For Doctor Who fans, it’s as much fan to speculate about who the next showrunner of the BBC sci-fi series might be as it is to try and guess who’ll replace Jodie Whittaker as the lead character – so it’s no surprise that the news of Chris Chibnall’s impending departure from the head writer/producer position was met with a flurry of names for potential replacements.
One such name to emerge from this lively conjecture was Sally Wainwright – not an entirely unreasonable suggestion, what with the BAFTA winner being a highly respected writer/producer with a back catalogue of big TV drama hits, including several – Last Tango in Halifax (2012-present), Happy Valley (2014-present) and Gentleman Jack (2019-present) – at the BBC.
But then, last week, a rumour surfaced that had Wainwright as hot favourite to be Chibnall’s replacement, with many fans on social media applauding the choice and even starting to consider which of her past collaborators (Gentleman Jack’s Suranne Jones? Last Tango in Halifax’s Nicola Walker?) might fit the bill as the next Doctor.
So where did this rumour come from? And is Sally Wainwright the Doctor Who showrunner heir apparent?
Well, it all seems to have originated from the YouTube channel Council of Geeks, or rather its subsidiary channel Break Room of Geeks. In a video posted on 4th August (entitled “I (MIGHT) know who the next Doctor Who Showrunner is…”), host Nathaniel Wayne claimed to have been told that Wainwright is being lined up by the BBC to succeed Chibnall – their source being a figure “in the industry” who “did not have first-hand knowledge” but who is friends with someone “who does have first-hand knowledge”.
At this stage, it’s best to take any such rumours with a pinch of salt – by Wayne’s own admission, they could not verify the identity of the second figure who allegedly named Wainwright, nor confirm the veracity of this person’s supposed claims. We’ll know for certain who’s taking up the reins on Doctor Who when the BBC confirms it – until then, everything is just hearsay.
But could it, theoretically, be true? Some have pointed to Wainwright’s busy schedule as a potential obstacle to her taking the Who gig – not only does work continue on the second series of Gentleman Jack (production on which was extended due to a series of COVID-enforced hiatuses), she’s also working on The Ballad of Renegade Nell, an 18th century-set series about a female highway robber, for Disney Plus.
Now it’s possible that she could balance working on the latter show alongside her Doctor Who responsibilities – if we’re comparing Wainwright to her predecessor Steven Moffat, Renegade Nell could be her Sherlock – but her commitment to another show, particularly one which (unlike Moffat’s) is being produced for a rival broadcaster, could still complicate matters.
There’s also the question of whether she’d even be interested. Running Doctor Who might be every fan’s dream job, but that doesn’t mean it’d automatically appeal to every qualified writer/producer out there. Sally Wainwright could just… not fancy it.
One surprise indicator on this front though comes from a job Wainwright was all set to take on back in 2009, only for it never to materialise. Robin Hood (2006-2009) was the first family-centric series to be produced by the BBC in the wake of the Doctor Who revival’s success in 2005, capitalising on a rekindled appetite for fantasy/adventure series that appealed to all ages, and in the same year that a third series of the Jonas Armstrong-starring drama aired, Wainwright told The Stage that she was set to take over as head writer.
“They have a third series going out in the spring which I have had nothing to do with, but they have asked me to reinvent it and they want it to be very different, which is why they have come to me,” she explained.
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Notably, Wainwright cited Russell T Davies’ version of Doctor Who as a direct inspiration for the planned overhaul. “The BBC has asked me to take over Robin Hood in a way Russell does on Doctor Who,” she said. “I want to model Robin Hood more on Doctor Who, in terms of quality of script and quality of direction.”
In the event, however, the BBC opted not to commission a fourth series of Robin Hood and the show came to an end after three years. But Wainwright’s involvement in its planned continuation does at least suggest that, back then, she was open to taking on a showrunner role on an established series in the Doctor Who ilk.
So while it’s far from guaranteed that she’ll be the one to head up “the new generation of Doctor Who“, Sally Wainwright’s positioning as a fan favourite for showrunner might actually have more to back it up than just unconfirmed rumours and wishful thinking. As a producer of Doctor Who past was fond of saying, stay tuned…