Feature: The Shadow of the 13th Doctor
Feature article by guest contributor Zachary Schulman.
With so much nostalgia presented, my first impression of “The Power of the Doctor” is that of a spectacular finish. In the end, Chibnall did what Moffat did not, and he remembered 80s Who for its own glory by bringing back Colin Baker to screen canon after 36 years and Sylvester McCoy after 33 years. The rush when I saw the First Doctor! The Sixth Doctor! The Fifth Doctor! The Eighth Doctor! The Seventh Doctor! They’re all back, and their inclusion makes “The Power of the Doctor” wonderful because we love them so much (and I revere those robes). I value how Chibnall created a support group for the companions who have survived travelling with the Doctor. The group’s creation is an act of compassion that seeks to amend the neglect that 80s Who has endured. We have our first canon degeneration. And prophecy has been fulfilled as the Fourteenth Doctor is a revisiting of an old, favorite face.
Now, as hindsight begins, we have all the available tools to excavate the meaning that Series 11 to 13 may have for the Infinite Doctor. While Clint Hassell’s spoiler-filled review is quite agreeable, I want to take the time to examine how the Chibnall era fits into both the previous and upcoming canon. In order to begin to make sense of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era, we must look at how the writing of showrunner Chris Chibnall negotiates with, rejects, and advances the overall story of Doctor Who. In the first RTD era, audiences are shown the Doctor’s pride before the fall. In Steven Moffat’s era, audiences are shown that it takes a magician to change a bad situation into a kinder one. Chris Chibnall’s era, as it encapsulates the Thirteenth Doctor’s lifetime, is about exploring fossils and seeking to enjoy life without knowing the full story.
Exploring deep time has long been in Chibnall’s spirit: think of the reptilian focus of “The Hungry Earth,” “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” and “Legend of the Sea Devils.” The Thirteenth Doctor’s geode-themed Tardis matches her millions-of-years-old self. Remember Yaz, Dan and Jericho’s Indiana Jones side-quest in Series 13? In “The Power of the Doctor,” our world’s seismologists have become lost totems of compressed information, priming the Doctor to uncover the Dalek excavation of Earth as part of the Spy Master’s final scheme. These narrative structures parallel how an intrepid explorer discovers artifacts of the past, filling holes in the ancient record. Chibnall’s era ultimately realizes the Cartmel Masterplan by showing that there are fossils from the pre-Hartnell lifetimes, which challenge our predominant narrative of the Doctor’s genesis. The truth is fossilised, as the petrified form of Claire’s Weeping Angel from Series 13 carries the dormant data of the Doctor’s lost days. With “The Power of the Doctor,” Chibnall has dug down to the deep, fiery core of Doctor Who and revealed that it was always about eternity. What this means is that with a never-ending story like Doctor Who, anything will happen, including lapses in status.
The Jurassic Coast setting of Chibnall’s previous programme, Broadchurch, is evidently the site of the former showrunner’s imagination. After watching Broadchurch, I had a feeling that Chibnall would ‘kill the child’ as it were, but that the event would bring viewers together as a community. The cliffs of Broadchurch even appear in “The Timeless Children,” where the child falls to her death. My expectation for the Chibnall era was that more of Broadchurch’s somber themes would transfer over to Doctor Who. I didn’t imagine that the Doctor’s shadow would change.
I think that Series 12 and 13 hurt many of us because, whether we consciously realised it, the show had been designed for a new audience. I haven’t followed my own advice of “Letting Go of the Doctor” so well, but that’s because I love the character too much. During the wait for the Centenary special, I watched the animated release of “The Web of Fear,” which is a Second Doctor story that is the first to feature Colonel Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and it’s helped me come to accept much of the Chibnall era. Back in the day, stories were more frequently than not drawn-out serials. “The Web of Fear” does not anticipate canon, as the Colonel is unceremoniously introduced. And unlike foreplanned story arcs, the Second Doctor’s meeting with the Colonel doesn’t show evidence of their relationship to come. It was as if they were written in the spur of the moment for a relatively low-budget television show, and only in hindsight was their relationship amended. In this light, I think that it makes sense why we have no closure on the Fugitive Doctor and the Flux fob watch. These realistic limitations help remind me that, at the end of the day, Doctor Who is a show. I had to learn the same lesson with The Force Awakens. We watch the screen and things happen. If we see something new, we get a dopamine response that encourages us to watch more. But that brain chemistry can only be enjoyed by those who do not have expectations of what is to come, and as lovers of the story, many of us don’t walk into the viewing with an open mind.
It was limiting for me to expect that the Chibnall era would play with themes that I had wanted to see explored. The diasporic allegory of “The Hungry Earth” (a Moffat era story from 2010) shows a contemporary political realm that Chibnall also taps into with Broadchurch, in that both samples of his writing show how influenced he is by current events and how he, as a writer, replicates his worldly interests. I had thought that—as Chibnall was elevated to showrunner— these intricate political themes (from diaspora to newsfeed mobs) would deepen. While we did get warmongering potato-heads invading Crimea in “War of the Sontarans,” the theme was not sustained beyond a single episode. In “The Power of the Doctor,” the Russians of 1916 are warped by the Spy Master-as-Rasputin, which harks back to Chibnall’s Cold War childhood imaginary when the USSR was the English West’s nemesis. It is definitely easy for me as a consumer to criticize the work of a creator, as I’ve never remotely had the pressure of running such a creative operation, let alone an entire television programme. Nevertheless, the story that has happened is different than the one I (or we) expected. The Thirteenth Doctor’s shadow came as a surprise that negotiates with and rejects much of New Who.
Unlike the previous four incarnations of the revival era, I do not recognize posttraumatic stress in the Thirteenth Doctor. It seems, as it was with Missy by the end of Series 10, that regeneration (or time) does heal all wounds. But what kind of hero does that leave us with? In the Chibnall era, the Daleks do not reflect malevolence in the Doctor. The Dalek executioner’s statement, “Daleks learn,” is the closest parallel I can come up with as a repeated viewer of “Eve of the Daleks” to the Thirteenth Doctor, as she gave a speech to the fam about learning and improving (over by the storage building’s entrance doors). I do like the idea of a traitor Dalek in the Centenary, as it offers us hope that what happened with Rusty may happen again. Additionally, the traitor Dalek does parallel the Thirteenth Doctor’s arc. For a Dalek to realize that it has strayed so far from its origins reminds me of how the advancement of regeneration has warped the Shobogans into genocidal aristocrats. The reconnaissance Dalek from “Resolution” shares this theme of going back to the Daleks’ ancient past, albeit not as successfully. Unlike the fears of the existential void showcased during the first RTD era, and the Nazi menace of Moffat’s twentieth-century nostalgia era, the Chibnall era shows more concern for the Thirteenth Doctor’s uncompromised positivity in the face of externalized evils. We’ve come a long way from “You are a good Dalek.”
The dark side of the Thirteenth Doctor, then, is that of her negligence. This incarnation, in the spirit of her previous lifetimes, is definitely that of one who runs away from her responsibilities. In the Centenary special, the Cybermasters speak the show’s over-arching truth: “The Doctor lies.” The Thirteenth Doctor regularly denies her extended fam explanations that would soothe their worries. The Thirteenth Doctor’s destiny, like her previous incarnations, is to leave those she professes to love in the past while they struggle to let her go. What has changed in this incarnation is that the Thirteenth Doctor is neither vain nor hateful. I cannot imagine the Thirteenth Doctor to be the Beast of Trenzalore, the Butcher of Skull Moon, or even the Destroyer of Skaro. That’s what this regeneration left behind. By the time of the Thirteenth Doctor, her Time War survivor’s guilt and shame have been remedied by the efforts of the Moffat era. Building beyond the Twelfth Doctor’s narrative, the Thirteenth Doctor must contend with genocide and absence while not bearing the burden of believing herself to be directly responsible for it. The Chibnall era continues to explore the imperialistic sins of the Time Lords that were set forth in the Big Finish special “Zagreus,” which vilifies Matrix Rassilon (Don Warrington) for his crimes against the universe. In a time of identity crisis, “Zagreus” had the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors appearing to the Eighth Doctor during the climax to advise him in the same way that the former regenerations reminded the Thirteenth Doctor that her story must not be over.
The Chibnall era also maintains and develops the decades-long theme of transforming those who are among the Doctor’s presence. When I think about how Yaz, Graham and Ryan have been empowered by the Doctor, I remember RTD’s words through Davros in “Journey’s End” when the Dark Lord of Skaro declares that the Doctor takes “ordinary people and [he fashions] them into weapons.” Even without hatred, the Thirteenth Doctor can still empower people by shaping them into fighters with her optimism. I imagine what kind of a role model the Thirteenth Doctor will be for open-minded viewers whose first impression of our favorite spatial justice warrior is one who lives by the Twelfth Doctor’s advice that “Hate is always foolish. And love is always wise.”
The Thirteenth Doctor era advances a story of healing that shows personal growth over her New Who lifetimes. In the COVID-19 lockdown short story by Paul Cornell, “The Shadow in the Mirror,” the Thirteenth Doctor is written as a parallel to the Tenth Doctor, as her incarnation is the only one that was kind enough to free Sister of Mine from the mirror Hell that her hateful past life (the Tenth Doctor) had made to imprison the monster girl for all time. Out of all the incarnations of the Doctor, we can see how the Thirteenth Doctor is written to be truly unique.
Russell T. Davies may do the work now to ensure that the revival continues on the Golden Path to eternity, and the Thirteenth Doctor will always be her own quirky step of that journey.
The indisputable shadow of the Thirteenth Doctor is the Spy Master. I appreciate the purple Joker “haha” vibes of the Spy Master’s TARDIS as a parallel to the Doctor’s relatively stable aura (do check out Jodie Whittaker’s cover of the Coldplay single “Yellow” for Children in Need). Regarding the first canon degeneration, we’ve seen a psychotic rupture attempting to manifest through the Doctor before: most notably that of the Valeyard in the Sixth Doctor’s heroic regeneration story “The Brink of Death.” I also can’t forget the Dream Lord from the Eleventh Doctor story “Amy’s Choice.” And with Neil Patrick Harris cast as “the greatest enemy the Doctor has ever faced” just after killing it in the role of the Architect’s spiritual successor in The Matrix Resurrections, who knows how dark New Who is going to become. I’m delighted to hear that Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor wants to battle the Beast, because such a conflict would afford us the opportunity to explore how a hero deals with a reflection of their own (potentially) terrible nature. Just as we were reminded—or informed—of the First Doctor’s shadow in “Twice Upon a Time” (namely his sexism and ageism) when it had aired in 2017, the Doctor has always been a compromised protagonist. The revisiting of the Tenth Doctor’s face for the 60th Anniversary is like a rupture of ego that needs to be addressed after an entire regeneration of neglecting the Infinite Doctor’s dark side. Just as the Spy Master is able to manifest after Missy’s character development and her regeneration into the Lumiat, the Fourteenth Doctor may very well prove to be the return of the shaded protagonist we’ve been accustomed to.
Back in “Journey’s End” of Series 4, recall some of the Tenth Doctor’s second body’s first words: “Used the regeneration energy to heal myself, but as soon as that was done, I didn’t need to change. I didn’t want to, why would I? Look at me.” So far, David Tennant is the only actor to portray three of the Doctor’s regenerations, the most of any actor (four if we include the Metacrisis Doctor). Remember Ten’s arrogant gloating at the end of “Waters of Mars” regarding the “little people” that he’s saved? Even the Eleventh Doctor says that Ten “had vanity issues at the time” (“The Time of the Doctor”). Rejecting much of her past lives’ vanity and malevolent fire, the Thirteenth Doctor is shaped more so by her positive expectations for both herself and others.
Perhaps the Thirteenth Doctor era remains a circular return to the show’s origins, where the Doctor is—foremost—an explorer of the sublime beyond and not the savior of the universe (seeing as the Flux-affected cosmos still remains compressed). Thirteen’s delight at meeting a Qurunx in the Centenary special highlights her era’s sense of awe. One of my favorite stories of the Thirteenth Doctor era remains “It Takes You Away,” where one of the most abstract powers in the universe is projected onto… a frog. The Thirteenth Doctor’s love of the unknown shines here, and it’s a ready reminder of her era’s contributions to an ever-evolving story. The Thirteenth Doctor teaches us that the expectations we hold for the world have a role in shaping our future. Optimism itself, in the face of uncertainty, will be the defining legacy of the Thirteenth Doctor.