It kind of goes without saying that a Doctor Who showrunner should be a lifelong fan of the series but it’s still nice to know that Chris Chibnall – who RadioTimes.com revealed today is to replace Steven Moffat in the role – has genuine fanboy credentials to go with his professional experience writing for the show.
Here’s a teenaged Chibnall in 1986, on BBC discussion programme Open Air, representing the Doctor Who Appreciation Society and giving writers a bit of a dressing down over Colin Baker episode Trial of a Time Lord.
On one hand, this will please some Who fans who didn’t exactly rate that episode. On the other, criticising Doctor Who for too much “running up and down corridors and silly monsters” seems a bit rich from the man who would go on to bring us series seven episode Dinosaurs on a Spaceship…
That aside, what does Chibnall’s Doctor Who output to date suggest he will be like as a showrunner?
Themes around family seem to appear quite often in Chibnall’s episodes, together with the mundane but homely aspects that some of the characters experience in between heart-thumping time travel adventures. Chibnall was the writer who created Rory’s dad Brian, brought him along for an adventure to show him how wonderful the wider universe is, but then had him choose to stay put at home because “someone has to water the plants”.
In two-parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, three generations of a family are caught up in the resurrection of the Silurians, while Chibnall’s first episode, 42, sees Martha Jones spend half her time phoning her mum. And five-part web series Pond Life, of course, is set entirely in Amy and Rory’s house.
Those insights into characters’ backgrounds and the things that make them human seem important to Chibnall so perhaps we’ll see more of the new companion’s homelife (when she, or he, is finally chosen) – or maybe even the Doctor interacting with some of his own family again (after all, he has been called father, grandfather and husband in his time). Or perhaps we’ll just get to see him making a cuppa in the TARDIS kitchen. Finally!
The other side of the coin seems to be Chibnall’s apparent love of a celebrity guest star, whether that means cameos from modern day famous faces – like Professor Brian Cox sharing his thoughts on the mysterious alien boxes in Power of Three or Lord Sugar in the same episode – or creating an ensemble cast by adding characters like Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steel) and big game hunter John Riddell, like he did in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Perhaps we’ll see a return to the traditional time travel history lessons of the classic series where we meet people like that.
Don’t forget of course that Chibnall was also head writer on the first two series of post-watershed Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. While its sometimes tacky production values in those early days stopped it from being as gritty as it would have liked, it did regularly feature sex-heavy storylines (including an early one about an alien that consumed its victims during orgasm) and plenty of hard-hitting human deaths. Clearly, we’re not going to see that sort of thing in Doctor Who (even if it has been edging towards the watershed itself in recent times), but perhaps it’s a sign that family drama and historical capers are going to be balanced with that darker edge that has resurfaced under Steven Moffat.
The truth is we can’t draw too many definite conclusions about where Chibnall will go with Doctor who – he simply hasn’t had enough opportunities to show us yet. But in Broadchurch he’s had experience writing and running a big successful show (starring a former Doctor) and Steven Moffat clearly trusts him enough to hand over the reigns, so hopefully Doctor Who is in safe hands.
Chibnall has plenty of planning time, given that he probably won’t officially take over until Moffat’s next series ends in late 2017/early 2018. From there on, it’s up to him.