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.