TORCHWOOD WEEK: Chris Chibnall interviewed
The second season of Who spin-off Torchwood is nearly upon us! It starts airing on BBC Two on Wednesday 16 January. The same day, issue 166 of SFX goes on sale, which includes a seven-page Torchwood feature, complete with exclusive on-set photos.
To tide you over until then, we’re putting up a different Torchwood interview every day this week. On Monday it was Kai Owen; on Tuesday, Gareth David-Lloyd. On Thursday, it’ll be producer Richard Stokes; on Friday, Eve Myles (Gwen). If you missed our report on the press screening of the first episode, you can catch it here.
Today it’s the turn of head writer Chris Chibnall.
We gather season two will be more “fun”. How do you go about that – by putting more jokes in the dialogue?
“I think once you make that decision it infuses everything. It’s not as specific as saying more jokes in the dialogue, it’s just an approach that you start that infuses everything from story structure to character decisions to the visual palette of the show, and it’s not a huge shift… but when you decide to do that you start briefing the writers, when we’re making decisions about what stories to tell, when we’re saying what journey the characters are going to go on… it infuses that right from the start.”
“With episode one, when you have Jack coming back and James Marsters coming in, there’s a lot of bounce in that episode, frankly – there’s a lot of fun. We kind of set our stall out in episode one in terms of the tone of the series.”
Was there any temptation to hit the reset button?
“We never had a conversation where we said we’d like to reset this, that and this. It was literally a conversation where we said we stay on the same path and these are the things we wanted to tweak a little bit.”
Is there an arc story this season?
“There are a number of threads in series two. There is no single thread that plays into every episode. There is a thread that will last the series, but it’s in some episodes and not in others. There are some stories that continue across episodes. Mostly our job is to do standalone stories of the week, big proper finished closed stories in 50 minutes – I think that’s a strength of the show. But there are a few little things along the way that if you’re a regular viewer you’ll wonder where it’s going, hopefully.”
Will we see ‘everything change’, like Jack says in the credits?
“Not so much, no. I don’t think that’s going to play into this series.”
Now you’re premiering on BBC2 instead of BBC3 – does that create more pressure?
“I think there’s always pressure, to be honest. I think there was big pressure on BBC3. I think once we did well on BBC3 it was okay – right, that’s fine then – but there was huge pressure because no-one had launched that scale of drama on a digital channel. I think there is pressure moving to BBC2, but I think it’s alleviated slightly by the fact that our repeats did incredibly well on BBC2 last year. I think the fact that Heroes is doing well on BBC2 is terrific for us and for the fantasy/science fiction genre, it keeps that audience watching BBC2. I think the show is bigger and better than last year. I suppose those are the things I would say! There’s never not pressure when a series is opening, and a series as big as this with as many episodes and as much expectation. We’re all excited about it going out and hopefully it will do well.”
The trick is to capture a mainstream audience, of course. Do you very consciously think about that?
“I think when you’re writing anything you should never be thinking about hardcore genre fans. It’s a terrible thing to say to a science fiction magazine, but actually your job is to entertain the mainstream audience. The fastest way to oblivion is just to think of the fans. You’ve actually got to be telling big, entertaining, emotional, mainstream stories, which are in a genre which those fans like. You should always think about the mainstream audience first and foremost, because frankly they are the people who are going to get the show recommissioned. There are not enough genre fans to support shows. It is a fact of broadcasting that you’ve got to get the big audiences for the channel that you’re on. So yes, absolutely, it’s always a mainstream drama audience. You want the people who are watching all the other shows on BBC and ITV and Channel 4 – you want that drama audience to come to you.”
Last year you started airing in the Autumn rather than the New Year, so you’ve had a bit more time to make the show this time.
“Only in post-production. We started filming about the same time. We had a little bit more time preparing the scripts, because we started in… probably November 2006, whereas the year before we probably started in January, so there’s a bit more [time] there. But it’s only really that last year we were on air as we were doing post-production on the final episodes, so this year we’re able to get the majority of our post-production done before we go on air, and that was just about the slot that was available on the channel. It was nothing to do with the production of the show – it was just where they wanted to put us and where it became available.”
Does that extra time in post allow you to up the amount of effects?
“It’s about the same, to be honest. Torchwood’s never going to be as heavy an effects show as Doctor Who. I think we use our effects sparingly, and part of Russell’s brief right from the start was that the show has to have a contemporary reality to it. And if you have too many effects, actually you’re not telling the stories you want to be telling. So there are still a lot of effects, and more than most shows do, and we’ve learned how to use them and highlight them, and mix up prosthetics and CGI, so there are things… We do our first alien environment this year. There’s things in there we haven’t seen in Torchwood before.”
You got some criticism for the fact that the Torchwood team were flawed or unlikeable last year – have they changed?
“I think making that team more heroic and more unified this year… We all came in and said that.
“If you’re working on a show with Russell, he writes the most fantastically human and flawed and interesting characters, and you have to follow those through. It’s important to have different types of characters… I think it is better in the second series, but also we will still be investigating different sides to the characters.”
What did you make of the fan response in general?
“One of the first things Russell [T Davies] said to me before I took the job, when we first had meetings to talk about me doing the job, is ‘stay away from forums and all that kind of stuff’, because it will stop you making the show you want to make. I think it’s very dangerous, because I think it’s a very specific group of people with very specific unified views, and I think to confuse fans with a mainstream audience is a very dangerous thing.
“That’s not to say we don’t take account of the fans, but our first job is to make the show we want to make and to make a show we believe in, rather than a show… somebody might want to make a show all about Jack’s missing few years, and that’s not going to happen. The easiest way is to stay away and then in years to come look back. I think Julie [Gardner[ put it the best in that you have to honour the people you work with, to trust their vision and you have to trust the show you’re making, and then you put it out there. We obviously get some research back which we can look at and use or ignore according to how we see the show going forward, but no… only because it’s such a specific voice that it’s not fair to the other voices in your audience, to be honest, who will see other things in the show. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s not... I’ve been a fan myself, and I think there was a period towards the end of classic Doctor Who when they started only listening to the fans, and that didn’t help the mainstream audience.
“The voice you want in your head is your creative impulse. You don’t want someone else’s nagging voice going, ‘Why have you done it like that?’ or ‘Aren’t you going to address that question?’ Someone asked me the other day, ‘Are we ever going to find out how Torchwood is funded?’, and it’s like ... that is the most boring scene you could ever have in the show! Think about it for a second: it’s quite clear how Torchwood is funded, go and write a short story about it! There are certain gaps in the show that are there for fans to fill in, stuff like that. Those are the sort of things that would stop us doing the show and it’s dangerous.”
What percentage of what you wanted to achieve did you achieve with season one?
“It’s a difficult question because there was never the time to really sit down. It’s not really how you make shows, to be honest. You have a show that you want to make, and then it becomes something else as you make it, by the nature of the process.
“You can always do it better. And also I think there are things we’re doing in the second series that we couldn’t fit into the first. The stories that we wanted to tell, we thought naturally that would come in a second series.”
Can you be more adventurous in a second series?
“Yes, and I think also we know what stories we like in the show, which are the most successful, we know how to tell those stories, how our team interact with the stories, how they’re part of the story, and it allows us to be bolder in our story choices. What we always wanted with the show was a very wide variety of stories, and that’s something we’ve kept at. But I think they’re probably more tonally unified this year. I think sometimes the tone in the first series was uneven because we were trying things out, and sometimes that will end up working, sometimes it won’t.”
Is Jack still going to be an enigma, or more of an open book this year?
“What you’re always trying to do is giving some information away, but also keeping the magic and enigma of the character. It’s not like we’re going to give you a complete biography of his life. I think this is still the great thing about Jack as a character, actually, and the more you see him, you realise he’s the most brilliantly cast character in the world, but also such a brilliant lead hero character, such a mythic character - they are so difficult to create and maintain. There is so much story to do with Jack, there are so many possibilities, so many things you can learn about him. You do learn in series two, but I don’t think that makes him less enigmatic, really, I think it just makes you want to keep learning more and more and more. I hope. We’ll see.”
When he returns to the team, how long has Jack been away?
“A couple of weeks... it might even be three months. It’s not years, but it’s long enough for them to have to deal with a few serious things.”
Do you touch on how he becomes the Face of Boe?
“We don’t. That’s x amount of years in the future and the subject of speculation, so no, that’s not touched upon in Torchwood.
“I was actually sitting with Russell, we were talking about episode 13 of series one, and he said, ‘I’ve just had this absolutely insane idea’, and he told me what it is, and I just laughed my head off. And I thought it’s just brilliant. I think it’s a sign of his brilliance and genius that he’s always… there’s a pattern and a set of links to everything in his head, way beyond what’s on screen. So I think it’s brilliant, and I think it’s weirdly entirely consistent that Jack would end up as a head in a jar. I think it’s lovely because you can choose to believe it or not, but if you do it makes a mad kind of sense, and actually if you go back and watch ‘Gridlock’, that [death] scene is doubly, triply heartbreaking, and I think watching ‘Utopia’, you watch that again and again with those scenes between Jack and the Doctor, the revelation of the Master and all that, those are so loaded, and Russell knew about that all along, and it makes sense. But no, we don’t touch upon it.”
Has Gwen changed since season one?
“I think she has inevitably developed between series because she has stepped in as a leader when Jack is away, so yes, she’s probably a little bit stronger in that sense. So she’s not so wide-eyed this year, but she is still the absolute humanity, the reference point for what’s decent and proper and all that kind of stuff. They’ve all slightly developed. It’s an ongoing story for them, they’ll continue to grow and shift and develop, and they’ll continue to do that to a certain extent between series. I think there’s a slight realignment that has happened in Jack’s absence because they’ve had to cope on their own.”
Does Ianto have more to do this year?
“It’s very much a team of five, and they’re all equals this year. I mean, Ianto does still make coffee, but he’s out a lot from the start. He still does everything he did in series one, but he is also absolutely a crucial member of the team, he’s completely proved himself.”
He’s another character who had a mysterious side…
“I sort of think we’ve done his enigma in that sense. I think what he has this year – which we saw in Gareth, apart from his amazing emotional range – is an amazing ability to be very dry, so he’s got a lot of lovely lines this year, and he’s the one that relishes the absurdity of the situations, and the danger.”
Do people have ideas for Doctor Who episodes that get repurposed for Torchwood?
“I think it’s more people bringing in Torchwood ideas. I can’t remember where we’ve said, ‘Actually that’s great, but it’s a Doctor Who story’. I don’t think it happens, because it always starts with the characters and the team, what things do we want them to investigate, will it connect with their lives, their characters. And I think it’s pretty clear from series one what Torchwood is and what type of stories you can do, so nobody’s come in pitching an Ice Warrior invasion or anything like that. That doesn’t really happen.”
You wouldn’t have, say, an army of Judoon in Torchwood?
“I think that’s right. I think you tend to get less alien races, in terms of big armies… they’re more creatures of wonder and creatures of fear in Torchwood. That’s not to say they’re not in Doctor Who, but I think there’s a very specific breed of creature. You don’t tend to have the big conversations with them about what they’re doing and what their plans are, and all that kind of stuff. The Judoon would seem very out of place in Torchwood, which is a shame because I love the Judoon. So yes, I think there is a difference… We tend to deal with creatures rather than monsters. The Weevils are a very specific kind of creature, and there’s a couple of other creatures in series two that are not your traditional Doctor Who villains, so yes there’s a difference.”
You had a Cyberwoman last year. Are there any classic Doctor Who villains this year?
“No. Well, there’s a glimpse of one, very cheekily. Literally in one scene there’s a glimpse of a very, very obscure Doctor Who monster. The main crossover is obviously Martha coming in, but other than that there’s pretty much nothing. I think we do tend to keep that to a minimum and when we do it’s do it with a very specific purpose.”
Is there any chance of you introducing an Angel/Buffy-style monster underground?
“No, we very deliberately aren’t doing that. In fact, someone wrote a scene with literally something like that – a monster pub – and we cut it out because we didn’t want it in there. I think the concept is that things fall through and are dealt with, not that there is a subculture.”
Will we see any other branches of Torchwood?
“Well, London was destroyed… I think Jack says pretty clearly in episode one of Torchwood that it was destroyed. No, you won’t see other branches. You will learn a bit more about the relationship between the branches than maybe previously, but only in literally a line in one of the episodes.”
Are there branches of Torchwood abroad?
“No, but it would be great, wouldn’t it? We could do spin-offs forever – Torchwood Mexico! No, we’re all about Cardiff. What’s nice is to really cement Cardiff in the way it looks, and giving it that very glamorous edge. Another thing they’ve said in the States is they’re viewing Cardiff the way we view US cities: it’s glamorous and exotic and sexy. It’s very confident, very bold and the architecture has culture and vibrancy. So I think you want to get that across on screen, and I think we’ve got some amazing locations this year. In one episode we use the barrage at night, pre-credits.”
Will Bilis Manger be coming back? By the way, what’s his name an anagram of?!
“No, he won’t be in series two. I don’t know why everybody says that – what’s it an anagram of? Cath Tregenna came up with the name, and we thought, ‘That’s a great name’. It had to be an extraordinary name and Cath just came up with it, and we said, ‘Oh yeah, lovely’. He’s not back. I think he’s in one of the books, actually – I think Gary Russell’s written a book with him in. Not for any other reason than we didn’t have the story for him and there’s a lot of other things to fit in. I think we’d happily bring him back, just not this year.”
You’ve got more big-name guest stars this year.
“Yes. They’ve rung us up, frankly. James [Marsters] wanted to be in it, Alan Dale rang us up and said, ‘Have you got anything going?’ We’ve got Richard Briers in it, his scene is fantastic, we’ve got Nerys Hughes coming in for one episode, Ruth Jones from Gavin and Stacey, some actors who you won’t know but who give extraordinary performances. The level of performances is really lovely.”
How do you feel about the fact that the show’s been such a success on BBC America?
“We’ve been absolutely over the moon and delighted. It’s been really thrilling and unexpected and a lovely little bonus that they’ve taken to it so brilliantly. And what I think is interesting is they’re not viewing it through the filter of Doctor Who, they’re actually seeing it as a standalone show and I think it’s benefited from that to be honest, and I think there’s probably been a more even discussion of the merits and demerits of Torchwood in the US than there has been here. BBC America have really done us proud, and we went out to San Diego [Comic Con]. It was lovely, because the TV Guide guy who was there said the programme was one of the reasons I do my job, that it’s wonderful and makes my job worthwhile, and we found that through all the reviews and all the response. So yes, absolutely delighted with that, and it really gives you a lift when you’re halfway through the second series to see that.”
Interviewer: Richard Edwards
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