When this series of Doctor Who started, the big hook was a female Doctor. Was it just stunt casting? Would it explore genuinely new territory? Would she actually be any good? And I think people’s hopes and fears about that blinded the world to the much bigger challenge the show was facing: Chris Chibnall’s writing.
Now there are people who tell me that Broadchurch, for which he is largely responsible, is very good, That may be true; I’ve never seen it. But his Doctor Who record before taking over as show-running is mixed at best: 42 has a by-the-numbers feel to it: doomed spaceship with quirky crew members dying one by one. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood two-parter was much better — though one wonders now how much of that was down to the exquisite talent of Matt Smith, as the actual plot is again Group Of Quirky Characters Under Siege. That leaves the terrible missed opportunities that were Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three: both episodes with a fascinating premise which entirely fails to develop.
So could Chibnall step up into the much more demanding role of show-runner? It’s asking a lot. Steven Moffatt’s script quality definitely declined from his very high early average once he took on all the extra responsibility, and with it a much higher writing workload.
For Chibnall, I didn’t consider the early signs encouraging: The Woman who Fell to Earth was, I felt, only OK — saved from harsh criticism in mainstream venues by critics’ unanimous fear of being seen as The One Who Can’t Handle A Female Doctor. The Ghost Monument felt much like more of the same: not a bad episode exactly, but forgettable. It was only with Rosa that I felt the new series stepped up another level: but that was co-written by Malorie Blackman, so who knows how much credit Chibnall can take? For me it gained immeasurably from dealing with an iconic historic moment in an issue that has come surging back in the last few years, which not every episode can do. And I should note that a lot of people really hated Rosa: see for example Gavin Burrows’ comment on my own review. Then of course we had the only so-so Arachnids in the UK, which I felt did sterling work in the setup, but had no place to go with it — and no idea what to do with the cast of characters.
So here we are at episode 5, yet again a Chibnall solo effort. It’s notable that no other show-running has taken such total control of the writing: Russell T. Davies wrote 8 of the 13 episodes of his debut season, and Steven Moffatt only 6 of his 13. Chibnall has written four and half of these first five episodes, already more than doubling his total previous Doctor Who output, and it’s now becoming worryingly apparent that he’s just not up to it.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with The Tsuranga Conundrum. Just a sense that, well, why bother? What does it do that’s not been done before, and much better? Another base-under-siege (even if this time it’s a ship rather than a base); another bunch of wacky characters; another young woman who just has to Believe In Herself (even though nothing really happens when she does); another pre-flagged sacrificial death. All of these elements can work; can fly, even. But Chibnall writes as though he believes all he has to do is shove them all into an episode and it’ll sort itself out. It’s enough to make you long f0r the craftsmanship of Russell T. “Ram them all into each other. It’s a car crash!” Davies.
And how many more episodes is to going to be before Yaz does anything, anything at all. She makes Martha Jones look like a well-rounded character. Poor Mandip Gill might be able to act and she might not, but we’re not likely to find out from the scripts she’s been given so far.
Well, all of this whining is pretty tedious. So let me close by trying to wrap my brain around a more fundamental issue.
A lot people, me included, have been interested in how a female Doctor works out. I’m finding it frustrating so far, just because nothing seems to follow from it. If all that comes of Jodie Whittaker having this role is that people get to say “At last, a female Doctor”, I won’t feel it was worth doing. With each review of the present series, I’m champing at the bit to find something genuinely interesting and insightful to say about her, but not finding the opportunity.
If the outcome of Whittaker’s casting turns out to be “Actually the Doctor was always asexual and it makes no difference if he’s a girl”, I will be rather disappointed. The Doctor has a 55-year history of being a man, which means a lot of intertia has built up, for good or ill. If you set out to change that, as Chibnall has with Whittaker, you really need to make it do something, not just stay on cruise control.
My friend Sarah Bickers says “For goodness sake Mike … it makes no difference what sex or colour the doctor is. … JW is no more or less different to anyone else who has taken the role”. I understand that position, and I understand why a lot of people feel that way. But to me, it’s a missed opportunity — an artistic abdication. Fifty-five years of twelve actors’ work (thirteen if you count John Hurt) has unavoidably built up a corpus of history, and with it a synthesized notion of what the irreducible core of the Doctor’s personality is. And like it or not, as I described in the review of the first episode, that personality is dominated by stereotypically male traits. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a female Doctor; but it does mean that if you don’t think through what that means for the character — if you stop at thinking “Oh, good, this will get lots of progressives on our side” and leave it there — then you’re completely faiing to artistically engage. And that, so far, is what Chibnall has done. I read this as one more example of his essential laziness as a writer: he’s no more engaged with the femaleness of the Doctor than he has with the role of Yaz or the Graham/Ryan relationship. He’s put all these pieces on the board, but not really moved them around.
One upshot is this: it bothers me that four or five hours in, I’ve got no real opinion yet on whether Whittaker is actually good. She’s obviously not terrible, but that’s all I can determine. I think she’s currently getting an easy ride from media people who are just happy she’s female — but that won’t last forever. At some point, she’s going to have to start to deliver. Will the scripts give her anything to do it with?
- Day 6517: DOCTOR WHO: How Many Family Dramas can you pack into one spaceship? And then eat it? by Millennium Dome, Elephant. Rightly points out that this has “a plot that actually resolves itself properly … In as much as the two perils established are the monstrous cute Pting and the remote explosion of the ship, and each turns out to be the solution to the other.”
- The Tsuranga Conundrum Review by Elizabeth Sandifer