Television is a highly collaborative art form, but arguably no one has more power in crafting a TV narrative than the writer, who shapes the bones of any TV story.
Doctor Who Season 11 is notable not only for the incredible changes it is making in front of the camera—bringing on Jodie Whittaker as the first woman Doctor, as well as Tosin Cole (Ryan), Mandip Gill (Yasmin), and Bradley Walsh (Graham) as a diverse ensemble of Companions—but also for the major changes behind the scenes.
Not only will the upcoming season see a new showrunner in the form of Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch, Torchwood), but, across the season’s 10 episodes, it boasts a line-up of writers who are (save for Chibnall, who will write the most episodes this season) all new to the production of Who and who represent the most diverse group of writers in this series’ long history.
Let’s take a look at each of these storytellers to see what they bring to the rich world of Doctor Who…
Honestly, Malorie Blackman is a major score for Doctor Who. A former Children’s Laureate of the U.K., the black British writer born in London to Bajan parents, has penned over 60 books for children and young readers across various mediums. Before attending the National Film and Television School and becoming a writer, Blackman worked as a systems programmer.
Blackman’s most popular series, Noughts & Crosses(British slang for the game Americans call Tic Tac Toe), has a great premise: It is set in an alternate history world in which Africans gained a technological and political advantage over Europeans, and used it to enslave them. The first book in the series, published in 2004 in the U.K., is set after slavery has been abolished, but when segregation is still a major problem, with Noughts, or those with white skin, treated as second-class citizens by Crosses, or those with black skin. We follow the relationship between Callum, a Nought, and Sephy, a Cross.
“I wanted to write a story about the legacy of slavery,” said Blackman in a 2016 Q&A about the series. “About how attitudes way back when, still influence all our lives and the way we think and live today. I really believe the subject of slavery is terribly important – especially in this day and age. I think it gives a context to modern day Western World thinking and attitudes regarding other races and cultures.”
Noughts & Crosses is less popular and well-known in the States, in part because its release was hindered by 9/11. (It’s not available in my local library). According to a 2004 article in The Times, U.S. publishers didn’t want to publish anything “describing how someone might become a terrorist.” It was published in the U.S. in 2005, but has yet to gain the same kind of readership as it did in the UK. (A TV show adaptation currently in the works at the BBC could change that).
Blackman has a knack for taking the realities of our world and turning them on their head as a way to reflect back on them. She did it with Noughts & Crosses and she uses a similar tactic in a 2013 Doctor Who short story called “The Ripple Effect,” which she wrote to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.
In it, the Seventh Doctor and Ace stumble upon an alternate universe in which the Daleks have always been good. The Doctor immediately suspects the Daleks are up to something, and must face his own prejudices when Ace points out that this new universe they’ve discovered may be a more just place.
“I’ve always loved Doctor Who,” said Blackman in the press release announcing the Season 11 writers. “Getting the chance to write for this series has definitely been a dream come true.”
Three words describing her Doctor Who story: “Heartfelt, thought-provoking, timely.”
It’s been five years since British teen drama Skins went off the air, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still having an effect on mainstream pop culture today. (Fun fact: Peter Capaldi had a supporting role as Sid’s dad on the first cycle of Skins. His character is not very nice.) Yes, I’m referring to the influence the show has had as a narrative pioneer (a notable antecedent is Norwegian sensation Skam, which has a lot of Skins in its DNA), but also to the storytellers the show has produced. Ed Hime, who got his start on Skins in the fourth and fifth seasons, is one example.
Skins was revolutionary in many ways, and much of that dynamic storytelling stemmed from its decision to give young writers a real chance to be a part of the writers’ room. At one point in the show’s seven-season run, the average age of the writers’ room was just 21-years-old, and that was more or less par for the course across the series. Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out and Black Panther fame, was writing and acting on the show when he was just 18. The Cursed Child writer Jack Thorne, who has got to have at least one clone given the sheer number of projects he’s a part of (next up: the His Dark Materials TV show), also wrote for the show.
Hime penned two episodes of Skins. His first, “Emily” (Season 4, Episode 2), won him a BAFTA for Breakthrough Talent. As you might have guessed, it focuses on the character of Emily—specifically her romantic dynamic with girlfriend Naomi, her tense relationship with her mother, and her investigation into the suicide of a classmate.
Though not without its hiccups, Skins‘ Emily and Naomi represented one of the first central queer relationships on TV, and it’s encouraging to know that Hime was an enthusiastic part of telling their story. Speaking to AfterEllen in 2010 about writing their characters and love story, Hime said:
“I felt that my only real duty was to explore them as people and tell an emotionally honest story about them and not to think about what it was saying in a wider cultural context. I think you comment on it by not commenting on it, by just treating them like everyone else in the show and treating their story as equally valid.”
Skins was a show that led with its characters and its emotionally-driven storylines, which also seems to be what Chibnall is going for in Doctor Who Season 11. Hime seems to be on board with the plan, saying in the Season 11 writers announcement: “Writing for this series comes down to the adventure really, and telling emotionally-engaging stories to bring everyone along with you.”
Three words describing his Doctor Who story: “Really rather spooky…”
Remember the name Vinay Patel. I think it’s one we’re going to start hearing a lot, and not only in relation to Doctor Who. The playwright and screenwriter from South-East London had two plays on the UK stage this summer: Sticks and Stones at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and An Adventure at London’s Bush Theatre through October 20th.
Sticks and Stones, Patel told The Guardian, is a play about “how we talk to each other about what is offensive or not.”
“People push a ‘this is offensive’ thing to certain groups, and I think people having their power dismantled is good. But then I talk to someone like my dad, who works 85 hours a week and who doesn’t have time to be on the internet. If you don’t reach back, you leave a gap that people like the far-right exploit really well … I get it, people get frustrated about having to explain themselves and their lives. But the work is to go: ‘Actually, I need to bring you on board because the world feels unstable’ – that uncertainty is what I wanted to bring into the play.”
(A sentiment that doesn’t seem totally unrelated to the more conservative parts of the Doctor Who fanbase.)
Patel’s other recent play, An Adventure, follows a young couple from 1950s India to Mau Mau-era Kenya to the UK, and is inspired by Patel’s Indian grandparents’ arranged marriage.
His TV debut, Murdered By My Father, is the story of a girl who is killed by her father in an act of “honor-based” violence.It won the 2016 Royal Television Society Award for Best Single Drama and was nominated for three BAFTAs. Patel drew on testimonies from those involved with similar real-life incidents and conversations with non-profits working to support survivors of honor-based abuse, including Karma Nirvana.
Speaking to Spotlight about the strengths of TV vs. theater as a medium, Patel said:
“I think with television, there are certain things you can do better than in theater. So, with Murdered By My Father, I’d seen some plays around honor violence, but, for me, the most useful place for that story felt like television because it felt like that’s something lots more people need to understand … That acts as a permanent thing in the world. People can see it. It can find a much broader audience than people who will go see a play.”
Patel seems to be a longtime fan of speculative fiction storytelling.
“I grew up watching shows like Star Trek and Quantum Leap on the edge of my dad’s bed, and I loved how they managed to capture the imagination of a kid like me as well as acting as a moral compass,” said Patel in the Season 11 writers announcement. “I never imagined that I’d get to write for Doctor Who – I was pretty thrilled.”
Also discovered in my research for this article: Patel has two cats named Star and Bickles.
Three words describing his Doctor Who story: “Educational, epic, emotional.”
Check out: Wentworth episode “No Place Like Home”
Pete McTighe gets my award for Best “I Am So Excited to Write For Doctor Who Season 11!” Quote.
“My entire television career has quite literally been an elaborate plan to get to write Doctor Who – and no one is more shocked than me that it paid off,” McTighe said in the press release, which makes me think he had some kind of “crazy wall” hidden on the back of a blackboard in his home office detailing his Master Plan to Write For Doctor Who. I find this idea incredibly endearing.
McTighe went on to say: “I’ve been having the time of my life working with Chris, and writing for Jodie and the new team, and can’t wait for everyone to see what we’ve been up to.”
As you might imagine, McTighe has worked in the Whoniverse before. He has written booklets, sleeve notes, and other materials for DVD releases of Classic Doctor Who episodes. A few days before McTighe’s role as a Season 11 writer was announced, he posted his own sketch promoting a new Fifth Doctor release online. I can only surmise it was previously somewhere on his Master Plan to Write For Doctor Who “crazy wall” display, alongside this photo…
McTighe has a lot of TV-writing experience, most notably he is one of the head writers for Australian female prison drama Wentworthwhere he has written at least three episodes (“Fear Her,” “Hell Bent,” and “The Girl Who Waited”) that appear to be named after Doctor Who episodes? (Is McTighe trolling all of us? Is he himself a time traveler? Discuss.)
Set in a modern prison, the show follows Bea Smith in her early days in prison and her rise to the top of the prison’s hierarchy. The show is still running, with the Season 6 premiere set for 2019. In a 2015 interview with NoWhiteNoise about Wentworth, McTighe had a chance to gush about Doctor Who, saying:
“I’m going to sound like a nutter, and I’m not, probably, but yeah that show is incredibly important to me on, like, a molecular level. It’s the show that made me fall in love with TV, and the show that gave me incentive to read and write and create. The very first story I wrote was aDoctor Who story when I was a kid. It was terrible, but the fact is that show started me writing and led me to where I am today.”
He also noted that Peter Davison is his favorite Doctor because he was his Doctor as a kid, adding: “Davison was a refreshing change. That breathless, urgent quality he brought really upped the stakes.”
Speaking more generally about his style and interests as a writer, McTighe said:
“I like writing about complex characters, whatever the genre. Psychological depth. I guess I’m more drawn to material with an edge to it … I’m also really interested in ideas that have some kind of genre bent; whether that’s supernatural or sci-fi, but those kinds of shows are notoriously difficult to get right. But that’s something I’m working on. I’d love to get a big sci-fi or genre show off the ground. I love tiny characterful stories and I’m attracted to stories that have a scale; as long as there are high stakes, I’m there, with my biscuits and my keyboard.”
Three words describing his Doctor Who story: “Creepy, fun, rollercoaster.”
Playwright and screenwriter Joy Wilkinson is a Screen International Star of Tomorrow and has had two screenplays featured on the Brit List, and she’s proven her mettle through well-received TV projects like Nick Nickleby, a modern adaptation of the Dickens classic, and her work on Land Girls, which follows the lives of four women in the Women’s Land Army during World War II.
Wilkinson’s theater work has garnered her a Verity Bargate Award. Her most recent play, The Sweet Science of Bruising, will have its world premiere this October at London’s Southwark Playhouse. Set in 1869 London, the play follows four very different Victorian women who are drawn into the underground world of female boxing. So… that sounds awesome.
Speaking about her role in Doctor Who Season 11, Wilkinson said: “I loved the show and felt like it might be a good fit for me. But I knew it was really hard to get onto. So quite frankly I’m still pinching myself to be here!”
Three words describing her Doctor Who story: “Dark, funny, squelchy!”
Doctor Who Season 11 will premiere on Sunday, Oct. 7 on BBC America. Head to our hub for more details about the upcoming season. And check out the latest episode of the Reality Bomb podcast to hear me chat more about the writers of Doctor Who Season 11…