Doctor Who’s Best Episodes: The Chris Chibnall Era
Now that it's drawn to a close, we celebrate the high points of the latest era of Doctor Who, feat. Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Sacha Dhawan and more!
Warning: contains spoilers for Series 11, 12, Doctor Who: Flux and the 2022 Specials.
The mere mention of ex-showrunner Chris Chibnall is enough to trigger rage in some Doctor Who fans, and for a variety of reasons. There are the souls who cling to a past that is widely commercially available, and rant about ‘wokeness’. Whatever they need to help them, it almost certainly won’t be found here. Then there are those who find issue with Chibnall’s writing of the show beyond its entertainment value. And finally, there are the people who enjoy this version of Doctor Who and are furious at the level of abuse hurled at it. (For transparency’s sake, I’m in the second group.) Given that we’ve already discussed the shortcomings of the Chibnall era here and here, let’s now look at what has worked over the past three series of Doctor Who.
Series 11 injected some freshness by moving out of London and avoiding returning monsters. Once the focus moved away from Ryan and Graham’s relationship, the hope was that Series 12 would develop the Doctor and Yaz. The real turning point for the Chibnall era though, came at the end of ‘Spyfall: Part One’. The Master’s return announced a story arc heavy with lore, and the Doctor defined by shutting herself off and not talking about her thoughts and feelings.
Incredibly, the Doctor would never fully open up to Yaz (she leaves apparently unaware of the whole Timeless Child thing) before sending her off to a self-help group with a carrot juice fanatic. The Timeless Child storyline pulled focus away from the era’s more successful standalone episodes.
As ever with these articles, the time and context of writing influences choices. Time may not improve some stories, but it – and the behind-the-scenes production stories still to emerge – will yield greater understanding of why they ended up the way they did.
10. Can You Hear Me? (Series 12, Episode 7, 2020)
Written by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall. Directed by Emma Sullivan.
This episode feels like a microcosm of Chibnall’s time as showrunner: there are good ideas, the settings are interesting, there’s a story based around contemporary issues (in this case mental health), and there’s clearly something to work with, but then a bunch of lore wades in and the exposition is like a handbrake on the story. There’s a good twist in the plot regarding the prisoner stuck between colliding planets, but the audience realise this long before the Doctor, and Jodie Whittaker is stuck with dialogue that makes her character seem very slow on the uptake.
It’s a shame, because there are moments here where Whittaker shows what she can do with the role, such as the excited smile she gives when she announces the planets colliding as a cataclysmic event – a little moment of the alien showing through. We also have the best scare of the Chibnall era: someone telling their child there’s no such thing as the bogeyman, followed by a deeply sinister figure appearing in their bedroom to announce that she’s completely wrong.
Issues-based episodes like this aren’t intrinsically bad, but they can rub people up the wrong way. It’s not that Doctor Who isn’t political or hasn’t been before, it’s the means of communicating the ideas: a blunt speech, barely disguised exposition (‘Rosa’ and ‘Orphan 55’ end with scenes likes this). It’s not that the cause is unjust, but its expression could be more elegant.
The real strengths of ‘Can You Hear Me?’ lie in being scary and strange. The antagonists invading dreams with detachable fingers is such a delightfully weird, unsettling image that (no pun intended) sticks in your mind. Using a Doctor Who villain as a pretext for looking at mental health, and how it affects so many people, is also a good way of laying foundations for character development (though ultimately, only Ryan and the Doctor’s experiences here would be built on: Ryan leaving the TARDIS due to his fears over the planet and his friends, and the Doctor walking away from another chance to open up).
9. Kerblam! (Series 11, Episode 7, 2018)
Written by Pete McTighe. Directed by Jennifer Perrott.
Pete McTighe uses the audience’s expectations of a Doctor Who story for an unexpected twist here, which first means that he’s able to write a solid story using a lot of the series’ tropes. He clearly knows the show, and indeed most of the episode feels like it’d fit in to one of Russell T. Davies’ series (the Kerblam Man robots evoke the Host and Santa robots from RTD Christmas specials). The characters are well sketched out, trusting the actors to bring them to life (casting Lee Mack as a guy who is quite like Lee Mack but in space is a very sensible choice), and splitting up the regulars helps to define them. The idea of killer bubble wrap is, it has to be said, absolute genius. There are so many things about this story that work.
Ultimately, though, they work in order to be subverted. Morally this episode is – at best – deeply cynical. The Doctor overlooks the murder of an innocent person (saying “The systems aren’t the problem” when said systems are responsible for the murder, also claiming the systems “have a conscience”) and the implication that the new regime will still treat employees poorly (giving the survivors two weeks’ paid leave while shutting the company down for a month). On rewatch, the twist obviously has less power, and the villain’s motivation seems implausibly psychopathic. Having done such good character work to set up the reveal, there isn’t a convincing explanation for why they’re going to such lengths. So why is this in a Top 10 of the era?
Because the Chibnall era is consistently bleak, cynical and cruel in its outlook. Corpses are mutilated, galaxies and planets burn unmourned. The human race is almost totally wiped out by the Cybermen due to the Doctor’s actions. Most of the universe is destroyed. The billions of children on Gallifrey die. There is no reset switch. Everyone who complained about death in Doctor Who not sticking: here you go, here’s what it looks like. The triumph of brute force and cynicism over intellect and romance.
‘Kerblam!’ is is both representative of its era and a morally dubious romp, but for the most part it is a well-written morally dubious romp.
8.5 The Power of the Doctor (BBC Centenary Special, 2022)
Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.
Series finales in this period have not, as a whole, been a strongpoint, and despite ‘The Power of the Doctor’ being a lot of fun, it barely functions as an end to its era. Its positives and negatives are representative of the period, and its strength and weaknesses recur in this discussion (Yaz being more capable without the Doctor – which you’d think would play into her leaving scene, the flinging of seemingly disconnected ideas on the screen, and the way the episode is pretty good fun as long as you don’t think about it for too long).
In terms of having a big ol’ knees up for continuity buffs, ‘The Power of the Doctor’ is a blast. So, top marks for the BBC centenary special aspect, but in terms of tying up the previous three series, it didn’t (remarkable, considering how much there was still to unpack). Still, it’s good to see Whittaker’s Doctor actually reverse some of the damage done in the episode (it’s not quite an “I am the Doctor” moment but it’s not exactly a given considering that most of the universe got disintegrated) and the whole Boney M sequence is a delight. There’s a good regeneration scene too, if a somewhat perfunctory cause. Though, for an episode called ‘The Power of the Doctor’ Sacha Dhawan’s varied and entertaining performance absolutely steals the show.
8. War of the Sontarans (Series 13, Episode 2, 2021)
Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.
Given Tim Shaw and that furious Cyberman guy, it was reasonable to expect Chris Chibnall’s take on the Sontarans to lean towards gritted teeth and ultraviolence, and away from the comedy of the Moffat era’s Strax and Paternoster Gang. To have the Sontaran General (played by Jonathan Watson, the Scottish actor, impressionist and Hogmanay fixture) state that the reason they travelled back in time to the Crimea is because he wanted to ride a horse… it’s just lovely. It doesn’t make sense when you think about it too long (see also: most of the rest of the episode) but it’s delightfully unexpected. Chibnall does also do the expected slaughter in his Sontaran story, but at least manages to show the emotional fallout on General Logan (Gerald Kyd). As a Sontaran story this is largely entertaining, best taken as a semi-historical adventure rather than treated too seriously.
Something it confirms is that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor comes alive when separated from her companions. Her best scenes all seem to be with guest stars and this is no exception, she’s very comfortable in the role here and lifts the exposition scene where she has to explain Sontaran weaknesses to Mary Seacole and General Logan. Sara Powell imbues the supporting role of Seacole with personality, which grounds her in a real world (albeit one with an alien invasion rather than the actual Crimean War).
7. Eve of the Daleks (New Year Special, 2022)
Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Annetta Laufer.
There’s a satisfying incongruity in seeing the Daleks in a storage facility in Manchester. This story was written and filmed under COVID restrictions, and uses those to its advantage: Sarah runs said storage facility, Nick is a walking Red Flag who turns up every New Year’s Eve to see Sarah. The Doctor, Yaz and Dan arrive and the Daleks are after them (apparently due to what happens at the end of ‘Flux’). Essentially it’s a base-under-siege located somewhere mundane, with Chibnall providing a temporary solution to the question ‘Why don’t the Daleks just shoot the Doctor?’ As a festive episode, it does a bit of everything, and does some of it very well.
The most successful part of a Dalek story is when there’s something personal at stake with their attacks, such as in previous special ‘Resolution’ when one has taken Charlotte Ritchie’s Lin over and we see her struggle. ‘Eve of the Daleks’ manages to maintain this for longer: Nick and Sarah find the Daleks genuinely uncanny and terrifying, and the threat of death is initially clearly unsettling for them. When this threatens to become a bit rote, the tension builds back up towards the episode’s conclusion.
It’s let down somewhat by the creepy romance subplot and the Dalek death squad being really bad at aiming, but on the other hand it does wring some genuine tension out of the setting, Aisling Bea is great as Sarah and Adjani Salmon does a lot with a thankless role as Nick, plus it’s nice to see the Thirteenth Doctor just straightforwardly winning for once.
6. Fugitive of the Judoon (Series 12, Episode 5, 2020)
Written by Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall. Directed by Nida Manzoor.
The first half of this script relies on a completely different story being interrupted and replaced with Chibnall’s main idea for his Doctor Who, so we find ourselves with characters who do not want to be in a Doctor Who story being forced back into one. The tension between those two threads is mined brilliantly. The strength of this episode, and perhaps the reason Vinay Patel was given the task of co-writing after ‘Demons of the Punjab’ is the realisation of characters whose lives and relationship we quickly understand. This allows growing unease around the character of Lee (Neil Stuke) as the episode directs our suspicions his way and away from his wife Ruth (Jo Martin), who is ultimately revealed to be a past incarnation of the Doctor and the fugitive of the title.
The first half initially has the broad tone of a fun musical, with the Doctor and her companions feeling confident, assertive and smart. Its main strength though, is watching this fictitious relationship break apart: we don’t know exactly who Lee is, but we know he clearly loves Ruth and is hiding something. When you watch this knowing the twist of Ruth’s identity, Lee’s clear (mostly non-verbal) struggle to keep her safe without compromising her remains gripping.
(There’s also a bit where Captain Jack teleports Graham, Ryan and Yaz away at really inconvenient times to announce portentous things about the series finale, and then teleports them back into this episode, the effect of which is like the universe’s cheesiest Town Crier turning up in the middle of Infinity War to yell ‘Better not let the big purple guy snap his fingers!’)
The second half, where Ruth’s identity is revealed, has Whittaker briefly gain the upper hand in their antagonistic relationship by wading into a confrontation and effortlessly making everything much worse, which is a lovely bit of work by Whittaker (who seems to really relish the scenes where she is on the back foot, has a sparring partner, and isn’t just reeling off exposition). As the audience was equally as in the dark as the Doctor, her playing catch up in these scenes doesn’t diminish the character. Jo Martin is especially good as Ruth.
5. It Takes You Away (Series 11, Episode 09, 2018)
Written by Ed Hime. Directed by Jamie Childs.
There are a few episodes, post-2005, that feel like the McCoy era with a budget. This is the, ah, real McCoy of these episodes: it not only fizzes with chaotic comic book energy but also it’s a bit all over the place (the reveal that everything is being caused by the Solitract, a lonely universe that ultimately takes the form of a frog, comes just as we’re hearing what a Solitract is for the first time). It’s this that really makes it the true inheritor to Andrew Cartmel’s keen eye for ideas and less dedicated approach to story structure. So if you’re on board with that sort of thing, and I am, then this is great fun.
The actor Kevin Eldon plays a very Kevin Eldon role of a demonic trickster figure who lives in some nightmarish caves, Ryan and Graham find some closure over Grace’s death, and the Doctor does something incredibly Doctorish – lying to a blind person to avoid a difficult conversation about the possibility of her father’s death. Whittaker doesn’t get to play this ambiguity much – that tussle between self-interest and kindness – so it’s interesting to see a glimpse of it here in a story about loss and loneliness. It ties in, ultimately, with her incarnation being about avoiding confrontation.
It’s fantastic how ‘It Takes You Away’ moves from one sort of horror to an extremely different sort, culminating in a completely unpredictable ending. Some people may already have had a Pavlovian trigger reaction to the mere mention of this episode and be complaining about the sentient universe that takes the form of a frog, but frankly this is precisely the sort of thing Doctor Who should be doing because hardly anyone else will, and it’s more interesting than just blowing stuff up. Sure, Jodie Whittaker hasn’t been given anything like ‘Caves of Androzani’ Part 3 to play with, but she has blown a kiss to a frog and this is the show finding spaces that this specific version of the Doctor can excel in.
4. The Haunting of Villa Diodati (Series 12, Episode 8, 2020)
Written by Maxine Alderton. Directed by Emma Sullivan.
Unfortunately the finale here is just people yelling through the trolley problem as fast as they can, with the Doctor arguing that Shelley should be saved, not because of the intrinsic value of a life, but because he’s a good poet. The slow build of unease gives way to rushed exposition. There’s also nothing in this story that makes Jack’s warning about the Lone Cyberman in ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ necessary, and said Cyberman goes from potentially fascinating to Tim Shaw 2.0 in a matter of seconds, before the Doctor gives up incredibly easily. Most of this happens because the next episode/series arc needs it to, rather than because it follows on from what we’ve seen in this episode.
However, basically everything before this is brilliant.
It’s great to see this Doctor on the front foot; solving clues, dismissing Byron and sounding genuinely distressed at the idea of losing another friend to the Cybermen. Ashad, the Lone Cyberman, is so full of potential initially (like Davros, his vocabulary and being not entirely inhuman expand what can be done in dialogue) and the episode’s last hurrah is when we get the Cyber-poetry reading, a fantastically jarring moment.
There’s a strong sense of weirdness and horror throughout (a sleeping baby being replaced by a skull is especially disturbing) balanced with comedy (big fan of the Fletcher the valet who is clearly tired of Byron’s nonsense). We have a clear sense of the large ensemble (despite not having many lines, Fletcher comes across as a whole person). Writer Alderton gives all the regulars and guest cast a moment, making this a rare story where three companions doesn’t feel like too many, and director Emma Sullivan delivers a convincing haunted house filmed across multiple locations. At its best, you get a sense of how this era was intended to work and how it could have done.
3. The Witchfinders (Series 11, Episode 8, 2018)
Written by Joy Wilkinson. Directed by Sallie Aprahamian.
This also feels like what the era should be aiming for: well-paced with conflict and mystery, plenty of laughs and a good monster (mud creatures with tentacles coming out of trees and earth is something that can be replicated in the playground), visiting a previously unexplored part of history and relating it to the present in a way that lets the audience make the connection.
‘The Witchfinders’ is also straightforwardly great for nearly all of its runtime. The resolution is rushed and it’s not clear why the monsters decide to knock everyone out rather than kill them, but considering how well this story does everything else it’s something you can let slide. Joy Wilkinson’s script finds work for the regulars, gives Jodie Whittaker her best dialogue yet, plus a strong guest cast to spar off. Alan Cumming pulls focus as the perfectly pitched King James – just holding back from going completely over the top – and there’s a really strong turn from Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage. This is a good example of the show being subtly political, showing the instigator of the witch hunts to be projecting her own guilt onto others with intense and terrifying vigour (which brings to mind similar zealotry in contemporary society).
More than anything, though, this story is well balanced. After a serious and occasionally grim run of episodes, we have ‘Kerblam!’ and this providing some much-needed levity despite the dark subject matter.
Hear more about the writing of this episode, incidentally, On The Timelash podcast.
2. Village of the Angels (Series 13, Episode 4, 2021)
Written by Maxine Alderton. Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone.
Endings are important. There’s a massive and deliberate tonal shift at the end of ‘Doomsday’ when Donna appears in the TARDIS and we go from two characters saying goodbye to an unexpected cliffhanger (‘The Timeless Child’ does something similar). The cliffhanger to ‘Village of the Angels’ sees the Doctor tricked and captured by Division, turning into an Angel herself.
While ‘Village of the Angels’ is a strong episode in its own right and has a thrilling conclusion, the resolution to the cliffhanger being essentially ‘We put you in a taxi’ does undermine the imagery of seeing the Doctor turn into a Weeping Angel. Nonetheless, the power of that image means that the initial impact it had is impossible to negate completely.
A real struggle in the Chibnall era is that Doctor Who seems to forget that television is a visual medium. There’s so much exposition to explain things that are visible on screen, there are times when they might as well be doing a Big Finish audioplay. Here Maxine Alderton’s script provides strong visuals for the production team to realise and her dialogue lets the audience fill in the blanks themselves (for example, before Mrs Hayward confirms her identity we’re given enough information to work it out for ourselves). This seems simple but it stands out.
Another strength of this episode is that is splits up Yaz and the Doctor fairly quickly. Bluntly, both characters thrive independently of each other. Without the Doctor, Yaz steps up, but when the Doctor is around she’s less assured. When the Doctor is around her companions, she gabs away about everything but what’s bothering her, and bottling everything up makes her snap at them. When they’re not around, the 13th Doctor feels less burdened and exudes a breezy confidence when – for example – breaking into Professor Jericho’s house, telling him, and somehow getting away with it.
While the Doctor’s ultimate fate is to get a snippy lecture from her mother, the finale of the episode is less abrupt: once you know the Rogue Angel is lying to the Doctor, trying and failing to use flattery and appeals to her better nature to win her over, the fact that the Angel succeeds by teasing the Doctor with her hidden past works really well.
Given her writing under Chibnall standing out – especially her ability as a horror writer and in working with ensembles – it would be a happy surprise to see Alderton’s name on the credits for Ncuti Gatwa’s first series.
1. Demons of the Punjab (Series 11, Episode 6, 2018)
Written by Vinay Patel. Directed by Jamie Childs.
Using the intimate and personal as a microcosm of a historic event helps make this episode extremely effective. The fact that, ultimately, we’re shown the personal story ending in a place of contentment and peace, softens the impact here but still acknowledges the horrors endured. We’re given enough reason to care for the characters, and allowed to fill the gaps in their histories that bring them to this point.
There is a tendency in this era for the Doctor to stand witness to injustice rather than attempting to avert it. In historicals such as this and ‘Rosa’ it’s partly because of the show’s issues with changing history, but also because it can feel cheap to diminish the very real horror that people faced. That very much seems to be the intention, but can chafe at the boundaries of Doctor Who (Noor Inayat Khan, in ‘Spyfall Part 2’, for example: the Doctor returns her to when and where she left where she will die, but also wipes her memory without permission – is this a respectful preservation of history, a cold and ugly bit of maintenance, or both?). ‘Demons of the Punjab’ is by far the best of these stories, but also shows why sustaining this mode of storytelling is difficult.
Whereas Rosa Parks’ protest was defined as a universally significant event, here the Doctor’s non-interference is because saving Prem’s life means Yaz might not be born. Confronted with the rising sense of threat of the Partition of India and Yaz’s gran’s imminent marriage to Prem – a man who is not her grandfather – the Doctor holds a marriage ceremony knowing he is likely to die soon. Any story set around a real-life catastrophe is not going to end with it being averted, either out of respect for the victims or due to the show’s rules stating this can’t happen, and this means the Doctor is inevitably going to lose on some level in these stories. While the Doctor can lose sometimes, making this a regular feature is unsustainable.
Red herring aliens, the Thijirians, who turn up to bear witness to those who die alone do something similar to ‘Kerblam!’ in subverting expectations of Doctor Who. It’s quite soon after a similar idea in ‘Twice Upon a Time’ but works for this story, giving the Doctor a reason to walk away.
While there’s a lot to discuss about the Doctor and changing history, it’s important that Patel gives his characters – even the less detailed ones – a clear motivation and you buy into the central marriage. There’s a real sense of hope and romance before the tragedy, and the cast rise to the material. Bradley Walsh – as he does throughout his time on the show – puts so much into two sentences (‘…and you, Prem, are a good man’) that it lands with much more weight that it might on the page.
It’s fitting that this story works so well, given its era. In a story about what could have been and what – ultimately – could not be, it represents the era’s potential and ultimate fate. In there somewhere, though, were moments of joy that deserve to be thought better of. When the dust settles on the Chibnall era, and if the show is successful after it, will determine whether fandom can separate these parts from the whole.