It is far, far too early to start judging the Doctor Whoera of Chris Chibnall. It doesn’t even start until (presumably) the tailend of 2017 with the Christmas special after next. However, that hasn’t stopped the Internet from speculating on what the post-Steven Moffat era of the beloved science fiction show might look like, and if Chibnall’s announced appointment as his successor is a wise decision on the part of the BBC.
If this all sounds a bit presumptive and premature, well — yes, it kind of is. But, the fact that we don’t have any new episodes of Doctor Who until Christmas 2016, and then not again until spring 2017, means we have some serious time to kill. And, given that this is one of the most popular shows in the world, the discussion of the (unsurprising) appointment of another white dude as its leader seems worth having.
For this article, we’re casting our focus wider than Chibnall’s Doctor Whoeps to look at Chibnall’s larger legacy as a TV writer and show runner in the hopes of determining what the post-Moffat era of Doctor Who might look like…
Chibnall’s Doctor Who legacy.
Legacy might be a bit of a strong word here, but it’s worth noting that Chibnall has already written a handful of Doctor Whoepisodes. The British side of our site did a great breakdown of the strengths, weaknesses, and general signifiers of all of them so we won’t go into too much detail here, but let’s just say none of them were probably your favorite of the NuWho era.
To be fair, they probably weren’t your least favorite, either, but I can’t be the only one who completely forgot about “42” — an episode in season 3 that involves Martha and Ten trapped on a spaceship that is falling into a sun. I did not, however, forget about “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” nor “The Power of Three,” both of which start out with killer concepts (Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!) and flounder in their third acts.
Chibnall has the benefit (or disadvantage, if you were looking for a radically new tone) of having been around for both the Russell T. Davies and Moffat eras of Doctor Who, which means we can look at how which elements of his writerly style remained regardless of showrunner.
Chibnall’s strongest Doctor Whoshowing — especially in relation to his potential skills as Doctor Whoshowrunner — is arguably his work in “Cold Blood,” aka the episode where Rory takes a bullet for The Doctor, falls through the crack in time, and Amy promptly forgets about him. This is the most long arc-heavy of Chibnall’s Who episodes, and he does some of his best writing in the scenes that have to do with these character-based arcs, which make me hopeful for his tenure as showrunner.
The same is true in the unfilmed post script to Amy and Rory’s final episode as companions, shown below in storyboard form. The short scene details how Rory’s dad, Brian, finds out that Rory and Amy are never coming back from their latest trip on the TARDIS, but rather lived out their lives in mid-century Manhattan.
Even in storyboard form, this episode remains perhaps the most moving part of this episode (if it can be considered a part of the episode), and demonstrates a commitment to emotional consequence, especially in regards to tangential characters, that Moffat hasn’t always been the best at prioritizing. Even in Chibnall’s mess-of-an-episode “The Power of Three,” we get glimmers of character-based excellence like the scene featured below, which has Amy and Rory discussing The Doctor’s penchant for “running away” — or, as The Doctor argues, not…
“I’m not running away. But this is one corner of one country on one continent on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and growing and never remaining the same for a single millisecond and there is so much — so much to see. Because it goes so fast. I’m not running away from things, I am running to them. Before they flare and fade forever.”
Like many of Chibnall’s episode, “The Power of Three” is best at the character stuff and not-as-great when it comes to memorable mystery-of-the-week plot. Many people have predicted that Chibnall’s reign as Doctor Whoshowrunner will fall somewhere between the sentimentality of the RTD era and the plot-minded cleverness of the Moffat era. This seems like a safe bet.
Chibnall’s interests and skills as a showrunner.
Though it’s tempting to judge a future showrunner merely on his or her apparent skills as a writer, this does a disservice to the incredibly difficult and complicated job that is running a TV show. Chibnall’s showrunning history include the first two seasons of Doctor Whospin-off Torchwood (technically, he was the “head writer” and Davis showrunner, but, presumably, much of the day-to-day producing of the show fell to Chibnall),the Arthurian legend-based drama Camelot, Law & Order: UK, and small town murder mystery Broadchurch.
This showrunning resume is relatively eclectic, but also hints at some steady improvement on Chibnall’s part. Let’s be honest: Torchwoodseason 1 was a lot of fun, but a total mess narratively. His showrunning work almost immediately improved, however, with Torchwoodseason 2 markedly more focused and while Camelotwasn’t exactly a revolutionary retelling of the Arthurian legend, it impressed with an all-star cast and writing that didn’t take itself too seriously.
I’m most interested, however, in Chibnall’s most recent work as showrunner: Broadchurch. The story of what happens to a small, seaside town when a local boy is found murdered, the show is a huge success for ITV, stars Doctor Who alums David Tennant and Arthur Darvill (as well as Torchwood regular Sophie Myles), and has already enjoyed two creatively-effective seasons. Here’s the trailer for season 1…
Though the show may be the least similar, tonally, from Doctor Who,it is also the program that Chibnall has arguably had the most creative control over. Unlike any of the other projects Chibnall has worked on as showrunner, Broadchurch is an original story wholly conceived by Chibnall. It is not based on Arthurian legend. It is not a show or a spin-off of a show with a 50-year history. It is not yet another formulation of an American crime procedural.
Though Chibnall no doubtedly has more limitations when it comes to Doctor Who, a show with the pressures of a global audience and as a big money-maker for BBC, Chibnall will still be able to put his own personal imprint on this show’s rich, complicated history.
So what does Broadchurch tell us about Chibnall’s interests as a writer and showrunner? Well, like many of Chibnall’s work in general, Broadchurchis very interested in the psychology of an ensemble cast. It is less about plot, and more about the emotional effects of plot on a diverse, interconnected community. Personally, I would love to see Doctor Who embrace a larger ensemble of companions on the TARDIS.
Another great thing about Broadchurch? It is just as interested in populating its world with female characters, and giving them power within the narrative, as it is male (that last point is particularly encouraging, especially after an era of Moffat’s improving, but still at time problematic gender politics). The show asks a lot of its main characters — especially Tennant’s Alec Hardy and Olivia Coleman’s Ellie Miller, both of whom are repeatedly put through the ringer on this show.
It’s Chibnall’s depiction of main characters with a limited degree of control that could be the most refreshing concept he brings to Doctor Who — something he has already demonstrated, as in this scene from “42,” which sees The Doctor out of his depth and not afraid to admit it.
There are many things that Davies and Moffat did differently as showrunners, but an inability and/or disinterest in letting their Doctors flounder in helplessness past an exploration of their companions’ mortality was one thing they had in common. I would love to see an era of NuWho that stops validating The Doctor’s self-confident smugness and instead focuses on other themes and characters traits, crafting a different context for The Doctor’s effect on all of space and time.
A Doctor Who not so far from the one we know.
While all this talk about how Doctor Whomight change is well and good, it’s worth noting that, with the promotion of another white male writer who hails from the already-established Doctor Whowriters room, as it were, there are many elements of this show that presumably won’t change.
With each casting of a new Doctor, there is a discussion of how the person in charge of shaping this global, iconic show continues to hail from roughly the same demographic and how it would be nice if we started to switch it up a little. After all, Doctor Whois a BBC program and the BBC has as one of its purposes the responsibility to reflect UK audiences…
“BBC One and BBC Two will each ensure that a significant proportion of broadcast hours reflects and represents the diversity of its audience in peak time and in the hours adjacent to peak time. BBC One will set drama outside of London, using voices and faces from a range of regional and ethnic backgrounds and communities of interest, and will feature religion and ethics as part of its genre mix.”
This lack of diversity is not just a casting problem (or, in a more optimistic phrasing: opportunity), as well as in front, but a writing, producing, and directing issue. Though there has been some increase in diversity for both writing and directing in the recent seasons of Doctor Who,we still have a long way to go before the production realities of this iconic show reflect the kind of wondrous, possibility-filled world worthy of The Doctor.
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