The Chibnall Era – A Retrospective

As we’re literally on the eve of the second RTD era (shall we call it RTD2?) it seems only fair to cast an eye over the Chibnall era now that the dust has settled somewhat. I did keep expecting @phaseshift to post his musings and so kept holding off so as not to step on anyone’s toes so apologies if that’s what I’m doing now. And some of my current thoughts to the Chibs Era (CE) have definitely been informed by this video by VerilyBitchilie which, while full of rather a lot of tedious Moffat-bashing and with an attendant rose-tinted view of RTD’s first tenure, does have some interesting things to say about the most glaring faults of the CE.

First of all, the CE is by no means the disaster that some antediluvian corners of the interwebs are still trying to make out it was. Much of it looked great and many of the returning classic monsters were realised brilliantly. It had also had it’s fair share of bold ideas, some of which were executed better than others. It’s been instructive to look back over the comments for the CE stories on this forum and see what was said about them ‘live’ as it were. Certainly, I can’t help but feel that I was a little harsh on certain stories at the time (as well as a bit too lenient on other ones). In retrospect, I’d definitely say that The Haunting of the Villa Diodati is a bona fide Who classic and possibly the best episode of the CE. Similarly, Rosa and Demons of the Punjab are significant moments in Who history which deserve praise but which don’t quite work as satisfying Who stories in themselves. But at the other end of the scale, there are some stories that must surely stand up with the worst that the show has produced in its 60-year history – Ker-Blam and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, I’m looking at you right now.

The much-vaunted return to historicals of the first CE is a significant part of the problem of era, I’d argue, and one of the main things that took the wind out of the sails of a series that was intended essentially to be a soft relaunch of the show. There’s a reason why the true historicals died a death back in the 60s and that was because they were so passive, narratively speaking. By the mid-60s any appetite for the didactic in TV in a historical period that was defined by its rebelliousness was waning. Our main characters are trapped in the passive role of observers as they’re unable to change the course of history (although maybe an interesting take might have been where the Doc and co recklessly decide to change the course of history anyway. As a Scot, I wouldn’t mind seeing a version of The Highlanders where the Jacobites won with some extraterrestrial help).

And while the decision to try to revive the historicals is a laudable one and the choice of time periods is also to be applauded (I’d love to have seen The Demons of the Punjab as a Hartnell serial. Can you imagine the reaction to its treatment of what would have been recent history back then? The show would probably have been cancelled on the spot.) But it doesn’t work for the show in its current iteration. Rosa is great piece of TV, with an absolutely mesmerising central performance, but taken as a slice of Who it’s rather boring. And while your average series of Who can handle the occasional boring ep (Night Terrors or The Big Bang, say) it’s fatal for a new Doctor still in the process of making her mark. And Jodie Whittaker’s debut series had just too many of them to for her to be able to do that.

And in the final analysis, I’m not sure Whittaker really worked as a Doctor and for reasons (like the one above) that are hardly her fault. At the outset, I was really, really wanting her to work and in the run-up to her debut, her performance in Adult Life Skills (great film, do check it out) and even Kill The Block made me think were in for a potentially great and quirky incarnation. Whittaker is a great actor – one of the best currently working imo but she’s best when she’s allowed to unleash her quiet intensity in what we probably have to call social realist drama. In many ways, she reminds me of Christopher Eccleston – great at expressing working-class rage and stifled expression but asking her to essay the melodramatic (and some might even say slightly camp) angst of the Doctor is a misuse of their talents. For that reason alone, I’d argue that neither actor really worked convincingly as a Doctor.

But there were also a couple of external factors that also stymied Whittaker in giving the more vivid performance that I suspect she would have been able to provide (going by the later, more confident, performances in the Flux stories, at any rate). One was design, which overall I’d have to say was pretty terrible in the CE. Not since Colin Baker has a Doctor been lumbered with a more awful costume. This was the unfortunate trend of Doctor’s outfit as uniform taken to its worst degree, to the point that whenever Whittaker was able to wear something else of amend her costume she instantly became that bit more Doctorly. Similarly, the unwieldy and dull console room she had to perform in didn’t do her any favours (especially compared to the wonderfully dynamic one it had replaced). It was dark and gloomy and the lumbering crystal pistons had the double effect of distracting the audience from what anyone was saying and forced to the actors to stick passively to their marks to presumably avoid getting in the way. It basically took an extremely talented director to block out any kind of movement or interest in the console room scenes.

And then we have to talk about the Fam. Quite apart from the bum-puckering embarrassment of those words in and of themselves, Whittaker had the misfortune to be lumbered with a TARDIS overcrowded with the most boring non-entities since Season 19. It’s slightly unfair to include Yaz in this as she later proved to have a bit of life to her (although being constantly told rather than shown how amazing she was didn’t do her any favours). But Graham and Ryan, who I tend to think of as this two-headed lumbering wooden Cerberus) basically killed the two series in which they appeared stone dead. A Series 11 with just the Doctor and Yaz would have worked far better, I think, perhaps with the addition of Dan later. But perhaps the Beeb just baulked at making the show too female – a mistake in my opinion as this would have shown the courage they were purporting to display in their publicity. I suppose what Series 11 really needed was the continuity with the past that a previous companion would have provided. What would have worked best, I feel, would have been for Bill Potts to have stuck around for another series to ease the audience into the new Doctor (so to speak) in much the same way as Ben and Polly and Sarah-Jane had done for previous eras. As it was, we never really got to know Whittaker’s Doctor as her trio of irritants kept putting this distance between us and her. Never mind the fact that the Graham-Ryan hybrid (hey maybe this was what Capaldi’s final series was warning about all along) surely pipped Adric, Dodo and Steven the Astronaut to the Worst Companion Ever title.

But I suppose no discussion of the CE is complete without talking about the Timeless Child saga. Personally I didn’t mind it and still don’t. It’s a bit of a Marvel-isation of the Doctor but I don’t see that as any more problematic than the James Bondification of the Doc under Pertwee or the Spockification of the him in the McGann TV movie. It does add elements and possibilities to a story that ran out of narrative steam a long time ago (which is why, I suspect, RTD is describing Gatwa’s tenure as starting at Series 1). When you get down to it, no TV show with one central character is really designed to last 60+ years without being doomed to become a ‘database narrative’, as Mark Hills puts it.

So, in summary, I’d describe the CE as a definitely interesting era with some top tier stories but which was ultimately stymied by some terrible production design decisions and the misfortune to be debuting in the middle of a social climate of aggressive culture wars. It’s perceived failure in the end has little to do with the quality of the stories, which reach the same highs as the other eras of the show or with the gender switch of the main character. What a successful Doctor really needs to penetrate the public consciousness is a strong consecutive run of stories early in their run, which is what the Pertwee, Tom Baker, David Tennant (I) and Matt Smith Doctors enjoyed (I don’t feel qualified to make the same claim for the Hartnell and Troughton Doctors). Chibnall got a lot right but he failed in this basic requirement and as such the Whittaker era is doomed to languish currently in the ‘problem era’ void. However, as with all the other Doctors who faced this questionable fate, I suspect that time will eventually lead to a re-evaluation and that the undoubted strengths of this era will be met with an inevitable and positive reappraisal.


25 comments

  1. the misfortune to be debuting in the middle of a social climate of aggressive culture wars

    I think this point cannot be overstated when attempting to discuss this era. It’s why I largely stopped discussing Doctor Who on-line. It became impossible to discuss the CE failings without being perceived as a misogynistic troll or whatever.

    So, I’m going to say something outright. I believe that critics who suggest that Chibnall is guilty of ‘virtue signaling’ are entirely correct.

    “Goodness gracious”, I hear you cry, “Phaseshift has just pulled the mask of to reveal he’s actually Jacob Rees Mogg!”.

    (Note to overseas readers who have had the pleasure of limited exposure to Mogg. He’s a rightwing MP who loves to complain about “the woke” and “virtue signaling” while maintaining the character of an 18th/19th century member of the gentry. He frames his aversion to ‘left wing’ ideals through his religious devotion to the Catholic branch of the Christianity tree. He has a side gig on “Britain’s versions of Fox News” GB News. He is as contemptible as he sounds.)

    Thing is – I think Jacob Rees Mogg is a virtue signaller as well for a very precise reason.

    Back in the 19th Century the boom of the Press led to newspapers and periodicals of all sorts. Amongst them was Punch Magazine, which was a satirical publication of news and opinion. One of Punch’s favored endeavours was to skewer the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. The gulf between their Public Virtue and Private Vice. It was set up by a friend of Charles Dickens – a writer who obviously shared that view of Victorian Society.

    You know the sort of thing. The rich industrialist who donates to church charity in a very obvious and above all demonstrable way. What a virtuous fellow! Before he goes back to grinding the meek in his work houses. Rees Mogg is the modern equivalent. His devotion to the Church entirely performative. To play to a particular crowd a particular image.

    So a working definition of virtue signaling to me is ‘an entirely performative moral stance which is not backed up by ongoing behaviour’.

    It’s a description that fits the CE to a ‘T’. It’s performative aspects that enraged the right (“I always wanted a female Doctor”, “We’re more diverse than ever, in front and behind the Camera”) appeal to those voices on social media who would regularly castigate Moffat for not hiring enough female writers, or writers from minority backgrounds. A plan entirely based on the Culture Wars. It’s signing a cheque that, unfortunately, the Bank of Chibbers can’t possibly honour. His actual ongoing writing reveals some unfortunate social conservative tendencies which I’d like to explore by returning here over the coming weeks.

    The reason I’ve actually written this comment is that I feel RTD appears to be clearly signing that he’s, very enthusiastically, going for broke in the Culture Wars. “You think the last bloke was ‘woke’? Hold my Beer! IN YOUR FACE GB NEWS!”. He is a better writer than Chibnall so we’ll soon see if he has got the resources to cash his cheque. I do get the feeling from the entirely manufactured Davros-gate fuss from last week that we are in for a bumpy ride.

  2. @phaseshift

    I’d definitely agree that Series 11 was overly performative rather than genuinely progressive and that it had the unfortunate effect of rather stymying the Whittaker era from the get-go. But I think Chibs realised that and dialled it back dramatically in s12-13 but that it was a) too late to alter the narrative for the era and b) removed the shield of virtuosity to expose the serious story-telling failings that often characterise his Who and were discernible in the rest of his tenure. As I’ve said before, Chibs seems to operate by coming up with some (often really cool) Big Ideas and Stunning Moments but often lacks putting the narrative connective tissue between them in place.

    As to Davros-gate, I must admit to being incredibly torn about this whole one. On the one hand, I found myself instinctively agreeing with RTD that the disability – evil trope is one of which Davros is probably the most nakedly extreme example and one which should be retired. (But also see every Bond film until at least the later Craig ones. And growing up I couldn’t count the times that I’d seen someone in a wheelchair cat-called as Davros in the street and that can’t have been fun.)

    And yet, and yet. In discussion with Mrs Fish, who’s possibly even more of an SJW than I am, she didn’t see a problem with it and offered up fairly good reasons why not. I don’t really have a problem with the character being retired as such as I’ve felt it’s been a case of diminishing returns with him since Genesis anyway. But if he does return, I don’t see that the wheelchair couldn’t make a return because if you have a problem with Davros in that form, you have a problem with the Daleks themselves (and a fair few other Who villains, for that matter.) Who is, unfortunately, built on a history of Othering (although also of questioning that Othering — ooh, I can feel a blog coming on) and the minute you start prodding that then I suspect the whole edifice might come tumbling down.

    I’m also not convinced it’s fair to stitch up RTD with the entire blame for Davros-gate, as some of the online commentators seemed to be doing. I think there’s a clear discomfort with the wheelchair concept in Familiar/Apprentice, simply by putting the Doctor in the chair (and even Clara in a Dalek casing) and I suspect that the whole Davros-getting-regeneration-energy-from-the-Doctor thing was possibly to set up Davros returning in an altered physical form upon his next appearance.

  3. I was ready to love the Chibnall era. It had become abundantly clear to me that (despite one last masterpiece in Heaven Sent) Moffat was a spent force long before his tenure came to an end.

    I wasn’t ready to love it by the end. I couldn’t warm to any of the utterly interchangeable and disposable companions. There were precious few stories I enjoyed. Much has been written about the failings of the Chibnall era. The worst accusation I can level at ot was that so many episodes were just plain boring.

  4. @jimthefish Agree with much of your assessment, especially the true awfulness of the Graham-Ryan hybrid (a great concept!), and I found the whole problematic father trope embarrassing and boring. But I also felt that Yaz never really escaped the depressing family soap opera of the early episodes. For me, she never really matured into anyone, but remained someone constantly looking for acceptance.  As for the failed episodes, I would also throw in “Orphan…whatever”. Only right toward the end did the show start to come alive for me, especially with the weeping angels and, to a lesser extent, Flux.

    In a way, I felt the Chibnall era was the post-gap version of the JNT years. And like those years, only began to become interesting right at the end.

  5. @UNITPICKER

     It had become abundantly clear to me that (despite one last masterpiece in Heaven Sent) Moffat was a spent force long before his tenure came to an end.

    Interesting that you think so and there are others here who I think share that opinion but personally I felt that while Moffat flagged somewhat in the middle of his run (maybe somewhere around Smith’s last and perhaps Capaldi’s first series) that he got a remarkable second wind and went out on a high. s10 was and is definitely one of my absolute favourites….

  6. @JimTheFish I suppose I am a bit guilty of attributing things I didn’t like to a Moffat decline that were actually problems I had with his whole era. Things like the overuse of mystery boxes often resolved in an unsatisfying manner. The switch to a Young Adult theme which ages it quite badly IMO to name a few.

    I still think there was a decline and the abysmal later Sherlock episodes and his post Who work supports that somewhat. Series 10 is a strange outlier admittedly, not a classic in my eyes but a big improvement. I feel that it was mainly as this was a standalone series that Moffat originally wasn’t going to do. There was no obligation to set up mysteries to fudge a resolution for down the line.

  7. @UNITPICKER
    in what way were the Sherlock episodes abysmal? I thought the essence of Sherlock WAS the final season: a masterpiece of quixotic creativity. Certainly, Doctor Who -from his early episodes, under Russel T, to his overseeing of an entire run, is almost always masterful television. It aims high – doesn’t always get there… But I’d be interested to hear why you think differently, though.

    I was thinking of Dracula the other day & how that series took the best of Moffat & Gatiss blending in some of the more toothsome qualities of Toby Whithouse’s series/episodes. A dastardly level of grotesquery & then Tennant, in Inside Man, delivered a robust, punchy performance; a man, completely falling apart.

    Puro & Son.

  8. @syzgy

    From earlier than the final season I hated what he did with Moriarty and especially Irene Adler but still found it entertaining. Later Sherlock though just engaged in more and more cheap narrative tricks, mystery boxes and plot twists that unravelled if you applied even the vaguest hint of logic to them. The last episode is especially bad with the secret sister and Sherlock having been revealed to be remembering a childhood friend as a dog. I think it says a lot that so many fans thought this series was a trick and that there was fantastical ‘real’ final series/final episode to come.

    Dracula I just remember being OK until the action moved to modern day. Inside Man just felt like two random dramas welded together. They didn’t connect the twonstory strands strongly enough.

  9. @UNITPICKER @syzygy

    Late Sherlock… I wasn’t terribly happy with The Six Thatchers even before Mary Watson took a bullet for Sherlock. Not saying that can’t happen, but it was uncharacteristically melodramatic of Moffat and poorly delivered. The Lying Detective worked for me. I thought The Final Problem was weak; it was all so fevered. But then I’ve not been tempted to revisit it. Perhaps if the alternative was Chibnall’s Who…

    If anything, Moffat’s Who got stronger after the first two series. Not sure if he was trying to sell the Paternoster Gang as a spin off, but Akhaten and Time of The Doctor aside, the sequence from The Snowmen on was just fun.

    Goodness, it’s even easier to write about Moffat than Chibnall!

     

  10. During the dark times of Covid, I was living in the Most Locked down City in the World (TM). A strange existence where you were allowed out only for essentials (Food, Hardware and Alcohol), and 1 hour a day of exercise, with a maximum of 3 other people as long as you kept 2m apart.

    There were 7 lockdowns, with a total of 200+ days spent in extremely restrictive conditions. I was one of the lucky ones: managed to keep working, didn’t catch The Rona as it was called here, and had no relatives with either financial or health concerns.

  11. Nevertheless the mental toll was substantial, but it wasn’t fully understood or realised at the time.

    What would have been previously unacceptable was tacitly agreed by the exhausted and weary population. And you began to question your own judgement, before the inevitable acceptance.

    These effects linger. After the Great Reopening, it was noted (by those who hadn’t been subject to the same regime) that there were subtle changes in my personality and disposition. From my perspective, the real world had shifted in ineffable ways, and I’m still not convinced we will ever return to normality. This is the new normal.

  12. Mine is not a unique experience and there are other, equal valid perspectives that contradict my views of this strange time. I at least hope my recounting of these experiences is instructive.

    And my point. The above how is I felt watching Chibnall era Who.

  13. Thanks @Jimthefish for posting this.

    Something that occurs to me is that when Chibs took over it didn’t seem like viable alternatives were exactly queuing up to take over as Who showrunner. I get the feeling that he sold it to the Beeb on the basis of “let’s take it back to basics, more like how it was in the 60s” – simpler storylines (after the convoluted storylines, and ever increasing backstories and baggage that had built up since 2005), with more historicals/”educational” content. Then he hit them with the Timeless Child, LOL (which was seeded in from his second episode).

    But if he hadn’t grabbed the reins at that point, there may not have been a Doctor Who waiting for RTD to come back to.

     

  14. @ScaryB

    viable alternatives to Chibnall? I fully expected Toby Whithouse and Jamie Mathieson to be the new Rusty and Moff. But maybe Being Human was looked on as too risqué… whereas Chib had just had a huge 3 series hit with Broadchurch

  15. @ps1l0v3y0u

    +1 for Whithouse. I think Chibnall can write well, but not for Doctor Who. He seemed to be poaching ideas from all over and trying to slot them into a story / season arc, with his linking bits being off both tonally and in terms of plot. Character development was OK, but the characters were less than engaging in my view. The result was that you ended up with this rather piecemeal effect that was neither full-on DW or decent character-driven traditional drama.

    To borrow a quote: the good bits weren’t original, and the original bits weren’t good.

  16. It was absolutely imperative for the first female Doctor to sell like gangbusters, and Chibnall blew it. Spectacularly.

    That alone has earned him a hard, unapologetic slap to the face.

  17. I was watching ‘Last Christmas’ and was struck by the resemblance between Faye Marsay’s interpretation of Shona and 13. I know Miles Cholmondley Warner would point out they’re both blonde ladies from (different ends of) Yorkshire. And there is probably a Reith era BBC approved ‘northern’ template (received pronunciation removed after the advent of Corrie) but when the 4 dream crab victims + Clara + 12 all hold hands in a circle (much to the doctor’s reluctance) it is Shona who is instructed to hold 12’s hand.

  18. This blog seems to have an issue with size of posts. So some of my relevant comments were posted on ‘Companions Past and Present.’

    In summary (because I’d quite like to draw a line under the Chibnall era), these are my conclusions:

    1. A Woman Doctor was going to be tricky whoever handled it. I wonder if Moffat was preparing to in his 5 series to 2020 prediction circa 2014

    2. The return to The Crowded Tardis was baffling but predictable, to diffuse the tensions over a Woman (read trans) Doctor. And it conformed with  Chibnall’s track record.

    3. Chibnall didn’t the chops to ape either RTD’s will to offend or Moffat’s scattergun wit. The entirety of his three series were as laugh free a zone as the first series of Red Dwarf.

    4. We’re stuck with The Timeless Child. Maybe it will designated ‘a lie’; maybe it will be a small off-white piece in the middle of a larger, more acceptable jigsaw.

     

  19. @ps1l0v3yOu

    Yes, there is a kind of similarity between Shona and 11 (and I really, really wanted Faye Marsay to stay on as a companion) but it does fit my ‘imprinting’ theory quite nicely — maybe Shona had a bigger effect on 12 than we think.

    And I’d agree that Chibs didn’t give enough thought as to just what a female Doctor might be like character-wise and left Whittaker to flounder a little. And as well as the poor writing, her costume was much more of a statement than it reflected character too.  It was all such a waste of a terrific actor as I still think she could have been amazing.

    On the Timeless Child, given what RTD2’s just presented us with, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. And as discussed elsewhere on the site (can’t remember where now), I think it’s become necessary to uncouple the Doctor from the increasingly problematic Time Lords…

  20. @JimTheFish

    Perhaps earlier drafts of Last Christmas had a companion hand over. Jenna Coleman changed her mind about staying quite late apparently, and of course she was the one with a double dream crab escape at the end. Was the intention to have 12 leave Clara to live her life, not realising Danny Pink was dead? A bit dark!

    But did the Shona concept survive somehow? She was the most strongly written of the four crab victims. Chris Chibnall would have been deep into the development of Broadchurch… could Moffat have asked him to develop something for a kooky companion from the other side of the Pennines and it never happened but the idea stuck?

    This speculation is a bit embarrassing. RTD’s companions were London based, as is, improbably 10/14. 11 seemed to been straight up Charterhouse and Oxbridge. Is it so much a coincidence as ‘pre-levelling up’ Home Counties privilege?

    Laugh!

    Still… a remarkable coincidence.

     

  21. @Jimthefish, @ps1l0v3yOu

    One of the main frustrations for me was that – it seemed – that Chibnall mentally went “female Doctor, CHECK”, and then did nothing with it, when there was plenty of opportunity to explore the gender change and what it meant for the character (having a “fam” doesn’t count).

    Just off the top of my head: set a story during the Suffragette era; talk about (or show ideally) how Time Lord society works when everyone (is it everyone?) can change gender; put the Doctor in a situation where traditionally masculine traits would have been a disadvantage, or trad female ones an advantage (ideally); use the Master to contrast the Doctor’s experience; set a story in a female-led society….

    But none of that. It was just: Female Doctor. Done.

    What a wasted opportunity.

  22. Or…..have the female Doctor travel with a single, male, companion and explore how that relationship is similar to – and different – from the traditional set-up.

  23. @WhoHar @JimTheFish @RobertCaligari @ScaryB

    coming back to alternatives to Chibnall who may have been contention in the mid 2010’s, and my speculation about a Whithouse/Matthieson partnership, isn’t it curious that Whithouse got an acting credit in ‘Twice Upon a Time?’ So did Mark Gatiss of course. In fact they spend the entire with guns at each other’s heads!

    What other meta gems are hidden in that curious Christmas special? Why return to the first doctor? Without that regeneration the show would have died. Why should forgetting Clara be s on insulting? She is still out there…

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