Interesting news about Chris Chibnall’s plans for Doctor Who

From Radio Times yesterday:

It looks like new Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall is set to shake up the long-running sci-fi drama when he takes over at the end of the year.

In an interview with Television, the in-house magazine of the Royal Television Society, Chibnall says that all options are on the table for the programme, including a whole-series storyline of the kind he pursued on three series of Broadchurch.

Asked if this approach were possible, he replied “yes”, adding that “what the BBC was after was risk and boldness” when they approached him for the job.

Admitting that he resisted accepting the role “for a very long time”, Chibnall said the BBC had agreed with his ideas for the show – somewhat to his surprise.

“I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it,” he said. “When I went to them and said, ‘This is what I would do’, I actually expected them to say, ‘Ooh, let’s talk about that’, but they said: ‘Great!’”

Interviewer Mark Lawson writes in the same piece: “Chibnall’s general tone suggests that there may be a radical revamp of Doctor Who, which will please those who have suggested the show needs a kick up the Tardis.”

I’ll be writing my review of The Empress of Mars soon–probably tonight if all goes well–but I just wanted to comment briefly on this very interesting bit of news about Chris Chibnall’s plans for Doctor Who post 2017.

Basically, Chibnall appears to be toying with plans for a radical shake-up of Doctor Who’s format when he takes over. There’s a reference to the possibility of a series-long storyline à la Broadchurch in the article–which would be radical indeed, and if Chibnall is considering that, then it’s a pretty good indication that anything is possible for Series 11. Even more interestingly, it looks like the BBC is totally on board with any radical revamping of the show Chibnall is proposing to undertake.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is some of the most exciting Doctor Who news we’ve heard in a long time–and yes, that includes the return of John Simm and the Mondasian Cybermen. I was literally only thinking yesterday about how the best thing Chibnall could do for the show, other than produce great stories, would be to shake up the format. I actually didn’t think it was likely to happen, but an iconoclastic overhaul is exactly what the show needs right now.

I hate to say it, but as brilliant as the Capaldi era has been, at least for us diehards, the thing is just getting a bit stale. A bit passé. I was reflecting on that in my review of Extremis, where I struggled to be enthused by what was undoubtedly one of the boldest and most boundary-pushing episodes we’ve seen on Who. That the show has been sticking to the formula Russell T Davies employed when he brought it back in 2005 has a lot to do with that. Sure, there have been stylistic changes along the way–Moffat in particular has cycled through as many stylistic shifts as he’s done seasons–and the character of the fanbase has changed in tandem, but on the whole Doctor Who in 2017 remains the same show it was in 2005. And I think if it stayed that way any longer we’d all, even us diehards, get bored of it and it would get cancelled.

So, yes, the show needs to change to survive, and more than to survive, to remain interesting. The experience of the show’s first cancellation should be instructive: by 1989 the show had become repetitive, had become boring, had lost viewers, and was canned. The changes need to involve more than more two-parters or extending the format to 60 minutes (although both would be welcome changes). The experiment with a three-part story in the Monk trilogy was a welcome venture, even if that storyline rather flopped. The idea of a Broadchurch-style series-long storyline is even better.

I think I’d also want to see a major stylistic shift under Chibnall. Moffat made a significant stylistic shift away from Davies’ familiar (and relatively consistent) style when he took over in 2010, and has moved even further away from Davies’ style since then, but by and large the show still looks much like it did in 2005, and a casual viewer wouldn’t necessarily be able to distinguish between the two. Just compare televised Doctor Who to the audio Doctor Who Big Finish is making to discern how little the show has actually changed since 2005. Doctor Who is still by and large a soap opera clothed in science-fiction garb, admittedly with more emphasis on the science-fiction bit now than in 2005. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but after 12 years it’s starting to feel stale. It’s hard to get consistently large numbers of people excited about the same thing you’ve been making for 12 years.

Doctor Who should feel fresh again. Series 11 should be a reboot in every sense except continuity. Series 11 should feel like 2005 again, not stylistically but in the sense of freshness and newness, in the sense that you’re seeing an old, familiar show totally remade into a new one. In 2005 the rebranded, revamped Doctor Who captured the attention of a nation–and it can do so again if it successfully does what it’s always been good at, and changes, regenerates.

I was starting to feel uneasy about the prospect of Chibnall as showrunner, given his indication that he was going to throw out all the current writers (even Mathieson and Dollard)–and I’m still uneasy about Chibnall on this front–but he’s just given me a very good reason to be excited about Series 11.

On Steven Moffat’s departure

Save your #moffatmustgo tweets, Moffat haters, because you’ve finally got your wish: Steven Moffat is retiring as Doctor Who showrunner after Series 10, to air in Spring 2017 (Autumn for we antipodeans), to be succeeded from Series 11 onwards by Chris Chibnall. I don’t mean to be resentful: it’s fair to say that Moffat’s era and style of Doctor Who hasn’t been received with universal adoration by the fandom — Moffat has had his legions of ardent fanboys and fangirls (like me), and conversely, a sizeable contingent of dissenters for whom Moffat’s interpretation of Doctor Who rubbed them the wrong way and who’ve never stopped clamouring for him to go. I know personally someone, a good friend and devoted Whovian, who will be delighted by this news. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either perspective.

For my own part, I’m both saddened and gratified by the news. Anyone who reads this blog would know that I’m a huge Moffat fanboy, an unabashed Moffat partisan who will defend him and his era to the death. I think he’s by a substantial distance the best writer ever to contribute to the show, the best showrunner Doctor Who has ever had, and, I would propose, one of the best things ever to happen to Doctor Who. His era is easily my all-time favourite; he created my two favourite Doctors, Eleven and Twelve; and my favourite ever companion, Amy Pond. I became a fan of the show during Moffat’s tenure. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, in short, is my Doctor Who.

At the same time, I’ve been of the opinion for a long time that it’s about time for Moffat to go. As much as I’ve loved Steven Moffat as showrunner, Doctor Who thrives on change and renewal and reinvention, and the show should not ever become synonymous with one person’s creative vision. I don’t think Moffat had begun to run out of ideas at all — Series 9 has been the most creative and pioneering series in years, I would suggest since Doctor Who came back, in terms of pure boldness of vision. It suggests Moffat is still brimming with interesting ideas for Doctor Who. I’ve no doubt that Moffat could, if he wanted to, go on indefinitely directing Doctor Who and producing a high-quality show. But, by the end of Series 10, Moffat will have pretty much reached the limit of how long a single showrunner should be in charge of the show. If Moffat were to continue on after Series 10, it would be too long for the show to have been stuck in a familiar style, directed by a familiar vision employing familiar tropes and motifs. A new voice is needed. Which is why I’m glad about Moffat’s departure, even if I’m going to miss the man enormously. It’s, frankly, the perfect point for him to leave.

chrischibnall

As for Moffat’s chosen successor, Chris Chibnall, this isn’t an announcement about which I’m not without reservations. To be sure, I’ll be glad of a fresh vision guiding the show, but Chibnall would not have been my first choice (that would have been Jamie Mathieson, although I realise that was a pretty optimistic hope). Chibnall has commendable showrunning experience in producing Broadchurch, an absolutely fantastic show which is a huge credit to Chibnall’s ability to make high-quality television. He was also showrunner of a lesser-known BBC period drama called Born and Bred, which is also an exceptional show, and one of my favourite ever dramas (I highly recommend watching it). It’s his work on Broadchurch and Born and Bred that makes me very excited about the thought of Chibnall as Doctor Who showrunner.

But it’s Chibnall’s work on Doctor Who about which I have reservations. In his Doctor Who scripts to date, he has never particularly distinguished himself as a writer. His best script, in my opinion, was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which is a delightful romp, and in my opinion the best episode of Series 7, but not really what I’d call the most memorable of episodes. In contrast, when Steven Moffat was announced as showrunner, he’d written four all-time classics under Russell T Davies: The Empty Child/The Doctor DancesThe Girl in the FireplaceBlink and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Chibnall has nothing like Moffat’s Doctor Who writing record under his belt going into assuming creative control of the show. That said, he’s written a few very good scripts for Torchwood: CountrycideAdrift and Fragments. But he was also responsible for Cyberwoman, one of a small handful of stories in the wider Doctor Who franchise that I can say without hesitation that I hate with a visceral passion.

On balance, I think the jury’s still out for me on Chris Chibnall as showrunner. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see what he produces before I pass judgment. And, frankly, at the end of the day, I am very excited, as well as trepidatious, to see how Chibnall does. At the very least, it can be said that he’s a real Doctor Who fan, he understands the show, and he’s likely to have an interesting vision for the show, which will probably be quite different from Steven Moffat’s. He’ll also be inheriting probably the best stable of regular writers the show has had since it came back: Jamie Mathieson, Peter Harness, Sarah Dollard, Toby Whithouse, so he’ll be very well-equipped as showrunner. One thing I will say unreservedly in his favour, though, is that he seems to have tremendous skill and instinct for writing characters. This is unmistakable from his work on Broadchurch and Born and Bred (again, I can’t recommend watching this show highly enough), as well as his writing for Doctor Who; he did create the character of Brian Pond Williams, after all, for whom the only apt description is “amazing”.

One last thought, on the 2017 air date for Series 10. Of course, I’m greatly disappointed that we won’t get any Doctor Who this year apart from the Christmas special (what is this, Sherlock!!?!?!?), but I can agree that the extended wait might be worth it. It’ll give Moffat and the crew plenty of time to perfect and hone Moffat’s final series. Moffat will want to go out on a bang, and I can anticipate that Series 10 is going to be huge, especially if Capaldi also leaves at the end of Series 10 (which I think is likely). An extra 6-8 months should surely give Moffat et al. enough time to hone Series 10 into the best series it can be, and, above all, make it worth the wait and worthy of the showrunner’s swan song. At the same time, though, I’d have thought, at least, that we’d get some Doctor Who in 2016: at least a couple of specials (à la 2009), or a split series. In that case, though, Series 10 better be worth the wait. I’m just wondering what on Earth I’m going to write about for the next year.