Toby Whithouse recalls the alien invasion stories he's written for Doctor Who, and the kind of invasion he dreamt of as a child...[Published in The Essential Doctor Who Issue 9 INVASIONS OF EARTH (Panini UK Ltd, October 2016), pp. 93-95. Posted here by kind permission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]
Toby is quoting, from memory, Jeff Wayne's musical retelling of the HG Wells classic The War of the Worlds, first released as a double album in 1978. “And that was the last line on side one,” he remembers. “I was absolutely thrilled when I first heard that as a kid. And I stole it for an episode of [his supernatural fantasy series] Being Human, where the world belongs to the vampires...”
We're discussing what makes a good invasion. The first one seen in Doctor Who is The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964). “What's so clever about that is the iconic images,” says Toby, “the Daleks on Westminster Bridge, in front of the Houses of Parliament. It reminds me of those pictures of Hitler standing in front of the Eiffel Tower – that chilling mixture of the utterly malevolent with the utterly familiar: places we recognise, that we've been to.”
But while many invasion stories are told on a broad canvas, with monsters in front of famous landmarks and TV new reports from round the world, Toby's tales for Doctor Who are often on a much smaller scale. It's true of his other work, too. Last year he told BBC Writers Room that what links Being Human to his cold war thriller The Game is that they're both about “conflict that's taking place just out of sight.”
“Yes,” he says. “As I've said before, when I was growing up, the Doctor Who stories I really responded to were the ones taking place in our world – but in secret. More so than battles taking place on other planets or in another time, they felt tangible, within reach, and so more enticing as I sat through boring lessons at school.”
In Toby's first Doctor Who story, School Reunion (2006), the alien Krillitane seek to conquer not just the Earth but all of time and space by feeding school children special chips. “We started with a different idea, about a village next to an army base where strange things are happening,” says Toby. “But then [executive producer] Russell T Davies said, 'No, let's set it in a school.' It was getting back to that notion that children going into school the following Monday would look at their teachers in a slightly different way. That's how imagination is triggered. As I said, I found school breathtakingly boring and would disappear into these fantasy worlds. So it was addressing that head on: 'This could be happening just yards away from where you're sitting in your geography lesson...'”
So did Toby spend his childhood waiting for Earth to be invaded? “Hoping and praying for it,” he says. So School Reunion was about making the ordinary world more interesting and rich for the next generation of bored kids at school? “Absolutely, yes.”
Though faturing aliens, School Reunion is grounded in details from the real world at the time the episode was made. The Doctor shows off his historical knowledge by referring to “Happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones”, and the Krillitane plot involving chips is a neat reversal of the much publicised campaign by chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals. “Yes, that was all very current at the time. Jamie's School Dinners had just been on TV, there was lots of stuff in the news about what was really in Turkey Twizzlers, so we were right on the cutting edge of the zeitgeist.” And it made the Krillitane invasion more real? “Yeah, more relateable.”
Greeks Bearing Gifts, Toby's 2006 episode of the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood, sees another alien with sinister designs on contemporary Earth. But the real horror in the story is not the alien Mary (Daniela Denby-Ashe) but being able to hear people's unguarded thoughts. “That was an interesting proposition,” says Toby. “Our civilisation is very fragile, and one thing holding it intact is that that we can't hear what we're thinking about each other. It's sort of the opposite of an invasion: it's again about what's already here.”
Toby returned to Doctor Who for the 2010 episode The Vampires of Venice. Why pick Venice of all places as the site of an alien invasion? “The way that [current executive producer] Steven Moffat and I tend to work is that he gives me a short brief, even a couple of lines, and then we spin the idea out from that. What he wanted for this episode was a big romantic romp. It's the first episode with [companions] Amy and Rory as a couple having an adventure, so it was an important staging post in their relationship, and in their relationship with the Doctor – that three-way dynamic.
“So the brief was to set it somewhere romantic. Apart from being my favourite city in the world, Venice is famously romantic so I suggested that. Venice is a city on the sea so it seemed logical that the creatures that would be attracted to it would be some kind of fish creature, and we went from there. Then it was a question of working out the characters, their needs and desires.”
So is the first step in a story working out why the monsters are invading Earth? “Yes, always. For example, with [the 2012 episode] A Town Called Mercy, the brief from Steven was that he wanted a Wild West episode. He had half an idea of this town with a robot outside it, circling round and keeping everyone prisoner. So the first question was why: what's in the town that it wants? The moment I started exploring it from that point of view, the story fell into place. Finding out the desire and motivation of the antagonist – and protagonist – normally unlocks the story.”
But you're also looking for stories that haven't been done before in Doctor Who, so part of the job is to find new reasons to invade Earth. “Yes,” Toby agrees. “The thing is, inevitably there'll be some repetition because in 50 years of Doctor Who most motivations have been explored at some stage. But my approach, whether I'm writing Doctor Who, Being Human, The Game or No Angels, is to work out the characters before I even give a moment's thought to the story. The story comes from them.”
Toby's most recent episodes to date are the two-part Under the Lake and Before the Flood from 2015. “That was a combination of two different ideas,” he says, “which is normally how the best stories happen. Again, Steven and I talked about what we would do and he suggested ghosts – a science-fiction ghost story. That was quite exciting. Then I suggested something I'd had in mind for a while, this notion of a monster living inside language, contained within a sequence of words. Steven really liked that idea so we put the two together. But yes, it's like a disease or virus that is caught and passed on very easily. It's not really been done before in Doctor Who: the Earth invaded by disease.
“I've always enjoyed the chamber piece ones,” Toby continues. “The enclosed, claustrophobic spaces. I guess that comes from haunted house stories, which I really like.”
So he wouldn't feel happy writing something on a grander scale for Doctor Who – a full-scale invasion?
“No, of course I'd love to do that!” he says. “And I've done it a bit with Being Human. Oh, that would be an absolute treat.”
Included in the 2015 series of Doctor Who was Face the Raven, the first episode to be written by Sarah Dollard – a protégé of Toby's.
“Oh, I wouldn't call her that!” he says, laughing. “Sarah wrote for two of my shows – Being Human and The Game – and she's an extraordinary writer. She also a very good mate. I recommended her for Doctor Who but after that my work was done: it was up to her. And she knocked it out of the park with her first episode. She's an extraordinary talent and it's wonderful to see her getting the success she deserves. Of course, she'll now probably be too busy to work on any of my shows ever again. I probably can't even afford her. No, I'm dead to her now,” he concludes, satirically.
Toby agrees that, like this own stories, Face the Raven is an example of conflict taking place just out of sight, with the characters confined in a relatively small location. “Yes, and what a fantastic idea, the notion of these trap streets. As Steven has said, the moment she pitched it to him he thought, 'Why on Earth haven't we done that before?' It's the perfect Doctor Who idea. It was brilliant.”