Behind the scenes on Jodie Whittaker’s very first Doctor Who episode
The team behind series 11 episode 1, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, reveal how the show came together, from filming locations, set challenges – and a brand new soundtrack and theme music
After months of anticipation Doctor Who series 11 is finally here, with fans around the world eager to see Jodie Whittaker in action as the Thirteenth Doctor.
But for the production staff working on the series the wait has seemed even longer, with the behind the scenes team working for over a year on The Woman Who Fell to Earth while keeping everything a closely guarded secret.
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“It’s quite breathtaking – when you start out on the journey it seems a long way off, and we filmed this before last Christmas,” executive producer Matt Strevens told RadioTimes.com.
Episode director Jamie Childs added, “It’s one of those things where we’ve just been so in it for so long, it’s kind of like you forget about it.
“And all of a sudden it comes round and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what everyone’s doing today – they’re actually watching the work we’ve been doing.”
However, with the work done and the series finally airing on TV, the team are more willing to discuss how they brought this new adventure to life – and the struggles they had getting it filmed in the first place.
Nailing the tone
From the off, new showrunner Chris Chibnall wanted the series to have a different look and feel. However, in an era of ever increasing TV budgets and huge Netflix productions, was the BBC worried about bringing that vision to life?
“That’s the big conversation we had with [director] Jamie, is that we don’t have the Netflix budgets necessarily,” Strevens admitted.
“But people don’t discern and discriminate when they’re watching something, and we just wanted to make sure that it looked as classy and contemporary and fresh as it could be.
“And that is partly to do with [equipment], and partly to do with the provision of Jamie and how we wanted to frame the drama, the lenses we used and everything else.”
“I think that was a big part of it in terms of the look,” agreed Childs.
“But the other thing was just everyone was passionate about trying to keep up that level of quality in the show. I think people put in the extra mileage because of it. So when we lacked in budget we put the love in, and I think that worked.”
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Accordingly, the new series has brought in top-of-the-line new lenses, fiddled with the aspect ratio and brought in visual effects artists DNEG to give the monsters and alien worlds a fresh look. On screen, there's no denying it: it looks like a much slicker Doctor Who.
The first day
“I think for Chris and I the first day for us was the regeneration [from Peter Capaldi],” Jodie Whittaker told RadioTimes.com.
“But then the first day on set of this series and this episode, my first scene was with [Tosin and Mandip].
“And it was incredible just to have this idea of what this job could be and then be experiencing it live and present, and with this company.”
The Woman Who Fell to Earth was shot on location in Cardiff and Sheffield (where the episode is set), and also in the production facilities at Roath Lock Studios. Filming began with challenging night-time shoots for scenes that take place towards the end of the episode.
“Technically it was a big [shoot],” Strevens said of the first few days, which were completed at a location in Cardiff standing in for Sheffield.
“Because a lot of this episode is shot as night, it was quite a gruelling first episode in a way. Lots of split days, lots of night shoots. We put everyone through the wringer I think.”
Showrunner Chris Chibnall said, “We started with something really big. We were outside and it was night, and it was cold, and there were stunts.
“Our first day on set was us going, 'Oh OK. This is Doctor Who, this is big.'"
Director Childs added, “Day one, night shoots in the Welsh rain, in a very awkward location – I can’t tell you what that location is, you guys will have to watch it.”
However, Childs was prepared for the challenge, having already directed Jodie Whittaker’s reveal video (below) just a few months before.
“It was really good to get that, even that little day with a small crew making the reveal,” Childs said.
“It was good to do that in advance – a great way to set it up.”
“I think on the first day of shooting, when you complete your first take you think, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’” Whittaker said.
“When everyone else is working hard and the efforts of the cast and crew pull together – there’s so many bits you don’t know about when you’re watching it.”
Almost everyone who worked on the episode cited the weather as a major issue during filming of the first episode, with unpredictable Welsh rain and freezing night-time temperatures causing a real headache for the cast and crew.
“The Welsh weather was one of the main things,” Childs said. “I mean, that was like a technical challenge.”
“We've had some of the most adverse weather conditions I have known,” cast member Mandip Gill, who plays new companion Yaz in the series, agreed.
“There have been long night shoots that are wet and cold. There are only so many layers you can wear underneath your costume!
“I think that for me – not the nine months, not the long hours we do – it's definitely the cold that’s the worst.”
Co-star Tosin Cole (who plays Ryan in the series) added, “The cold, man – when they say take off your warm coat it's like, 'Uccchhh, why?’
“Why can't we just film in it? Especially when your hand warmers run out!”
But for director Childs (who also worked on other episodes within the series), an even bigger task came in finding a “voice” for the new series.
“I wouldn’t say it was a challenge, but it was part of what was exciting about it,” Childs told RadioTimes.com.
“Each day was new, and we were figuring it out as we went along. Honouring what had been before, and trying to bring something fresh to the table. That was one of the greatest experiences about it.”
Going to Sheffield
As noted, the episode didn’t entirely film in Wales, with much of the action set and shot in the city of Sheffield.For Chris Chibnall, establishing the cinematic nature of the city was crucial to making the episode.
“It feels really important to connect Doctor Who to Sheffield,” he said.
“You’ll see it again during the series. With any new Doctor you want to ground it in home and Sheffield is the home for this series of Doctor Who. I’d lived in the city for a year, I knew how cinematic it was, and how awesome the people were too.
“A load of Sheffield characters felt really fantastic for me. Someone like the character that Jonny [Dixon] plays, Carl, it just gives you a different humour. People saying it as it is.”
However, some scenes set in Sheffield – for example, exterior shots of a police station – were actually filmed in Cardiff, which was just set dressed to look like the Steel City.
Creating a new Doctor
Jodie Whittaker faced a significant challenge in this episode, having to create her new Doctor while filming the story out of sequence – but she said her own confusion actually helped her create the character.
“I think the brilliant thing is you can be quite Method about that because I am actually trying to discover things about [myself] throughout,” she said.
“I feel that it was a really helpful episode for an actor playing a brand new role.
“You can play it how you want and it was fun and playful, and Jamie the director gave me loads of space,” she continued.
“I move a lot and wanted to continually fizz around. I was given that time and coverage and it meant that it was easier for me."
Speaking just before the Doctor Who premiere, she added: “I think the first time you say anything iconic – without giving any spoilers – but I think when you say your character's name, that's quite a moment.
“Because you don't shoot in order, it was pretty early on in the proceedings.”
A new soundtrack for Doctor Who
After the five-week shoot, it was up to new composer Segun Akinola to add the score – and he admitted he was feeling the pressure.
“Trying to just get on with the job and focus on the music, and trying to make it the best that it can be – that was sometimes a challenge,” he told RadioTimes.com.
“Because it’s Doctor Who! And it’s really great, but it’s also a really big deal. But it was always such an amazing challenge, and a wonderful challenge to have.”
Akinola took his inspiration from Whittaker's Doctor and the series’ new characters to create new compositions.
“They’ve mentioned before that this Doctor is all about hope and joy alongside all of the action and the drama and everything. And so my job was to try and create music that was a part of that, but also moved in a new direction, just as the series was,” he explained.
“Our viewpoint across the whole thing was basically that it should be new – but new didn’t mean that it it had to be the opposite of everything that has come before.
“It was really just a blank slate, an opportunity to look and start again at it. There wasn’t anything that I particularly tried to avoid in any grand way. I just tried to make it the best it could be.”
Speaking after the premiere screening of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, new Who boss Chibnall was a little emotional about how it had turned out.
“It exceeds what I thought we could achieve and that’s because of a lot of people in this room,” he told the crowd.
“You never know when you’re writing if you’re going to be getting brilliant people. We did, and I’m so thrilled to introduce them to people.
“And it’s only the start of the journey, so you’ll watch them develop as they go along. Also thanks to the producers, [director] Jamie Childs, who’s a genius I think, [composer] Segun Akinola – everyone on the team.”
“Often when we’re on set, shooting out of sequence, we’re not necessarily looking at what’s on screen,” added Whittaker.
“It’s extraordinary, from our first day of shooting– right in at the deep end for all us – to see this, to hear it, to watch it with Chris and everyone, it’s really emotional. There’s no getting away from it: we are the next season of Doctor Who!”
“I hope it demonstrates everything that you’ve come to love about Doctor Who,” concluded Chibnall.
“There’s fun, there are monsters, there’s action-adventure, there are characters and an amazing new Doctor. I think really turning up every Sunday night for a new adventure is a big thing. These guys go on big emotional journeys across the series.”
From what we’ve seen so far, we’d say it was worth the blood, sweat and tears – and pouring rain.
Doctor Who series 11 episode one airs on BBC1 on Sunday 7th October at 6.45pm