An Insider’s View of TORCHWOOD – When It Lost Its Way, and How

Chris Chibnall is a British writer and producer who has written some of the best DOCTOR WHO episodes of 2012 (and who some of us here hope takes over as showrunner…soon). Starburst Magazine interviewed him recently, and we’ve snatched it up for you.  Here. Now:

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BY J. R. SOUTHALL

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 Marsmade 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 [Tennant], 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.

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