Is Doctor Who’s Centenary special already in trouble?
Jodie Whittaker's regeneration should be the focus, but a host of guest stars and returning foes risks making the story overstuffed, argues Hannah Watkin.
In the thrilling trailer for the Doctor Who Centenary special, we discovered a whole host of exciting characters will be joining Jodie Whittaker for her final outing as the Doctor. Chief among those returning? ‘80s companions Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and Ace (Sophie Aldred), whose shock comeback has thrilled Doctor Who fans old and new.
But that’s not all – some of the Doctor’s more recent allies including Vinder (Jacob Anderson) and UNIT leader Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) were also revealed to be joining the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) once again. And that's not all – the Daleks, the Cybermen and Sacha Dhawan’s brilliant incarnation of the Master were also shown to be returning. Clearly, this will be a jam-packed finale episode for Whittaker.
But herein lies a potential issue. While all of these character returns are thrilling for fans, in an episode which should be Whittaker’s final time to shine as the Doctor, it’s possible to get the feeling that Doctor Who’s Centenary special is at risk of being overstuffed.
This is a problem we've seen hit showrunner Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who before. In last year’s incredibly ambitious six-part story Flux, the show was eventually let down by just how much was crammed into such a small runtime. Flux was a story so complicated, the Doctor herself ended up having to be split into three parts in the finale in order to stand a chance of tying everything up.
Certain plotlines, such as Kate Stewart’s Earth-based struggles against Craig Parkinson’s wonderfully slimy Grand Serpent were, while intriguing, ultimately unnecessary. Even the series’ apparent main villains Swarm and Azure (Sam Spruell and Rochenda Sandall) ended up feeling annoyingly in-the-way and insignificant. Overall, Flux was a series trying to do too much.
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By contrast, Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who has arguably been at its strongest in some of its most self-contained stories. Rosa (2018), Resolution (2019), or Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (2020) spring to mind as excellent examples of Doctor Who at its best, reminiscent of previous focused Doctor Who successes like 2007’s Blink or 2010’s Vincent and the Doctor.
Meanwhile, complex stories such as Flux’s final episode The Vanquishers seem to run away from Chibnall’s control. So is the Centenary at risk of having this happen again?
With so many characters already announced, and an expectation that the episode still hasn’t shown all its cards, it's difficult to feel confident that the special will do all of its cast justice. It’d be such a shame if so many amazing guest stars and characters are thrown away, especially in Jodie Whittaker’s final episode.
And yet, there is still hope. For starters, it’s worth keeping in mind that Doctor Who has had success in the past with busier, more involved stories. Complex episodes are a part of Doctor Who’s DNA, just as much as the ones that give more time to pause.
Remember, Russell T Davies’ Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (2008) successfully managed to cram numerous characters from his era of Doctor Who into a fantastic finale of universal proportions. Perhaps this Centenary special also has to risk the traps of being an overly-full finale to create a classic, long-remembered episode.
Plus, given the special's connection to the 100-year BBC Centenary, you could argue that Chris Chibnall simply has to go bigger and beyond to deliver a celebration of the show’s biggest successes from throughout its history. Daleks, Cybermen, and companions old and new must all be present for this; anything less would be missing the mark.
Part of the joy of Doctor Who today is how large its universe is. Surely it would be wrong to ask for any outgoing showrunner to shy away from celebrating this, even if their track record is less than stellar when it comes to huge finales?
Encouragingly, the BBC has promised this Centenary special episode will be ‘feature-length’, meaning that unlike Flux’s comparatively short and overstuffed episodes, this more self-contained narrative should have some time for all its moving parts. Perhaps this episode will finally give Chibnall a chance to show us that he can do Doctor Who at its busiest.
So, while there are just causes to be cautious ahead of this Centenary special, it’s probably best to remain optimistic about all it promises to have in store for us. It might still be, as the Doctor would say, brilliant.