Doctor Who doesn't need to die - it needs to regenerate
The departure of star and showrunner could be a new start for the sci-fi series – but deeper issues may still need to be addressed.
By: Sab Astley
With the news of both star Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall leaving, a big question hangs over Doctor Who: "Who will take over?" But some others have a different, perhaps more pressing question – should Doctor Who continue at all?
A recent Guardian piece suggested not, critiquing Doctor Who for its inability to compete against the likes of monolithic Disney cash-cows like The Mandalorian, Loki and WandaVision, not just in budget but in storytelling terms. To quote the piece, which was widely discussed online, Doctor Who’s story arcs have “gradually been turned up to a Spinal Tap-esque 11, and now it can’t be turned down.”
It's not a completely uncommon view, and you don't have to go far online to find a fan bemoaning a rapidly-declining show, past its revival prime and gradually sinking into the primordial ooze of irrelevancy. To some, Who’s current incarnation is no longer sustainable, too-big-to-succeed in a storytelling sense, with suggestions of a break, a feature film, or even an anthology series featuring Whoniverse characters to break the mould.
But while these views could arguably be correct with regards to Doctor Who’s problems, where they're wrong is the treatment. Doctor Who doesn’t need to die – it needs to regenerate.
I can understand these critiques of the show – in fact, I even agree with some of the issues raised – but they place far too much blame on the show, and not enough on who’s navigating the ship. Doctor Who’s lifeblood is experimentation and imaginative ambition – when Russell T Davies revived the show in 2005, the Doctor became more human than ever; he loved, he lost, he raged and he mourned. He redefined the character at its core, fundamentally changing the show as a whole for the better.
More recently, the introduction of a female Doctor gave the chance of redefinition again – but showrunner Chris Chibnall’s era often felt like a step backward toward Classic Who’s edutainment, ticking off social issues like boxes.
Doctor Who still evidently has that imaginative spark in it – just look at Vinay Patel’s Demons of the Punjab or Maxine Alderton’s The Haunting of Villa Diodati, both standout episodes for Whittaker’s era. These two are marvellous writers (happily, Maxine is apparently a core writer for the upcoming series 13), and Whittaker is clearly charismatic – but it can all fall flat without a creatively ambitious showrunner who cannot keep the human heart of the Doctor beating.
Too often, it felt like Whittaker was made to channel other Doctors, unable to craft her own. What Doctor Who needs next is a showrunner who can marry the crummy and the extraordinary together, who’s willing to get experimental, shake up the writer’s room and the format – in short, get a little wibbly-wobbly. Some have pegged Kerblam! and Praxeus writer Pete McTighe as the clear choice, but let’s not go with the obvious in-house white male writer for once – let’s go left-field, unexpected! It’s fresh blood and perspective that’ll keep Who's human heart pumping.
But even the most imaginative showrunner in the world can’t fix Doctor Who’s greatest woe – because there's a deeper issue holding the series back from its recent glory days. No, what truly plagues the show is a lack of promotion, with Doctor Who no longer shown off as the flagship show it should be for the BBC.
Frankly, in recent years it feels as though Doctor Who’s marketing has dwindled more and more. The Doctor Who Experience has disappeared, gone are the days of the World Cup Final first-look reveals. We even had a unique live event to unveil Peter Capaldi! What happened to this hype? Supposedly, this is because the BBC makes decisions based on the public interest – but Doctor Who is essentially a British icon. Would supporting and upholding a British icon, including one that generates millions in merchandise, book and spin-off media sales not fall under that interest?
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The BBC have announced a "centenary blockbuster special" to book-end Whittaker’s departure in 2022 which feels like a step in the right direction, but the corporation must keep walking that way if it truly believes Doctor Who reflects a celebration of the company. Make a spectacle out of newly-hired writers, create a build-up to the announcement of the new companions, or the new Doctor. Craft an installation of a delightfully bizarre new monster and put it in Trafalgar Square! With just one well-executed publicity stunt, you can light a global fire of anticipation.
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In recent years some have claimed Doctor Who’s irrelevancy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – it’s a global phenomenon with Comic-Con panels, cozying up with Marvel and DC overseas and with its own after-show discussion program in Australia. Doctor Who prides itself on its creative experimentation and dedication to the human condition, and it’s never needed epic budgets and monolithic production values for that.
Midnight, Turn Left, The Waters of Mars, Heaven Sent. All incredible episodes because of bold imaginative minds that dared to experiment with storytelling, formula and the very fabric of the show itself. The beauty of Doctor Who is in its unwavering commitment to transformation and experimentation – in essence, regeneration.
However, if you don’t have a strong showrunner steering the ship in a clear direction, and your expedition isn't shown off to the world, of course the ship will seem like it’s lost, bound to sink. And right now, Doctor Who is taking on water.