Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who Return and Righting Chibnall’s Sinking Ship
Feature article by Craig Sightings.
When I first heard that Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker were leaving Doctor Who, my reaction was the complete opposite of what it had been with past Doctors and showrunners: I was happy. Then, when I heard Russell T Davies was returning (after initially double taking at the news), I was ecstatic. But stepping back from my personal excitement, it has to be said that this announcement is not something the BBC would have done unless they needed someone huge to come back and save a sinking ship. RTD has even said in the past he’d only come back if Doctor Who was in trouble!
There’s still 9 episodes to go, but I think it’s safe to say the Chibnall era has been a flop. This move is the BBC’s tacit admission of that, and no amount of PR fluff quotes can hide it. Granted, Chibnall took some bold gambles when he started, and initially it seemed to pay off. Whittaker’s run started on a high, with huge opening viewing figures of almost 11 million, but this was always inevitable. The change to a female Doctor after 50+ years was always going to cause a natural curiosity and skyrocket figures as a result. The key question was always would the majority of viewers stick around after Whittaker’s first episode? After two series, the answer is clear: no, they wouldn’t.
Aside from a couple of slight boosts (mostly for specials, which has always been the case), the ratings have been on a downward trajectory for the past several years. Series 12 ended up being the lowest viewed series of New Who, averaging just 5.4 million. “The Timeless Children” was the lowest viewed finale with just 4.69 million. Yes, the figures for the following episode went up a bit with the 2021 new year’s special, “Revolution of the Daleks”, but it was still the lowest viewed of all the specials.
On top of that, critical reaction to the show has been much more mixed, and fan scores have been largely negative. On IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and fan sites and forums, the Chibnall era episodes are almost universally rated lowest of all. This is hardly surprising, Chibnall’s writing, where he has prioritised overt messaging over storytelling, are inevitably divisive. On top of that, he has made massively controversial changes to Doctor Who’s canon, fundamentally retconning the Doctor and the Time Lord’s origins forever. Not to mention removing Torchwood and UNIT as part of a throwaway gag. All of which was an insult to the legacy of the show and long-term fans.
It’s hard to deny Doctor Who’s overall profile has dropped since Chibnall took over. Just compare where we’re at now to the David Tennant and Matt Smith eras. Yes, things started to decline a bit with the latter Capaldi era, but Chibnall ultimately dragged it down even further. Doctor Who used to be an absolute juggernaut, and not just in the UK, but around the world. You couldn’t move for Whovians. Merchandise was in abundance and flew off the shelves. Now merchandise featuring Whittaker and co is tiny. In fact, when I have seen it, it’s been in the bargain bin. Notice too how David Tennant, the most popular modern day Doctor, has frequently been paired with Whittaker in an attempt to boost sales of what little Whittaker merch there is.
I think it’s fair to say, Whittaker herself has not had the same following as the other Doctors. In all the “Best Doctor” polls I’ve seen over the years Whittaker has placed bottom or near bottom, usually tussling with Colin Baker (who must be pleased). The BBC cited a Radio Times poll where Jodie apparently beat every classic Doctor including Tom Baker and almost David Tennant! Given how close the Radio Times’ relationship with the BBC is, I think it’s a little suspect… At best, I’d call it an “outlier result”.
Would Jodie have been a better Doctor with better writing? Perhaps. It’s something we’ll probably never know (on TV at least). I very much doubt we’ll see her regenerate in 2022 and then return immediately in the 60th just a year later. However, I think some need to entertain the notion she might have just been a bad pick in the first place too. The Doctor is a very specific role requiring a unique brand of actor. Someone with oodles of charisma, a natural quirkiness and eccentricity. I have not seen Jodie demonstrate that she ever had the chops for it.
As for the future, RTD is undoubtedly the safest pick for a “new” showrunner, although something I had never even considered. RTD is, of course, responsible for bringing Doctor Who back in 2005 and going on to oversee the most popular era ever with Tennant and co. He’s unlikely to get much objection from fans, and the BBC will be hoping he can capture mass audiences in the same way again and reinvent the show again. Don’t get me wrong, he has a lot of work to do to restore Doctor Who to the mammoth it once was, but if anyone has a chance of doing it, it’s him.
However, several big questions remain. Biggest of all: Who will Russell T Davies cast as the Fourteenth Doctor? I feel the show is unlikely to return to the status quo prior to Jodie’s era. Therefore, the chances of getting current favourites, like Michael Sheen, are probably slim. Russell T Davies is a progressive writer after all, so someone like Olly Alexander (who RTD worked with earlier this year in It’s a Sin) seems a much more likely choice now (though he has already denied it). There’s also a chance RTD may want to have his own crack at a female Doctor, but this will be the riskier option.
I have many more questions… How long will RTD remain at the helm after the 60th? Is his appointment a temporary position to fix the biggest problems and pass the mantle on soon after? Will he bring back other former writers like Steven Moffat? What about the companions? Will he retcon the maligned Timeless Child revelation (even though he has seemingly supported it and a lot of Chibnall’s most controversial changes)? Does RTD have new ideas, or will he rely on nostalgia? How much will modern day BBC policies interfere with the production? Will RTD be “message first” writer in 2023, rather than the more subtle, nuanced one he was between 2005-10?
I could go on, but this article is getting long enough as it is. For now, I’ll leave you with this: despite a few concerns, I’m more optimistic about Doctor Who’s future than I have been in a long time. Just please don’t mess it up! This may be the last shot the show has…