An unprecedented thing has happened to Doctor Who in 2018. Chris Chibnall, writer of a handful of less-than-well-received episodes in past seasons and showrunner-by-proxy of frequently derided spinoff Torchwood, has decided to take a highly transformative approach to his first season as executive producer/head writer of the parent series. He has changed the gender of the title character, returned to the Doctor-and-three-companions structure last seen in 1982, shifted transmission to Sunday evenings, moved to a cinematic aesthetic hitherto unseen in the programme, and altered the dramatic impetus of what has traditionally been viewed as an adventure serial.
But that’s just the context. The unprecedented thing is this: ratings are up and critical opinion is consistently high, but large sections of a devoted fandom have all but abandoned the programme.
What’s new here is the phenomenon of everyone except a noisy hardcore of fans liking the show. So what gives?
Similar things have happened before. Ratings have peaked and stayed high at various times in the programme’s long history. 1965 and 1979 are notable high points, with the middle-‘70s also showing signs of consistent popularity. But at these times, Doctor Who was also the darling of critics and fans together, or of neither. The second half of the 1980s saw the programme consistently panned by critics and avoided by the public while a new fandom clung vociferously to what they perceived as a programme worth protecting.
An early factor in fandom’s negativity towards Chibnall’s appointment lay in his casting of Jodie Whittaker – or, more specifically, of a female Doctor. Feedback on social media suggests this has passed except in more misogynist circles, with even the more negative fans now happy to see her continue.
(Why is this blanket rejection of a female Doctor misogynist? Well, if fans are okay with the ultimate humanoid villain in the programme – The Master/Missy – becoming a sadistic, psychopathic woman, why do they have a problem with the morally driven hero being female?)
As a staunch defender of Season 11, I’ve actually found it hard to piece together what other fans are objecting to so much. Some of the voices I’ve sounded out have put forth interesting reasons, and it is through this essay that I am endeavouring to understand why our views differ so sharply.
One friend was disappointed by the shortfall of traditional monsters/villains in the season, in favour of ‘misunderstood’ foes, a shift that pulls Doctor Who away from its melodramatic adventure serial roots towards ‘straight’ drama, wherein a conflict of views can create narrative impetus. This, then, is a difference of preference for a mode of dramatic storytelling. Another felt the season was a cure for insomnia. The reasons may be related, with the mode of narrative engagement again having shifted significantly from previous eras in the programme’s history. This isn’t to suggest that these fans are unfamiliar with or unappreciative of other modes of dramatic storytelling, but that they prefer their Doctor Who narratives to have a particular flavour.
A number of fans are calling for Chibnall to move on, or at least to write fewer episodes. (Of the first five, he co-wrote ‘Rosa’ but wrote the others solo.) The latter is a valid criticism: too many episodes in a row from a single author, while establishing a tone, can quickly lead to a paucity of viable ideas. Even the critical consensus on ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ is relatively low, suggesting Chibnall should have enlisted at least one additional writer to his team.
But is this reason enough to ditch him? Russell T Davies arguably took a similar approach in his first season, writing four of the first five episodes and, if his accounts in The Writer’s Tale are reliable, essentially co-writing ‘The Unquiet Dead’. At the time this was viewed with a modicum of forgiveness: fans understood that Davies was trying to establish a radically new approach to the programme format and that it was worth being patient, especially if the next season featured a greater variety of writers. There is no reason not to be as forgiving of Chibnall at a time of such great narrative and aesthetic upheaval.
Is there still a misogyny at the heart of fan criticism? It may not be an explicit one, rather one linked to a broader approach to drama writing. There has been a pointed shift away from straight melodrama in the series towards a hybrid of other things. The aesthetic has become cinematic, giving the show the look of something more akin to Luther. The shooting style and use of an understated score are reminiscent of Chibnall’s earlier Broadchurch. There’s a false start in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ in Ryan’s vlog, a device harking back to Elton’s direct address in ‘Love and Monsters’, but the rest of the episode is functionally a slap in the face to anyone remotely familiar with the preceding 55 years of Doctor Who. And yet…
Chibnall is doing something interesting here. He’s got three companions, already a part of each other’s lives, and the Doctor (literally) falls into their lives when weird stuff starts happening. There’s a familial bond, a grandfather, an even gender balance… This is sounding a lot like 1963, before Doctor Who decided it wanted to be a melodramatic adventure serial. So this is Doctor Who, undeniably, but it’s a Doctor Who that might have been rather than one that, for 55 years, was.
But by the end of the episode, when Stenza warrior Tzim-Sha is defeated and that first adventure is concluded, we stay with the characters. We see Grace’s funeral, days later. The Doctor sticks around, becomes ingrained in the lives of the survivors. The narrative becomes domestic. This is telling: it reveals that Chibnall’s season is interested in exploring the effects of circumstances on people. Plot happens because of who the characters are, not vice versa.
It goes back to the old ‘frocks vs guns’ debate that circulated through fandom in the 1990s. The notion, broadly, was that male fans tend towards plot- and action-driven storytelling in Doctor Who, while female fans are more interested in character relationships. This appeared to be especially prevalent in fan fiction. And what has Chibnall brought in to go with his female Doctor? Female writers and directors. ‘Rosa’ is co-written by Marjorie Blackman. ‘The Witchfinders’ is written by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Sallie Aprahamiam. ‘Kerblam!’ is directed by Jennifer Perrott. It may not sound like a lot, but it’s (alarmingly) a larger influx of female voices in key roles than the show has ever seen at the one time.
Elsewhere, Chibnall’s desire to push the show’s storytelling in new directions is equally apparent. Vinay Patel, a male writer, was clearly enlisted in response to his Murdered By My Father, a BBC drama exploring ethnic tensions in Britain. Pete McTighe is the odd one out. An Australian television writer of some note, his biggest claim to fame is being head writer of Wentworth, which doesn’t exactly scream “straight drama”. But… he has worked as a freelance writer on several more relevant productions, including the character-drama-with-a-supernatural-twist Glitch, and he has been nominated for no fewer than five Australian Writers Guild awards.
How is Chibnall approaching storytelling elsewhere? After announcing early that there would be no returning villains in his premiere season, he held true, bringing Tzim-Sha back for the finale and finally conceding to the presence of a (mostly naked) Dalek in the New Year’s Day special ‘Resolution’, where a sizeable amount of the running time was also dedicated to quiet character moments that don’t directly advance the plot. He has also been criticised by some fans for presenting his antagonists as misunderstood as opposed to genuinely villainous. The Twittersphere has been home to complaints about the underwhelming nature of the finale, ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’, particularly in light of companion Graham’s decision to “be the better man” and consign Tzim-Sha to eternal imprisonment in favour of a revenge killing.
What is happening here is more evidence of Chibnall’s ‘straight drama’ approach. Antagonists are as authentically three-dimensional as the protagonists, but with opposing ideologies. (The notable exception to this is Tzim-Sha himself, a much more traditional Doctor Who ‘monster’ who serves as a catalyst for Graham’s character arc.) Drama emerges from a conflict of ideas, even ideas as down-to-earth as what defines a family. The season is held together by the effect of the companions’ travels with the Doctor on their response to the events of their first meeting in ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’. Ryan acknowledges Graham as his grandfather; Graham has found a non-destructive way to mourn Grace. Only Yasmin has lacked the opportunity to demonstrate growth as part of the group, her development in ‘Demons of the Punjab’ strengthening her relationship with her biological family.
In this context, the resolution of Graham’s character arc in ‘Battle’ is entirely fitting: he has wrestled with his demons and come away from the experience stronger. That the current team is set to continue through Season 12 is a testament to the fact that they haven’t come away from this season ‘damaged’ in the sense so favoured by many contemporary drama series. They have found an equilibrium and moved on. The soap opera approach to characterisation of the Davies era and the plot machinations of Steven Moffat are behind us. Chibnall is interested in plunging ordinary people into extraordinary situations – often populated by other ordinary people – and exploring how they react to those situations. As structural approaches go, it is one arguably unfamiliar to devotees of Doctor Who, but so too were the radical overhauls of Davies and Andrew Cartmel, and time came out in their favour.
Where does this put Doctor Who? There was a time when it was critically lambasted and its ratings were suffering, but fan desires were acceded to. This was the 1980s, and it got axed. Twice. Chibnall famously railed against that approach when he appeared in the audience of Open Air in 1986 as an openly critical respondent to writers Pip and Jane Baker. If he is producing a popular, critically-acclaimed drama series that is still recognisably Doctor Who at its core, he is doing his job. Fans will get used to it: we always do. His work will be reassessed in time. Some fans will fall away from the show, others will be acquired. This is normal for the show. The shift in tone is no more pronounced that the one from, for example, ‘Robot’ to ‘The Ark in Space’, ‘The Horns of Nimon’ to ‘The Leisure Hive’, or ‘Delta and the Bannermen to ‘Dragonfire’.
Doctor Who is far from dead.