Chibnall told Deadline that Jodie Whittaker’s Tardis-travelling time lord will be thrown into action in a “movie-like” two-part curtain-raiser called Spyfall, which will premiere on BBC One and BBC America on January 1, 2020.
“Episode one is probably the biggest episode of Doctor Who we’ve done, or has been done, I would imagine. Physically, there’s a lot of stunts, there’s a lot of locations, it’s a globe-trotting action thriller,” he said. “But you don’t want to lose sight of character and intimacy and emotion. You can’t do everything at 11.”
Guest-starring Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry, the episode features Whittaker’s Doctor coming to the assistance of British intelligence agencies who are under attack from alien forces. It is written by Chibnall with Jamie Magnus Stone directing.
Asked if audiences expect more from Doctor Who, a BBC institution for more than 56 years, given the increased ambition and budgets of rival fantasy dramas like Netflix series Stranger Things, Chibnall said: “Yes, I think they do.”
But he added: “Doctor Who has a thing that those shows don’t have, which is that we go somewhere new every week. So every week, we’re in a new world, we’re in new locations, we’ve got new guest actors, got a new guest cast, got new monsters, we’ve got a new threat, got a new story. So the incredible thing is Doctor Who has already structured itself like that. Our responsibility is to make sure the production standards are up to scratch.”
Chibnall eschewed two-part stories in his first season in the Doctor Who hot seat last year, but said the new run will play with different narrative structures and have a thread that runs through the entire season. He would not be drawn on details, however, joking that it would be “useless putting it on television” otherwise.
“The success of last year really emboldens you. All that audience we gathered up last year, we’re now going to take them on a journey into the toy box of Doctor Who,” he said.
Chibnall added that he still feels a weight of responsibility looking after the show: “It’s easy to take for granted how loved Doctor Who is around the world and how loved it is in Britain, how important is to the BBC. How important it is to iPlayer – even when the show is off air. It’s got its own space in this world of streaming and on-demand and it’s much more than just linear broadcasting. Look at Netflix and Amazon, who have the back catalog, the importance of it to any number of industrial partners globally is kind of enormous.”
Gosford Park and The Hobbit actor Fry is making his debut in the show having always been a fan. Chibnall said he did not write the part specifically for Fry and approached him for the role more out of hope than expectation. “He said yes straight away. Sometimes it just goes like that,” he recalled.
Whittaker told Deadline she was proud to be starring alongside Fry. She said: “I was really emotional about the fact that he was going to be in ours because he incorporates everything that’s truly brilliant about the world of Doctor Who.
“He’s like someone from another world to me. He’s open-hearted, liberal forward-thinking, and he’s a pacifist in his actions, but not passive. And he’s funny. To us, he’s everything: he’s an actor, philosopher, he’s a writer. In years to come, he’s one of the great minds of our generation and he is in our series.”