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.