Doctor Who is No Longer the Show I Loved
Sitting here watching the latest Doctor Who episode, “Orphan 55” I came to an unwelcome realization: Doctor Who isn’t the same show I fell in love with.
Doctor Who used to be the show that I looked forward to more than any other show all year. As soon as a season ended, I’d anticipate the Christmas special, and as soon as the credits rolled on Christmas day, I’d be on the internet trying to find out when the next season began.
Today, watching “Orphan 55,” I realized I enjoyed watching Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot more than this episode. Hell, I’ve enjoyed rewatching the entirely campy Stargate Atlantis on Amazon more than I’m enjoying this season of Who (or the last season, for that matter). Watching Doctor Who has become, for me, a chore- a necessity, because I’ve been a fan this long, but no longer something I am looking forward to.
It’s not the fault of the current Doctor; Jodie Whittaker is fantastic in the role, and I cannot stress that enough. It would be too easy for someone to turn complaints about her seasons into perceived sexism. But honestly, Jodie is the only reason I am still watching at all; even amidst bland writing, Jodie shines with an energy that is entirely befitting of the Doctor. If the 13th Doctor had been a lesser actor, I’d probably have already written this off as a total loss.
Granted, good Doctors have survived bad seasons before; Peter Calpaldi’s Doctor became my favorite regeneration thus far, despite his first season being mostly shoddy writing.
So, what is the problem?
I think we need to look at it from the top down. Chris Chibnall has made some excellent television; Broadchurch was one of my favorite crime dramas. But even though he’s had experience writing in this universe before taking the reigns (before becoming showrunner, he wrote for both Who and Torchwood), it doesn’t translate to experience running the whole gig. And unlike previous writer-turned-showrunner Stephen Moffat, Chibnall wasn’t known for writing some of the greatest episodes of the series.
But it takes more than one man to sink a ship. Even when Chibnall isn’t writing- as was the case for “Orphan 55”- the writing has just been lackluster. And worse, it has been unfamiliar. Not only did the entire first season ignore nearly all of the Doctor’s previous 50 years of lore, none of the writers beyond Chibnall had ever written for the series before. Granted, Doctor Who brings in new writers all the time- it’s one of the things that has kept the show fresh for so long- but it succeeds with a blend of old and new; mixing the new writers in between episodes written by tenured Who scribes has always provided the show a balance between the familiar and the new.
But the seasons under Chibnall’s reign, so far, have felt… disconnected… from the previous 50 years. There are very few references to the Doctor’s history, and when the references do show up- like the Master in this season’s opening two-parter- they ignore the story work done by previous episodes (so far, Missy’s redemption arc in series 10 has been completely ignored to make the new incarnation of the Master a villain again). Even the music is different, as for the first time since Doctor Who returned in 2005, Murray Gold is no longer scoring the show.
Likewise, there have been no recurring characters from previous seasons. No River Song, no Madame Vastra, no Strax. No organizations like U.N.I.T. or the Shadow Proclamation (beyond being name dropped a couple times). And besides the Master and one Dalek, so far there have been no recurring aliens. No familiar locations beyond Earth (and a brief glimpse of a once-again decimated Gallifrey). Not even a returning companion to bridge the new Doctor from the old. Granted, when a new showrunner comes in with a new Doctor, there are usually new companions, too. But even the companions are a problem; not than any of the actors are at fault. Like the Doctor herself, the three actors chosen to play her companions are great, but there are three of them. It isn’t the first time the Doctor has traveled with multiple companions, but introducing three right off the bat doesn’t leave a lot of room for the actors to really shine and connect; in any given episode, at least one of the three feels at best underutilized and at worst completely useless or unnecessary. By comparison, consider Mickey or Rory. By the time they started traveling with the Doctor, we’d already been given a few episodes for the Doctor and the main companion to bond, and their addition to team TARDIS was based on the narrative.
Doctor Who has to evolve and change; it’s the principle that the series is built on, after all. But when Chibnall took over, too much changed too quickly. With previous regenerations, the show still felt like Doctor Who. When companions changed, it still felt like Doctor Who. When showrunners changed… you get my point. No matter which actor is playing the Doctor, no matter who is travelling with the Doctor, no matter who was calling the shots behind the scenes, Doctor Who had a thread of familiarity, a cohesiveness that you felt even when the actors were all unfamiliar. But now, it feels like Chibnall has severed that thread.
Right now, it feels like Doctor Who ended with “Twice Upon a Time” and something else took it’s place. It feels like the show I love is… gone.
We saw the Doctor regenerate into Jodie. We know who she was and where she came from. She knows it too. But the show doesn’t right now. And like I said, the show need to grow and evolve with each new Doctor. It needs to become that Doctor’s show. Matt Smith’s Who wasn’t the same as Tennant’s or Capaldi’s. But it was all still, undoubtedly, Who. And in order for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor to succeed, her show needs to become Who again.
It’s definitely not too late; this show has survived some pretty atrocious writing. But in order to do that, Chibnall needs to make some smart choices going forward. Bring in some writers from the Moffat and Davies eras of Who to write new episodes and to help guide the untested writers through time and space. Lean into the show’s vast history instead of ignoring it or worse, rewriting it. Give the Doctor something worthy of Jodie Whittaker’s talents.
Because right now, Jodie is the only reason I’m still watching, and after a few more episodes like “Orphan 55”, even her Doctor’s joy and charisma may not be enough for me to keep tuning in.
“Orphan 55” fell flat in many ways for me. But one of the worst was the ending. A message about the dangers of climate change is worth telling a story about, but it just felt tacked on at the end. The real issue, though, was what the Doctor didn’t do.
The Doc and her fam were transported to safety at the last moment, safely back aboard the TARDIS, but everyone in the room was concerned about the two people they left behind, the ones who were holding off the aliens in order to let everyone else escape. “They’ll be fine,” said one of the companions (I honestly can’t even remember which one), but even as those words were spoken, the look on everyone’s face clearly said no, they won’t be.
They are standing in a ship that can travel anywhere in time and space. A ship they’ve been cut off from the entire episode. If this was Tennant’s Doctor and Donna was his companion, they’d be using the TARDIS to go back and saving those characters- a mother and daughter who had just reconciled- at the moment they thought they were doomed.
If this was Capaldi’s Doctor and Clara, well, hell, his whole regeneration, his face, was chosen to remind himself that he’s the Doctor and he saves people.
This is the problem the current run of Doctor Who has when it ignores the past story. Inconsistencies that are ripping away at the connective tissue that makes this Doctor Who even when the actors and the writers and the showrunners have changed.
You bring back the Master because he’s a great villain, except you forget that the last thing the Master did was kill her previous, villainous self because she had changed. The Doctor had changed her. You say that Earth was destroyed by global warming but you ignore the fact that we’ve seen plenty of Earth’s future in previous seasons and nowhere was it ever destroyed like this (and if it had been, the Doctor should know it already). You save the Doctor and her friends but don’t have them think for one second that they should use the TARDIS to rescue the people who made it possible for them to escape to their time machine.
It would have been one thing if the Doctor had said it was a fixed point, that they couldn’t return because of artron energy or some other bit of timey wimey mumbo jumbo. It would have been one thing if the Doctor tried to go back but the TARDIS refused to make the trip. It would have been one thing if the companions had begged the Doctor to go save those two characters or even brought up the idea.
But no one brought it up. The companions- and the Doctor- hollowly agreed that those characters would be all right when they all knew they wouldn’t. When no one in the TARDIS- including the Doctor- even tries to save a life, that’s when I feel like Doctor Who has regenerated into something entirely different, something unrecognizable, something less than what it used to be.
Doctor Who isn’t the same show anymore. And it’s a damn shame.