The Tsuranga Conundrum: as you were

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-runner 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-runner 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 failing 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?



11 responses to “The Tsuranga Conundrum: as you were

  1. Im still unsure If I like her – I want too but its just been a bit weak so far

  2. I think your comparison with RTD is very perceptive; many of the same faults are there in this season but without the exuberant momentum of RTD’s writing to compensate. There’s nothing to distract from the plot holes and mundanity of the stories.

  3. codemonkeysteve

    I’m in the “Doctor’s gender doesn’t matter” camp. I don’t know how they could make it matter without it coming off as pandering.

    Although I’ll take back everything I’ve said about Chibnall if he can write a time-travel/”period” joke and make it work.

  4. I know that “Doctor’s gender doesn’t matter” is a very popular position; I’m seeing it on comments from Facebook friends as well, when I link to these articles there. To me, that just seems unambitious. Men and women are different; writing that ignores that fact is lazy.

  5. Aonghus Fallon

    Maybe it might have been more interesting if the female doctor still displayed the same misanthropic/autistic tendencies of her male predecessors? That is, if she had the same traits you define as particularly male? I haven’t seen any of the episodes, just the trailer for the first episode, but even that one glimpse suggested the characterisation was worrying bland – not that this is any reflection on Whittaker. In an ideal world, somebody like Tilda Swinton, or the late Glenda Jackson might have been a better choice. Swinton because she’s suitably enigmatic, Jackson as the female equivalent of John Hurt.

  6. Aonghus Fallon

    My apologies to Glenda Jackson, who is apparently live and well!

  7. Yes, that approach would also be interesting. Swinton and Jackson are interesting casting choices. And, at the risk of being terribly obvious, one wonders what Judi Dench might have done with it. Certainly casting her as M was the master-stroke of the Pierce Brosnan-era Bond films.

  8. Perhaps this isn’t a useful or impactful comparison since you’re not in the US, but when you wrote:

    ‘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.’

    I thought:

    ‘If all that comes of Barack Obama having this role is that people get to say “At last, a black president”, I won’t feel it was worth doing.’

    (If you extend the comparison to some of the further sentences, things get – to my mind – even worse)

    If not immediately clear, I’m very much with the “Doctor’s gender doesn’t matter” crowd. It may help that, where I live, I haven’t heard any hype or been in a lot of discussion about it, so I had built up no big expectations.

    Having said that, Whittaker hasn’t really impressed me, but I feel like she may have the capacity to if given a halfway decent script (I haven’t seen her in anything outside of DW). By this point I’ve given up on any of the companions doing so, though – I’m convinced that they’re simply crap actors.

    I’m not very invested any more, though. This series has managed to drain most of my enthusiasm for Doctor Who in general.

  9. Your analogy with Obama is very thought-provoking. Thank you for it.

  10. Having thought a bit more about this, I don’t think your analogy quite works, because the right to be President — the opportunity to rise to the very top of society — is obviously something that everyone should feel is available to them, but the right to be a time-travelling super-genius is rather a different things.

    Still: even if it doesn’t quite work, it’s well worth thinking about.

  11. And at least we can all agree that Matt Smith would make the best president.

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