The New Doctor Who Might Be Going Away Just as She Starts to Find Herself
Fans of Doctor Who are used to the main character, the supporting cast, and the behind-the-scenes folks changing. There is always a period of adjustment because even though the trappings and the main premise of the series stays the same, it is effectively an entirely different show. Yet, this latest changing-of-the-Time-Guard is an even bigger deal, because the Doctor is played by a woman, the incomparable Jodie Whittaker, for the first time. All the attention is on this change, but that is a mistake. Any threat to the future of Doctor Who is unrelated to the gender of the Doctor but rather the willpower of the man running the show. In this case, it’s Whittaker’s former boss from Broadchurch Chris Chibnall, but a new piece of background-reported rumor suggests his time with the Time Lords might be very short.
A British publication called Starburst has a two-pronged scoop: the BBC confirmed that there will be a new season in 2019, but there is a “rumor” the Chibnall hates his job and wants to leave. Well, more specifically, they infer from their sources that Chibnall would want to work through his own production company rather than BBC and the independent subsidiary BBC Studios. They point to past comments he made about not wanting to be the showrunner for support. Is this true? Maybe. A joke amongst the cast and crew of the Russell T. Davies years, which brought the show back after almost 20 years, was how little faith he had in his abilities to pull off the show. His replacement and Chibnall’s predecessor Steven Moffat also frequently spoke about how hard it was to helm the massive machinery of the five-decade-old franchise. So, feeling overwhelmed and wanting to quit is not the same thing as walking away.
BBC essentially confirmed this with their announcement that the show will, effectively, take more than a year to return to the screen. Chibnall’s future (and Whittaker’s Doctor) beyond the next season is very much in doubt. Interestingly, the series has been here before. When Davies first brought back the series, Christopher Eccleston played the Doctor. Yet, after only a single series he departed, replaced by David Tennant who went on for four years in the role. The show was lucky to land Tennant, who helped define the new Doctor Who era, but it also worked because Davies stayed on for four more years. What makes this situation all the more precarious is that Jodie Whittaker is expected to leave with Chibnall. That would be more of a problem and could pose a threat to the larger future of this series.
The show survived Eccleston’s departure for two reasons. The first is that by the very nature of the role it was a temporary thing. The second is that Davies was there to provide consistency in those crucial years for the show to find a global audience. Whether or not Chibnall stays or goes (or whether you think he should or not), Whittaker should absolutely stay on for at least three seasons of the show. The previous three actors who played the role all averaged about 43 episodes during their tenure. It would be nothing short of a shame if the first female Doctor didn’t hit the 40-episode mark. Again, it feels silly and almost backwards-thinking to even type that sentence. However, what makes it easier to write is that Whittaker is fantastic in the role.
There are themes in the show that alternate depending on who the Doctor is at a given time. Even though Whittaker is the 14th actor to play this character, there are really only two kinds of Doctors: the asshole and the sweetheart. The last actor to inhabit the role, Peter Capaldi, was a classic asshole Doctor. He didn’t bother to learn people’s names, insulted them, and raged at villains and allies alike. At his core, he was still the heroic character who wanted to help people and did, in fact, care about others. This was a change from his predecessor, Matt Smith, who played the Doctor as a fun, fast-talking hugger who thought everyone was just brilliant. So, it makes sense that Whittaker’s Doctor is another sweetheart. Yet, this particular series seems to focus far more on the companions than the Doctor herself. The companion(s) in the TARDIS serve many purposes, but the most essential is that they are a window on the Doctor. What’s far more radical a change than the gender detail is how Team TARDIS seems to function.
This year, we were introduced to four new companions, one of which thankfully died to provide pathos for the others. The producers and directors keep the audience’s eye on these companions, meaning Whittaker’s Doctor is almost relegated to a supporting role (much like the Hartnell version of the character in the early days). This is a smart move, because focusing on the Doctor’s internal feelings right now would — for good storytelling’s sake — go to areas far too problematic for what is essentially a children’s sci-fi romp. The Doctor herself is none too fazed about being a woman now, and for possibly the first time, there’s no big mystery surrounding the Doctor for the audience to puzzle over. The Capaldi arc was one of the most inward-looking periods on the series. It was all about the bloody Doctor. His impact on the galaxy, his home world, his mission and desire to help people, and so on. It appears Chibnall wants to go in the other direction, where the show focuses more on individuals in both the adventures of the week and the larger themes present with the companions’ stories. The central characters are the best thing this version of Doctor Who has going for it.
Because despite Whittaker’s fantastic performance in the role, her incarnation of the Doctor is, unfortunately, kind of boring. It seems that this year, the writers are a bit too precious with the Doctor. The character works because while a hero, the character is also a bit of a rogue. The TARDIS is stolen, after all. Since the return of the series in 2005, the Doctor always has a flaw. For most of the run, the major flaw hanging over the character was an act that may or may not have been a war crime. The Doctor had to live with the knowledge that he was responsible for the destruction of two races: his arch-enemy the Daleks and his own species, the Time Lords. Of course, the Daleks returned so the act took on a new layer of pain for the Doctor: only his species was lost. But, of course, eventually they weren’t either. It is unquestionably good that the hero of this children’s sci-fi series is not, in fact, a war criminal. Yet, in a way, Moffat hurt Chibnall because it meant that the Doctor’s greatest flaw as a character had been obliterated, like the two species he was meant to have exterminated.
Whittaker’s version of the Doctor has no major flaws that immediately come to mind. She’s kind, polite, respectful of alien culture, and listens to the advice of others. The male Doctors have been all those things, of course, but never at the same time. Still, since the companions have been the focal point, this isn’t a fatal problem. In fact, the only thing that seems out of character for the Doctor is her opinion on the companions. That they all seem to be equals in their capers is very strange. The Doctor is known to make companions prove themselves, sometimes over and over again. So, that she would say the group has a “flat team structure” as she did in a recent episode, that seems strange. I have no problem at all with the Doctor being a woman, especially one played by this particular actor. That’s why I know that Jodie Whittaker could pull of the missing character trait: arrogance.
For male characters, being arrogant, a little bit of a screw-up, but ultimately the hero is nothing new. Whittaker’s Doctor has no trace of arrogance at all, and it’s a key component of the person the Doctor is behind any face. These companions all bring interesting things to the show, and there’s no hint of a romance arc for any of them. (Thankfully.) Yet, usually what they bring is something the Doctor lacks and vice versa. It takes time for them to both see it, and they all come out the better for it. If the Doctor already recognizes their value and they all know she’s not perfect, there is precisely zero drama happening outside of the monster-of-the-week. And with no big secret or mystery surrounding the Doctor and her past, there’s really not much more to look forward to.
A credit to Chibnall and the rest of the crew is that even with these flaws, I still want to see more stories with these characters. They are great together, and they provide a nice mix of personalities. Yet, no matter how much fun they are to watch, if there are no real stakes or tension it’s not fun to watch for long. Hopefully the long hiatus will give Chibnall the time he and the staff need to add that much-needed depth. If he does eventually decide to move on after this next season, Jodie Whittaker should absolutely stay on in the role. She’s perfect, but the Doctor isn’t supposed to be.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve not yet seen the finale for this first series. I am noting this because it’s possible the two major problems — the lack of a mystery about the Doctor and the lack of a flaw in her character — might have been addressed in that episode. If so, I will update the post accordingly.]