We’ve seen the seventh Chibnall-run Doctor Who. We’re well past the halfway mark. In spite of the wringing of pearls and bitter recriminations of the Anguish Andys, the show’s ratings seem to be holding well — lower live viewings, but solid, reliable streaming ratings. Reviews of the majority of non-faction viewers seem to be positive overall, with only a few complaints. People appear to like Jodie Whittaker, they like her take on the Doctor, they like her companions.
If there’s any brooding discontent that’s not associated with the anti-female-Doctor/anti-PC factions, it’s that the show seems a bit distant. A bit slow. Not quite as much of a thrill-ride as Moffat-era Whovian epics. I read the reviews and watch the YouTube responses, and I can see people groping, slightly, trying to put their finger on what’s not quite there.
I would argue that the change they’re fumbling to discuss has to do with what is a real, authorial “vision-thing” set of changes stemming from Chibnall himself. I’m also going to argue that what’s missing is not necessarily bad — but it will take some adjustment.
Certain things were reliable about both Davies’ and Moffat’s vision of the Doctor. He was a force of nature. He was just short of frenetic. He was almost Seussian in his Cat-in-the-Hat theatrics. He was sometimes penitent—but never humble.
The shows paid lip-service to PC and equal rights, but as structured, the white man in the blue box was a demigod, and for both Davies and Moffat, the companions wavered somewhere between worship, discipleship, and infatuation. It didn’t matter if you were black, Asian, female, male, or whatever, it all took the back seat to the Demigod, who even when he was blindingly wrong managed to pull it all off in a wild, manic display of actions that, like a Rube-Goldberg construction, did not always make sense, but amused the hell out of the viewer as the Doctor improvised his way to the desired ending. In different ways, under different show-runners, the show was unapologetically hyperactive, melodramatic, and about a lead who was somewhat human — and outrageously divine.
It should be said that this divine nature is something that grew over time. The first Hartnell Doctor was powerful, but undeniably “human” in his failings and his self-image. But when you’ve got a time-traveling curmudgeon who kidnaps humans to go on timey-wimey adventures in the Tardis, it’s not that surprising that, over the decades, the show drifted toward a “divine, manic, out of control trickster God taking mere humans on epic, mythic adventures.” If nothing else, the more divine the Doctor, the less you have to construct perfect, logical scripts. “He’s the Demigod” covers so many sins, after all. I would argue that both Davies and Moffat dedicated a fair amount of energy to the tragicomic divinity of the Doctor, at the expense of mere, human, mortal fallibility and fragility, and that in following that path they pushed the show about as far as it could possibly go in that direction. Davies was one-upping the old episodes, playing harder with farce, harder with satire, harder with both the Doctor’s lonely anguish and his addiction to pretty young companions. Moffat backed away from the bitter satire that Davies loved. He replaced farting aliens with terrifying, horror-story Blink aliens, and satire with epics. But both he and Davies depended on a divine character with a Tardis, a sonic, and a mysterious get-out-of-trouble-free card. By which I do not refer to the psychic paper that gets the Doctor into almost anywhere.
And that is where I would start when discussing the difference between Chibnall and his two NuWho predecessors. Chibnall does not appear to be writing a demigod, nor is his vision of the show one that has any room for the Bigger, Better, New-And-Improved, Epic, See-If-You-Can-Top-This melodrama that was meat and potatoes for Davies and Moffat.
It was the first thing I wondered when I heard Chibnall had been chosen for Doctor Who show-runner. You see, Chibnall’s own home style does not appear to be the grandiose. Not only are his Doctor Who scripts smaller, more intimate, more human than Moffat or Davies tended to prefer. His work on his own suggests that he’s a controlled, quiet, disciplined teller of character-based stories. Torchwood was less demigod/superhuman than Davies’ Doctor. Life on Mars was grounded, rooted—and far from Whovian mayhem and madness. As for Broadchurch: it’s a beautiful, beautiful example of an author who likes to buck genre, asking what might really happen in a classic genre set-up, if you took the characters seriously, and cared more about them as characters than about where the genre structures begged to go.
In comparing Chibnall to Moffat and Davies, I’d say he’s a neoclassic painter following two very, very dramatic Baroque or Impressionist painters, a detail man following two men who liked sweep, scope, wit, vim, vigor — but control? Maybe not so much.
Two previous writers who handled the Doctor as a madcap trickster god. A deity. A character who broke the rules of narrative discipline all the time, and got away with it because, well, demigods do, don’t they?
Chibnall is not writing a demigod. He’s writing an alien. An old, lonely, lost alien starting yet again in another new life, looking for friends, trying to keep busy, not ready to die. Not sure why she’s living anymore. She may be a saint. She’s not a demigod.
Which brings me to a second, related but still free-standing point I’d like to make about Chibnall’s Doctor. Unlike any previous Doctor, she’s a woman of faith. That matters.
Chibnall is on record as saying he’s of no particular religion, but that he wanted very much to ensure that Arthur Darvill’s Broadchurch character, the young vicar Paul Coates, was integrated into the show.
NL [Neil Landau] : Would you consider yourself faithful, a cynic, a secular humanist? Where do you fit in all of this?
CC [Chris Chibnall] : Ah, I’m writing the show to try and figure that out, Neil! [Laughs] I don’t know, I guess I’d put myself probably on the humanist scale. I don’t belong to any organized religion. But equally, it was very important to me that the character of Paul be in there, and that the church be a part of the show, and also, that it wouldn’t be a caricature of the church either. So we’d researched a lot about it, and about young, English vicars. There’s a whole generation coming in, now. So it was something very important to me, in terms of investigating morality within a community. The church was very important to be at the heart of drama here.
That desire — that sense that the church was an important element of the story of a town grieving and coming to terms with its own sins, and that the church shown should be more than just a caricature of “the church,” seems to me to be a very important thing to take into account when looking at what Chibnall is doing with Doctor Who. Indeed, I think Broadchurch itself is an important thing to consider.
In the same interview, Chibnall suggested that he bucked genre, that Broadchurch was in part about studying what might really happen, rather than what genre tropes suggest will happen. He was focusing on letting at least one vision of reality push back against the assumptions and expectations genre imposes—from stereotypes and bias to mere lazy plotting. And now, Chibnall is rebooting one of the hoariest, most genre-beset shows in existence: a show that, by the time Moffat was done, had left even the audience a bit exhausted by the jump-higher, shoot-farther aesthetic.
In the face of years of a brooding, building squabble from one faction of fandom, Chibnall wanted — he intentionally chose—to cast a female Doctor: an actress who has proven capable of hijinks and high energy force-of-nature stuff, but who’s endowing it with an additional layer of fragile, fallible, even needy mortality. He’s cast three startlingly realistic, plausible, mere-human companions, each with actors who seem to manage the fine balance between humor, running, and caring that is demanded by the show, with an added gloss of plausible humanity. Graham, Ryan, and Yaz are “exceptional human beings,” without being extraordinary human beings. The last time we had such an ordinary human as a companion, it was Rose, and Rose, through Davies’ eyes, was not as decent a human being as Graham, Yaz, and Ryan are. She was certainly not as experienced and grounded.
Put all that in place: think about it. A neoclassic, disciplined, “realistic” show-runner, with a sense of religion as part of community, and faith as an expression of human experience, taking over a show known for hyperbolic grandeur, demigods, and quite a lot of tropey-genre material. With a five-year plan for what he wants to do.
Now, consider this: the first show, the pilot show, was “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” a major hat-tip to the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, the David Bowie classic about an alien coping with humanity, and rather badly. Rather sadly, being broken over time by humanity’s limits and his own. It is a tragic morality play. It’s a hint, from the get-go, that Chibnall may just want to pull back from the extremes of farce, satire, adventure, and trope melodrama Davies and Moffat produced.
People commented from the start on the grit of the new reboot, and the unexpected darkness of killing Grace, Graham’s wife. And, yet, this was the first episode: the one a smart director uses to at least hint what he’s up to. His new Doctor from the very start is more human, more fragile, less in control than previous regenerations. She’s lost her ship. She’s lost her sense of self. She’s longing for a “family.” She does what the Doctor does. Only this time, in Chibnall’s hands, she pulls four believable human companions, rather than four genre Band Members.
Then one of them immediately dies. One named Grace. Who haunts Graham. Who foreshadows so much that’s come along so far: race issues, love issues, courage and mere humanity issues. She’s the soul that supports Graham, the light that guides Ryan, the person Yaz could grow up to become. Grace dies, yet lives on. Her life and her death have been coloring the show ever since.
Nice religious theme, yeah?
And a theme pitched at the first religious Doctor.
Let’s face it: Doctor Who has tended to be a haven for the atheist and the agnostic. There’s only room for one “real” deity in town, and the Doctor himself has been it. Everything else proves to be fake, or foolish, or vile, but not good. Followers of gods have tended to be either laughable or repulsive, but not much in between. The Doctor himself has not been a man of any faith — not Gallifreyan faith, and certainly not human faith. Doctor Who has been the perfect home for the perfect 20th Century secular humanist with a longing for just enough of a god figure to play out mythic adventures.
Chibnall has changed that; not just by implication, but overtly. In The Tsuranga Conundrum we have a Doctor who has, for the first time, asked sincerely and with humility to take part in a liturgical, religious act of mourning, and gathered her own followers into the same service. More important still, the Doctor knows the liturgy.
Please do not undervalue that detail. Anyone who’s ever attempted to take part in a liturgical ceremony, especially without a “script” to refer to, knows how hard those tricky call-and-response passages are. The priest says X, the congregation chimes back with Y. You either know it, or you don’t.
The Doctor knows it. Cold. Furthermore, she says her lines as someone for whom those lines have meaning, and offer hope and comfort.
Incantor (Ronan): May the saints of all the stars and constellations…
Response: …bring you hope as they guide you out of the dark and into the light, on this voyage and in the next, and all the journeys to come, for now and forever more.
By the end Whittaker is leading the response, and she says the words as though she means them. As though she needs them. (snerk) Or, in the words of the old censors of Star Trek scripts, “With reverence.”
The next episode, Demons of the Punjab, we go even further. The Doctor, on being asked to perform a marriage, not only accepts the priestly role, she claims to have a faith of her own. It’s like the faith in the previous liturgy, a faith focused on hope.
Throughout the series to date, the new Doctor has been more humble, more fallible, more openly needy, more human than prior reincarnations. At first, the “religious” aspect of Grace as a moving, motivating character could have been ignored as anything but character development, but as she’s used over and over again, that aspirational, saintly role becomes more pervasive. In Rosa, Grace is black, she’s passionate about civil rights, she’s a guiding light to Graham and Ryan, and the Doctor and Yaz admire what Graham and Ryan report about Grace’s beliefs as she lived them. She appears to Graham as a ghost, and motivates him to reach farther, keep busy, keep growing. She’s a steady whisper behind Demons of the Punjab, a black woman who married a white man. Over and over when Graham speaks, in all the episodes, you hear whispers of Grace, the ever-so-serendipitously named “saint” of the first story.
We have a humble, more “mere mortal” Doctor, with a faith, a longing, a belief in saints, and a willingness to serve in religious roles. Instead of being a demigod, she herself is a saint: a guide in dark places, a beacon of light and hope, yet merely human, and more painfully human than we’ve seen in a long time.
We now have grittier characters, more realistic narratives, with less bombast and swagger. Chibnall likes bucking genres, while offering more human characters. He sees a church as an integral expression of human suffering and grief. He’s shown he can take a genre work, and without stripping it of genre, he can make it a bit smaller, quieter, more grounded, more character-driven. He’s done it several times over.
And, let’s be honest, it’s not like Doctor Who could go much higher in the melodrama and hullabaloo department. Even Moffat was panting for air at the end of his stint.
They say “The nice thing about down is that there’s no place left to go but up.” But when you’re “up” in the sense of loud, blowsy, ungrounded mythic roar, there’s no place left to go but down. You have to find a way to crank down the volume. You’ve got to find a way to change the focus from ballyhoo to Broadchurch.
In the case of Doctor Who, you also had to find some way of getting past the questions of PC and feminism and race/culture. The best way of doing that is through simple, human stories about people. In a time-travel show, you’ve got all humanity’s people at your fingertips.
Chibnall, to my eye, is bringing in some of his own interests from Broadchurch, which I suspect he developed doing Torchwood and Doctor Who and Life on Mars. He’s exploring his own style—neoclassic rather than Baroque or Impressionist. Controlled, rather than wildly expressive. Character-driven rather than epic-driven, with a spiritual or religious aspect that recasts the Crazy Demigod as a battered saint, and her companions as fellow pilgrims on the road. Mere mortals they are, all of them, even if the Doctor sometimes exceeds those limits.
Chibnall can do this in part because Jodie Whittaker is female. Even a lot of us who dream of a female Doctor had trouble with Doctor Clara, and with River Song. I am not sure the audience was ready for a loud, wild, uncontrolled female demigod. We may be more ready for a lonely, powerful alien on a pilgrimage, halfway between sainthood and the tsaddikim of Yiddish folklore. Whittaker’s Doctor is a scholar, a scientist, a reader, alone and trying yet again to figure out who she is, and what the Doctor is. Her gender provides camouflage for the more demanding choice to throttle back the demigod frenzy, a chore that needed to be done for practical reasons entirely divorced from gender, having to do with Davies and Moffat having tested the practical limits of excess.
In framing it through a new female Doctor, a Doctor with at least some claim to religious sentiments of her own, surrounded by far more human, grounded companions than usual, Chibnall can afford to pull back on the genre frenzy. He can tell smaller stories, with more limited scope. And they work. The majority of the viewers do seem to think they work. They’re just a bit bewildered. Something has changed. Something is … missing. Something is new here as well.
I would argue that the change is Chibnall’s vision of a Doctor who is a saint, not a demigod, seeking a mortal spiritual goal, not a conflict between the divine and the bogus. He’s looking for more human stories, framed by genre but still, ultimately, not forced into shape by genre.
It’s still Doctor Who. Chibnall is proving to be a professional, and he does know you can’t DO the Doctor without adventure and timey-wimey and unsettling questions about what’s assumed. But what was assumed, for Old Who and for Davies’ and Moffat’s Who, is no longer the cultural assumption. The secular humanity—that was fresh and saucy fifty years ago. Now it’s the norm. It’s far more challenging to even suggest that someone might find comfort and hope in religion. Science fiction is no longer shocking, and the soap opera tropes are no longer new. Investing them in grounded realism and tight character work? That’s fresh now. Monty Python ran two generations ago. Doug Adams died before my adult child was born. Science fiction and fantasy have become one of the most commonplace, popular genres in existence.
Chibnall is challenging all that, without despising it or throwing it out. Just adding to it. Expanding on it.
Everything old is new again … and it’s that change that I think is unsettling the many people who like the Chibnall Doctor Who, yet who find it a bit flat and quiet. It’s not ballyhoo. It’s Broadchurch.
Here comes everyone.