24 January 2016

End of Days

It's taken me a while to get my thoughts about the announcement of the new Doctor Who showrunner in order. (NB: This is just what I reckon, yeah? If you're an old-school internet pedant, you may want to imagine this prefaced by a gigantic 48-point flashing ‘IMHO’.)

I can quite see why the BBC have appointed Chris Chibnall to take over from Steven Moffat. He’s an experienced showrunner, with a wide-ranging record that includes the widely respected Broadchurch, the less widely-respected Camelot and... well, seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood, which built up a dedicated international fanbase and climbed the ladder of channel popularity from BBC3 to BBC1. He has history with Doctor Who, having written four stories including a two-parter, and lots of Torchwood episodes set, at least in theory, in the Doctor Who universe.

The fact that the episodes of Doctor Who he’s written took five years to clamber up from profoundly bad (42) to largely-just-about-competent (The Power of Three), and that seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood were, from an artistic if not a commercial point of view, a horrific mess, is only going to be an issue for a handful of discriminating fans, and is unlikely to affect the vast demographic that is the series’ core audience. From an industry perspective, Chibnall is self-evidently a safe pair of hands to keep the series steady for a few years until the next one comes along.

As a discriminating fan, though, I feel I have legitimate concerns about what the series from 2018 onwards is going to look like. When they took over as showrunners, both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat had considerable credit in the goodwill bank. RTD was a massively respected TV dramatist who wanted to bring back Doctor Who – in itself a remarkable boost for the series’ status – and had two respected children’s fantasy series (Dark Season and Century Falls), a complex and clever adult fantasy (The Second Coming), a series about a Doctor Who fan that was an absolute masterclass in character and plotting (Queer as Folk), and a startlingly bleak Doctor Who novel (Damaged Goods) all under his belt. Moffat also had a successful young adult series (Press Gang) and an adult fantasy series (Jekyll) on his CV, as well as a number of sitcoms including the excellent Coupling, and had written some of the very best episodes of the series since RTD revived it. Both had impressed us all with what they could do before they started in the job, and both excited me hugely with their visionary perspectives on what Doctor Who should be like.

In Chibnall’s case, there are certainly some viewers who appreciate his past work -- fans of Torchwood and Broadchurch in particular. Good luck to them: I genuinely hope they enjoy what’s coming as much as they assume they will. I suspect even they, though, would struggle to find a clear vision for Doctor Who in Chibnall's past episodes, in the way that Davies clearly believes it should be emotionally literate, people-driven melodrama and Moffat cerebral, child-focussed science-fiction horror. 

More than this, though, both RTD's and Moffat's work – and here we’re getting into 72-point ‘IMHO’ territory – suffers a distinct drop in quality once they become regular showrunners, responsible for commissioning, editing and bringing to fruition 14 episodes a year, based in wildly differing settings each requiring its own prop, set and costume design and distinctive location work, with all the necessary liaising with directors, casting consultants and BBC controllers -- quite apart from continuing to write their own scripts, and devise and impose an overall narrative schema across the season and the future direction of the show as a whole. Nobody in the TV industry has experience in doing this except Davies and Moffat themselves, because no other series makes the same demands on its writers and producers as Doctor Who.

This takes an understandable toll on the showrunners' scripts. Davies had had years to think about how he’d bring back Doctor Who, and it worked gloriously in 2005: he had one year to think about how he’d follow it up with a second series, and in 2006 it shows. None of his later series approach the crystalline perfection of the Eccleston series, and by the time he leaves they’re rapidly approaching incoherence.

Moffat's scripts, too – though still having much to commend them – take a minor nosedive once the realities of commissioning and production properly set in. A few stories during his early years as showrunner (The Eleventh Hour, A Christmas Carol) are on a par with his scripts for RTD like The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances or The Girl in the Fireplace, but most suffer by comparison. It’s only with The Day of the Doctor and the 2014 and 2015 Capaldi seasons – when he’s been in the position longer than Davies and got his second wind – that we see a true return to form. 

(I quite understand, of course, why he’d want to leave, but I’d personally like to have seen several years more of his witty, clever and cheerily terrifying version of Doctor Who before that happened. We’re getting one more year, of course -- even if it is, inexplicably, 2017 -- and let’s hope it’s a thoroughly spectacular one.)

Of course, RTD and Moffat are such outstanding writers that a small trailing-off isn’t really an issue: from 2006 to 2013 they still, for the most part, turned out great scripts. With Chibnall, though, a drop in quality from his previous standard is an alarming prospect.

I think we can expect a few good things from the Chibnall showrunnerate, even so – they just won’t have much to do with his own scripts or the series' overall narrative direction. For instance, I don’t need to have actually watched Broadchurch (to be clear I haven’t, and have no interest in doing so) to see that casting is one of its major strengths. Since Chibnall will clearly be casting the 13th, and quite likely the 14th, Doctors, that’s reassuring. I suspect he'll be disinclined to take the more radical kind of casting decision Moffat has been slyly preparing the way for in his Capaldi stories, but we can probably assume that whichever 30-to-50-year-old white men he casts in the part will be pretty good at acting. His seasons of Torchwood also saw some interesting commissioning choices in the script department: PJ Hammond, Noel Clarke and Catherine Tregenna were all names that would have been unlikely to crop up (at that time, and in that capacity) in mainstream Doctor Who, and all created unusual episodes with distinct and interesting features. The best thing Chibnall brings to Doctor Who may well be his address book. 

So -- amused though I was when a well-known author of my acquaintance responded to the news on Facebook with a picture of the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic -- this isn't an unmitigated disaster. Even the worst eras of Doctor Who (NB If in doubt refer back to the opening disclaimer) have produced individual stories of substantial interest – The Androids of Tara, for instance, or Revelation of the Daleks  – and I’m sure that, from 2019 or so, The Black Archive will be covering selected stories of the Chibnall era with keen enthusiasm. It's the overall arc story, and the several scripts a year written by the showrunner to further it, which I worry may be turgid, incoherent and banal, and occasionally startlingly offensive.

I’m prepared to be proved wrong. But then I'm prepared to be proved wrong on all kinds of issues, from the demise of Elvis to the non-existence of fairies.

And as for the Controller of BBC1’s idea that we don’t need any Doctor Who in 2016 because we’ve got some football and the Olympics… well, don’t get me started. It may make perfect sense from an industry perspective, but it’s naive in the extreme to expect viewers to agree.

Which rather brings us back to where we started.