Jodie Whittaker Leaving Won’t Fix Doctor Who
Feature article by Craig Sightings.
In early January 2021, it was reported that Jodie Whittaker was “quitting Doctor Who”. Though this has not (at the time of writing) been confirmed or denied by the BBC, some have seen this as a positive move. Mainly this comes from fans who think Jodie is a poor fit for the role, and believe that a new Doctor will automatically fix any problems the show is having. However, one part of the report some have missed is that it also claims that Chris Chibnall is staying on as showrunner. This factor is why I believe Doctor Who’s problems are far from over.
First, my personal opinion on Jodie Whittaker is that she has not made for a great Doctor. However, I don’t think this can all be blamed on her performance, and no, this has nothing to do with her gender either. She may not have been the most obvious pick, but I also believe that she’s been underserved by the mediocre writing of Chris Chibnall and co. from day one, and used as more of a tool to push his agenda.
Lest we forget Whittaker‘s appointment came at a time when female empowerment was being talked about at its peak by the mainstream media. Chibnall has not hidden this factor in interviews saying he only wanted the job if he could have a female Doctor. Remember, we also had a trailer with Jodie literally breaking the glass ceiling and smirking at the camera.
I think Chibnall believed that grabbing headlines by being provocative like this, and pushing progressivism would be all he had to do, and therefore he didn’t write the Thirteenth Doctor to have an actual compelling character of her own. This led to an underwhelming performance, as Jodie Whittaker has had so little to work with.
A Politics First Approach
Can you put politics in Doctor Who stories? Absolutely. The show has obviously done so across its long history. But here’s the caveat: it requires delicate writing to pull it off if you want to make the audience not feel like you’re just being preached to for 45-minutes. People want escapism and to be entertained in their entertainment. It’s not a hard concept, and one that Doctor Who used to understand prior to the Chibnall era.
“Orphan 55” is probably the absolute worst example of politics under Chibnall’s tenure and practically had Thirteen directly addressing the camera for all its lack of subtlety. And worse is that just a couple of episodes later viewers were being smacked around the head again with “Praxeus”. When the viewer feels like they’re just being lectured to week-on-week, it drives audiences away.
Even if we ignore all the political baggage, after two whole series in charge, I’m convinced that Chibnall is not a good fit for Doctor Who on a basic storytelling level either. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise though, as Chibnall’s episodes before he was showrunner were not revered by the fanbase. Following his successful work on Broadchurch, I was prepared to give him another chance though, but I can safety say he has done nothing to convince me in the years since.
I don’t think Chibnall has a good handle on how to write good sci-fi. His episodes often feel recycled from better, past episodes. His dialogue gets lost in lines of unnecessary exposition, and it’s largely humourless. But perhaps most crucially, I think Chibnall’s writing just lacks the heart and soul the show used to have. Russell T. Davies returned briefly in 2020 for the Lockdown events and penned a beautiful minisode featuring “New Earth” character Novice Hame and the 10th Doctor, and it just reinforced everything the show is currently missing. That felt more Doctor Who than anything Chibnall has written in two whole series. And that’s not a good sign!
You might think you’d find some respite with the guest writers, but Chibnall has only hired people with little to no sci-fi or Doctor Who experience. I have no idea why he couldn’t invite back some of the more seasoned writers. So, across the board the writing is lacking.
The companions are as vital as the main character and unfortunately, I think they have faired as bad as the Doctor. First, three companions is too many, and the writers have obviously struggled to balance the bigger cast. This often leaves companions just repeating information and being little more than question askers and/or exposition dumpers. Not fully fleshed-out characters like the companions of the past. In Series 11, Graham stood out as the closest thing to a well-rounded character with a more defined arc. However, in Series 12 his role was reduced to little more than a comic sidekick, even in his final episode.
They attempted to give Yaz some more depth, but it came in far too late. You shouldn’t have to wait 18+ episodes to see some backstory for a main character in one episode! I would say Ryan came out worst of all in Series 12 though. Tosin Cole looked bored for most of the duration, and even in his final episode. On top of all this, the guest cast is usually overflowing, and it takes even more time away from developing the companions.
Of course, with Ryan and Graham now gone, the TARDIS seemed like it might be getting smaller and allow more focus on Yaz. However, it has now been confirmed that John Bishop will join the crew. While this is one companion less, it appears Chibnall hasn’t learned his lesson and I suspect will still struggle to balance the cast.
A Chibnall Future
If Chibnall is staying on, then I believe the 14th Doctor will be picked for ideological reasons once again. I fear whoever takes over the role will then be saddled with the same lacklustre writing. And it’s back to square one. The show will inevitably get a bump in ratings when the new Doctor first takes over, but with Chibnall delivering more of the same, views will quickly drop off again. Chibnall staying on for the 14th Doctor also probably means he’ll be around for another three series. That’s a long time, especially with all the gaps (and this is with even fewer episodes). We saw that the longer Moffat stayed on, the quality dipped. With Chibnall the quality is already low…
To conclude, I believe Chibnall is the biggest problem with the show right now for all the reasons I’ve stated above. The ratings have been on a steady decline and proves viewers are walking away in droves. Fan opinion of the show is undoubtedly much more negative than the preceding showrunner eras. Merchandise sales are down too. The only way I see Doctor Who returning to glory is for a clean house: a new showrunner, Doctor, companions. And a focus on great stories, rather than shoving as many political messages as you can cram in. I’m sorry, but if the BBC has any sense and wants to get Doctor Who back on track, Chibnall has to go…