The world has been waiting and now the time has come for my verdict not just on the new year’s day edition of Doctor Who, not just the most recent (truncated) serial, but the whole Whittaker/Chibnall era.
Allow me to elaborate.
First of all, let’s deal with the it’s for kids! argument. Sure. More importantly, it’s supposed to be for families. That means the adults in the room should find it enjoyable and engaging. And – it being no longer the 1970s – that should mean something beyond a companion with a pretty face and a nice rack: something for the dads, as they used to say.
I got a bit of a sinking feeling when Chibnall was announced as the show runner. Partly this is because I don’t think the idea of a show runner sits comfortably in the UK television industry. They used to call them script editors, which I think is closer to the truth of the role, but at the same time, I’ve always thought the biggest weakness with UK TV was the over-reliance on individual writers. A classic creation like Basil Fawlty might have had a far richer life in syndication if there were more than 12 episodes. You might argue that 12 is small but perfectly formed, but at the same time, even doubling that to 24 would give the show a bigger and more enduring footprint. Clement and La Frenais managed 27 Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and 20 of the original series. Nobody in their right mind would argue that Whatever doesn’t stand up against Fawlty. But of course, there could have been 48 if there had been more writers involved (and the cast up for it).
The point is, for one writer to dominate Doctor Who storytelling is risky, especially when that writer has terrible taste.
My sinking feeling came because, as far as I was aware, Chibnall’s reputation rested largely on the success of Broadchurch, which (a) wasn’t all that great in the first place and (b) was quickly revealed in its limitation both by subsequent seasons and the American remake.
However good its first couple of episodes might have been, the quality wasn’t sustained. And the problem with that is, a long-running show like Doctor Who needs someone who can sustain quality.
Most importantly, it needs a ringmaster and lots of writers, not just one writer. The most recent, short, season of Doctor Who was just 6 episodes, with just one co-writing credit for one of them. Sure, sure, pandemic, etc., but if you’re going to do it, do it right. Otherwise, don’t do it. The upshot was, the audience was subjected to the vision of one man for the entire run.
And what a vision! Does he need glasses? Or a retina transplant? It was incoherent, frantic, busy, and silly by turns. It felt both rushed and dull, with underdeveloped plot lines, overwrought emotions, and hopelessly hand-wavy solutions.
You might argue that this is kinda what Doctor Who was always like, and you wouldn’t get much of an argument from me. And that institutional problem is worth thinking about. In a world which produces a pretty decent amount of thought provoking and intelligent science fiction, why is Doctor Who usually silly, incoherent, crap? Partly you can blame the budgets, but you can have a decent low to mid-budget budget show (Travelers, maybe) without throwing out sense and cohesion, and without introducing silly “monsters” with latex heads.
Let’s talk about Travelers. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show (which you can see on Netflix) produced 34 episodes written by at least a dozen different writers. It was a time travel show with a few gadgety things, but most of the time the stories centred around the characters and the plot/premise. And it was not silly, frantic, or incoherent. It was great.
So it can be done. But the thing about Doctor Who is, it is almost never done. People cling to those occasional good/great episodes (I won’t rehearse them here) and hold them up as beacons of its greatness. Whereas you might instead argue that the paucity of these occasionally good episodes makes the entire show a bit of a waste of the viewers’ time. And if you think too hard about why, say, Blink was so good… was it perhaps because the Doctor character was hardly in it?
Anyway, Jodie Whittaker: got no problem with her, or the idea of a woman as Doctor, but the characterisation didn’t appeal. I prefer the Doctor Pertwee style, really, a tad more low key and gnomic like Troughton rather than constantly overwrought and diving up and down corridors with her coat trailing behind her like Superman’s cloak. No cloaks! Actually, I quite liked Capaldi in the role
That corridor thing is fundamental to the flaws in Doctor Who. The existence of any number of science fiction shows (all the Star Treks etc) is evidence enough that there’s no shortage of story ideas or plot points. But Doctor Who, more often than not, defaults to people running up and down the same corridor, which comes down in the end to padding for length.
As for the stories, or lack thereof, they’re so dull. Threat to Earth. Threat to entire universe. Ugh. Nobody is asking for this. I don’t get it. I don’t get why you’d invent something that is literally eating planets and then *waves hands* it’s gone, but what about the planets it ate? All the people who died? If we aren’t feeling this loss, if we are just using it as a clumsy metaphor for covid and forgetting about it, it’s just bad writing. Going back to those quite good beacon-of-hope episodes, they’re often told on a much smaller scale. And when a character gets stuck in time and has to go the long way around, as it were, it should mean something, shouldn’t it? Not just some throwaway line that’s swiftly forgotten.
My final moan is about production design because even that I don’t like. The Tardis has developed a vast interior with organic-looking outgrowths — and to what end? Do they make use of the space in any way that matters? They do not. It’s just big, and ugly. Most of all, it just looks kinda like a sound stage. A badly lit sound stage. Because this wouldn’t be a complaint about television in 2021/2 without mentioning that it’s too bloody dark.