For decades, Doctor Who has been a sci-fi show primarily about change. The announcement that a woman would be piloting the TARDIS divided fandom into two opposing factions: Many hardcore, old school Whovians saw the Gallifreyan's gender swap as a nod to PC culture while others embraced the new move for its forward thinking. Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the Doctor in the show's 50-plus year history, would step into Peter Capaldi's shoes. But that wasn't the only change. Chris Chibnall, previously best known for Broadchurch, would take over as showrunner from Steven Moffat.
Chibnall's vision of Doctor Who, the 11th season of the show's reboot, is arguably its most ambitious since Russell T. Davies revived the show in 2005: new theme, new Doctor, new companions, new tone, new format, politically-charged storytelling, and almost no call-backs or overlap with what has come before. Inevitably, such a creative overhaul was going to alienate a large contingent of the fanbase. Every regeneration has its detractors, regardless of the main character's gender (though, sadly, this does factor in for many fans).
But there are several, actually valid reasons for dwindling ratings and formerly committed fans tuning out. The biggest of these reasons, and the reason why I'm leaving Doctor Who behind, is that show just isn't very good anymore.
Here's the problem: Doctor Who is a show about change, but did we really need Chibnall to rewrite the show's entire mythology? Was intrepid reporter and former companion Sarah Jane Smith right? Does everything have its time? Does everything end?
Below I've outlined some ways my faith in the show could be reinstated…
CHRIS CHIBNALL AND THE WRITING STAFF
Chibnall could have brought together some of the best writers in the genre for his inaugural year as showrunner but instead, most of those commissioned have penned stories for the show when they have little to no genre TV work to their name. For a genre-blending cult hit like Doctor Who — which, since its conception, has been a pop culture phenomenon — why isn't he pushing his writing staff to deliver?
During the 11th season the show has delivered only three solid episodes ("Rosa," "Kerblam," "The Woman Who Fell to Earth"), three OK episodes ("Demons in the Punjab," "The Witchfinders," "The Ghost Monument") and two duds ("Arachnids in the UK" and "The Tsuranga Conundrum"). With a mythology this broad and epic in scope, each writer had plenty of room to move around on the Doctor Who canvas. They just never did. Chibnall could easily remedy this next season by commissioning work from screenwriters who specialize in sci-fi, horror, or fantasy.
Chibnall's reasoning for a complete creative overhaul was that he needed the show to be accessible to new viewers. But, right off the bat, I'd like to warn new viewers to still expect to be frustratingly bewildered by some of these stand-alone episodes if you have less than a nodding acquaintance with the TARDIS.
New viewers will at least need some familiarity with the original narrative arc of the show. Eight episodes into the new series and the Doctor still hasn't bothered to explain to her new companions who she is or where she comes from and the new companions haven't bothered to ask. Maybe have the 13th Doctor mention Gallifrey — just once. This would at least offer some background information for newcomers to the series, as well as the Doctor's companions.
The lack of a connection to previous mythology and the repetitive, simple storytelling that's becoming characteristic of Season 11 puts it more on par with spin-off series such as The Sarah Jane Adventures and Class rather than Doctor Who.
VILLAINS (OR LACK THEREOF)
Part of the problem with this simplified storytelling is that the show no longer feels dangerous for the Doctor or her companions. There are no innovative monsters or aliens to speak of, no legitimately frightening villains out to get the TARDIS team.
There is an overarching theme emerging this season that man is the real monster in the universe. New monsters like the Pting and the Remnants and the Stenza failed to make much of an impact. The Postmen from Kerblam were effective only because they were lifted wholesale from a Moffat-era episode.
On a more positive note, Alan Cumming and Siobhan Finneran both delivered nuanced, affecting performances in "The Witchfinders," but they were quickly side-lined by intergalactic mud monsters the Morax, another cartoonish and weak alien threat. A good episode might have worked better if the writers had explored the themes of group hysteria and social persecution in more depth.
Say what you like about Moffat, but he introduced and explored some of the most malevolent and intriguing villains during his time as writer and showrunner: the Weeping Angels, Me, Missy, the Vashta Nerada, Madame Kovarian, and the Silence. He also reinvigorated reliable staples such as the Cybermen, the Zygons, and the Daleks. Come back, Slitheen, all is forgiven.
Remember Bill Potts, companion to the 12th Doctor? Pearl Mackie always knocked it out of the park and over the course of a few episodes became one of the most interesting characters to enter the TARDIS in years. She was the first queer woman of color to travel through time and space with the Timelord and apart from a romance in the pilot episode, the color of her skin and her sexuality were a non-issue. It was easy to become emotionally invested because she was a character we genuinely cared about, to root for because she had agency.
Like her predecessor Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), her cyber-conversion was a gut-punch (even if Moffat pressed the reset button in the next episode) because we cared about her.
In comparison, the new companions fall flat. Ryan is one-note, Yaz is shaping up to be a Strong Female Character Trope, and Graham appears bored most of the time. Since "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," none of the trio has grown or evolved while traveling with the Doctor.
Maybe we should look at another way: The debate around ownership of stories and narratives is a fraught one and (I hope) its unlikely there is a cis-het white writer out there who doesn't do a lot of work before including a character who is of a different race/gender/sexuality/background to their own. People of multicultural identities or who identify as LGBTQIA are becoming more visible across the spectrum, but we still regularly see them (in the mainstream) as filling the role of "POC/south-east Asian character" or "gay character." And thus, being from a "different" ethnic group or of a "different" sexuality becomes the only character trait assigned.
Has Doctor Who fallen into this trap? I wouldn't go quite that far. This cautious approach from Chibnall tends to result in more research, empathy, and fewer stereotypes. But the trio need some character development to take them beyond physical manifestations of their identities. I want to see evolution of character. There is a lot of potential there.
Murray Gold elevated Doctor Who with his cinematic score and I'd love Chibnall bring him back as composer. Some of his pieces — "Life Amongst the Distant Stars," "Amy in the Tardis," "A Lonely Decision" — are gorgeous and gave the show an epic, poignant vibe that has been missing this year.
The strongest element of the new show is Jodie Whittaker's Time Lady.
And yet there are times when I don't see her as the Doctor. Chibnall has softened the character, made her even more of a pacifist than her past iterations. But Whittaker seems to be channelling the 10th and 11th Doctors and, oftentimes, Sylvester McCoy, so I know she's there, though — we caught a glimpse of a steelier Doctor in "Kerblam" and "The Witchfinders." They need to let that steely side out to play more often.
OH, AND BRING BACK RIVER SONG FOR A VISIT
I want to see the time-hopping, naughty archaeologist cross paths with Whittaker's Doctor. That would be really something, wouldn't it?
There are two more episodes to go this year. Fingers crossed the show reinstates my faith.