Almost three years ago I asked Whither Science Fiction? That post pondered the state and future of what I see as a platform more than a genre and found both were probably doing okay. Authors still find new territory in a populated landscape (although much of it is well-explored by now).
Today’s question isn’t as deep or important, and my answer is much less positive. It regards a TV series I largely ignored in classic form but came to love as a modern reboot. For a while it was my favorite TV science fiction series. Even when it declined a bit in latter seasons, it still was some of the best SF on TV.
But I think Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who is an unmitigated disaster.
At first, I tried to overlook its weaknesses. The transition to a new showrunner — and a new The Doctor — is a challenge for everyone, writers, actors, and viewers. Some patience is warranted, but it never got better. This last season, Flux, seemed an incoherent mess. I have nothing positive to say about Chibnall’s three seasons, and Flux is the nadir (although we have some specials to get through, so I suppose it could get worse).
These three seasons, especially the last, were endured not enjoyed. It was a matter of bearing witness to tragic destruction. Not Hindenburg level, of course, not even close, but oh, my god, the writing!
To me, Chibnall’s writing has the same lack of maturity that’s made so many modern movies infantile pablum. (Granted, sometimes very tasty pablum, but still fare even small children can digest.) Our biggest franchises are based on comic books and toys. One is based on an amusement park ride. That brings things full circle because that’s what these movies are: amusement park rides. That’s all the depth and nuance they have.
The noisy frenetic incoherence of Flux illustrates this in orgasmic CGI glory.
[I see this as a general problem. Modern culture spoon-feeds our minds, tells us what to think (which is why some get so upset when it doesn’t say what they think it should say). Between our space fantasies and our superhero fantasies, we’re not encouraged to take an adult view of the world.]
Chibnall’s stories have none of the adult perspective that so richly imbued previous seasons. The overall arc concerns The Doctor’s origin and her forgotten past, which makes the story fundamentally narcissistic. Rather than selflessly helping others, The Doctor is chasing her own tale.
I can’t speak to classic Doctor Who, though the episodes I have seen all seemed mature, even smart — like early Star Trek. The infamous cheesy effects (in both cases) are easy to overlook because the story is compelling.
As an aside: Think about watching a play. The sets, and what special effects can be mustered in a theatre, aren’t life-like at all. They are suggestive of reality, and the audience is expected to go along. It’s part of suspending our disbelief. Cinematic special effects have improved over the years to the point where nearly anything we can imagine can be visualized photo realistically. In consequence we become spoiled and unable to overlook the low-budget best-they-could-do-at-the-time effects in older shows. The trick is just to keep stage plays in mind and let the visuals suggest something better in your mind’s eye. Don’t let modern photo-realistic visualization atrophy your sense of imagination! (This is one reason I think reading books is so important. It exercises the visual imagination.)
While classic Who is a significant science fiction landmark, rebooted Who is almost as significant. It very successfully brought back a classic series, updated it for modern audiences, and, in making it more accessible, made it a popular hit. It was also mature storytelling for adults. A refreshing counterpoint to Star Wars and others of that ilk.
I’ve re-watched those seasons several times and always enjoyed them. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor roars in with that tremendous energy and really grabs our attention. Successor David Tennant’s portrayal is widely acknowledged as the best of an excellent field. The maturity and depth he instilled to the role made so many of those episodes unforgettable.
Hard act to follow, but Matt Smith, the other popular favorite, presented us a unique and quirky performance laced with inner pain and loss. He could be flighty, but he wielded the power of The Doctor, and he wasn’t someone to mess with. The stories continued to be excellent; this is the era of Amy Pond and River Song (and Rory Williams).
Speaking of hard acts to follow, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), but Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Donna Nobel (Catherine Tate) pulled it off. Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and River Song (Alex Kingston) even more so; they are many fans’ favorite. And they showed strong female characters in such a powerful and positive light.
The story quality declined somewhat in the Steven Moffat years, but episodes remained very watchable, and many were memorable. Peter Capaldi has great depth and range as an actor, and he brought the darkness and loneliness of The Doctor into fully into view. Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was an interesting companion, especially at first with Matth Smith, but given those who came before her, she was hard-pressed to stand out.
After all that history, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) don’t stand out much, either, but their performances were engaging and memorable. (If you watched the show, my mentioning them probably brought some episodes to mind.)
Given ten seasons of such episodes; of Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi; of Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and River; it’s almost inevitable the quality would at least change. Many feel it had already begun to slip under Moffat.
Have you ever noticed how a new restaurant will open and, because it’s very good, become very popular… until the original owners sell it and move on, and then it declines in quality, people stop going, and it ultimately closes?
That happens with long-running TV series, too. It clearly happened with Doctor Who. The Russell T. Davies era, the reboot of the show, is widely acknowledged as having the best writing. The Steven Moffat era continued many of the elements that made the show work (in particular the all-important relationship between The Doctor and his companions), but many view it as not quite as good as the RTD era. (I don’t have complaints, myself.)
If Davies opened a smash hit restaurant with outstanding fare, Moffat was a chef who carried on in his spirit while adding the personality of his own dishes (which weren’t to every taste). Chibnall seems a fast order cook elevated beyond his ability. I’m not even sure what this mess of pottage he’s served up is supposed to be. I can say it neither looks nor smells tasty.
The restaurant has really gone to hell. Which is sad because it used to be so good. It used to be the one I wrote glowing posts about and recommended to all my friends.
Well, I’m still writing posts about it, but not glowing ones. More like glowering ones. (And on Christmas Day, no less. But considering some of the best episodes are the Christmas Specials, it somehow seems appropriate.)
What went so badly wrong? As I said above, the main thing is that Chibnall is an immature fanboy. He gave us comic book stories about monsters and villains trying to kill The Doctor. To the point of even destroying the whole universe. Plus, an origin story that undermines the past ten years.
Worse, The Doctor is better as a mysterious alien somewhat lost in space and time but adventuring all the same and righting wrongs. Taking away that mystery and that mission takes away from The Doctor. (Remember, even The Doctor’s true name is a huge secret.)
Speaking of ruining by demystifying, I’ve always considered the Weeping Angels one of the scariest monsters ever. Chibnall turned them into just another version of humans, which I think speaks volumes about his lack of imagination.
[That cliffhanger ending of turning The Doctor into a Weeping Angel, only to come back with “no, not really, it was just a way to transport her, and we’re actually working for Division” is another example of truly awful writing. I nearly gave myself whiplash shaking my head.]
Secondly, Chibnall is infected with the social justice bug that takes over the mind and tells stories only through the filter of What’s Acceptable. It reduces complex points of view and presents them without balance or nuance, which is one-sided. Which is propaganda. Which is boring. Propaganda is a lecture, not a story.
Thirdly, way too much fan service. The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Weeping Angels, and the Ood. Oh, my! And don’t forget Jack Harkness. And Kate Stewart. On top of all that, Division. (Which implies a lot more revisionism. Chibnall seems to be trying to remake the Who universe in his own image.) And none of it is very original or fresh. A shadow organization secretly running the universe? That old saw?
In general, Chibnall’s stories seem regurgitations of bits and pieces he’s seen elsewhere. He actually (and as far as I can tell, seriously) used the notion of reversing the polarity, and has The Doctor say, “It’s personal now.” Even his implementation of The Master was a rehash (and lifeless imitation) of John Simm’s over-the-top portrayal (I miss Missie).
Fourthly, the damn music soundtrack was often louder than the dialog, a modern trend that I cannot fathom. It seems to agree that the story doesn’t matter, only the visual and audio noise. The choppy editing, likewise, contributes to the amusement park ride sense while distracting from the narrative. It’s almost as if they knew the story couldn’t carry its own weight.
Fifthly, The Doctor never seems to have any agency. Things just happen. Things just are. This scene, then that scene. Nothing seems earned, nothing seems important. Characters just know what they need to know but are otherwise stupid and childish. It’s comic book writing (and not the good kind).
Sixthly, the soul of Doctor Who is the relationship between The Doctor and The Companion. The Doctor and Rose, and Martha, and Donna, and Amy, and Clara. These relationships are the bones that support the show’s muscle. Perhaps more importantly, the Companions provide the audience point of view and ground The Doctor from excess. (Great example, Donna talks The Doctor into saving the Roman family in Pompeii.) From Chibnall we got The Doctor and Yas (Mandip Gill). And that zero Ryan (Tosin Cole), and that tag-along Graham (Bradley Walsh, the one decent actor in the bunch). The last season splits them up because, let’s face it, the show didn’t need them. They never added anything. Their absence in Flux is barely noticeable.
Lastly, Jodie Whittaker. Along with trying to like the show, I’ve tried especially hard to like Jodie Whittaker’s The Doctor. I was excited by the idea of a female in the role; high time, I said. But after three seasons I’m forced to admit I just don’t think she’s good in the role. Her The Doctor is a frenetic child with ADHD, not a time-weary being who’s lived for hundreds of years (much, much longer considering what the previous version went through).
To me, she has the same lack Marina Sirtis did with Deanna Troi and Terry Farrell did with Jadzia Dax: young (attractive) women usually can’t pull of gravitas because they’ve generally had no reason to ever learn it. It’s especially hard being a wise being with many years. (Did Dax seem at all old? Does Whittaker?) On the other hand, consider someone like Shohreh Aghdashloo (seen on The Expanse) who just reeks of gravitas and experience. (Or for that matter, speaking of Star Trek, Gates McFadden’s Bevery Crusher who seemed like she might actually be a doctor. In contrast, did Troi seem like an experienced counselor?)
Remember that Whittaker wasn’t selected as the ideal actor to play The Doctor. Chibnall insisted. If they wanted him, they got her. (If only they’d said no thanks.) And I’ve heard Whittaker didn’t know anything about the role and didn’t feel any need to research previous performances. I’d say it shows.
So that’s my Christmas Day rant. I’m disappointed a really good show declined so much. I’m forced to add it to the vast heap of things I can’t care about anymore (because there’s no point). Meanwhile, the pile of things I still can gets ever smaller. That’s sad.
Stay caring, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.
December 25th, 2021 at 9:05 am
And of course:
“God bless us everyone one!”
December 25th, 2021 at 9:23 am
I’ll mention that the Timeless Child thing seems lame to me on several levels, but it doesn’t form the core of my negative take on Chibnall. I was never invested in classic Who, so I don’t care that much about the revisionism, but I hate the big decline in story quality.
December 25th, 2021 at 9:27 am
I’ll also mention that, prior to the reboot, the only time I got at all into classic Who was long ago during a time I was interested in a physicist who taught at USC. She was a hard-core Who fan. We met online in some SF fan forum — I’d moved to Minnesota by then — and somehow connected. We did go out once when I was visiting friends in L.A. but nothing ever came of it, and we lost touch. I hadn’t thought of her in years, but writing this post surfaced that memory. One of the many that, as they used to say, “got away.”
December 25th, 2021 at 10:36 am
Just read that they successfully launched the James Web Space Telescope! Yay!! We finally got that thing off the planet. Now it just has to get into position, unfold correctly, and start working. 🤞🏼📡🔭
December 25th, 2021 at 4:06 pm
Wow, Chibnall really went sour on you.
My take on Doctor Who is the reboot has never been as good as the classic series (at least the seasons of it that I watched, which was basically some of the Tom Baker and Peter Davidson seasons), except for exceeding it in production values. Overall, my impression is similar to yours but more compressed. I never felt the series reached as high as you describe, nor crashed as low as you see it at now.
For me, the reboot has always a compromised product, filled with imaginative storytelling, going places American science fiction won’t touch, but balanced against a lack of concern for coherency I’ve never been comfortable with. I watch for the imaginative storytelling, and endure the incoherency.
That’s not to say I think Chibnall is fine. While he had some interesting ideas, his storytelling execution, including the scripts, the editing, etc, has just been off, especially this season. And I’ve mentioned many times I don’t like the heavy handed political messaging (even if I agree with much of it). I intensely dislike being reminded of contemporary politics while watching Doctor Who.
I’m ready to see where Davies takes the show, although I’m not as enamored of his first run as many. I do see reasons to hope it’ll be better, but expect it to remain a flawed product. It’d be nice to be wrong.
December 26th, 2021 at 9:35 am
Ha! For me to “go sour” on Chibnall I’d need to have first been sweet on him. I never was. As I said in the post, it was more a case of initially trying to like their work and overlook the flaws, but it never improved, and I ran out of patience and tolerance.
If you hold in high regard seasons of classic Who from your youth, I can see why you might have a different perspective. We always remember our first, as they say. (I’m still a bit in love with TOS.) I don’t share that reference point. I’m sure I’ve watched more classic Who since the reboot than before. Other than when I was chasing that physicist, I was aware of it (and respected it from word of mouth), but it was never really on my radar.
I’m struck that you accuse rebooted Who of being “filled with imaginative storytelling” and “going places American science fiction won’t touch”, but these apparently don’t outweigh the “lack of concern for coherency.” In part I wonder, compared to what? 🙂 I think first, though, I should ask exactly what you mean by that. Incoherent in what sense?
On the other side of things, you agree Chibnall isn’t fine, and I think the best thing I’ve heard you accuse him of is “interesting ideas.” You seem to agree with the points I’ve raised. I think you dislike the PC aspects even more than I do (I’m more bored by them than anything). It’s kind of funny to me. It’s like you have the same ingredients but bake a different cake from them. Different folks; different strokes! 😀
I think that “compression” you mentioned speaks to a fundamental difference between us. In many regards a fundamental difference between the business/education worlds and the art world. To be honest, I wouldn’t trade. The price might be lower lows, but the payoff is higher highs. The lows can suck, but the highs are a joy. (Even being that low is a way of being alive. Knowing the lows makes one appreciate the highs all the more. Kinda like winter and summer.) But it’s a rollercoaster not everyone enjoys.
December 26th, 2021 at 10:30 am
When the reboot first started, I assumed my memory of the classic series was probably distorted by time, since I watched them as a teenager. It was when BBCA broadcast a bunch of the older material that I was reminded just how much more intelligent the old stories were.
On incoherency, I think the show frequently forgets (or counts on the audience forgetting) that it’s a time travel show. So in the first season of the reboot, we learned Gallifrey was destroyed and the Doctor was alone. But he’s a time traveler, as are the Gallifreyans in general. There’s no reason he couldn’t still visit it whenever he wanted to or interact with other traveling Gallifreyans if he wanted to. For that matter, there’s no reason the Gallifreyans shouldn’t have known about their end(s) (either the first or the second).
There’s also frequently discussion about how the state of things have changed, such as the Doctor now being a legend. But again, we’re talking about someone who moves about in time. So what is this overall meta-timeline we keep getting exposed to?
In general, the show remembers it’s about time travel when convenient, and forgets about it when not.
Or all the times Earth gets invaded in a way that affects everyone in the population, but they seem to be completely unaware of in the next episode set on Earth. Or the moon turning out to be a giant alien egg, which I’m sure will be ignored the next time there’s a moon story.
I’m sure if I went through the episode list, a lot more would jump out at me, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind.
On the compression, it might be a selection effect on which type of profession we’re inclined to choose. I think someone more accepting of compromise is probably more likely to consider compromising on their vocation.
Although to be honest, I had to learn to keep things on a more even keel. It wasn’t natural. It took effort. And a lot of it happened after college. But maybe I had an innate nature that made it easier. Who knows.
December 26th, 2021 at 11:33 am
I think some of that is that the classic series, from what I’ve seen, was written at a very mature level. We don’t often see the likes of that kind of writing anywhere anymore. (I mentioned the lack of maturity in modern writing in the post. I’ve realized it’s a pervasive problem.) The reboot absolutely does embrace a wider audience. It doesn’t assume the same intelligence level in viewers classic Who did. (Would it have gained the audience it did had it kept the higher level of maturity? Judging by other smart, but short-lived, shows, I doubt it.) I can’t fault the toning down as much as you since I don’t have that reference point. From my point of view, the reboot, as you said, was “filled with imaginative storytelling” and went places no one’s SF did. Especially at the time.
I agree the time travel aspects are utterly wack. They’ve lampshaded it themself at times (“timey wimey”). As we’ve discussed before, time travel stories are by nature incoherent, and it’s almost impossible to tell a good one. Trying to base an entire TV series on time travel, a new story every week, there’s no way to be consistent. (I would think Chibnall’s egregious mangling of time and space would strike you as even worse.) You’ve said it yourself that all SF is fantasy to one degree or another. Doctor Who certainly isn’t hard SF. It’s almost a kind of mythology.
I have to ask: Classic Who, 26 seasons (and a movie). The time travel always made sense? The world-building was always consistent?
Anyway, I can’t disagree about episodic inconsistency; they’re all over the map. I just don’t think it’s the point. I can’t fault them on something I don’t think they particularly value or see as the point. It would be nice if they took world-building more seriously, but I don’t think they do. (It’s not like, say, Westworld where the world-building is far more an important character.) If one seeks a strong overall narrative, I’d agree Who doesn’t deliver that.
But what fantastic serial fiction does? Star Wars? Star Trek? Harry Potter? The Marvel movies? Even The Expanse has magic space drives and indistinguishable from magic alien tech. What is the yardstick for consistency or logical grounding? Some of it’s personal taste, perhaps a lot. I like the Harry Potter movies, so I’m tolerant of those, but I don’t much like the Marvel movies and aren’t. I may favor rebooted Who because it filled the hole Star Trek left.
“On the compression, it might be a selection effect on which type of profession we’re inclined to choose.”
I think that is a very, very good point. I knew from early in my career that management wasn’t for me — I simply wasn’t capable of it. A big part of it does have to do with personal compromise. I really suck at it; always have. It’s not something I’ll ever compromise on. 🙂
(And I never wanted the responsibility of someone else’s career. The idea of doing performance appraisals horrifies me. I’m worker bee all the way!)
December 26th, 2021 at 12:23 pm
I only watched a few seasons of classic Who, so I can’t say they were always consistent. In fact, I remember reading about one large inconsistency. By the early 80s, Doctor Who had had three different versions of Atlantis. And I’ve read the quality dropped a lot during the 80s before it was finally canceled.
The difference, I think, is the classic stuff I saw didn’t shove it in your face. Part of it, I think, was that stories tended to be focused on a particular setting, yet still often managed to feel big within that setting. I don’t recall many (if any) where the whole universe was in danger, something that now seems to come up every season.
It reminds me of the fact that while individual episodes of Star Trek could focus on relatively setting specific stories, the movies always had to be about some existential threat to Earth or the whole federation. It turned them into sugar highs that could only be surpassed by even higher sugar highs.
For me the imaginative story telling is a draw, and the incoherence a repulse. That really applies to all sci-fi, but Doctor Who has both higher than most shows, resulting in my conflicted feelings about it much of the time.
December 26th, 2021 at 1:29 pm
Ha! Totally with you on the fate of the universe stuff. Smaller stories are definitely much better (but we get back again to popular taste for spectacle). I’ve long commented (negatively) on books with endings where the scope suddenly blows up to universe size. (Hate to keep ringing this bell, but Space Dandy actually does just that but pulls it off.)
Star Trek is another good example of going from small engaging stories to amusement park rides with impossibly high stakes (and, hence, stakes that really don’t matter). Being an active franchise for so long, it’s a good example of a number of things. The move from episodic TV to multi-episode stories, to seasonal arcs, to where we are now. And it charts the infantilization of storytelling. And the growth of CGI, and etc. One could teach a media semester or two with it.
From what I’ve read, I think most Who fans, the older ones anyway, would agree it’s the smaller stories that are the most memorable. One of my favorites is the one with Vincent van Gogh. The ending of that one slays me every time I see it. Some of the Christmas specials are outstanding, too. And as I said in the post, it’s the relationships between The Doctor and Companions that’s really the show. That’s its heart.
December 27th, 2021 at 6:21 pm
I forgot to post these YT videos…
The Drinker is fairly strong stuff, not for everyone (certainly not for the easily offended), but he’s not wrong!
December 27th, 2021 at 6:22 pm
December 27th, 2021 at 6:22 pm
December 27th, 2021 at 6:24 pm
As I’ve said, the Timeless Child retconn doesn’t bother me as much as some. I mostly see it as yet another sign of bad writing.
December 27th, 2021 at 6:24 pm
Last one. Drinker basically checked out of Doctor Who over these seasons.
February 6th, 2022 at 7:55 am
Last night I finally watched the New Year’s Eve Doctor Who special. I can see why it got better reviews than the seasons have been getting. It’s a return to self-contained stories more in tune with the kinds of adventures fans have come to expect.
But between Chibnall’s infantile and cliche-ridden writing, and the mundane to just-plain-bad acting, all I can say is that it was almost good.
But I’m resigned to the fact that it never can be good until we get a new The Doctor and, most especially, a new showrunner and key writer. Parts of that script were painful, and Whittaker is beyond question the worst actor to ever play The Doctor.
March 3rd, 2023 at 4:14 pm
[…] Chris Chibnall–Jodie Whittaker era really turned me off Doctor Who. [See Whither Doctor Who?] They’ve replaced both those weak tea losers, but I’m not sure their replacements will […]