It may have escaped your attention that Doctor Who recently made the biggest change to it’s status quo in it’s fifty-four year history – perhaps the biggest change since the inaugural regeneration of First Doctor William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton back in 1966’s The Tenth Planet. The big reveal of the Thirteenth Doctor as none other then Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker certainly broke the internet last Sunday night and then some, with many a fan of the fifty-year old sci-fi franchise either jumping for joy at the prospect of the first female Doctor or bemoaning the inevitable death knell of the show they once knew and loved.
Couple this with the arrival of showrunner and head-writer Chris Chibnall (a man whose previous Doctor Who credits have been mixed at best) and you have all the makings of a potential meltdown on par with an exploding TARDIS (or so some hardcore Whovians would have you believe).
Now, of course having a female Doctor really isn’t a big deal (brilliant as it is). If anything, all it simply guarantees is the show will remain as relevant and daring and engaging as it’s always been. Every new Doctor has bought something new and different to the role – Jodie Whittaker will do the same. But the show doesn’t break because someone left-field is given a crack at the lead role. Third Doctor Jon Pertwee was an actor more associated with comedy when he was cast in the role, yet turned in a truly inspiring and down-to-earth performance as the Doctor (both literally and figuratively), whilst both Peter Davison and Matt Smith were foolishly criticized on their respective appointments for being ‘too young to play the Doctor‘.
The fact is, casting a woman in the role is no more different then casting yet another 30-something white guy in the role – either way the Doctor will be different to what ultimately went before. This time, she’s just going to be more obviously different – and yet she’ll still represent everything the character is and has been for the last five decades.
Change is detrimental to Doctor Who’s survival. The show has yet to jump-the-shark, but it has begun to feel a bit tired in recent years. Steven Moffat‘s era as head of the show has had it’s highs as well as it’s lows, but regardless of how much you’ve enjoyed the last few seasons, it can’t be denied that the time has come for a fresh voice and a new pair of guiding hands.
If coupled with brilliant stories, Jodie Whittaker‘s casting not only guarantees a big audience for the show’s relaunch next year, but also a whole legion of new fans. Surely the prospect of Doctor Who being a beloved ratings juggernaut once again is cause for celebration, regardless of whether the Doctor has a dick or not?!
So now the dust has started to settle following the big reveal during the Wimbledon final last Sunday, it’s good a time as ever to assess what the show needs to strive for in order to make it’s new era the success it deserves to be. More then any other relaunch beforehand, Doctor Who needs to make a success with it’s new star and creative team if it is to continue dominating the Saturday night TV schedules.
We may have some thoughts on the matter…
1. Forwards in time, not backwards:
Under Moffat‘s watchful eye, Doctor Who initially promised a more forward-thinking show, one that would introduce new monsters, expand on untold elements of the mythology and essentially avoid anorak-orientated fan-service. The hardcore fans only make up a small percentage of the total audience, Moffat would say, and he wasn’t writing with them in mind.
But in recent years, this approach has given way to the very thing Moffat said he wanted to avoid. The show has become too self-referential and aware of itself, plumping for dated references to it’s past with little consideration for those not versed in Who lore. Old foes return regardless of whether the story justifies their appearance, plots hinge on events depicted in forty-year old episodes, the show consistantly makes awkward references to it’s past for the sheer hell of it, and various heavy hitters that used to be genuine threats like the Daleks and the Sontarans have been neutered through either continuous overuse or unnecessary comedic depiction.
Chris Chibnall needs to make this a priority – out with the old, in with the new. Give us new monsters and villains for the Doctor to fight, take us to new worlds and times, and forget what went before. A little nod to the past or a returning villain is fine once in a blue moon, but with a new Doctor waiting in the wings, now’s a perfect time as any to forge ahead into the unknown.
2. Less is more – arc plots and the long haul:
The Russell T. Davies years had it spot on when it came to series-spanning story arcs – keep them simple, tease the audience but don’t overload them with long, complex overarching plot threads that require you to have watched the previous few weeks to understand it.
Steven Moffat‘s arcs were a lot less easy to follow, at least for the more causal viewer. Series 6’s Lake Silencio arc and Series 9’s Hybrid storyline were perfect examples of over-complicated and confusing storylines that offered plenty of promise at first, but later spun out of control and were hastily wrapped up in the most unsatisfactory manner. The writer backed himself into a narrative cul-de-sac of which there was no easy escape and as a result, the denouements to said-storylines were highly disappointing and even confusing.
Whole plots would revolve around story arc elements and series mythology, offering mixed results in terms of quality. Potentially excellent ideas were barely developed and subsequently squandered (the Daleks losing their memories of the Doctor being a massive development that was never explored).
Reward the dedicated viewers, but remember to keep it easy to follow for those who haven’t seen, say, The Wheel in Space (1968). By all means challenge the audience with something complex, but ensure there’s a decent end goal in sight, and not a rushed, unsatisfactory wrap up.
3. Fresh blood – creative minds and new directions
Under the control of it’s departing head-writer, Doctor Who has employed big name creatives to write and direct for the show. But Steven Moffat‘s reliance on seasoned Who writers and accomplished TV showrunners to write episodes has perhaps left little room for new talent to bring a different voice to proceedings.
Now, of course it would be foolish to let any old soul with a media degree write the show. But some of the best episodes of recent years have come from the minds of less-seasoned genre writers like Jamie Mathieson or Sarah Dollard, which surely says a lot about how running your own show or being a bigwig in the world of children’s fiction doesn’t automatically make you the right fit for Doctor Who.
If rumours are to be believed, Chibnall is planning a major shake up, introducing a US style writers room full of new and fresh talent – a few writers familiar with the show wouldn’t go amiss, but more exciting is the chance to see what new minds will get the chance to drive the show forward as it enter’s it’s thirty-seventh season.
4. Girl power!
Yes, as we’ve previously discussed, the Doctor is a woman. And rightly so. It’s going to be great. If you’re nervous, that’s fine. Change will do that to you. But embrace it. It’ll be fine. Moving on…
Steven Moffat is the master of weaving a timey-wimey plot that is clever and jaw-dropping. But his take on female characters has been one of the more inconsistent aspects of his time on the show. His tendency to oversexualize his female characters, coupled with his penchant for innuendo (subtle and no-so subtle) has not exactly helped the show be the all-encompassing show it should be in this day and age (though to his credit, he did create Bill and made gender-swap regeneration a thing, so points for that we guess).
With Moffat gone and a female Doctor about to enter the fray, the best way for Chibnall and the writers to handle such a format change is simple – don’t make a big deal about it. Normalize it. Don’t make jokes or passing remarks. Instead make the change from Peter Capaldi to Whittaker seem totally normal as regenerations go. The Thirteenth Doctor should just shrug it off and get back to fighting the Daleks or whatever monster it is that threatens her and her companion (male or female) that week.
In the real world, it’s a big, bold move. For the Doctor though, it’s (supposedly) business as usual.
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY:
5. Make it fantastic!
A broad statement, yes. And that’s not to say the last few years under Moffat’s pen have been bad. From The Eleventh Hour (2010) onward, there’s been countless classic episodes of Doctor Who throughout Moffat’s time as head-writer, many of which from his own genius mind. But if this show is to carry on for another fifty-plus years, then it needs to be entertaining, thrilling, scary, funny and daring as it’s always been.
Variety is the key to the show’s continued success – it can be something different every week. Like all the best science fiction, it has the power to reflect and satirise modern society, political events and huge innovations. It can also be brilliantly creepy or wonderfully fun and madcap.
The point here being, as long as the essential ingredients of Doctor Who remain present (and why wouldn’t they be?), then the show can survive having a female Doctor. Hell, with good scripts and excellent direction, it won’t just survive – it’ll thrive!
TARDIS. Doctor. Companion. Monsters. All of time and space. Take notes, Chibnall, take notes!
What are your thoughts on the new Doctor? Do you have some ideas about the future of the show? Remember to leave us a comment below and share your thoughts.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One this Christmas.