Why Doctor Who is tackling mental health on-screen

Exclusive: Chris Chibnall and Mandip Gill explain the central importance of Yaz's mental health storyline to the sci-fi series, which may continue in the upcoming series.

Mandip Gill as Yaz - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 7 - Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

The most recent series of Doctor Who strayed into intriguing new territory, with a storyline (centred in the episode Can You Hear Me?) focusing on the mental health of Yaz (Mandip Gill) and others in the TARDIS team’s orbit.

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Now, Gill and series showrunner Chris Chibnall have revealed just how important they thought that storyline was, and hint that they have plans to continue Yaz’s struggles in the now-filming season 13.

“I think it’s really important, because every family is dealing with something,” head writer Chibnall (who co-wrote the episode with Charlene James) exclusively told Radio Times.

“And I think the responses we get to those stories, a bit like dealing with things like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab in the previous series, the responses we get are amazing. The family audience is the great thing, because you know that families are watching, and you know that families can sit down and discuss them afterwards.””

“Like I do get, it is a sci-fi show, and people watch it for escapism. It’s about an alien,” added Gill, who worked with Chibnall on creating Yaz’s mental health storyline in the early stages.

“But TV has a responsibility to teach people about these issues and allow those who are suffering to see themselves. I think that’s what’s really good about Doctor Who, Chris’ writing but the writers before that too. They are able to mix the two worlds together effortlessly.”

“We want people who are suffering to feel that they are represented, and feel like they can see themselves in these characters, they can see their fears and concerns and joys in these characters,” added Chibnall.

“It feels massively important, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s done it. We’ve been really grateful for all the organisations that we’ve worked with in creating those stories, and the responses they’ve had.”

Chibnall and Gill also noted that Doctor Who’s status as a high-concept sci-fi show allowed for these issues to be tackled in an indirect or metaphorical way, offering a fairly unique opportunity to address issues like mental health without hectoring the audience.

“There is something you can do in Doctor Who that makes it even more resonant, because you’re also dealing with the metaphors,” Chibnall told us.

“So you’re not just dealing with the literal expression of these things, you’re dealing with metaphorical and emotional resonances within them.”

“It doesn’t feel, for me, weird that you’re talking about mental health and then an alien,” Gill added.

“They just go hand in hand together, and probably a big part of why Doctor Who works, because you are able to relate to it to some degree, and then you have that escapism that people will probably need, from real life.”

Writer Chris Chibnall, actors Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Tosin Cole at San Diego Comic-Con 2018 (Getty)
Writer Chris Chibnall, actors Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Tosin Cole at San Diego Comic-Con 2018 (Getty)

Highlighting that in previous decades Doctor Who had dealt with environmental issues, violence, racism and prejudice of different stripes, Chibnall also said that he believes that mental health had to be tackled on the show, or risk the Doctor looking dated to a modern audience.

“It’s really important to keep Doctor Who connected to the time it’s being broadcast in,” he explained. “Because there’s lots of Doctor Who.

“And you want the current Doctor Who to feel like it’s part of the world that its audience lives in. And some people might disagree, but that feels very important to me.”

So what’s next for Doctor Who’s new focus on mental health? Chibnall and Gill weren’t giving too much away, though both hinted that the issue could rear its head again as Yaz continues to travel with Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor (absent the departing Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh) in the next series.

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“This storyline was very important in how we’re revealing Yaz’s character over a long period of time to the audience,” Chibnall told us.

“We started to see Yaz with her mental health storyline,” Gill added. “Now that can sort of be explored a little bit further – there’s room now to explore that. It never probably felt like the right time to do it before. So I’m looking forward to it.”

In other words, Doctor Who’s exploration of mental health may just be beginning – and given that its first real appearance involved magic floating fingers and ancient gods, we can only imagine how they’ll tackle it next time.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks comes to BBC One at 6:45pm on New Year’s Day. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.