Doctor Who: looking back at Chris Chibnall’s episodes

42, The Power Of Three, Dinosaurs On A Spaceship and more - the Doctor Who work to date of the show's next showrunner...

Who is Chris Chibnall? You might know him as the creator of Born & Bred, Law & Order: UK and Broadchurch amongst others, but as readers of this site, it’s more likely that you know his scripts from Doctor Who and his tenure as head writer of Torchwood. On Friday, the BBC announced that Steven Moffat will be stepping down as the showrunner of Who after next year’s tenth series (since its revival), to be replaced by Chibnall in 2018.

Over the weekend alone, there has already been a lot written and said in speculation about what the new show-runner, Doctor Who’s third since Russell T. Davies combined the roles of head writer and executive producer when he revived the series in 2005. I, for one, welcome our new Chibnall overlord and that’s mostly down to what we’ve seen from him already.

Even if you’re not a fan of his writing on the series to date, it’s fortunate for Whovians that they’ve somehow found yet another award-winning writer who’s also a lifelong fan to take the job. Writers like Mark Gatiss and Toby Whithouse were enthusiastic about the choice on Twitter and if you look back to Davies’ 2008 book The Writer’s Tale, you’ll find nothing but praise for Chibnall’s working through the difficulties he wrangled while running the first two seasons of Torchwood, a show that most would agree found its footing in its second year, rather than the more jumbled first series.

Most of his Who scripts have been for Moffat’s Eleventh Doctor, as played by Matt Smith, and in retrospect, the differences in style even between series of this era makes Chibnall’s episodes a tumultuous marathon when watched back-to-back. Still, themes and trademarks emerge when we look back on his credits thus far, which may give a hint of what we can expect once the Grand Moff has hung up his show-running trousers and the Chibnall era begins…

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42 (2007)

The one with… the living sun, pub quiz trivia and a scared and scary Doctor.

After a week off for Eurovision, (back in the days when such rude interruptions would happen) this episode opened the breakneck second half of Series 3, and even next to the run of episodes that followed, it hits the ground running. 42 is ostensibly a real-time drama in which the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones find themselves on board the SS Pentallian, a cargo ship that will crash into the Torajii Sun in 42 minutes. The sun itself turns out to be alive and possesses key members of the Pentallian’s crew in order to sabotage the ship and avenge itself against their unscrupulous fuel scooping.

You’ll find a lot of ticking clocks and countdowns in Chibnall’s Who episodes to date, but it’s never more glaring than it is here. With the unassailable shortest title in the show’s 50-year history, (unless he plans to beat his own record by getting into single characters in Series 11) the claustrophobic story-time is essential here. The episode is bookended by scenes of Martha, newly accepted as a companion, in the TARDIS with the Doctor, but it never ever stops moving.

But it’s not just a runaround- while the building-up of ancillary characters was far more common in the RTD era than in Moffat’s run, Chibnall fleshes out the crewmembers quite nicely here. In particular, Riley strikes up a flirty but solid rapport with Martha over the pub quiz security that separates them from the engines and she gives him a good parting snog too. If you leave out the bit where they almost get jettisoned into an angry star, it’s some pretty solid first date stuff that they have going on.

Meanwhile, David Tennant gets a sizeable amount of righteous snarling to do, reminiscent of certain moments of Tom Baker in Planet Of Evil, the classic series story this one most closely echoes. But at the tipping point, we saw his incarnation as we never had before- both scary and scared as he’s possessed by the sun and tries to fight off its control with CG-eyes blazing. All of that, and some fast-talking recreational mathematics for good measure- happy primes, indeed.

Rather than merely count down, the tension builds and becomes more complicated, but Chibnall’s script never loses touch with the emotional element that would be common to his subsequent episodes too. The stuff with Martha and her mum proves to be somewhat in service to RTD’s Mr Saxon arc, but the script stands up to the heat.

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Davies admitted in The Writer’s Tale that he rewrote almost all scripts before the shooting draft, with the exceptions of just a few writers, including Moffat and Chibnall. On the strength of 42, it seems fair to guess that we might have a bit more of the domestic touch back in a show that has gradually become more dense with sci-fi continuity after Davies left.

The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2010)
Doctor Who series 5: The Hungry Earth

The one with… “homo reptilia” in Wales, Rory’s first death and a great big bloody drill.

Arc elements would also figure heavily in Chibnall’s contribution to Moffat’s first series – the two parter that would see the return of the Silurians and a final twist that sent Series 5 spiralling towards its massive finale. It’s essentially a story about trying to make peace in an impossible situation between two species who have more similarities than differences; a process in which even the eventual stalemate feels hard-won.

Although more political than horror-inflected, The Hungry Earth starts with a textbook pre-titles scene, as loving husband and father Mo is pulled into the ground while investigating a disturbance at work. He works at a Welsh mining facility that has burrowed further into the Earth than anyone else, but its crew, along with the Doctor, Amy and Rory, discover that something else is heading upwards, to meet in the middle – the homo reptilia who were indigenous to the planet before humanity evolved.

There’s also a very classical cliffhanger at the end of the episode, of the kind which branches off into different strands of mortal peril (for Amy) and discovery (for the Doctor.) It leaves the table set for Cold Blood to be a more hopeful and more ominous affair, in which negotiations between the humans and the Silurians are joined and then stalled by a tragedy.

Ticking clocks figure once again – the ETAs on both humans and Silurians are equally important at different points in the story, depending on whether the Doctor and company are above or below – but once again, there’s an affinity for character here. The sweetness of Mo as a father to his dyslexic son Elliot is important, but it contrasts with the violent reactionary response of mother Ambrose, when the Doctor is in a situation where it’s important to protect both.

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They have mirrors below too – twin sisters Alaya and Restac are more militant than Eldane and Malohkeh, the more pragmatic Silurians. The dynamics between characters makes for a very uneasy feeling throughout the drama. Meanwhile, as characters go, Nasreen Chaudhry feels like the kind of person who could jump on board the TARDIS and become the Doctor’s companion, at the end of a different kind of episode, and there’s at least as much to that on the page as in Meera Syal’s likeable performance alongside Matt Smith.

Sometimes unfairly assessed as the least of a good bunch, The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood are a pair of solid episodes that reintroduce and subtly expand upon one of the more interesting alien (or “Earth…lien”) races in the series. Chibnall’s style seems to suit Smith’s faster-talking Doctor better, as would be seen in the next episodes he wrote for the series, and alongside the crack-in-time arc, he has the killer bookends of future Amy and Rory waving to their past selves and then just future Amy, after the point when Rory was definitely dead and gone forever. (How naïve we were.)

Pond Life (2012)

The one with… Amy and Rory’s voicemail, the Doctor’s solo adventures and an Ood on the loo.

The first half of Series 7 aired in autumn 2012 and was largely centred around the final adventures of Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as companions Amy and Rory. Counter to the continuity-heavy structure of Series 6, Moffat’s new structural approach consisted of one-part “blockbuster” episodes, but the episodes in the first half are inarguably more linked than the second, in part by Chibnall’s apparent role in curating the domestic side of Amy and Rory’s departure.

This started before Moffat’s Asylum Of The Daleks even aired, with a series of five webisodes viewable via the BBC Red Button, collectively titled Pond Life. As the title suggests, the mini-episodes wove in and out of the Ponds’ home life when they’re not travelling with the Doctor. They’re still subjected to lengthy catch-up voicemails, surprise late night visits and even an Ood lodger, but otherwise, life seems pretty normal.

It’s largely played as fairly light and silly, with the Doctor’s scrapes with Sontarans, Mata Hari and being a backing vocalist and Amy and Rory’s exasperated reactions being played for laughs, but as a prelude to the series proper, it sets a tone. Things dovetail quickly over the course of the final episode, setting up the brush with divorce that happens before and during Asylum, but the silly and the personal go hand-in-hand, and if that’s doesn’t sum up Doctor Who in the 21st century, then what does?

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Dinosaurs On A Spaceship (2012)

The one with… well, you know. Plus, Queen Nefertiti, comedy robots and Rory’s dad!

Not to be confused with the Peter Davison story Earthshock, (which ended with a spaceship on some dinosaurs) this is indisputably the most blatant blockbuster of Series 7’s individual episodes, with the most blatant “slutty movie poster title” (Moff’s words to describe the blockbuster approach.) Dinosaurs On A Spaceship finds the Doctor rounding up a gang including Amy, Rory, Rory’s dad Brian, an ancient Egyptian queen and a big game hunter to investigate a spaceship that’s going to be blown up by the Indian Space Agency in six hours, (tick tock) if it continues on its current collision course with Earth.

The ship turns out to be a hijacked Silurian ark, carrying prehistoric creatures who were intended to settle off-world in the face of an oncoming Adric, which is when the Doctor’s elite team of randomers come into play. A black market trader called Solomon is behind the hijacking and he’s utterly loathsome, but make no mistake- from the title up, this is a capital-R Romp.

“Romp” should never be a pejorative term when it comes to Doctor Who, but this is the weakest of Chibnall’s Who episodes to date, and yet it’s probably his funniest too. There’s a lot to like about grouchy dad Brian Williams, (played by his Fast Show namesake, Mark) who “only really goes to the corner shop and golf”, according to Rory, and then suddenly finds himself thrust into space for an adventure. This was the first time the companion’s family has figured so much since Donna’s granddad Wilf and he proves a suitable successor.

In the main plot, the script does somersaults to find usefulness for the Doctor’s motley crew, with Queen Nefertiti imperilled by her own rarity in futuristic space, and Rory teaming up with Brian to operate the ship’s gene-linked dual cockpit. That said, it’s quite impossible to tell what use Riddell, the hunter, was supposed to be and even more difficult to fathom why the Doctor would be mates with him.

That’s one way in which the affected eccentricity of the story outflanks the script itself. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink, simply because it can, and it hardly feels like anybody’s finest hour. Then again, if you don’t feel at least something when Tricey the triceratops gets Welshy-ed by Robo-Mitchell and Robo-Webb, (even after Solomon absurdly tees it up as what he does when people get in his way) you’ve got a stonier heart than I.

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The Power Of Three (2012)

The one with… all the cubes, Kate Stewart and the duck-face baddies.

And there’s the kitchen sink! With Moffat’s logline of “The Man Who Came To Dinner, Doctor Who style”, Chibnall’s second episode of Series 7 was a much more domestic affair. The Doctor moves in with Amy and Rory after the mysterious appearance of small black cubes all over the world. As the so-called Slow Invasion unfolds, the Doctor’s patience is stretched to its limit and his companions start to muse about settling down for good.

The Power Of Three often feels like a throwback to the Russell T Davies era, complete with a contemporary setting, a touch of domestic comedy from Brian, (“You can’t call it Brian’s log!”) and cameos from Alan Sugar playing Alan Sugar and Professor Brian Cox playing Professor Brian Cox. There’s another of Chibnall’s countdown conundrums too, over an extended wait for the cubes to start behaving badly and a very Davies-like confab between Doctor and concerned relative about the safety of his companions.

Moreover, it’s a big old love letter to the Jon Pertwee era, with the Doctor effectively stranded on Earth for the duration of the mystery and having to liaise with UNIT, now headed up by the Bridgadier’s daughter, Kate Stewart, played by Jemma Redgrave. A version of this character appeared in Reeltime Pictures’ 1995 fan-film Downtime, but the NuWho iteration never feels like a fan-serving link to the past, thanks to the great foundation laid down for her by Chibnall.

There are also a fair few cracking scenes between the Doctor and Amy too- the story is about an adventure that’s longer than either of them are used to and it allows time for them to have a scene in which they properly talk about and confront their feelings for one another ahead of the imminent cataclysm, without ever slowing the episode down. This is the kind of thing that the so-called blockbuster season was missing in the main and it proves vital.

Despite a rushed conclusion to the main plot, involving weird faces and fairytale monsters, this stands as Chibnall’s best work for the series thus far, taking a threat to which only Doctor Who can do justice and using it as the jumping-off point for the most characterful instalment of Amy and Rory’s farewell mini-series. As fate would have it, the final image of the Doctor, Amy and Rory entering the TARDIS in the garden was the last shot that Gillan and Darvill filmed as regulars and as a lead-in to their last episode proper, it’s an appropriately bittersweet ending.

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P.S. (2012)

The one with… some much needed closure for a forgotten character.

It’s an unusual one to close on, having never actually been filmed. Having written the prelude to the Ponds’ tragic departure in The Angels Take Manhattan, Chibnall also got the chance to create a postscript to round off Brian’s story. Amy and Rory’s send-off would include Weeping Angels, River Song and a whole lot of timey-wimey storytelling and so there was no proper farewell for Brian, who as far as the regular series goes, would seem to have been forgotten. 

After the events that left the Ponds stranded 50 years before they were born, an elderly man arrives on Brian’s doorstep carrying a letter from Rory. The letter explains that they lived their lives together in happiness in New York City and that Brian has an adopted grandson, Anthony, who was born in 1946. Anthony is the one who delivered the letter and after reading it, Brian hugs him.

Proposed as a DVD extra that would be filmed in live-action, it transpired that Mark Williams had already moved onto filming his next project, Blandings, in Northern Ireland. As a result, P.S. currently exists only as a storyboarded animatic, narrated by Darvill. This didn’t feature on the DVD or Blu-ray of the Complete Series 7 boxset, but it was made available online (see above) after the BBC was convinced to release it by viewer emails asking about Brian’s fate.

It’s a beautiful scene, even in its very unfinished form, and it’s a crying shame that Mark Williams didn’t get the chance to act it out. Still, it speaks volumes for Chibnall and it’s very rewarding to see the character he created get some closure, even after making such a brief impression.

What’s next?

Somehow, we doubt that Chris Chibnall will be writing an episode of Moffat’s Series 10 next year, just as it would have been strange if the Moff wrote one of the 2009 specials while prepping Series 5. That would mean if you started doing a Chibnall countdown to his next episode right now, it may well still be ticking on in two years’ time. Nevertheless, but there’s plenty of reason to look forward to it.

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Even if this hasn’t convinced you that his episodes thus far have been under-appreciated in the main, the series feels due for a different perspective and his clearly includes dedication to creating likeable characters and a long-lasting fandom for the series. We still don’t know if Peter Capaldi and/or the next companion will be sticking around for Series 11, so this could be as big and even as good a change as when Moffat, Smith and Gillan took the show to new heights in 2010.

And it really could be completely different too. Just as Moffat never had a character die for any reason other than natural causes before he took the reins, (think back through his pre-Eleventh Hour episodes and see) it may be that Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who as a showrunner is completely different to anything we’ve seen from him before.

It’s still a long way off, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we expect that the future of Doctor Who is in useful hands.