Seems a shame to look back on the Jodie Whittaker era of Doctor Who when the last episode that aired, her penultimate outing, stands as one of her weakest. Legend of the Sea Devils was a rushed mess. It’s particularly sad given that the previous special, Eve of the Daleks, was bloody brilliant.
Actually, though, this for me is fairly representative of the hit-and-miss Jodie Whittaker era. Series 12 in particular had roughly the same amount of crummy episodes as it had great ones. Fugitive of the Judoon and The Timeless Children were highlights, Spyfall and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror… not so much. (Read my full review on this series.)
Series 11 had a similar flow of hits and misses. Demons of the Punjab: amazing. The Ghost Monument: meh. Rosa: good. Arachnids in the UK: only okay. It Takes You Away: great. The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos: disappointing.
Series 13, aka Flux, was an interesting one. Overall, I enjoyed the single 6-part story. Intriguing ideas, good villains, the welcome return of the Weeping Angels, and some more exploration of the Timeless Child and the Division, also welcome. I think it benefited from having fewer companions, too. Did it achieve its full potential? I’m not sure, but I need to watch that mad and lightning-paced last episode again before I can feel clear on that one.
The Jodie Whittaker era has been a very divisive era of Doctor Who. Some of the hate has come from Whovians who still can’t get over the Doctor being a woman. Some of it has come from Whovians most upset that the Timeless Child arc has changed Who lore. Both of those criticisms come largely from people who refuse to accept change. The conservative corners of the fandom, who like everything to stay the same.
I have very little time for conservative types criticising Doctor Who. It’s fantastic that the Doctor is now a woman, and the Timeless Child arc has made the Doctor and particularly the Time Lords much more interesting. We haven’t lost anything. The mystery of the Doctor was because the writers never settled on a backstory for her. And that mystery isn’t gone. It’s just got more meat on it. My review of Series 12 has more on how I feel about the Timeless Child revelation, but in short, it’s opened up some great story opportunities.
There is, however, a whole other bunch of people criticising the Whittaker era for bad writing and bad showrunning, with Chris Chibnall standing in the dock accused.
Now, before I comment on Chibnall’s time as showrunner, perhaps I should give my thoughts on the previous two.
Russell T. Davies. Do you know what? I might be one of the few Whovians who is not excited by his return. I wish it was a new writer again. Even better, one of the few female writers on the show wouldn’t go amiss. One: change is good. Two: Russell T. Davies was not the perfect writer or showrunner everybody seems to remember him as.
Yes, I will always be grateful to Davies for bringing back Who, and for giving us Rose and Donna, and some absolute belters of episodes. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday are still among the best two-parters of the series. But he also gave us The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. They were fun, sure, but were they good? No. Despite being set up wonderfully in Utopia and Turn Left respectively, both finales were inane and badly written.
Watching Journey’s End in particular was the day I realised Doctor Who would be better off without an overeager fanboy like Davies at the helm. That second Doctor growing out of the Doctor’s hand and making the Doctor-Donna was so stupid. The Daleks wanting to destroy not just Earth, not just the galaxy, not just the universe, but reality itself, was the zenith of Davies’ childish “let’s do it BIGGER than last year” mentality. And I am still haunted by the scene of all the companions towing the Earth back to its orbit. Just no. It was Davies’ ultimate fan-wank, and he thought it would be ours too. But come on. Surely most of us like our Doctor Who with more brains and subtlety than that.
Did I think showrunner number 2, Steven Moffat, was better? Well, he was different. Very different. Steven Moffat turned Doctor Who into a fairy tale. This is most obvious in the way he treated the Doctor, turning him into a god-like figure that entire fleets of ships will run away from. Davies started this trend in Last of the Time Lords, sending Martha round the world to spread the word of the Doctor so as to resurrect him Jesus-style when everybody thinks of him (urgh).
But my god did Moffat crank it up to the max. The arc of Moffat’s entire era was about the Doctor being prevented from speaking his name. Sure, there were some elements of this I really loved, like Dorium’s reveal that the First Question, hidden in plain sight, was “Doctor Who?” at the end of The Wedding of River Song, and how cleverly everything fell into place in The Time of the Doctor.
However, some elements really strained credibility. Nowhere was this more obvious than in The Pandorica Opens, when the Doctor, standing on a rock, gave a speech to dozens of enemy spaceships hovering in the sky, telling them all to fuck off. And what did they do? They fucked off. Even though any one of those ships could’ve blasted him off that rock and ended all their problems in a second. And then they come back to imprison him in the Pandorica when, again, they could’ve just shot the bloke.
And then, in series 6, the Silence wage a “ageless, bitter war” against the Doctor that involves kidnapping Amy and Rory’s baby, Melody, and training her to assassinate him. The way this story plays out is fantastic, but the underlying concept – that the Doctor is that dangerous – doesn’t work.
River Song refers to the Doctor as a god in The Angels Take Manhattan. And I think that’s how Steven Moffat thinks of him, too. But the Doctor isn’t a god. He’s an alien whose only superpower is his ability to regenerate. As we know, this doesn’t mean he can’t die. It just means that depending on the nature of his death, he has a way of cheating it.
Steven Moffat constantly inflating the Doctor’s importance in the universe ultimately got a bit silly. And in the end, his stories got so deep, so fantastical, and so philosophical that I actually lost interest before the end of Peter Capaldi’s era. There are still some episodes towards the end of series 10 that I haven’t seen. Some of that is because I absolutely hated the Hybrid arc of series 9. The prophecy about a dangerous creature crossbred from two warrior races that would break time and hearts (or something) turned out to be, er, the Doctor and Clara, because apparently them travelling together is super-dangerous for the universe. FFS. Why couldn’t the Hybrid have actually been your conventional monster for once? Everything during Steven Moffat’s era had to be profound, so much so that I found myself craving the simpler Russell T. Davies days, when it was just the Doctor and his companion fighting aliens and anomalies.
In a way, Chibnall is a combo of Davies and Moffat. He brought back the simpler good vs evil times of Davies, when not everything needed to have a deeper meaning or shades of grey. At the same time, the Timeless Child arc made the Doctor into a very important figure, but in a more substantive, less fantastical way than all of Moffat’s riddles and prophecies. After all, Doctor Who is supposed to be a sci-fi show. Under Moffat, it strayed into fantasy way more than it should. I remember reading about Moffat’s aversion to technobabble, and I can’t help thinking that this precipitated Moffat’s transformation of the Doctor into less of a scientist and more of a magician.
It sounds like I’m saying I prefer Chibnall as a showrunner to the other two and, actually, I don’t. Chibnall is responsible for some shoddy stories and the weakest companions ever on New Who. I can barely even remember Ryan even though he was in it for two series. Graham had the most personality but remained underdeveloped. Yaz has been getting better material since the start of Flux, but it’s too little, too late. I love the potential for a female Doctor to have a thing with a female companion, but the lack of chemistry between the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz makes it feel false. Dan’s okay, but he’s just been in it too briefly for me to really care about him.
Part of the problem is the BBC slashing the number of episodes Doctor Who has been getting each season. Peter Capaldi got 12 episodes per series instead of the 13 that the previous three doctors got. And poor Jodie only got 10. And in Flux, her final series, she got 6. The shortness of Flux was partly down to Covid, but the BBC has been giving us less and less Doctor Who over the years, tightening their purse strings with every successive series.
The other problem is, we should never have had 3 companions in the first place. The character development for previous companions was so good because they had room to breathe. I don’t know whether Chibnall or the BBC made the decision to have 3 companions accompany Jodie Whittaker but it didn’t work.
Truth be told, we haven’t yet had a consistently great showrunner on Doctor Who, which is why I wish the next one was not Davies, but someone new.
As for Ncuti Gatwa as the Fourteenth Doctor, well, I’m a big fan of Sex Education, and I love him in that. And I think it’s awesome, and hugely important, that the Doctor is not Caucasian for once.
However, I wish it had been another woman. Thanks to the BBC, Jodie Whittaker will have only been in 30 episodes by the time she regenerates. David Tennant, by comparison, was in 47 across the same number of series. Whittaker, the first woman Doctor, will have had the fewest episodes since Eccleston. And she’s had the worst companions too, which means she’s not had the chance to develop any truly great relationships with anyone.
That said, I’m excited to see what Gatwa does with the role, and I’m just hoping Davies has calmed down a bit since he left Doctor Who in 2010. No more fan-wanking, please.
Of course, he’s in charge of the 60th anniversary special, isn’t he. In which case, Lord help us all.
In other news!
If you read my newsletter this month, you’ll know that I’ve completed Million Eyes III: Ouroboros. 🥳 It came to 101,000 words, so longer than Million Eyes but a bit shorter than Million Eyes II: The Unraveller. That has the potential to change, as the third book is now with my muse, Vicky, and my partner, Katherine, for initial feedback. Once I’ve made the changes they suggest, it’ll be off to Elsewhen Press for editing!
I’m also 6,000 words into my new novel, The Puddle Bumps, a mystery/conspiracy/horror novel about a defence lawyer who finds a videotape of a cheesy kids puppet show from the 80s and suddenly remembers a violent and gruesome episode, which she ends up linking to a client she represented for murder years ago.
Oh, and Katherine and I have been bingeing through Star Trek Picard season 2, which so far is excellent! Way better than season 1! Last two episodes to go tonight!