The Terrible Reign of Chris Chibnall Finally Ends

The showrunner who wrecked modern ‘Doctor Who’ steps aside

If one ignores the fallow years between 1989-2005, the BBC’s Doctor Who has been running for nearly sixty years now, with multiple actors playing the titular character, and myriad showrunners paving the way.  Like anything that’s been around for a while, its popularity waxes and wanes, and since Chris Chibnall took over in 2017, things have definitely been on the decline.

In the best incarnations, the Doctor possesses charm and goofiness that align with the quaint and decidedly square heart of the series—the idea that humanity, for all its foibles, is really quite wonderful. When it rebooted in 2005, the program came back sort of scary in a family-friendly sort of way, so the modern actors especially need to seem intelligent enough to take on a Big Bad armed only with wit and an overflowing sense of compassion. If the Doctor’s acting chops are hefty enough and the scripts are well done, this works beautifully, but if either or both of those are out of whack, it suddenly gets uncomfortably hard to watch, which brings us to the recent iteration of the show.

Theoretically, a female lead could have invigorated the Doctor Who franchise. At the time Jodie Whittaker was cast as the thirteenth to take over for Peter Capaldi’s twelfth, the ratings were on a downswing. The decline is understandable, as the decision to replace sweet baby-face Matt Smith with cantankerous gray hair Peter Capaldi makes little sense. Capaldi is a fierce actor and was a phenomenal lead, but throwing some sunglasses on an old guy and giving him a guitar does not automatically translate into relatability with the kids. So a bright, spry Doctor who incidentally also was the first lady to don the mantle felt fresh.

At the same time Whittaker took over, Chibnall declared that he didn’t want his Doctor to encounter the franchise’s time-tested villains; instead, he planned to usher in new threats, as exemplified by Chris Noth as a Trumpish American who is rich, loves guns, and accidentally created a strain of evil spiders that are overtaking Sheffield. He doesn’t even care because money is more important. The nerve of that guy! Good thing a lady was on hand to tell him what’s what. As Thirteen said herself, she “got an upgrade.” Identity politics took precedence over storytelling—as viewers simultaneously complained the show was too woke and also, too conservative.

Weak stories did not grow stronger in the hands of Whittaker. She projects a general air of likeability, and gamely does her spunky best, but comes across more like a childhood friend’s kindly parent than a nearly eternal lord of space and time. Her companions were mostly delightful characters and actors, but for some reason, instead of maintaining the Time Lord’s sense of distance from humanity, the show morphed into My Little Doctor: Friendship is Magic. This ancient figure who’s lived thousands upon thousands of years cares about humans, but we are like puppies, not equals—yet during Thirteen’s tenure, companions became “fam” and suddenly, the independent Doctor couldn’t do anything alone. It felt like every episode became all about people sitting down to talk about their sads. The ratings reflected how little anyone wanted this.

Even in Thirteen and Chibnall’s final episode, The Power of the Doctor, which assembled three of our hero’s most dastardly foes, a handful of former companions, and several titular stars of the past, everyone mostly stood around talking. The Cybermen, who march in haunting rhythmic unison, and exist only to assimilate all human life, suddenly donned Queen Amidala headdresses and capes and stomped around out of sync, all casual like. Their evil counterparts, the Daleks, who whiningly shout “exterminate” before shooting lasers that make cool skeleton outlines of their victims, unmenacingly formed a harmless circle with them so rogue Time Lord The Master could dance it out to Abba. It was embarrassingly stupid.

Okay, to be fair, the Master cheesily dancing to a questionable pop hit was pretty Doctor Who-y, but should have been performed for the human companions to view in helpless horror while they were bested, instead of for the soulless robots programmed to destroy all life to passively watch. So many villains chattering away, yet nothing happened at all. Thus, the Chibnall/Thirteen iteration of this show played out like Amy Sherman-Palladino had a lobotomy and gave sci-fi a try without even taking a cursory glance at the source material.

As Thirteen resisted regeneration so she wouldn’t lose her fam, things finally got pretty exciting. Instead of regenerating into the next full-time Doctor, she turned into a cherished hero of the past, igniting all kinds of giddy optimism for what comes next. That thirty second preview of the series’ future, coupled with the return of reboot king Russell T. Davies, has already spiked ratings, and increased hype for the 60th anniversary specials slated to air in late 2023. After all, it’s hard not to feel good about being in the hands of a Doctor Who you can trust.

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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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