'Doctor Who' needs to evolve to survive

It needs to be more than just ‘content'.

Gary Gershoff via Getty Images

The BBC has announced that Chris Chibnall (pictured, center), Doctor Who’s executive producer, and its star, Jodie Whittaker (pictured, right), will leave the series in 2022. A trio of specials through next year would herald the pair’s departure from the long-running series. This, then, seems like an ideal time for Doctor Who to undergo the radical shakeup it so desperately needs. I don’t agree with The Guardian’s recent piece saying that the series needs to be off the air for a while, but it is very clearly time for the show to evolve again.

This is in part because Doctor Who under Chibnall has been such a waste: the showrunner’s work before taking the job, while popular and award-winning, had always left me cold. My initial apprehension was calmed, somewhat, by the news emerging from the production of the revived series’ 11th run. Chibnall also deserves credit for hiring the first two writers of color in the show’s nearly sixty year history. The fact that many of the episodes had an explicit focus on material social history suggested a bright new direction for the series. The Woman Who Fell To Earth, too, was a blisteringly confident debut and all seemed well.

And then, yeesh. As good as Chibnall is at birthing some truly inspired ideas, the quality of his execution is terrible. He struggled to flesh out the quartet of lead characters and failed to offer them real stakes to deal with. And for all of the era’s emphasis on diversity, the content of each episode seemed to be far more backward-looking. I’ve written before about Chibnall often appearing to make the argument opposite to the one he thinks he’s making. Unless he intended to say that polite protest is the only good protest, Amazon’s treatment of its staff is good, actually, and that we can all benefit from the spoils of colonialism.

Naturally, the casting of a woman in the central role encouraged the usual petulance from those corners of the internet. Sadly, I think that the actors involved have all performed miracles trying to make anything Chibnall writes remotely believable. And Whittaker’s departure before she could work with another executive producer will be yet another tragically wasted opportunity in this era. I hope that this bad-faith criticism doesn't force the production team to make a “safe” choice for the next Doctor.

The big secret to Doctor Who’s endurance is both the malleability of its premise and its knack for reinventing itself. Every few years, often as the show’s creative team changed, it would become an almost entirely different show. You could argue that this lack of sentimentality has been the case since the show’s first mission-switch, which happened in its fifth episode. The revived show has been using a version of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer template since 2005, and it’s starting to wear a bit thin.

It didn’t help that while Series 11 was designed to avoid any of the show’s dense backstory, Series 12 was at times incomprehensible to anyone but die hard fans. Chibnall, after all, devoted his series arc to validating a production gaffe in an episode that aired on January 24th, 1976. (And, in doing so, made the Doctor the Time Lord equivalent of Jesus, contradicting everything that we’d learned over the last six decades.) This was the worst kind of self-indulgent fan fiction, and hardly a bold new direction for a mainstream drama.

Unfortunately, the media landscape has changed, and competition has intensified beyond all belief. The BBC no longer has a monopoly on the conversation as it did — at least here in the UK — and is dwarfed by the streaming giants. Netflix, Amazon, Disney and others also have the wealth to offer the sort of creative freedom that once made the non-commercial BBC stand out among the crowd.

The knee-jerk reaction, I’m sure, will be to demand Doctor Who jumps on the bandwagon driven by Marvel’s recent streaming shows. That would be a mistake, because Who is at its best when it pushes away from whatever genre show is cresting into the mainstream that year. Financially, the BBC can’t compete with these mega-franchises, but the quality of its writing and its unique sensibilities, can. The one thing that the series could learn from those shows, however, is how to build every episode into an event.

This could mean that the show becomes a run of occasional specials with a longer running time, like a glorified movie of the week. Or it could, like the COVID-influenced 2021 season, be a shorter run of tightly-interconnected episodes. Chibnall may indeed stumble onto the template that helps revitalize the show going forward, but I’m personally hoping for something more radical.

For instance, if Doctor Who can’t succeed as a glossy, hour-long standalone drama, then why not go back to being a series of short serials? Netflix’s Russian Doll and the BBC’s I May Destroy You are both examples of (excellent) half-hour dramas that offer a break from the current prestige-drama template. It helps, too, that Doctor Who was run in this format for 25 of its first 26 seasons, and offers new — or at least different — methods for structuring a story.

It may also make it easier to binge during its long second life on a streaming platform. Think about it: how many times have you ducked watching a long episode of The Crown because it’s too much time to invest out of your day, but you’ll happily burn through four episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine without complaint. You could even get Michaela Coel to write it, although at this point I’ll settle for anyone who isn’t named Chris Chibnall.