Few interested in Doctor Who can have been surprised by this week’s announcement that both Doctor and showrunner would soon be departing. Overseen by Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), Jodie Whittaker’s tenancy in the TARDIS has been a bumpy one, shedding viewers at a historic pace and inspiring more than one critic to call time on the Time Lord.
As happens whenever Doctor Who is in the doldrums, every fan has strong opinions about what the show should do next. I should know. I’m one of them. So here’s my strong opinion: for god’s sake, don’t listen to the fans.
Going woke wasn’t enough to save Doctor Who
The Whittaker era was born in turmoil, as (some) fans frothed about our hero’s sudden sex-swap. The most vocal swore they would never watch the show again. They lied. As former show runner Russell T Davies once noted, if a fan doesn’t like an episode, they’ll only watch it 20 times instead of the usual 30. Right now, to visit the show’s official Facebook page is to come away convinced that nobody hates the series more than the people who love it most.
Before Whittaker was cast, the show’s viewership had been stripped back to its base audience of around four million hardcore fans. The excitement of the first female Doctor and the promise of addictive Broadchurch-style drama brought in more than twice that for her debut, but few new viewers stuck around. The figures for last series repeatedly hit the same depths Peter Capaldi had plumbed. If Doctor Who is to be saved, it’s the runaway viewers the next showrunner should care about—the ones who aren’t already watching.
Many longtime fans will tell you going woke broke Doctor Who. I would argue instead that it wasn’t enough to save it. Some fans hold up Capaldi—the last male Doctor—as a sort of king in exile. The last of the true Doctors. There can be no doubt that Chibnall’s explicitly inclusive vision might have excluded more conservative viewers, but the enthusiasm with which the general public initially tuned in—11 million viewers!—puts the lie to the idea that being progressive is box office poison.
I would also argue that Chibnall is far less progressive than he might think, having given us a female Doctor who seems to embrace gender stereotypes more than she busts them. As a Doctor, she is uniquely passive, often sidelined within her own show, and appears preoccupied with being nice and likeable.
The Doctor has traditionally been an iconoclastic revolutionary, collapsing corrupt civilisations overnight and breaking every law of time to save one ordinary life. Chibnall’s Doctor shops at Space Amazon, gets mansplained by the Master and turns her back as an innocent man is murdered. Jodie herself might be magnetic, but she has been written as the most tepid of heroes.
Unconsciously or otherwise, Chibnall has often focused on identity at the exclusion of the basics of good television: character and drama. His TARDIS crew is the most diverse since the Russell T Davies era, which seems enough for some corners of the discourse, and yet it was only old white man Bradley Walsh who was given the necessary depth to truly engage us.
This focus on identity was most obvious towards the end of last year’s series, where the Doctor found herself rebranded. She was no longer one kind of alien, but actually a completely different kind of alien. Probably.
It was a fan-baiting revelation that created far more drama offscreen than onscreen. Questioning the core identity of your lead would have meant more if that question wasn’t baked into the show’s premise (I refer Chibnall to the show’s title). Our hero has never been one to look back on who she was, but is always moving on. Changing everything has changed nothing.
Fans might claim the show has abandoned them, yet it’s hard to imagine a time when the show has been aimed more directly at them. Who else is going to care about the above update to the show’s Wikipedia page, addressing as it does a continuity issue from 1976? Perhaps what rankles fans is that the current show is so clearly the vision of another fan, playing with elements of continuity that would mean nothing to those who aren’t already dedicated to the canon. Chibnall is one of us, the uber-fan sneering at the faithful.
Who seems to be struggling in the age of the geek
It’s perhaps not ironic that Who seems to be struggling in the age of the geek. Led by the relentless march of comic book films, geekery currently smothers pop culture. As the leading hoarder of IP, Disney has worked hard to give the fans what they think they want (while also attempting to avoid alienating woke Twitter). By way of contrast, on reviving Who Russell T Davies made a deliberate decision not to care about what fans wanted. “If you chase a cult,” he warned, “you just become a smaller cult.”
Back in 2005, Who was very much on its own—a mainstream British show that embraced populist UK soaps and shows as much as it was informed by cult American telly such as Buffy. Now that it fits more easily into the zeitgeist, it looks and feels tired, despite Chibnall’s cosmetic tweaks.
If the next showrunner—a far more important pick than the next Doctor—wants Who to reclaim its place at the heart of British telly culture, they should look away from the likes of Marvel and Game of Thrones and all the other shows its fans watch. They should also look away from the tangled intricacies of its own canon.
What is unique about Who is that it is a science fiction show that is resolutely not for people who like science fiction. It’s not Star Trek. It’s not Dune. It’s not The Mandalorian. It has long been a show that bridges light entertainment and drama, intellectual conceit and pulpish thrills, bringing the entire family together between Britain’s Got Talent and EastEnders.
Fans long to be taken seriously—to have the object of their obsession afforded respect—but Who’s homespun quality is its strength, not a weakness. It’s the sort of show that television, the most domestic of mediums, was made for. It’s the adventures of a hero with a magic box that can go anywhere, at any time, in any genre. The only place it shouldn’t go is somewhere it’s been before.
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