Well, it was inevitable, and not that surprising – we have our first female Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker is the Thirteenth Doctor. She’s best known for her role as Beth Latimer in new Who showrunner Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch. And of course, the fuss it’s created is also unsurprising, unfortunately. For a TV series that thrives and built on change, there’s always resistance to change from some hardcore fans; casting a female in the part seems to be a step too far for many, prompting some to announce they’ll stop watching once Whittaker is on board.
Strangely enough, I have no opinion about the announcement. After being a passionate Doctor Who fan since 1980, all the way through the Wilderness years and a lover of 21st century Who, I find my enthusiasm over the last couple of years tempered slightly. I still follow it rabidly, but it hasn’t pushed my buttons as much recently. Is that outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat’s doing, I hear you ask?
Not entirely. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Moffat’s Who, but I fear he has fallen victim to the same condition that Russell T Davies suffered from in his last year – a combination of fatigue, self-indulgence and an extended departure.
Of course, Davies did an amazing thing when he rebooted Doctor Who for the 21st century. It was fresh, exciting, captivating and became huge. During his time, he delivered some cracking episodes and story arcs that kept people watching. Moffat played a big part in that too, with stories like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which is why it made sense for him to take over later on.
Davies really hit his stride in his fourth season in 2008; David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble were a fantastic TARDIS team, helped with some strong scripts and stories (we’ll just gloss over The Doctor’s Daughter, shall we?), and it made sense that Davies, executive producer Julie Gardner, producer Phil Collinson and Tennant should leave while still on top.
It’s a shame then that Davies’ departure stretched out for almost 18 months, with five specials as something of a swansong. These specials, starting with the 2008 Christmas Special, The Next Doctor, and finishing with the two-parter, The End of Time, across Christmas 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, weren’t particularly strong (The Waters of Mars was the best by far), and it felt like Davies was limping to the finish line. Then he gave us an indulgent wrap-up of his era as Tennant’s Doctor revisited all his friends and companions before he regenerated.
This extended coda to the story just didn’t have the emotional impact of previous season finales and felt cloying.
So Moffat, Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan as Amy offered a fresh start, and despite misgivings about Smith’s age, the Eleventh Doctor proved to be inspired casting. He continued, and indeed increased the energy and sense of fun that had made Tennant so popular, and for his first two seasons, was served with some strong episodes and complex story arcs, along with a few requisite weaker episodes and an unnecessary and, in hindsight, unsuccessful Dalek makeover. With the addition of Arthur Darvill as Rory, and the timey-wimey intrigue of River Song, this TARDIS team was formidable. Even broadcasting the sixth season in 2011 in two halves worked.
Splitting the seventh season over two years (2012 & 2013), however, didn’t do Doctor Who any favours, and this was the start, in some ways, of Moffat’s prolonged farewell, and a sign that he was overstaying his welcome.
While the five 2012 episodes, the final ones to feature Amy and Rory, were relatively strong (we’ll excuse the Statue of Liberty as a Weeping Angel as a fun conceit), 2013’s stories, introducing Jenna Coleman’s Clara as the Impossible Girl companion, included some under-par stories: The Rings of Akhaten, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and Nightmare in Silver – please, Moffat, haven’t you realised yet that children in stories rarely work.
And all of this was a lead-up to the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, which was a huge success, featuring the return of Tennant and Billie Piper (but not as Rose), the Zygons, and introducing John Hurt as the War Doctor. Oh, and there was the wonderful prequel which saw Paul McGann return as the Eighth Doctor and regenerate into the War Doctor. All great stuff.
The same can’t be said of Smith’s final episode, the 2013 Christmas Special, The Time of the Doctor. Seeing the Doctor spending hundreds of years on the planet Trenzalore defending a town called Christmas was a disappointment and not a worthy way for the Eleventh Doctor to end his time in the TARDIS. Clara, for the most part, was rendered impotent, especially now her Impossible Girl arc had been completed.
Still, there was now Peter Capaldi to look forward to as the Twelfth Doctor in 2014. His casting too provoked some negative responses – having had two young ‘sexy’ Doctors, some people thought casting an older man was a bad idea. But this was also another opportunity to demonstrate the show’s flexibility – as it has many times in the past.
Taking the Twelfth Doctor into a darker, more alien version of the character made sense with Capaldi’s seemingly dour disposition, and while keeping Clara around aimed to help the audience with the transition, it worked out the same way Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor clashed swords with his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) in 1985 – neither made a particularly enjoyable TARDIS team.
Along with a companion that had limited potential, despite Clara’s story arc with boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Capaldi wasn’t blessed with strong stories in his first year. That’s not to say they were all bad – there were some strong stories like Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline and Dark Water/Death in Heaven – but most of the eighth season stories were unmemorable or nonsensical. Robot of Sherwood, while a fun romp, was considered too ‘cartoony’, Kill the Moon’s reveal that the Moon was an egg waiting to hatch an alien being stretched credibility, even in Doctor Who, and In the Forest of the Night was let down by including children – again.
Thank goodness then for Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the season’s two-part finale – although we could have done without the Cyber-Brigadier.
Capaldi’s second season in 2015 started strongly with the two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and a more relaxed Twelfth Doctor, the return of Missy, Davros and the Daleks. This year, most of the stories were two-parters, and included some of Capaldi’s best work (The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion and Heaven Sent) and the season’s climax was ostensibly the death of Clara. But the confusing and disappointing final episode, Hell Bent, saw Clara saved just before her death, and sent flying through Space and Time in an old-school TARDIS with Ashildr/Me (Maisie Williams), but wiped from the Doctor’s memory. It lacked the emotional impact of previous companions’ departures.
I can’t also help but wonder if the inconsistent broadcast scheduling of recent years has also had an impact on both ratings and Doctor Who’s following. For its first four years under Davies, each season would begin its 13-week run on Easter Saturday and finish in early/mid-July, just as summer kicks off in the UK. Since 2009 though, that consistency hasn’t been kept. Capaldi’s first two seasons both began in late summer/early autumn in the UK (not always a great time for prime time TV), and then, apart from the Christmas Special, there was no new Doctor Who in 2016. This can’t have helped by further interrupting the show’s momentum. It also meant the ‘ghost’ of Clara hung around longer than previous companions after their departure, even if we did get an introduction to new companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) mid-2016.
To be honest, the show needed Bill much earlier than 2017. She was the breath of fresh air that would have invigorated Moffat earlier and given Capaldi a different dynamic in the TARDIS to work with.
Bill’s first few episodes earlier this year were strong and offered a different perspective on the Twelfth Doctor, but the blindness storyline and Monk trilogy didn’t quite deliver, and the season became less compelling. And then we got the two-part finale, World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls, which was jam-packed with big moments and returns: Bill being shot and converted into a Mondasian Cyberman, John Simm’s Master revealed and collaborating with his future self, Missy, Bill’s transformation into whatever Heather from The Pilot was, and a cliffhanger appearance of the First Doctor, leading into the upcoming Christmas Special, Twice Upon a Time.
While all this is great, it feels a bit too ‘fanboy’ and indulgent – in the same way Davies’ finale did. It’s also too focused on the densely-packed continuity that Moffat has built up over the last seven years. Bill avoiding her fate was disappointing and reduced the impact of her Cyber-conversion – and is too similar to Clara’s departure. We’ve also seen that Bill will be returning in the Christmas Special, but she won’t be appearing alongside the Thirteenth Doctor.
So, in 2018, Chris Chibnall will come in as the new showrunner for Doctor Who with a new broom and a new – female – Doctor. What else Chibnall will bring to the show remains to be revealed, but after his work on Torchwood and Broadchurch, it’ll be interesting to see.
Do I have an opinion about Whittaker yet? No, I’m going to wait and see. After all, change, for better or worse, is what has kept Doctor Who going all these years.