Doctor Who is not working. That seems to be the widely held view, outside the group of cranks and obsessives who, through their frenzied internet activity, keep the show on life support. They’ll point to the programme’s politics, to the noise when this latest Chibnall / Whittaker iteration premiered, to the enthusiastic convention goers, and argue that this is a show still operating at the pinnacle of British mainstream culture. I’m afraid nothing could be further from the truth: a series that can go anywhere has swiftly found itself going nowhere.
After an initial surge of interest, this run has the dubious honour of recording the lowest viewing figures for an episode of Doctor Who since the series relaunched in 2005. Fewer children, boys and girls, are watching than ever before. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor herself is so unpopular she is being pulled from the cover of merchandise, or featuring alongside more popular Doctors such as David Tennant. Head Writer and Executive Producer Chris Chibnall, infamous for an appearance he made as a young man on Open Air to castigate two of the classic series’ most controversial writers, Pip and Jane Baker, has delivered perhaps the only version of the show that has conspicuously failed. Even the runaround pantomime violence of Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s mid-80s era felt more recognisably “Who”. Nobody who has seen, never mind enjoyed (as I have), his truncated turn in the TARDIS, could argue that Baker’s Doctor lacked presence.
So what is to be done? In his piece for this magazine, Myke Bartlett argues the reason Doctor Who is failing is because it “is not woke enough”. He suggests that turbo-charging the progressive identitarianism that has colonised the series in recent years is the only way to keep it relevant. Of course, he is correct when he says that producers must not cave into the fan cult — but progressivism IS the cult. The vast majority of people do not subscribe to the militant politics that the programme and its fan base of pronoun obsessed nihilists espouse.
Putting politics ahead of art is nearly always crippling
Perhaps the problem is that the people making and watching Doctor Who don’t actually understand it. A show often talked of fondly, until recently at least, as “quintessentially British”, Doctor Who finds its roots in the Edwardian adventurer. It’s inspired by the works of M R James and H P Lovecraft, H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, it is a confection, but it is a confection with a clear provenance; its landscape is one of fog-laden London back alleys, creeping shadows in moonlit graveyards, frock coated heroes and heroines in distress. It should not surprise anyone that an institution — a folk tale, really — so drenched in British people’s romantic ideals of themselves mixes so poorly with modern American identity politics.
Putting politics ahead of art is nearly always crippling. “I always knew I wanted the Thirteenth Doctor to be a woman,” Chris Chibnall has said. The obvious response to that is, “okay — why?” He never seems to have found an answer to that, beyond pleasing The Guardian. Indeed, it is notable that this incarnation of the Doctor is unusually lacking in character, presented as a schematic re-blend of David Tennant and Matt Smith, rather than as a character in her own right. Maybe Chibnall was trying to make up for his horrendously misogynistic, sticky-palmed Torchwood story, Cyberwoman, in which a dolly bird in a metallic swimsuit goes round killing people. But, having decided to embrace the gimmick, he failed to find anything else, leaving Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor as just that – a gimmick. It was enough to entice viewers to take a look, but it was unsurprisingly not enough to make them stay.
(I am not saying, by the way, that a female Doctor could never have worked. Imagine Miriam Margolyes bustling around the TARDIS. I am saying that this ultimately rather crass attempt has failed, and it would be a huge mistake to try and double down. And, you know, maybe having a male hero for children, particularly boys, is needed now. Someone who is brave and eccentric and good, and doesn’t treat every encounter they have with women as a sexual opportunity. There aren’t a lot of these types of cultural figures about right now.)
The problems began with Peter Capaldi. Capaldi is a terrific actor and could have been a great Doctor. Unfortunately, producers decided to make his Doctor, initially at least, thoroughly unlikable. Viewers switched off, and the show began reaching for politics as a way to keep its most aggressive fans engaged. Their vice-like grip on the show led to influence way beyond the content. Talented contributors to the “Whoniverse” — writers like Gareth Roberts, and performers like James Dreyfus — were frozen out of the franchise because their personal views do not match those of the “progressive” fan community. They even drove the Fifth Doctor, the impeccably mild-mannered Peter Davison, off Twitter when he dared to question Chibnall’s casting choice. I am reluctant to ascribe any kind of grand moral message to what is essentially a children’s programme, but this kind of vindictive illiberalism and imposed conformism seems at odds with the core propositions of the show. Perhaps they’ve been rooting for the Cybermen all along.
It’s a strange quirk of modern television that broadcasters are so reluctant to give the punters what they want
Furthermore, the general public hasn’t been treated to a version of the Doctor in sync with their natural expectations of the character since Matt Smith premiered in 2010. Ask a person on the street to picture the Doctor, and they will almost certainly describe the teeth, curls and scarf of Tom Baker, or if they’re younger, the long brown coat and “Allonsy!” of David Tennant. It’s a strange quirk of modern television that broadcasters, particularly the BBC, often seem so reluctant to give the punters what they want. When they do — be it Line of Duty, Downton Abbey or Strictly Come Dancing — the rewards are enormous. Russell T Davies, when he brought the show back, knew this. This is populist television, television for everyone, though particularly children and families. Never forget the audience.
The result of all this is that fixing Doctor Who is not actually that difficult. The BBC may be embarrassed that the first female Doctor tanked, but ultimately the function of this programme is entertainment not activism. The easiest way to re-find its mainstream audience is by returning it to the cultural mainstream. That means a Doctor who complies with our collective folk memory of the character — an eccentric adventurer in a frock coat. There are plenty of obvious candidates: Dan Stevens, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Samuel West would all make terrific Doctors. The series should also bin the excessive continuity. It is ironic, that having promised to pare the show back, Chibnall became reliant on ever more convoluted fan-candy, to the point that he rewrote the show’s entire canon (including introducing an unknown Doctor played by Jo Martin, who was actually better than Whittaker). Ditch the politics. Ditch the lectures. An adventurer and his friend travel time and space facing down evil. Ideally bring back the Daleks (maybe they could shout “be kind” instead of “exterminate”). A hit is sitting there, ready to be made, for a broad audience browbeaten by years of divisive politics and tiring arguments.
Doubling down on an approach that has so obviously and completely failed would be the creative equivalent of Labour members who argue that they lost the last election because they weren’t left-wing enough. It’s time to go back to basics. If I were suddenly made master of the Whoniverse and could cast anyone I liked as our Time Lord hero, who would I go for? Ioan Gruffud. You heard it here first.
Let’s give the Doctor his heart(s) back. And his audience.
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