For the first time since the show returned in 2005, Doctor Who was not on TV this year, though we’ll get the requisite Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, within a few weeks. Instead, we made do with assorted comic books, Big Finish’s stellar audio plays and the divisive BBC3 spin-off, Class. Series 10 will instead grace us in Spring 2017, marking the final end of Steven Moffat’s reign as showrunner, a title he’s held since the beginning of the decade. He’s presided over two Doctors, as well as introduced a third, the 50th anniversary of the series and, in particular, its explosion to worldwide popularity, especially in America. He cast both the youngest and the oldest actors to have played the Time Lord, and helped reintroduce the idea of an older Doctor to a generation used to younger, bouncier ones.
And yet, for all that, Moffat’s era has seen no shortage of controversy and division: stories like The Doctor’s Wife, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline and Heaven Sent have been ranked as among some of the best stories in New Who, if not in Who’s fifty plus years of history, while other episodes, many with Moffat’s name attached, like Let’s Kill Hitler, The Wedding of River Song, Asylum of The Daleks, Time of the Doctor, Death in Heaven and Hell Bent have been met with derision and scorn, throwing accusations at Moffat such as sexism, needless complexity, and disrespect for the canon.
Well, in January of this year, it was announced Broadchurch creator and regular from the Smith era, Chris Chibnall, would inherit the series come 2018. While little is known of Chibnall’s plans, he has made clear a desire for a more American approach to the writing, with a writer’s room to help bounce around and review ideas. More recently, though, the Mirror claimed to have leaked plans to replace Capaldi and give Chibnall a new Doctor, one with a ‘younger’ mandate after declining ratings.
Speaking for myself, I do like Chibnall. His Who work isn’t necessarily groundbreaking the way Moffat’s were in the Davies era, but he clearly gets the programme and can write a variety of different tales (the shamelessly fun Dinosaurs on A Spaceship versus the high concept thriller 42). Rather, I wish to focus on what his tenure could possibly create, whether or not the Mirror’s rumour is true. So, how to start?
1 – The Doctor and Companion
If the Mirror’s rumour is true, then Capaldi and new companion Bill (played by newcomer Pearl Mackie) will be gone in favour of a younger, more dynamic team cut from the mould of Ten/Rose. While there’s nothing wrong with having a younger Doctor, given the plethora of great young talent out there, I sincerely hope this is not the BBC trying to reclaim past glories. A combination of writing, the performance and just ‘right place right time’ is not something that can be manufactured to order, and rehashing has been a running criticism of the production team as of late. If the next Doctor is young, it should be because of their acting chops, not a need to patronisingly attract younger audiences and push up merchandising sales.
As far as companions, we’ve had a run of modern ones played by very strong actresses, but it’s a trope that’s served its purpose (helping to ground the show for a modern audience), and now it’s time to shake it up. Why not a historical companion, like a Saxon warrior or Chinese Princess, whom the Doctor educates (a la Leela), or perhaps a shapeshifting android or alien that would get around the costs of major effects (which is what crippled Kamelion from the Davison era)? How would their alienness contrast and/or complement the Doctor’s? What perspectives on life in the TARDIS and the Doctor’s methods could be offered? Doing something different is precisely what’s needed to help refresh the show’s image to the public, as well as to fans tired of certain repeated tropes.
2 – The Writing Staff
In most articles, this is where I’d be whining (and not without reason) about why the Big Finish lot haven’t been brought onboard and how fans would love to see the likes of Johnathan Morris (a favourite), Marc Platt (both a favourite and an important figure in Who history, I might add) and John Dorney (practically BF’s own Jamie Mathieson), among others, tackle an episode or two. However, this is not that kind of article, irrespective of if I’d want them to or not (which I would).
We have gotten some great new talent like Mathieson, Catherine Tregenna and Sarah Dollard added to the Who family, but then the likes of Peter Harness and Steve Thompson… not so much. And with people like Gatiss and Gareth Roberts returning nearly every season, it just ends up feeling samey because, well, we know what they have to offer: Gatiss does quirky historical, Roberts does goofy sitcom, Whithouse does traditional with a slight twist etc. and their work just isn’t varied enough to mask the blatant recycling.
If Chibnall gets his writer’s room, I hope we can inject some additional new blood into the series, and some fresh perspectives on what the show is, going into the 2020s. Yes, have some veterans on standby if something falls through or you want something steady to balance your more daring work, but don’t be afraid to spice up the writing staff more often with names big and small. Risks create genuine anticipation and excitement as the audience doesn’t know what to expect from this or that writer, as well as help launch fledgeling careers, which is never bad for the show’s PR.
3 – Stakes and Arcs
One universal point of agreement among fans is the deterioration of the story arcs: Instead of
a slow but gradual development, with a strong hook and threatening background menace, we get
random blatherings about ‘The Promised Land!’or Capaldi yelling ‘Hybrid!’ at everything. Elements like the afterlife, the Doctor’s values, mortality and even the consequences of time travel have been continually deflated by writing that lacks an edge. Game changers only work when the grounding is there, and Moffat had copped out time and again.
A good idea cannot sustain itself: the writing must support and examine it and swapping actual dissection of interesting concepts for fanservice (ooh, old Daleks! Oooh, old TARDIS set!) is not the way forward. Present us with a decent hook to intrigue our curiosity and then slowly pull back the curtain over the course of the thirteen weeks, seeing how the villain is more actively pulling the strings and bringing the stories together in his/her master plan as well as stack the odds against the Doctor and his friends. If the writer’s room gets the go-ahead, this will hopefully provide greater consistency, as well as a better-implemented arc that builds like a good symphony.
4 – A Concrete Vision
Moving forward, we need a showrunner with an idea of where to take the show and how to
make it as fresh and exciting for audiences as possible. With over fifty years of lore behind it across different mediums, Chibnall has his work cut out for him, and if other rumours are to be believed, he may already have his first two series mapped out as a precautionary measure to not end up burning out like Moffat did after Series 6.
I want someone who can restore a sense of danger to a series that many have felt has lost its teeth in the service of misguidedly trying to bring back older fans with cheap references. I want someone who can create well-rounded characters who go on compelling journeys that tell us more about the Doctor’s nature and his effect on people. I want someone who won’t repeat the same two or three ideas over and over and instead give each season its own identity. Based on Broadchurch, Chibnall could well give us a more character-focused series, and possibly even a little bit of moral greyness in our leads, which could spice up the drama a fair bit. No more magic Time Lord chambers or wacky kisses or Cyber-Brigs. Just proper storytelling, with cause and effect.
Now, of course, there’s more I could theorise and speculate on, but I’d rather wait until we have some more concrete notions of what Chibnall intends to bring, as well as what closing tricks Moffat may have up his sleeve. I legitimately hope Moffat can fulfil the missed potential of his era in one last glorious burst with Series 10, and that Chibnall will shock, thrill and excite us with Series 11 in 2018. Who’s future has never both brighter and yet more uncertain, which also means it will do something it hasn’t in a while: surprise us.
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