An extraordinary amount has been said over the last 15 months about the new Doctor Who, Jodie Whitaker. The nastiest corners of this conversation have included debates over the suitability of choosing a woman for the role, but there have also been a great many thoughtful discussions about Whitaker herself, how the character has been re-imagined for its 13th incarnation, and why it’s about time the show had a female lead. What hasn’t received much attention is the switch in showrunners, from Steven Moffat to Chris Chibnall, an arguably much more important change to the series.
Just to be clear, Whitaker has been excellent so far in her new role. The central job of a doctor – beyond the public abuse the actress has had to endure – is to strike just the right balance between genius and mania, compassion and outrage, mystery and simplicity. Some of that has to do with how the character is written, but most of it has to do with how the character is played. Whitaker manages to nail this complex mix of characteristics with her bearing and particularly her face. She’s especially good at conveying a kind of childlike wonder, whether she’s coming across a new alien species or meeting Rosa Parks. If you’re nitpicking, maybe she channels David Tennant a bit too much, but let’s face it: Tennant set a high bar, and everyone since him has had to incorporate elements of him into the character.
Chibnall, on the other hand, seems a step behind. Chibnall is primarily a writer, and his resume does include some impressive credentials. Most recently he was the creator and writer of the successful UK series Broadchurch (and its less successful American version, Gracepoint). His involvement in Doctor Who may have something to do with the fact that Whitaker was a principal cast member of that series (as was David Tennant). He also wrote episodes for two other high-profile BBC series, Life on Mars and Law and Order: UK (the latter of which starred Bradley Walsh, one of the doctor’s new “companions” this season). More importantly, though, he has deep connections to Doctor Who itself. Before coming on as showrunner, he wrote episodes for both this series and its spinoff, Torchwood.
Chris Chibnall [Credit: Tardis Data Core]
These credentials seemed to guarantee he was the ideal choice to take over this series. Yet there’s something missing in the season, at least to this point. Of course, it’s always dangerous to make proclamations about Doctor Who too early: the end of a season can sometimes radically alter the entire season, forcing us to completely re-evaluate what we’ve seen. That said, the episodes since Chibnall has taken over have felt flat and uninspired.
Some of this may have to do with how this season looks in relation to past seasons, how Chibnall’s work looks in comparison to Steven Moffat’s. Moffat, of course, has been doing double duty for a number of years running both Doctor Who and Sherlock, two of the most cerebral shows on television. He has a habit of creating intricately complex plotlines, sometimes over single episodes but sometimes over entire seasons. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is typical: it involved a number of time “windows,” which we were shown out of chronological order. We are asked in episodes like this one to hold an enormous amount of information in our heads and re-construct it so that it makes some kind of sense. “Blink” introduced new villains to the Doctor Who universe, the weeping angels, villains with abilities so insidious that defeating them required every ounce of the doctor’s ability to think and every ounce of our ability as the audience to keep up. Then there was the sixth season, throughout which the doctor encounters the enigmatic River Song over and over, only figuring out her significance at the season’s end. To be sure, watching Moffat’s Doctor Who could be exhausting at times, but there was a certain thrill in that, and always a great sense of satisfaction once the puzzle was solved.
In contrast, Chibnall’s work has been relatively straightforward. A little simplicity might actually have been a good thing, separating his version of the show from what came before. Unfortunately, this season has been a little too simple. Villains aren’t scary; conflicts are too easy to solve, and episode structures merely plod along. Chibnall doesn’t ask much of us, but he also doesn’t do much for us. The most recent episode, “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” relies on multiple plot lines: a brother and sister attempt to reconcile; a new alien – the Pting – runs amok; the ship we’re on hurtles out of control through an asteroid field. The trouble is, none of these plotlines is all that interesting and none is especially related to any of the others. In fact, the pregnancy doesn’t really have much to do with anything at all. The Pting is described as essentially unbeatable, but other than jettisoning a crew member in an escape pod, more an accident than an act of aggression, he’s never actually menacing. In fact, he comes off as rather cute, and in the end, the doctor doesn’t so much need to defeat him as rescuing him. Events are predictable, and that’s never good in any story let alone a Doctor Who story. And “Tsuranga” was a relatively exciting episode this season. In “Rosa” nothing much happens at all other than the gang getting a chance to meet Rosa Parks. Instead, the episode works as little more than a weak – and uninspired – attempt to send a socially relevant message.
As sports fans know, “rebuilding” years are never much fun. With both a new showrunner and an entirely new cast maybe a dull season of Doctor Who was to be expected. Except this new season was supposed to be the most important in a long time, maybe ever. A female doctor! How much more exciting could the possibilities be? Whitaker suffered through ridiculous controversy to take on this role. After all that, she deserves better than what we’ve seen so far.