The news that Jodie Whittaker would be leaving Doctor Who in 2022 felt more like a confirmation than a big reveal, with unofficial reports of her exit having been circulating since January – arguably the bigger surprise was the announcement that showrunner Chris Chibnall would be departing alongside her, with the rumour mill having previously suggested that the writer/producer would be sticking around.
Instead, Whittaker and Chibnall both will bow out next year following a six-part series (to air later in 2021), followed by three specials, the last of which – a feature-length episode – will mark not only their final contributions to Doctor Who but also the BBC’s centenary.
The bookies are already off, of course, throwing out all kinds of names as to who might replace Whittaker – from the vaguely plausible (the previously-rumoured Olly Alexander) to the improbable (Michaela Coel is a busy writer/producer developing her own projects and just got cast in the Black Panther sequel) to the thoroughly outrageous (guys, give it up, it’s never gonna be Tilda Swinton). We just hope poor Kris Marshall has taken his phone off the hook…
But the truth is, it’s far more important who the BBC select to replace Chris Chibnall as Doctor Who’s next showrunner than it is who gets picked to play the next Doctor.
The head writer/producer on Doctor Who has always been the figure who most powerfully shapes the style and flavour of the series – it’s literally their job. Love or hate a particular era of the show, the praise / blame ultimately should be laid at the showrunner’s door.
That’s not to downplay the contribution that Doctor Who’s lead actor makes to the series, which is considerable. Playing the Doctor is less an acting role and more a mantle to be upheld, with a ton of extracurriculars that extend far beyond just showing up on set and knowing your lines. Nor is it to suggest that casting a new Doctor, and in particular replacing Whittaker, is an easy job – if anything, her groundbreaking casting as the show’s first female Doctor has arguably made it harder, broadening our understanding of who the Doctor might be and so expanding the array of potential casting choices.
But the showrunner is responsible for literally everything – from the tone of the show to its look, its casting, its music… even, to a lesser degree, its format and structure. Yes, making Doctor Who – and indeed, any show like it – is a massive team effort, but the showrunner picks (or is at least involved in the hiring of) their writers, the composer, the production designer, the make-up artists, the casting director… all those talented folk whose hard work goes into putting the show together.
Think how distinct the Russell T Davies era is from the Steven Moffat era, and how different both are to Chibnall’s show. Bar a few cosmetic changes, Doctor Who starring Christopher Eccleston and Doctor Who starring David Tennant are broadly the same series. But there’d be no mistaking Moffat’s Who for Davies’ – yes, they’re ostensibly the same programme, but the visuals are different, the humour is different, certain of the tropes are different… everything has regenerated, far more dramatically than when the show switches out one lead actor for the next. (That lead actor, of course, is also picked by the showrunner – pending BBC approval.)
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Though it might not trouble the bookmakers, fans on social media have begun entertaining who might take on the top job next alongside their next Doctor picks – and much like how the latter conversation will often throw up the same names, so there are some familiar suggestions for the showrunner gig, with Mark Gatiss, Toby Whithouse and Neil Gaiman being frequently mentioned (though Gaiman has ruled himself out), alongside Pete McTighe, who made his Doctor Who writing debut during the Chibnall era and has served as an executive producer on A Discovery of Witches since 2019.
These names have been joined by a few more left-field possibilities – including His Dark Materials writer/executive producer Jack Thorne and filmmaker Joe Cornish – and, of course, some utterly wild proposals – Doctor Who fan as he might be, Peter Jackson’s probably a bit busy to relocate to Cardiff for three years.
But whoever steps up to follow Chibnall (and the BBC has assured us that plans for the “new generation” of Doctor Who will be revealed “in due course”), it’ll be they who have the dominant influence on what the show becomes next – whether you like the end product or not.