Exploring the Differences in Each Era of Doctor Who
For quite a long time now, Doctor Who has been one of my favorite shows on television. Ever since I first caught Christopher Eccleston’s brief tenure in a marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it actually played science fiction), I was hooked.
I was hooked when David Tennant took over the T.A.R.D.I.S., and I was hooked when Matt Smith replaced him, and when Peter Capaldi (still my personal favorite Doctor) replaced him.
And then, Jodie Whittaker took over. But more importantly, Chris Chibnall took over behind the scenes. And while I absolutely love Jodie’s Doctor, and while I absolutely loved Chibnall’s Broadchurch series, Doctor Who suddenly became a foreign concept to me. Week after week, I’d watch Jodie’s excellent Doctor dragged through piss-poor writing. Even though I’ve continued to follow the show with undying loyalty, it has become something that it wasn’t before. It is no longer the show I loved (I even wrote about that, which you can read here).
I’m not going to lie; it broke my heart to write that story (both hearts). Doctor Who was, for so long, a constant in my life. No matter what life was dealing me at the time, the Doctor in the T.A.R.D.I.S. was there to help me escape for an hour. And it isn’t like all Doctor Who has been perfect; each Doctor has had some real clunkers (Capaldi’s entire first series was more miss than hit). And Whittaker’s Doctor has had some genuinely good episodes, too. I personally loved “Revolution of the Daleks”, which just aired a couple of weeks ago. But the writing has been so inconsistent lately that I can’t find the love for it that I used to (thank goodness for reruns and DVDs).
With that in mind, I thought it might be prudent- or at least mildly interesting- to look over the three major eras of Doctor Who since the show returned in 2005, those eras, of course, being defined by their showrunners: Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat, and Chris Chibnall. I want to explore what I think defines each era, what made it work, and what didn’t.
Russell T. Davies
Davies had probably the hardest job out of the three showrunners we’ve had since Doctor Who returned to our screens. He had to revive a franchise that had been dormant for quite a while.
Now, I’ve never watched any of the old Doctor Who episodes. You know, I’ve tried, but I just couldn’t get into them. One day, I’ll get there (it took me a while to go back and watch the original Star Trek, too, despite my undying love for that franchise and for Shatner and his crew… personally I was always more fond of the movies than the original series). But just knowing the legacy that Doctor Who had, I think it was no small miracle that Davies managed to get the show back up on its feet, introduce it to a new audience (myself included), and also make it feel like a continuation of the extensive franchise it was following.
And I think Davies did a damn good job of it; after all, the show is still on the air 16 years later. Davies ushered in the new era of Doctor Who, and also brought us the first regeneration, from Eccleston’s Doctor to Tennant’s.
Looking back on those episodes (many of which I haven’t watched in a long time), there’s a certain magic to them that the rest of the franchise just doesn’t seem to have. The Davies Era was plagued by small budgets, crappy CGI, and though it was a major science fiction show, there was always a quality of cheapness to it (honestly, this made it fit in perfectly with old Who). But despite all of that, I kept coming back, because the characters were magnetic.
I fell in love with Eccleston’s Doctor and with Rose in series 1, so much that when Eccleston regenerated at the end, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Tennant… at least, not until my burning desire to watch more Doctor Who finally spurned me to watch his first Christmas Special. And from then on, Tennant was my Doctor. So much so that I didn’t want to see him go, a sentiment that the Doctor himself shared with me. But you can see where this is going, can’t you? More on the next Doctors in a minute, though.
The Davies Era was my first era of Doctor Who, it was my first adventure in the T.A.R.D.I.S., and it is something that I look back to as fondly as I do the original Star Wars trilogy, faults and all.
And of course, there were faults. No series of Doctor Who is perfect, and there are quite a few episodes of the Davies Era that I’m sure I’ll never revisit; “Love and Monsters” immediately comes to mind. But for every episode I’d skip, there’s an episode like “Girl in the Fireplace” or “Blink” or “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” that cemented my love for this series.
The Davies Era also introduced us to some of new Who’s most iconic characters: Captain Jack Harkness, who finally returned in Whittaker’s most recent holiday special; River Song, who became a very prominent character in Moffat’s Era (Moffat did write her first episodes, after all); Rose Tyler, who still, to this day, is referenced as the Doctor’s best companion; Wilfred Freakin’ Mott! I could go on and on. Though the Doctor usually only traveled with one companion during the Davies Era (aside from Micky and Jack, off and on), the show was rich with recurring characters and iconic, classic villains.
And to me, I think that was the singular strength of the Davies Era; it was always the Doctor’s show, but it was more about the people around him than the Doctor himself. Whether it was Rose or Martha or Donna in the T.A.R.D.I.S., their own friends and family were also integral to the story, whether they got to travel in the blue box or not. Davies and his writers knew just how to weave in familiar faces, like Harriet Jones, or old foes, like the Master or Davros, in such a compelling way that I feel safe in saying the character work was the defining aspect of those first four series (and David Tennant’s final special episodes).
I’m not going to hide the fact that Steven Moffat has been my favorite showrunner thus far. Not only did he bring me my two favorite Doctors- Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi- but he brought with him a more whimsical, fantasy element that the show had not had.
The Doctor, especially Matt Smith’s incarnation, became a mythical figure, and the show played into that aspect in spades (and, yes, sometimes it overplayed into it). Where the Davies Era was characterized by, well, the characters, the Moffat Era really focused on the stories it was telling.
Moffat, I think, was particularly good at leaning into the “timey-wimey” nature of the show. With the recurring appearance of River Song in the reverse order, or with episodes dealing with paradoxes, Moffat’s run focused a lot on the “time” aspect of “Time and Relative Dimension in Space”.
Of course, his run also brought in excellent characters- Amy and Rory are probably my two favorite companions so far, but Clara and Bill are very close seconds and thirds (and then there’s Nardole… let’s be honest, he was actually the best companion)- but unlike the Davies Era, Moffat didn’t dive quite as much into a wider circle of friends and family for these characters, not unless it because crucial to the plot (looking at you, Melody Pond). This era seemed more focused on the Doctor himself and his relationship with his friends, and that was something I quite liked.
Of course, the Davies Era had some of that, too; Moffat was a frequent writer during Davies’ tenure (you’ll notice that the four episodes I mentioned of Davies’ run were all written by Moffat), after all. And I think these two eras blend together a bit on their themes. But overall, I do think Moffat focused more on the Doctor and Davies more on the companions.
I will say, however, that Moffat’s era was rather light on returning characters; aside from a few faces, like River (again, one of Moffat’s own creations), the Weeping Angels (same), and John Simm’s Master, we never saw any of the recurring characters of the Davies era return. No Micky Smith, no Captain Jack, no Wilfred Mott. In the Moffat era, the show seemed to forget about a lot of the people the Doctor had previously cared for.
That isn’t to say that the Moffat Era didn’t bring in some excellent recurring characters of its own. Madame Vastra, Jenny, Strax, and Craig were characters I was always glad to see, and Missy is, hands down, my favorite version of the Master (though her first two episodes were rather rocky). And some of the one-off characters introduced in Moffat’s run were some of the most memorable in the franchise, like Michael Gambon’s Kazran, or David Bradley’s take on the First Doctor.
Moffat’s run also came at a time when the show was becoming much more popular in the United States. That brought with it bigger budgets, better special effects, and a more cinematic filming style. Visually, I think the Moffat Era was night and day different from anything that had come before (this became especially apparent in Matt Smith’s first Christmas Special).
As with the Davies Era, Moffat’s run wasn’t without its faults. At times, his storytelling got a little too grandiose for his own good, especially in the series finales; the finales for series 6, 7, and 8 all left me a little wanting in certain areas. In fact, though Capaldi is my personal favorite Doctor, his entire first series was just full of bad writing to the point that it felt for a while that Moffat might have lost his magic with Matt Smith’s exit.
But when Moffat stuck the landing (the finales for series 5, 9, 10, for example), he really stuck the landing. And arguably some of the most iconic new Who moments came from Moffat’s era, like the 50th Anniversary Special, or the final episodes for both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.
The Moffat Era has been my favorite and was the time when Doctor Who really focused on telling great stories. If I had to pick a word to define this run, however, I think it would be, simply, “magic”. The Moffat Era was when the Doctor became more than just a Time Lord, more than just a madman in a box. The Moffat Era was when the Doctor became a wizard. And no matter how mind-bending the writing got at times, Moffat, more often than not, seemed to always find the whimsy and wonder in the show.
In writing this, all I can really think is, “what went wrong?”
It is no secret by now that the Chibnall Era has not been my favorite; in fact, at times I’ve found very little beyond Jodie Whittaker’s energetic, lovable Doctor to bring me back week after week.
I cannot reiterate enough how my dislike of Chibnall’s series has nothing to do with Whittaker and has everything to do with writing. The writing is oftentimes just bad. At best, it is bland, but at worst it tries to dumb down the show by over-explaining things. There have been some silver linings, like “Revolution of the Daleks” or “Resolution”, and there have been episodes that are actually very compelling, like “Fugitive of the Judoon”. But for each one of these episodes, there are several like “Orphan 55” that are just mind-blowingly crappy.
If I had to define the Chibnall Era, I would honestly say that it is the era of ignorance.
Let me explain: the first series of the Chibnall era, Series 11, did everything it could to ignore the last 50 years of Doctor Who. Where the Davies Era and the Moffat Era both celebrated the heritage of the show, Chibnall’s first series did nothing to even acknowledge that there had been a show prior to Jodie Whittaker’s first episode. There were no returning villains, like the Daleks, until the first holiday special, and there were no recurring characters either.
Unlike the Davies Era, Chibnall’s run so far has, for the most part, ignored character-building. Sure, we do get to see more family dynamic for the companions than we did with Moffat, but week after week, there doesn’t seem to be any development of the characters. In all of Series 11, none of the characters seemed to develop much from when they first entered the T.A.R.D.I.S. In Series 12, the Doctor gets some major development with the Timeless Child arc (which has been very divisive amongst fans), but that came at the detriment of erasing the development of the Master, who through Missy’s arc in the Moffat Era had gone from villain to almost ally in a really fulfilling way.
This lack of development came, in part, due to the overstuffing of the T.A.R.D.I.S. itself; Chibnall decided on three companions for the Doctor, which isn’t unheard of, but seemed like an odd choice when we were still trying to get to know this Doctor herself. It just meant that in each episode, at least one character was not getting any time to shine. Even though the show introduced some interesting characters in Yaz, Graham, and Ryan, there was never enough time for the show to actually let us get to know them and like them. Series 13 may be taking a step towards fixing this since Graham and Ryan are both leaving, but instead of just giving us the Doctor and Yaz, they are still introducing a second companion when we barely know the one we’ve got.
It hasn’t been all bad with Chibnall. We got Captain Jack back, if even only for one episode (and a cameo), and Series 12 did better with the story-telling and connecting to the past than Series 11 did. The Jo Martin Doctor storyline was probably the most compelling thing Chibnall has done so far (and yet, he still hasn’t really followed up on her Doctor any since her out-of-the-blue introduction). But it was still few hits between many misses. In stark contrast to the Moffat Era, Chibnall’s run just doesn’t seem to be interested in- or even capable of- delivering good writing on a consistent basis.
(and it didn’t help at all that long-time composer Murray Gold left the show with Moffat, taking his beautiful music with him)
As Series 13 draws nearer and the rumors that Whittaker may be leaving the show, I can’t help but to wish Chibnall leaves with her (or better yet, let’s keep her and let Chibnall regenerate).
The Next Era
Who knows what the next era of Doctor Who will look like. With each of the three eras so far in the rebooted show, we’ve been treated to wildly different takes on the franchise, for better and some for much worse.
Though I don’t think I’ll fall in love with the show again until Chibnall leaves, I will continue to watch the show and I’ll eagerly await whatever this long-lived franchise brings us next.
I think we can bet on one thing, and one thing only: the next era of Doctor Who is going to be something unique. And I wouldn’t ask anything less of it.