Ella Watts speaks of her new show Doctor Who: Redacted, the importance of queer inclusivity within media, and the longevity of audio drama.
Ella Watts directed, produced, and co-wrote Doctor Who: Redacted. The new Doctor Who spin-off audio drama exclusive to BBC Sounds.
When we as an audience think of Doctor Who spin-off shows, we may think back to The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA), Class, or for some die-hard fans, even K9 which aired for a season on Channel 5 back in the late noughties.
Yet, a new show has emerged. One entirely told through audio similar to a Big Finish production. One created, directed and produced by Ella Watts, and one, that in my opinion, achieves everything all spin-offs have attempted that until now only SJA had managed.
Speaking exclusively with Cinamore, Ella speaks of her show, how she sought representation in a fandom that didn’t necessarily receive the news of a female Doctor with a warm embrace, and what audiences can expect from her ten-part series.
Telling me how it all began in 2019, Ella spoke of how she had, “heard from one of the commissioners (at BBC Sounds) that Doctor Who wanted to have a podcast but that they had a couple of restrictions on what exactly that podcast could be.
“And so I came into a meeting room and pitched a drama and honestly, I had not been given any warning about the meeting”
In truth, the meeting she had gone into, was the pitch meeting for whether Doctor Who: Redacted or any other podcast under the Doctor Who licence, would ever come to be.
And such, Ella pitched them an idea; one summarised to me as “BuzzFeed Unsolved meets Doctor Who” referring to the YouTube channel of unsolved murders, conspiracy theories, true crime, and the supernatural.
From this, any listener of Doctor Who: Redacted can easily see the points of reference for Ella and how from this one pitch led to the show as it is today.
However, as Ella continued, I could see a passionate twang in her tone. An inflexion that showed her longing for inclusion in mainstream drama, and an empathetic acknowledgement that there needs to be more. It was this hint at her passion for attempting to cry out that I focussed on, as the conversation with the audiophile developed.
“What I thought would be interesting, and what I continue to think is interesting, is that I love sci-fi and fantasy, but I think that it’s often very alienating in particular for working-class communities and people from marginalised backgrounds.
“I came to sci-fi because it represented the kind of edges of the world like I’m Queer, I’m neurodivergent, and I felt safe there.
“On the other hand, I think, especially when we talk about class. Sci-fi fantasy often falls into the trap of creating fantastical metaphors for privilege.
“What was always fantastic about the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who was that he really got that.
“And that Rose isn’t special. She’s just a person. There isn’t anything about her life that suddenly becomes easier because she’s a character in Doctor Who, and if anything, her superpower is that she’s a normal person.
“So what I felt, was that even though I’ve enjoyed a lot of the spin-off stuff since the New Who revival, I personally, as a fan felt like I hadn’t really seen spin-off material that resonated with me in terms of just being about normal people again, and just people who struggled and messed up, and found life hard, and stuff wasn’t always easy.”
In fact, focusing on normal people, who struggle, mess up and consequently have their own vices, is where the show finds its success with character moments becoming paramount as science fiction takes a back seat.
“What if we just had some just regular idiots and they live off-camera in the Doctor Who universe?”
But this is what is so interesting about Doctor Who: Redacted. Rarely do we see random people, from a place of working-class, become engrossed in a story where their lives become greater than the universe ending plot.
“They’re the extras. No one cares about them. No one ever pays attention to the crowd who’s running away from the Robot Santas because all we’re focused on is the Doctor, but actually, all of those people experienced something that affected their lives too.”
“What made me excited about it originally was the idea of making a story that made people feel like they were allowed to be in Doctor Who, and also that didn’t alienate or disappoint you or make you feel like: ‘Oh, I’ve related to this character but suddenly their life is so much easier in a way that mine has never been and probably will never be’ because I think that can be really painful.”
“You can just be a person and being a person who tries to be kind and brave in real life in your day-to-day existence is heroic in and of itself.”
Her dedication, and focus on creating a show that welcomes, includes, and most importantly understands its audience is a testament to Ella Watts as producer and director.
In fact, in the realm of Doctor Who, returning showrunner Russell T. Davies agrees, having found huge success with Channel 4 show It’s A Sin.
“I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are not there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020.
“You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places,” Davies said exclusively to Radio Times.
Gay coding, queer baiting and the disappointing trope of burying your gays are all too present in media, and yet thankfully, entirely omniscient from Doctor Who: Redacted despite appearing recently in the main BBC serial.
Further, Ella’s decision to invite award-winning writer Juno Dawson to take the helm of the show solidifies how she wanted an authentic story told by someone who has lived those experiences.
Perhaps this is why Ella Watts herself is so authentic in how she presents.
Despite all the hardships that come with being a woman in the media industry, and in a world built to alienate both neurodivergent people and those who are queer, I found myself at ease talking with Ella.
As if reuniting with a friend, sat adjacent over a coffee listening to her verbose tales.
Similarly, her knowledge of the industry, and how she wants her content to favour those with lived experience shows an acutely developed maturity that many in the entertainment industry to this day still lack.
“I feel very strongly that the people who are going to write the best, most interesting and most well-informed stories about people from a certain community are going to be the people from that community.”
Doctor Who: Redacted notably becomes the first in its 59-year history that a transwoman, Charlie Craggs, stars as the lead character of a Doctor Who story.
In truth, Charlie becomes the second trans actor in Doctor Who since its rebirth in 2005, following Bethany Black, who insultingly was cast as low intelligent Grunt, 474 in episode Sleep No More.
Rather, Charlie, under the penmanship of Dawson, instead showcases an experience of what a working-class trans woman would go through under the fictional world-building of Doctor Who.
“Because of the transgender themes of us having a female Doctor now, and the way that’s referenced in the TV show, it would be really nice if we actually have a trans character written by a trans writer,” confirmed Ella.
“One of the things that was important to me was ensuring that we had working-class writers and queer writers and trans writers in our writers’ room.”
This cannot be faltered at all.
The way in which Cleo, Abby and Shawna become fully realised in under twenty-minute chunks shows the weight of the simplicity of great, concise storytelling.
However, as Ella explained to me, the initial plan to give personality to these characters looked different to the end result.
“Originally the idea was to make each of them a main character. So we were going to have three episodes about Abby, three episodes about Shawna, and three episodes about Cleo with one episode of them all together.
“Part of the reason for that was that we wanted to get away from London, which is part of why Shawna is in Sheffield and then Abby is in Glasgow.
“We also thought it would be really funny if the people who lived in cities where the Doctor actually was, specifically Sheffield and London, didn’t believe the Doctor was real and the person who lived in a city that the Doctor almost never goes to (Glasgow), is the one who’s like ‘Oh the Doctor is definitely real’.
“But what we realised over the course of the series development was, there wasn’t enough time to give everyone the emotional arcs that they needed.”
Yet, I would argue that at the point of writing this interview, three episodes into the ten-part series, I emotionally resonated with these three characters more than I do about Yasmin Khan, the current companion who has been in the show for the past four years.
The result of which is in Charlie Craggs’ performance as Cleo Proctor.
“Of everyone in the pilot, the only one who’s actually come across to the main show is Charlie Craggs.”
As both Ella Watts, and Russell T. Davies share opinions, the best stories come from those with lived experience, and that is especially true in Charlie Craggs’ debut performance as Cleo.
“When we were casting for the pilot, I was looking at a lot of different trans actors, and Juno was like: ‘I’m going to be real with you Ella, this character is a working-class trans woman who grew up on a council estate. And I based her on the working-class trans woman I know who grew up in a council estate, and I think that since I have literally just used Charlie’s voice, we should probably ask Charlie if she wants to do it.’
“So we asked her to audition and she was brilliant and we had her in the pilot and she was fantastic.
“Then based on that, me, the executive producer, James (Robinson), Juno, and then also all the writers in our writer’s room agreed that Charlie just has such a distinctive character and voice that we really wanted to make the story about her and about Cleo’s journey”
But also, as Ella Watts explained, making Cleo the lead of the three, opened itself up to an interesting opportunity.
“There was also this idea that Abby is the classic hero type. She’s very Type-A. She’s very ambitious. She’s really smart. She’s very researched. She’s really driven. And then Shawna is the anti-hero type, very sceptical, very cynical, very ‘I’ve given up on my faith in humanity’, a bit of a misanthrope.
“Then, we thought it would be fun to subvert things a bit and make the main character (Cleo) the class clown because I always love class clown characters.
“In drama, obviously they’re always secondary and there’s a reason for that, but I just really liked the idea that the one that you don’t assume is going to be the hero is actually the one that the story revolves around and she falls arse over tit into a story but then she rises to.”
Curiously, something Ella Watts mentioned to me at this point became the focal point of a follow-up question.
“Doctor Who: Redacted isn’t just for Doctor Who fans”
Comparing Doctor Who: Redacted with a similar full-cast audio drama by Big Finish may be an autonomous response, however, the two serve different purposes, assures Ella.
“One of the things that Big Finish does amazingly well is really reward fan engagement and fans who know their Who, especially Classic Who, but also New Who and more niche characters and really specific details of canon and that kind of thing.”
“The Doctor Who brand and BBC Sounds didn’t want something that was for Doctor Who mega fans, because they feel that Doctor Who mega fans get a lot of content from Big Finish, from the Doctor Who Magazine, from the books, from comics and so on.”
“Even like stuff like Time Fracture and the escape room, what (Doctor Who and BBC Sounds) wanted was to make something that would actually be a way in for people who might look at the TV show and be like, ‘Oh I can see a spaceship, so I’m not going to even try because it’s a sci-fi and I assume I won’t like it.'”
Instead, by shifting the show’s demographic towards working-class women, and with the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ themes, the show becomes a refreshing spin on the franchise.
Ella proposed instead, “what if we made a more kind of pop culture-y Radio One-y young, funny, silly show that would invite people in and then we’d slowly bring in the sci-fi stuff and not overwhelm them with aliens and robots to start with, though of course would get there pretty quickly.”
“Big Finish is designed to reward Doctor Who fans and it does it very well. And I would never even try to compete with them on that. But Doctor Who: Redacted is designed (to be) free, it’s available internationally.
“You don’t buy it, you don’t pay for it. It’s supposed to be a way for people to come into Doctor Who and then hopefully go from Redacted into Big Finish.”
Speaking more on Doctor Who dramas as produced by Big Finish, it is clear that Ella Watts before coming onto this project has been an avid viewer since the show returned, knowing and referencing tidbits that casual viewers may have otherwise missed.
“I got sent the official TARDIS materialisation and dematerialisation sound files. And as someone who’s been a fan of Doctor Who since I was 11, I felt like it was Holy – I’m not sure I’m allowed to have these files on my laptop.”
Though as Ella continues, “Part of the reason it took so long is that another slight difference between us and Big Finish is that Doctor Who: Redacted is theoretically taking place in the current canon timeline.
“So I don’t want to mislead people or anything. We’re not going to tie into the TV show directly.”
“What that meant behind the scenes was that there was quite a lot of negotiating with Doctor Who stakeholders.
“There was some discussion within the wider Doctor Who brand and specifically with people like Vanessa Hamilton and Gabby De Matteis.
“Vanessa runs the international business for the Doctor Who brand and Gabby runs the editorial for all Doctor Who spin-offs. So she is the person behind stuff, like Time Fracture, stuff like the comics stuff, like the novels.
“And they both really liked the podcast. And so they really championed it within Doctor Who.”
However, despite facing pushbacks the show was paused until earlier this year when both Vanessa and Gabby fought for the show to be greenlit once more.
“This show wouldn’t have been made without Vanessa and Gabby’s support.”
However, with the project paused for so long, reigniting it months ago created its own set of problems for Ella to navigate.
“I found out that we were going to be making Redacted in January this year, and then we had to record it in February, and release it in April because the idea was that we had to release off the back of Easter special so they could give us that TV shout out and so the people knew we were there.”
“So I had two weeks to cast, we had to book the studio and obviously the sound design and audio recording can be really complex. But yes, happily, like it does actually exist now, which is good. And so far we are on schedule. Touch wood.”
To turn this show around in such a short time is phenomenal, especially when a high-billing cast like Jodie Whittaker, Jemma Redgrave, Anjli Mohindra and Ingrid Oliver star alongside Charlie Craggs, Lois Chimimba, Holly Quin-Ankrah, and Jacob Hawley with cameo appearances from actors of episodes gone-by including Kieran Hodgson who previously appeared in series three episode, Smith and Jones.
Speaking of Jodie’s appearance in the series as the Doctor, Ella Watts said, “We knew that by the time that we got around to actually recording Jodie was out of contract as the Doctor on the TV show, so what happened was Juno wrote Jodie a letter being like, ‘Listen, it would be really meaningful. We know that you’re going to be getting loads of offers. We know that you might want to take a break from the character, but it would be so meaningful to us for you to be in the show, please, could you do it?”
“I still remember, when I first saw the trailer for Jodie as the Doctor, I actually cried. I was like, holy shit, I’m the Doctor, like women, we can be the Doctor too.”
“And she immediately agreed. And like her only caveat was: ‘Please can I make sure I get to do the school run before we do the recording?'”
“She turned up (and was) genuinely one of the nicest actors I’ve ever met. Who, in our break was talking about how Queer people and trans people have always been here, and how it’s ridiculous how people pretend as if trans people have just appeared.
“She was just this wonderful, passionate person, and just really like down to Earth and fun and funny and modest.
“Also every single time you give her any directions, her next take is just…you’ve got shivers.”
“I went from watching Doctor Who when I was 11 to writing 200,000 words of Doctor Who fan fiction, like across my teenage years, to being 28 years old having written for the Doctor, directing the Doctor and recording the Doctor as the Doctor. That was just such a big moment for me personally.”
What is even more special was, as Ella recalled, her first day walking into BBC Broadcasting House in 2018.
The first thing she saw as she entered her new job at the BBC was a cardboard cut-out of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor with the caption “It’s about time” straight from the promotional teaser where Jodie stands proudly for the first time as the Doctor as the glass ceiling around her shatters, flooding her in amber light.
It really was about time a female (Doctor) shattered the glass ceiling.
“And you know what, for all of the recession that the Thirteenth Doctor seasons have had, I don’t think anyone can fault Jodie for giving an incredible performance as the Doctor.
“I still remember, when I first saw the trailer for Jodie as the Doctor, I actually cried. I was like, holy shit, I’m the Doctor, like women, we can be the Doctor too.”
As much as it was time for the Doctor to be a woman, shattering the patriarchal glass ceiling, it’s about time a story like Redacted was made.
“I’m very strongly of the opinion that if you want to make a piece of art, you need to consume as much of that art as possible because that’s how you learn how to make that piece of art.”
One thing many may not know about the talented director, writer and producer is her career began similar to my own, as a critic.
Ella Watts discovered audio drama, and in partnership with her autism, became, and remains one of her core special interests.
“I am very proud to say, and will say to anyone, that I was one of the first people who started listening to Welcome to Night Vale.”
From this, we deviated and exchanged stories of podcasts we both listened to, from My Brother, My Brother and Me starring the McElroy Brothers, for whom Ella has previously interviewed Travis McElroy, to Critical Role, wherein we swapped tabletop role-playing stories set within the Dungeons and Dragons realm – another of our collective special interests.
But, more interestingly, as Ella Watts grew and matured her interests, she developed a special key eye for audio dramas.
“As the way that goes, I then consumed an unlikely amount of audio drama very quickly. And so by 2018, when I was hired to work for BBC Sounds I’d listened to over 300 audio dramas and I’d been listening to so many and getting so excited about them, that I’d started talking about them online.”
It was this that inspired her Master’s degree, where she was the only student interested in dramas in a class of documentarians.
“I became everyone’s favourite student by volunteering to do an additional lecture that I just wanted to give my classmates for half an hour on drama podcasts. And I made a 15-minute presentation with a PowerPoint and everything.
“Then basically off the back of that, I told Jason Phipps who was then the commissioner of Sounds, and who was about to launch Sounds in 2018, that I’d made this PowerPoint whilst I was very drunk at a pub yelling at him about Brian Friel’s play Translations.
“He was like: ‘Oh, do you want me to pay you to give that presentation to the BBC, and then my career took off from there.”
Most interestingly though, was how Ella Watts spoke lovingly, about the history of audio drama, igniting a flame within me and making me see the weight and passion she cares about with her daily.
“It’s so difficult to love something this much and not want to be part of it.”
I know all too well the difference in how I speak about a topic that’s my special interest compared to one that isn’t, and in seeing her shift with glee, I had definitely struck upon her’s.
“The thing that’s worth noticing here in terms of going from critic to producer is that, unlike film, a lot of the radio drama that we had from the 20th Century has been destroyed.
“So even though radio drama has been around in the United States since 1921 and in the UK since 1923, a lot of scripts and recordings and tapes like vinyl records have literally just been destroyed.
“And the only way that we know that they exist is from articles and columns and newspapers like the Radio Times.
“That includes series that went for 20 years, series that had multiple seasons, series that were listened to by everyone in the country.
“Interestingly, one of the reasons that they were destroyed, is, that a lot of these series, in the UK at least, were written by working-class women.
“And they weren’t seen as worth preserving in the same way that one standalone drama in the afternoon on Radio Four written by a man was.
“There was a big amount of misogyny and classism in that.
“But what it means is that for radio drama critics, we don’t have a corpus to build from. So we can’t identify aesthetics and motifs because up until the podcast explosion, we just didn’t have that much material to work from.”
“And we knew that the material we had was atypical. It wasn’t the stuff being consumed by everyone. It wasn’t the stuff informing everyone. (The material we had) was standalone experimental radio plays that got broadcast once.
“And that’s not the same as identifying a trend or movement in a period of time. And so even though there are many books about The Golden Age of Radio Drama in the 1930s and 1940s. In terms of a critical apparatus that a critic writing now can apply to podcast drama, there’s really just not that much.”
Her attention to detail, knowledge and absorption is unquestionable. And yet, many listeners of Redacted, wouldn’t know about the drive that got Ella into her position.
And so, in a way to encourage the ignited torch to pass from Ella to any reader, I asked her for recommendations of audio shows to listen to, in the hopes that it could inspire the next Ella Watts.
The Silt Verses
“The Silt Verse is the American Gods if Neil Gaiman wasn’t a coward.
“An alternate reality where Gods can be created by anyone and anything. And that means that companies create Gods and kill Gods in order to market their products. So we have the St Electric who is the God of electricity, and we have The Daily Grind, which is the God of coffee. But also if you become a Saint of the Saint electric, then your body is permanently twisted and malformed into an awful terrifying shape that is now immortal and hungers for human flesh.
“It’s a very monstrous body horror kind of podcast, but it’s also a beautiful drama about class, about alienation and about our relationship with the divine and how often in reaction to religion, individual people will create their own relationship with divinity, that isn’t necessarily what’s actually in the text of their religion.
“It’s made by two people, one person who grew up as a Muslim woman and one person who grew up in a Christian background, and it’s a really beautiful drama.
“It’s also incredibly queer. The main characters are an asexual woman and a trans man. And it’s just so good.”
“It’s an acid jazz science fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic frontier. It is also, as the creators describe it, a financial thriller that is about a dystopian society, which is in no way, akin to the historical Christian empires in which your financial solvency is literally the same as your virtue.
“So if you have money, you are good, you have valour and if you have debt, then you have caenum and you’re sinful.
“It just so happens that the richest people in the society are also the best people in the society. Midst opens with the moon falling out of the sky and is a brilliant gripping audio drama mystery that I personally am completely obsessed with.”
“Midnight Burger is the closest thing that I found to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“The premise is that everything in the universe always changes. That’s the law of the universe, is entropy except for this one diner.
“And as a result, the universe hates it. The universe is constantly trying to get rid of this diner. And as it does, the diner travels across time, space and dimensions, it is staffed by two gifted scientists, one, a nuclear physicist, and the other an engineer, two regular waiters and a totally normal old fashioned radio that exclusively plays American Country Christian music.
And they just so happened to occasionally you know be on Mars. It’s a wonderful, beautiful drama. And if you like Doctor Who then you’ll like Midnight Burger.”
“Primordial Deep is from a really gifted writer, director and actor called Jordan Cobb who’s based in New York and essentially it’s Jurassic Park, but 40,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring a black woman.”
Returning back to Doctor Who: Redacted though, I conclude our talk with what to expect for the show, and Ella’s career going forward as she looks for her next fantasy audio adventure.
“All three of them are going to go on a journey, their relationships towards each other and towards other characters are going to change across the course of the series.”
“I think you can expect us to move away a little bit from the podcast format as we build more into Cleo, Shawna and Abby’s story and it Ella becomes more real for them.”
This is certainly true from the narrative redirection taken in episode three, with specifically Cleo beginning to face immediate repercussions for her involvement with the Doctor.
“It’s become more real and more immediate.
“It’s going to get really big. Starts off fairly limited to them and it’s going to get bigger.”
Looking further than the series though, Ella Watts revealed her new position at Six to Start working on the post-apocalypse fitness app, Zombie Run, though confirmed she would remain involved with Redacted during the remaining episodes and further should the show receive a sequel.
“There’s a little bit more work to do on Doctor Who: Redacted and I’ll keep doing that. ‘Cause, it’s my show. I created it, but I’m also possibly going to be working on some other stuff for BBC Studios that I can’t really say anything about yet, but what I will say, this is a bit cheeky, but I’ll say one of them is very much revolving around role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons.”
And one final teaser Ella Watts gave me was a synopsis of the entire ten episodes summarised into ten words.
“Women forget disappearances. Spies question aliens. Grieving ghosts save her.”
Personally, with a show that proves in each episode that it grows with emotion, care and understanding, I am delighted to have spent time with Ella.
Seeing an autistic, former critic turned creative, projected back to me, as if a forecast of my own desires, fuelled me with affirmation and adoration.
Ella Watts is undoubtedly a seasoned creative. One who has tirelessly exerted herself to be where she is.
The art of masking her autism, whilst dealing with systemic misogyny within the audio industry exemplifies her character. Though the hardships that got her there, shaped, moulded, and allowed her to become the strong, proud woman that she is today.
A quote Ella Watts shared with me during our time together, by Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor that rang true for her, is one that comes to mind now as I write up our time together.
“I carry them with me,” the Doctor begins, referring to her family she built over the many years, “…what they would have thought and said and done, made them a part of who I am. So even though they’re gone from the world, they’re never gone from me.”
Her characters, Cleo, Abby, Shawna and all the others that populate her world will always be with her going forward. She has joined the legacy of those she looked up to and proves to those around her that dreams can be accomplished and that everyone has the power to be heroic.
She sought to create an accessible inclusive window into the Doctor Who world, one that has thus far been populated with cis-straight narratives, and I cannot commend her enough for it, especially when it was achieved immediately in episode one, and the show continues each week as a phenomenal piece of audio art.
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