With the first season of Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor on Doctor Who over with it’s time to take some stock of what the show has become. Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who‘s new showrunner, came in this year and completely revamped the series taking it in a brand new direction that is strikingly different from either Russell T. Davies’ or Steven Moffat’s view of what the series is. Yes, there is now a female Doctor, but the real shifts in the show don’t come from that. There’s a new visual style too, but that’s not the big change either. No, Chibnall has a drastically different vision of who/what the Doctor is, and it’s given us a drastically different show.
While critics seem to be in love with the show and both UK and U.S. ratings are strong overall, there is definitely something that some find off-putting about this new take on Doctor Who. There are complaints about not knowing who the Doctor is, overcrowded storylines, and lack of continuity for companions (or whatever we’re calling them). I’m pretty much in agreement there, but I don’t think it’s because of bad writing. I think it’s because Chibnall, and Whitaker to an extent, see the Doctor not as a character, but as an ideal or an archetype. She’s there for the stories to happen, not to be the story. This is the Doctor as a vehicle for stories, ideas, and themes, not as a character in and of herself.
That’s a hard shift for any fan.
Before we get into how Chibnall is treating the Doctor differently, some history. The idea of the Doctor functioning not as the main character, but as a reason to tell a story isn’t new. This is the Doctor as first imagined way back when the show started. Back then, with William Hartnell in the role, things didn’t so much happen to the Doctor but happened around him. The show was about the adventures, not the Doctor himself, and its general lack of continuity (it’s Atlantis again!) helped that along. His companions were often the ones that took action as he offered up exposition, looked stern, and caused minor trouble. The Doctor was less a character in the early years and more of an excuse. There’s also the fact that the show was designed to be somewhat educational and thus presented itself in such a way that its locations, themes, and stories were more important than the Doctor as a character. This, of course, changed over Hartnell’s run as his Doctor opened up more and stories began revolving around him more. With the introduction of Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor, the show truly became about the Doctor.
And so it went on. While Doctor Who has had many variations that made the Doctor more or less of a central character in the show he’s always been in the middle of it. This culminated in Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, which saw the show often become completely about the Doctor. For better or for worse, Moffat ran a series that was heavily reliant on the history of the Doctor, the character of the Doctor, and his relationship with his companions. To an extent this made sense. He ran straight through the 50th anniversary and was obsessed with continuity and the idea that the Doctor was going on adventures that we never saw. Alex Kingston’s River Song is the perfect example of this Doctor-centric, time-jumping attitude that created a heroic mythos around the character.
That is all to say that this is why Chibnall’s take on the Doctor feels like such a dramatic change. We just went from a showrunner who focussed his stories on the Doctor as a hero to one who thinks the Doctor shouldn’t be the main character or, at the least, shouldn’t be the subject of the show. It’s a hard go from the world ending every week (usually for some reason related to the Doctor’s history), to smaller scale adventures that focus on the adventures themselves and their themes and social messages. While Doctors 9-12 all had individual, socially-aware, stand-alone stories, the series as a whole was never as committed to this approach as Chibnall is.
That’s because Chibnall doesn’t want the Doctor to be the main character; he wants her to be the ideal that episodes are built around. What does that mean? It means that the Doctor is the moral core of each episode, but not the structural core. She’s there to ground the show in its ideals and themes, but not there to be the focus of the stories. To a lesser extent, this is true of the Doctor’s new “Fam,” — Yaz, Ryan, and Graham — as well. If their development isn’t part of the episode they’re often used in the same way as the Doctor now is: to express themes on the whole. However, when their stories are central (eg. “Demons of Punjab” or “It Takes You Away”) they’re used to express the episode’s thematic issues, and the Doctor still remains sidelined as the ideal. She’s the one pointing them in the right direction or presenting the goal. This isn’t to say that the Doctor is perfect. The Doctor is a flawed ideal with doubts and issues, but she’s still the ideal.
With that in mind, it’s very clear by now that Chibnall, and the writers he’s brought on, see Doctor Who as a story vehicle, not a character one. It’s science fiction at its purest. The future is used to comment on the past and present by tackling social issues, politics, and current events through the lens of fiction. This isn’t something new to Doctor Who, as the show has always approached issues like this but Chibnall’s approach is easily the most committed to it. Episode after episode this season has put the Doctor and her companions into events that aren’t about them, but about the world around them. This is best expressed by the show’s near refusal to take place in the TARDIS, which has been entirely redesigned as a much smaller space, not suited for monologing or great bouts of interaction. The message is clear: this is about the world outside.
Aside from one story thread appearing in the first and last episodes, every episode this year has been a standalone story that plops the Doctor and her three companions into a situation and then uses them as a vehicle to tell a contained story with a socially aware message or strong themes about humanity. “Rosa,” with its sometimes hamfisted attempts to discuss racism in America, and “Kerblam!,” with its critique of consumer culture and Amazon, are two of the more obvious ones and give us a good understanding of Chibnall’s understanding of the Doctor.
In “Rosa” the needless racist alien plotline is just that, and the show’s true focus is on the social issues dredged up. The Doctor’s role in it all is exposition, a reason for being there. This is best displayed by her school-teacher summary at the end of the episode. Her actions with the evil alien may “save the day,” but the episode’s true point is a look at this time and place in history, not the Doctor herself. “Kerblam!” is much the same. While the Doctor does kind of end up victorious, the majority of the episode is spent critiquing (or complimenting) the automation of the workforce and consumerism through a thinly veiled metaphor for Amazon. Again, the Doctor is there to express the ideals of the show in a final monolog, but it’s not her story on the whole.
Even when the episode is about the Doctor, ditching the socially aware themes for space adventure and limited continuity, the Doctor plays second fiddle to her human companions. In the final episode of the season, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” it’s not the Doctor struggling with her character, but her companions. The Doctor is there as the ideal with Graham the focus of character development and change. He’s the one who is emotionally challenged with his anger over the death of Grace. The punch comes not from some universal struggle for the Doctor, but one man’s attempt to be better. There’s a reason he’s this season’s most popular character, and it’s because he’s the one the show truly focuses on to develop. The big battles throughout the season, and especially in the final episode, are mostly background fodder for commentary on loss, death, revenge, and family.
This new look leads to people believing they haven’t got a grasp on who Whitaker’s Doctor is because it’s not being shoved in our face. Since the Doctor isn’t the actual central figure of the show, but the themes around her instead, it feels like we don’t know her. That’s not quite true, however. As an ideal the Doctor is still a character. Chibnall may be handling her differently, but that doesn’t mean she’s not her own woman. Whitaker’s take doesn’t get the same kind of time to shine through bombastic character development, but she still is defined. She’s eternally optimistic, open and welcoming, constantly surprised by the world, and also a bit more rough-and-tumble than any Doctor since the third, but it also feels like she has some doubt in herself that she’s masking through her rush ahead attitude. The difference is Chibnall’s presentation of her doesn’t blast these characteristics out as defining the series, but instead as defining the ideal that the stories build on.
I’ll point to one of the more maligned episodes of this series as a perfect encapsulation of all of this. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” was one of the more poorly reviewed episodes by fans this year, but it’s actually the one that helped me understand the new series the best. Not only did I finally get a grip on Whitaker’s Doctor in this episode, but it shows almost every aspect of Chibnall’s new take, which both works and doesn’t. The Doctor is the ideal here, on her adventure to save the ship, but she’s not the point of the story. The companions all break off and basically everyone goes on their own adventure, the focus of the story not being on the Doctor confronting a big bad (even though there is a literal small bad), but instead on a series of themes and social messages. While I don’t think it always works, especially the truly awful Yaz/Ryan discussion about his parents, it’s a perfect example of the overall approach that Chibnall is taking. It’s obvious why the episode rubbed fans the wrong way as it was so drastically different from previous eras.
It’s hard to say whether this approach is a success. For those who like a more classic take on Doctor Who and science fiction, this might be the Doctor they’ve been waiting for while struggling through Moffat’s often overblown stories. The biggest issue is that the quality of any single episode is so much more important now, and this season as a whole has been a mixed bag. When a single episode doesn’t work there’s no bigger character-arc or storyline to fall back on so the flaws of the worst episodes this year really stand out. Hell, the flaws of the best episodes do too. This new approach is a risk, and I think on the whole the new, episodic, science fiction style works, but it’s so hard of a shift from our understanding of how the show operates that when it doesn’t it feels really bad.
There are legitimate complaints to be levied at the series outside of this new approach, and some of them even stem from it. The writing can be wooden, there’s a cheap dependence on the sonic to solve problems, and the companion development is rushed or non-existent at times. It’s hard to develop characters when your focus is telling individual stories around them, but it isn’t impossible. We shouldn’t ignore these flaws because of the show’s new approach, but I don’t think the approach itself is one of them. This is a new old take on the Doctor and it is going to take some getting used to, but if Doctor Who can’t reinvent itself I’m not sure what show can. There should, on the whole, be improvements made and maybe even Chibnall should write fewer episodes, but there are also some magical moments from this season that the old ways wouldn’t have produced.
It will be interesting to see how the show moves forward when it returns in 2020 or if this will all be blown out of the water by the New Year’s special in a few weeks. I can’t see Chibnall taking the show back to what it was during the Moffat era, but could we see more episodes where the story is actually about the Doctor instead of about the story around the Doctor? I expect not, and I’m not sure that they should.