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The Chibnall Gambit

Chibnall and Lambert.2-1.blendedWhen I last worked with Tom Baker, on the voice recordings for the recent Heretic Kingdoms games, he confessed to being rather disappointed with the scene Stephen Moffat had written for him in the fiftieth anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor. It seems he would have preferred to appear directly as the Doctor rather than as some sideways reference to his time in the role. Which just goes to show that no matter how hard a writer works on their Doctor Who script, how many fans you satisfy with your continuity kisses, and how much you can shock and delight with a ‘canon’ ball as huge as a secret incarnation, you still can’t please everyone. It’s something that the newest showrunner, Chris Chibnall, knows all too well.
Now that it’s all over, there’s a lot to take in from the aftermath of Chibnall’s second series at the helm - both on and off the screen. I have an enjoyably wide perspective in this regard since my kids and I have been simultaneously watching both the new episodes of the show and the classic Hinchcliffe and Holmes episodes - while my boys are also watching New Who from the beginning on the iPlayer, and I’m revisiting the black and white episodes and reconstructions in the cracks of my time. I’d love to do a tribute to the incredible Adventures with the Wife in Space with my children’s reactions - but it’s a lot more fun reading Sue Perryman’s bitchy honesty than it would be discovering that what my kids love more than anything is a really good monster. What I have gained, though, is a delightfully fractured perspective on three different yet closely related periods in the show’s history - the beginning, the revival, and now - and with it, something of a skeleton key to the mysterious world of Chibnall’s Who.
We were watching the last Hinchcliffe-Holmes story, The Talons of Weng Chiang, when Spyfall, Part 1 aired. Knowing that Robert Holmes had originally intended the villain in his Sherlock Holmes tribute to be the Master has very slightly blunted my enjoyment of it... it seems so obvious in retrospect. But Hinchcliffe was surely right to avoid having a double Master reveal in one season - and Spyfall was something of a let down for me precisely because I didn’t need yet another Master reveal, even with such a great casting as Sacha Dhawan. I mean, we’ve now had three in the past five series alone! Besides, they couldn’t possibly reveal the late Roger Delgado, and every Master since is inevitably something of a disappointment for me, with the possible exception of Derek Jacobi. I’m afraid I was never much of a fan of John Simm’s manic Master, and while Michelle Gomez is fabulous in everything, Missy was not quite enough to make Peter Capaldi’s episodes with her anything more than watchable diversions. Speaking of which: did Moffat plan that regeneration just so he could have one Doctor with a side of Master and one without (half rice, half chips)...? I don’t know, but I do know the fanbase wasn’t half as up in arms about that casting as Jodie Whittaker’s, despite Moffat laboriously foreshadowing this inevitability from 2013’s The Night of the Doctor onwards.
The official story in the newspapers is wall-to-wall outrage, of course. But it’s quite hard to discern how much of the alleged controversy around this year’s series was inflated by the tabloids’ insatiable need for muck to rake, and how much of it comes from the ever-irritable Whovian fanbase having more public means to bitch than ever before. In this respect, Paul Kirkley’s The Diehards of Doom (written during series 12, just a few weeks ago) might be the most insightful newspaper article on the show ever written. Frankly, the social media hashtag #NotMyDoctor feels darkly amusing me, because I thought it was common knowledge that “your Doctor” is the one you fell in love with as a child. It was Tom Baker for me, so I stopped watching the Peter Davison episodes in disgust because he was “not my Doctor”. But I still came to love these episodes when I returned to them, many years later. Besides, you don't have to like everything in a franchise to be a fan of it. I still like George Lucas' Star Wars movies (Caravan of Courage not withstanding), even though I don't want to pay Disney to watch their big budget fan fiction.
So here I am, a fan of these adventures in space and time since hiding behind the sofa for Genesis of the Daleks back in 1975’s season (sic) 12, and for the first time since Russell Davies’ sophomore outing as showrunner back in 2006’s series 2, or possibly Moffat's first run in 2010, I’m thoroughly enjoying the show rather than patiently waiting for that one truly great episode a year that we might just be lucky enough to get. And it’s not because new showrunner Chris Chibnall has fixed all the flaws in the show - this will never happen, thankfully! - it’s because he’s chosen a different set of flaws to everyone before him, a template for his ‘era’ that pays greater tribute to the earlier episodes than ever before while also shuffling the deck of narrative possibilities rather more than anyone else has dared. It’s a gamble, to be sure, just as every major change to a beloved franchise has to be. But it’s a calculated risk - one rooted in an evident affection for parts of the show’s history that don’t always get the love they deserve.
Chibnall’s tenure on New Who has been by far the closest in form to the episodes made under the very first producer, Verity Lambert (pictured above), even if he didn’t quite have the brass to make one of those purely historical stories that were a staple of William Hartnell's Doctor. Russell Davies dreamt up his template for the revived show by taking influence from the Fourth, Seventh, and (to a lesser extent) Third Doctors and blending it inexplicably (yet successfully) with British soap opera Eastenders. Stephen Moffat kept most of the foundation that Davies had laid (hell, he helped him lay it!), but mixed in a little of “his Doctor”, Peter Davidson (Number 5), specifically a lot of high concept psychodrama. I’ve already compared these two showrunners once before, the key point being that Davies had Moffat as his one exceptional writer (like Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe had Robert Holmes), but Moffat could not find a genius writer to apprentice under him as a future replacement, for all that he and Mark Gattiss had (and still have) a lot of fun working together. But I’m afraid no head writer on a sci-fi show ever managed a consistent flow of dynamite episodes without working with another writer - and before you suggest Dalek creator Terry Nation on Blake's 7, he had formidable assistance from fellow former Who writer Chris Boucher as script editor to bail him out... Chibnall, despite his unique strengths as showrunner, could still use some reliable back up behind him, for all that I am enjoying the writers he is choosing to work with, Vinay Patel in particular. (In earlier times, incidentally, the BBC would not let senior production crew also write episodes without special dispensation - I sometimes wish they’d go back to that policy).
What aspects of Chibnall’s regime hark back to the show’s first (and only female) producer? Well, as the very first Chibnall-helmed episode hinted at, the dismantling of the hermetically sealed episode. Oh sure, Davies and Moffat made some two parters, but in the tenure of the first two Doctors, one serial flowed into the next as a continuous narrative. The Daleks ended on a cliffhanger that set up The Edge of Destruction; the resolution to The Enemy of the World was in the first few minutes of The Web of Fear. While The Woman Who Fell To Earth did have an unexpected cliffhanger ending that is perfectly in keeping with the structure of these early Who stories (The Mind Robber inevitably invites comparison!), series 12 has mostly settled for a less ambitious compromise, mostly consisting of setting up the next story at the end of each episode, something not really done (regenerations notwithstanding) since the climax of The Hand of Fear teased The Deadly Assassin (which incidentally was perhaps the biggest single influence on Chibnall's series 12 finale, The Timeless Children).
The more significant echo of Lambert and those who immediately followed her is the return of the TARDIS family. This was integral to the show’s format right with the first episode, An Unearthly Child, which also featured three companions: Susan (the Doctor's granddaughter, swept under the continuity rug since 1983's The Five Doctors except in the semi-canonical Big Finish Eighth Doctor stories), and her school teachers at Coal Hill, Ian and Barbara. Multiple companions remained the norm until the Third Doctor appeared, when a single female companion became more-or-less standard. While the Fifth (under producer John Nathan Turner) tried the larger gang again with Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric, New Who only came as far as Moffat’s two and a half Ponds until Chibnall brought us back to the full crew’s complement of four, counting the Doctor herself.
Certain newspaper critics have consistently railed against the three newest companions, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz, whinging that it’s too many people and there’s not enough for them all to do. This somewhat misses the point. Davies’ biggest change in the show’s DNA was to make the companions the actual focus of the wider storylines, which Moffat continued during his reign. Chibnall goes back to the narrative being more often focused upon the events and characters introduced within the current episode. More companions thus allow both a larger cast of  secondary characters (The Haunting of Villa Diodati would not have worked as well in the earlier New Who series with a single companion), more choices in how to pair characters, and slower burning character development. In other words, it doesn’t matter that we had to wait until Can You Hear Me? to get solid character backstory for Yaz because committing to the TARDIS family format works precisely because you don’t need everyone to have an equal share of every story. TV shows used to know this; I’m at a loss to put a finger as to when everyone apparently forgot that an ensemble cast inherently thrives on its permutations. But for Doctor Who, certainly, that happened when Davies (boldly) wanted his companions to also be the arc stories, which Moffat kept running with even though his arc plotting was quite often the weakest part of his otherwise excellent writing. Fun, yes; surprising, yes; logical... not very often.
Chibnall seems willing to allow the slow burn. This misfired in series 11 in part because the climax was such a damp squib, and we were so used to the fellow at the control column pulling out all the stops and turning the nonsense up to full blast in the final episode. For all the problems in the previous set of episodes, though, I blame the transition - Moffat, after all, was already on the shop floor when he was handed the keys. Chibnall hadn’t written for Who in six years. Moffat had to go to him to discuss the job offer, because unlike Davies he simply didn’t have a writer he could hand over to with any confidence (Gattiss always had too many irons in the fire for Auntie Beeb to consider him a contender). And it wasn’t so much Chibnall’s previous Doctor Who scripts that got him the gig, frankly, but the fact he had successfully helmed Broadchurch and thus knew how to run a show - no small task!
Another thing Chibnall went ‘back to basics’ for, and another source of critical ire: the ‘lesson’. Chibnall does like the Doctor to indulge in a spot of “what did we learn this week”, alas. Yet Doctor Who was originally conceived as an educational show, with time travel being intended as a facilitator for the sharing of historical knowledge - an amazing suggestion for 1963! However, you would be hard pressed during the Gothic monster golden age of Hinchcliffe and Holmes (1975 to 1977) to deduce an educational angle to any of those dark and utterly fabulous stories, and under Davies and Moffat the closest thing to a ‘lesson’ was sceptical rhetoric endlessly rammed down our throats - about which, I note, neither critic nor fan complained about, myself not withstanding (see the Religion in Science Fiction serial for a deep dive on this point). I can completely understand why some fans and critics think the lesson is out of place... but I cannot agree.
Chibnall has gone back to seeing the show as having an educational remit. Sometimes this works rather well (RosaDemons of the Punjab, The Witchfinders, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, The Haunting of Villa Diodati). Sometimes we get the clunky preaching of early Star Trek: The Next Generation (Arachnids in the UK, Orphan 55, Praxeus). The failed lessons usually crash and burn around environmental issues, since plenty of people know that something is terribly wrong in this regard, but no-one has a handle on anything close to cogent advice for dealing with the growing catastrophe, making attempts to provide lessons on the topic rather empty. I would hardly call anything in the current New Who ‘woke’ though, as if the liberally-minded were actually engaged in something new and not merely cherry picking which traditions to cherish - just like conservatives, actually! Besides, I don’t see that much difference between Chibnall's environmentalism and what Barry Letts green-lit in The Green Death back in 1973, or even Tom Baker’s Doctor initially refusing to help the Brigadier in 1975’s Terror of the Zygons because “it’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent upon a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense.”
What Chibnall is willing to do, though, which neither Davies nor Moffat could stomach, is to genuinely offer respect to everyone rather than undermining that intended message by singling out certain beliefs as worthy of contempt. No professional critic mentioned it, but I notice fantasy and sci-fi writer (and conservative Christian) Kyle Robert Schultz picked up on the same thing that leapt out at me from the astonishing Fugitive of the Judoon - and no, I don’t mean the rather spiffing ‘canon’ ball of inventing another new Doctor we didn’t know about! When Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor chastises the Judoon by saying “this is a place of worship, show some respect!” it is the first time the New Who Doctor has stood up for religious people rather than merely pitying them (The Satan Pit, Gridlock) or being outright venomous (The Parting of the Ways, Army of Ghosts, and so many more). You most likely don’t care about this issue, but it means a lot to those of us who have had to endure asinine ‘lessons’ under Moffat and Davies about what intelligent people ought to believe, as if tolerance should be bounded by acceptable belief and not by acceptable behaviour. The Doctor cannot love humanity and yet harbour prejudice against the majority of the species - it makes no sense at all. Chibnall has put the character back to respecting all cultures, and even let the Doctor invite a practicing Muslim to join the TARDIS team. It’s about time indeed.
Doctor Who has been hugely influential in my writing. I borrowed from Genesis of the Daleks when writing the showdown between Lewton (Rob Brydon) and the villainous cult leader Satrap (Nigel Planer) in Discworld Noir, thinking that nobody would notice because I genuinely underestimated the depth of the geeky love for Tom Baker as the Doctor. Then, knowing for certain that Tom’s fans ran deep and wide among the audience for videogames, I cast him twice in Heretic Kingdoms games along with other Doctor Who and Blake's 7 veterans like Robery Ashby, Stephen Greif, and Sally Knyvette, who I hope to work with again soon. In my philosophy books, Chaos Ethics begins with a direct reference to Doctor Who, and when I came to write The Virtuous Cyborg I was struck by the realisation that the only feasible way of understanding the Doctor's personal moral code is in terms of virtue. A recurring theme of the show is the idea that the right thing to do is never simply a matter of numbers. Jodie Whittaker's Doctor reaffirms this in The Haunting of Villa Diodati when she refuses to sacrifice Percy Shelley, even to prevent the Cybermen from rising again and saving billions of lives. The same theme occurs in that pivotal moment of Genesis of the Daleks when the Doctor rejects the Time Lord's injunction to inflict pre-emptive genocide upon the Daleks. There is a continuity of character here that matters to the identity of the show.
Maybe I’m the only person on the planet who really doesn’t care one way or the other whether we have a female Doctor incarnation - or two, for that matter! - all I care about is that the BBC keep making the show, and that some of the new episodes will be worth watching. Chibnall’s already achieved this, and in bringing in influences from earlier in the show’s history, he’s also tickled my fan bone rather magnificently. When the delightfully malevolent Zellin name-checks not just the Eternals and the Guardians but the Celestial Toymaker as well, that’s not just a kiss with continuity it’s a veritable snog with tongues! And even if you don’t like the new format, there’s surely no denying that the episodes have never looked or sounded so great. The production values are now so high that even the corridors everyone is running down are shot on location! And while Murray Gold’s scores were always up to the task at hand, Segun Akinola’s work is spectacular and his new arrangement of the theme tune is so much closer to the incredible Delia Derbyshire original than anything since - fitting, then, that the title sequence also reverts from the 1970’s vortex back to something more akin to the kaleidoscopic swirl of the original title sequence.
If you’re one of those younger Whovians who only knows New Who, you could be forgiven for thinking all this connectivity to the early days of the show is irrelevant. But everyone who has held the reigns of this beast of a franchise - a show so resilient it survives all changes and has even regenerated itself from death! - does so because of their love for a mythos that goes back to its earliest incarnation back in 1963, and must find ways to both inherit and reinvent its past and its lore in an endless (and often thankless) balancing act. Moffat knew it, Davies knew it, and Chibnall’s gambit is founded upon it. When he has Jo Martin’s Doctor (the zeroth Doctor? -1th?) say in the finale “Have you ever been limited by who you were before...?” it is not just part of the climax of the story, it is a gauntlet laid down to those truculent fans who deny the legitimacy of these episodes and these Doctors. Chibnall has put in the time as a fan, he knows his stuff, he has earned his time at the reigns of the show - and he’s at least as good as his predecessors at keeping it going.
It's no good making the show just for the diehards; that’s what Big Finish does with the Doctor Who audio adventures, and it must necessarily do so on a much lower budget... the TV show has to bring in a new and younger audience, secure a regular adult audience, and somehow satisfy the existing fanbase - despite the utter impossibility of achieving all of this! Yet this is a universe where impossibility is a negotiable concept, thanks primarily to people like Verity Lambert, Chris Chibnall, and everyone in between who has been willing to take on the inestimable challenges of a television programme like no other. If you want a show that never changes, go watch boxed sets of something that’s already finished. That way, you can know for certain what you’re getting yourself in for. Doctor Who, on the other hand, is - and always has been - joyously, chaotically, uncontrollably alive. I shall continue to relish it, from all its times and spaces, as long as I am too.
Love technology but don't want to end up like the Cybermen? Check out The Virtuous Cyborg - paperback and ebook out now!