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Doctor Who writer Toby Whithouse talks creating deaf characters on television

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BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED

In a season packed with two-part episodes, Doctor Who just concluded a notable one. Thriller “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” sent the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) to an underwater mining facility run by the no-nonsense Cass, played by deaf actress Sophie Stone. At New York Comic Con on Saturday, writer Toby Whithouse (Being Human) told EW that he’s been “delighted” by fans’ response to both Stone and her character.

Whithouse says one thing that viewers loved about Cass was “the fact that she was heroic and she was clever and she was kick-ass, and she was sort of standing up to the Doctor.” The writer says that audiences were “thrilled” not only to see a deaf person associated with those traits, but by “the fact that the deafness becomes incidental after a point. It was lovely,” he says. “I’ve been really really delighted by the response to this character. And it helps also that the actor is so good as well. Sophie Stone is just so fantastic and so wonderful. All credit to her if this changes anything.”

Whithouse began from a point of necessity — he “needed a character who could lip read” — but his idea to make a hearing character good at lip reading was dropped after he remembered a talk that he’d attended at a writing festival. “The topic was diversity in terms of getting deaf and disabled actors and characters into drama,” Whithouse recalls. “There were disabled actors on the panel, and they were saying that it has to be done in a kind of two-pronged way. First, parts have to be written for disabled characters. And the other thing that has to happen is that disabled actors have to be cast in non-disabled parts.”

For Whithouse, well-drawn characters are the key to a scary episode of Doctor Who — and to horror in general. “Jeopardy comes from character,” he says, citing 1979 classic Alien and its “clearly defined” characters as inspiration. And jeopardy seems to follow the Doctor.

The Doctor strikes me as one of those people — we all have those friends who are just the coolest person, and you want to impress them,” Whithouse says. “The spotlight of their friendship, when it lands on you, is like an honor. It makes you step up and it makes you want to be, not necessarily a better person, but it makes you a more foolhardy person … and I think that’s something the Doctor does to people. I think he’s kind of aware of that. There’s that conversation [in “Under the Lake”] where he’s trying, perhaps too late in the day, to get Clara to sort of tone it down a bit, but it’s impossible given their lifestyle.”

Whithouse, who has now written for each of the three most recent incarnations of the Doctor, also discussed how the process changes depending on the actor in the role. “I imagine them as completely different characters,” he says. “Even though obviously they all share certain traits — they are always the smartest person in the room, they will always be the one running towards danger,” there are still “huge differences” between the Doctors. “David [Tennant]’s Doctor would never need those emotional cue cards,” Whithouse says, “because he was a very human Doctor, whereas with Peter, it felt just appropriate for that character. And that’s down to the character that Steven [Moffat, showrunner] created for this regeneration, and also Peter’s performance.”