, the best writers in the country run it. Russell is a genius of a writer, and Steven is. I don’t use that word lightly, they both are. I’ve worked with them both pretty closely, and they are both geniuses in very different and very similar ways.
Literally the first dinner I had with Russell, and I hadn’t agreed to do the job, the first thing he said to me was, “If you come and do this, you must never go on-line ever again. It doesn’t matter whether you write brilliant stuff or shit stuff or whatever, it will destroy you.” I think he gave that piece of advice to everyone. I think he gave it to David , he gave it to John Simm, he gave it to everyone. I think it’s part of the territory now.
Torchwood was a huge show, particularly its viewing figures for BBC Three, I think it still stands that it’s the highest-rated drama on a satellite channel, just about, and that’s seven years ago. It’s quite difficult for me to have an objective viewpoint about it, because we were so “in it”, and making it, we really didn’t have time to pay attention to any response. What we were really grateful for was that people watched it, and it kept a loyal audience through that first season. And then I think the big thing that happened was, it went on BBC America and they went mad for it in a way that they’d never done for Doctor Who up to that point. Myself and Richard Stokes and Noel Clarke went out to Comic Con that year, in between Season One and Season Two, when Season One was starting on BBC America, and we were just blown away by the response. We thought we were just making a little show for BBC Three and then the way that people responded there really made us think, ‘Oh, actually there’s something here.’
I don’t think there were any of us who after that first season felt we’d cracked the show. We thought some bits of it worked better than others, some bits of it we liked that other people didn’t like and vice versa, but also the whole point with Torchwood, the brief, was, ‘Go and do something that isn’t like anything else.’ And that means playing with tone, playing with content, playing with character; playing with everything really. Coming into it, Russell really wanted that first season to try everything. He was very much, “We’re gonna go here, we’re gonna try this, we’re gonna do that,” and it was really just trying as many things as possible to see what the show would take. We all went into it with that spirit of experimentalism, to be honest, and that was the whole point of being on BBC Three. As far as people making the show, and as far as the brief from the BBC was, just be bold and different and odd and strange, which we did to greater and lesser degrees with greater and lesser success in different episodes.
I don’t think that first season has a cohesion; I think the second season is much more cohesive, but I sort of love the madness of that first season. The fact that Countrycide and Random Shoes can sit next to each other... that was the really great thing when Countrycide went out, we got a lot of response from people going, “I just didn’t think you could scare me, and you really have done.” And again, we were wondering, “How far into horror should we go, can we go, will we go?” And then with something like Out of Time, Catherine Tregenna’s episode, it was like how far into just a purely emotional human drama can you go without any of the sci-fi? It’s gorgeous, and in a sense that episode – and we all worked on all the episodes quite collegiately – was the one where we thought, ‘there’s something there for the show,’ that’s really fertile territory that we want to mine more of. Other things less so.
Also it was so fast. Russell delivered the first draft of Episode One in the January, probably like January the 2nd, and we were on-air on the 22nd of October. So it was ten months from nothing, literally nothing – nobody else was writing until Russell wrote that first episode, and you think of the amount of post-production and effects and all that... From a standing start we literally went from nought to a hundred, I don’t think I’ll ever work on a show that went that fast to screen ever again.
I had more involvement in the second season. I was there throughout but Russell had created the show and he knew where he wanted to go in the first season, and so in choosing the stories he would be saying, “That’s where we want to go,” and, “Let’s bring Suzie back in Episode Eight.” He was very much doing all that kind of stuff. I mean I ended up writing a lot of them just because, and I did a bit of polishing here and there, although I did a lot more in the second season. It was as much that I was there to write to take the pressure off him; some of those story ideas were his, Cyberwoman was his idea...
Perhaps the most reviled episode of Torchwood.
I’m sure! But the funny thing is, in the Torchwood magazine, they did a poll and it was in the top five! That’s why you can’t listen to anything.
Did you ever feel sorry that you left before Children of Earth?
I don’t feel sorry because I loved watching it and I had a lot of opportunity to work on it, they tried very hard to get me to do it. I knew what they were doing and they asked me a number of times, but the thing about doing those two years – well, three years really, once you factor everything in, because there was a bit of a gap between seasons – on Torchwood was, it was exhausting and it was hard work and it never quite got the funding. It was a struggle, because Doctor Who was always the priority so you were always sort of the second child. The things that we achieved on the budget we had and in the time that we had – it was very very hard to do that. As much as anything it was time to go for a break. And you know, you’d done 26 episodes and they’re all single episodes. I think if I’d have stayed, they probably would have done another thirteen, to be honest. I think we would have just gone on. That’s what they were talking to me about before I left.
What I felt very strongly after the end of Season Two was, I’d done as much as I could but also I wanted to go and run my own show because in the way things were set up, you know, I wouldn’t do it quite like that, and it just gets frustrating after a while. Also, I didn’t want to only ever be doing sci-fi or high concept. I like a lot of different genres. And Law & Order – to set that up in the UK, was a really unusual challenge and it really appealed to me. When I was setting up Law & Order: UK, Russell and Julie kept saying, “Just come and do this little five-parter, and write this with Russell.” So no, I had to turn that down a few times. I don’t regret it at all. I mean I think it’s brilliant and I think it’s the best iteration of Torchwood. But it also destroys everything about Torchwood; in order to make it work, you have to destroy the things that we were writing for, for two series: you destroy the Hub, you put them on the run, there’s no real sense of the Rift. So in a way, it’s a totally different format. And that’s what makes it work so brilliantly.
And Miracle Day?
I did a bit of very early storylining with Russell on Miracle Day, right at the start, before they pitched it to Fox, before they pitched it to Starz. I think somewhere along the way it sort of lost a little bit of its Torchwood-ness. Whether you like or dislike Torchwood, it has an essence – of madness and cheekiness and sexiness, and fun and darkness, those sort of polar facets of what it’s about, of putting those things together – and somehow it lost a bit of that somewhere in the process. when we were first talking about it, it was something a bit bolder, a bit cheekier. it may just come back to the fact that one of the great essences of Torchwood was taking those American tropes and doing them in Wales. And in a way, that’s what made Torchwood so brilliantly odd. Once you put it in California, it becomes more like other shows.
Do you think there will be another Torchwood?
it’s entirely down to Russell. I would expect he will have other things he’ll want to write, to be honest.
When I think about those first two seasons, there was a lot of pain involved in making them, but it really makes me smile what we achieved. And you look at all the shows that followed, and it blazed a trail for all sorts of shows. And in America, I think it was an entry point for Doctor Who that didn’t require an understanding of the mythology, so that was very useful and then people came on board. And now, Doctor Who has blazed its own trail but I think it certainly helped British sci-fi, particularly on BBC America.
I think that’s the wonderful thing of that universe that Russell created and interwove, because actually, what the whole thing is, is a massive exercise in marketing. And branding, because really he’s got a family show and an adult show and a kid’s show which are very separate entities but he used that umbrella. He and Julie Gardner just wove those together so cleverly, and used that to get them commissioned. Lesser people would not have got those green lights. That’s the real achievement of that era and I don’t think you’ll ever see the Doctor Who universe be as ubiquitous and all-encompassing. That was a really magic time, it was a very exciting time to be at Upper Boat.
Now, you’re in a different age of television as well. The purpose of the digital channels is different as well. Torchwood – and Sarah Jane to a certain extent, because of CBBC – were shows born when those digital channels needed flagships. And now they don’t need them in the same way.
Was Sarah Jane ever on your to-do list?
I don’t have a list!
Did you ever want to do it?
I didn’t. They were always filming at the same time as Torchwood. My kids absolutely love it, and my son just got the box set for Christmas. We bought it for him, my six-year-old, because he adores it. But I don’t really feel like I’m a completist and I need to have done that, although I love Sarah Jane. you don’t think, ‘Oh I’ll just do an episode of that so I can have the three series in the Doctor Who universe.’
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