Dear Chris Chibnall: Think. Are you really the right man to run Doctor Who?

Dear Chris,

Hello. Ed here. God alone knows if I’ll be around to correspond with you in 2018 when the first series of Doctor Who under your stewardship goes out. Maybe I’ll be dead, having taken badly to the new Star Trek series, or perhaps I’ll have given up life as an armchair pundit to write about my experiences being ignored by Steven Moffat, so I’m writing now instead. Why? Well, I just need to be sure about something. Are you certain you’re the right man for the show runner’s job?

Look, I understand it’s your dream. You were on Open Air back in 1986, showing how much you cared about the show with a withering viewer critique of its then camp direction. 25 years later you showed the world how it should be done by writing “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, featuring Mitchell and Webb as comic robots. So when Steven put you forward it must have been the culmination of all your writerly ambitions; like a scientist being inducted into the Royal Society or a sexual deviant becoming a light entertainment presenter. But ask yourself, did you get the gig on merit, or have you made the right friends and above all, garnered the right worthless industry plaudits?

I can imagine that being part of the Doctor Who inner circle, as well as a Torchwood survivor and someone who wrote a middlebrow drama starring David Tennant that drew attention from the all important American market, you pulled on all the right cocks. But when we look at your record a little closer we’re left wondering if your instincts are the ones that will partner with viewers’ desires to produce a new and dynamic era of bold and experimental Who. When Steven leaves to write the long awaited third series of Chalk, we’ll be at a strange juncture; a time when fans will want more meat and conceptual clarity in their Doctor Who diet, but also a move toward edgier, more experimental storytelling.

Forgive me, Chris, but when I look at your work I see a writer who drives on the middle of the road; a man who neatly folds his toothpaste tube and drinks Tesco Champagne. We’re all familiar with the departing Steven’s problems; he’s no dramatist, but a vigorous conceptual masturbator and occasional wit, who isn’t afraid to think big (and indeed long). We’ve liked his ambition but hated his vanity and its warping and irreversible damage to the mythos; we’ve applauded his audaciousness while loathing his inability to write a story; we’ve enjoyed his jokes but despised his propensity to glibly undermine his best ideas. His tenure as overlord has been frustrating and he’s right to think it’s time to pack it in, but no one can say he’s played it safe. Russell T Davies made it broad and mass audience friendly; Steven gave the show some much needed vitality and complexity.

Are you about to take us back to the Russell Dust era, Chris? Because when we look at your stuff, we see a man serving McDrama to a broad church of viewers. Your hit ITV murder mystery, I forget its name, considered by many your crowning achievement, is a soap with thin characters and stark plot contrivances, particularly in the second series; a show built to hook those who dine out on cliché, melodrama and one dimensional audiences proxies.

You were an obvious adjunct to the Russell Dust era of Who, because he shared your taste for this thin gruel; the stuff that builds a big, undemanding audience, but doesn’t stimulate the brains and yearning for something innovative that excites the sophisticated genre literate viewer who’s attracted to a show like Doctor Who precisely because it offers the promise of something off-kilter.

Hey, maybe that’s why you were given Torchwood. Perhaps that’s why, when Steven needed a palate cleanser, a solid bit of filler to bridge the gap between more exciting or experimental episodes, he chose you, knowing you’d deliver 45 minutes of alright. But is this what the new era of Doctor Who needs? Five years of “that was okay, I suppose”?

You see Chris, ratings matter, of course they do, but if you want a show that maintains a loyal and devoted audience, instead of a huge disposable one, and garners international acclaim, becoming a prestige showcase for the BBC around the world, thereby justifying its budget, you have to think like the American subscription networks do, the likes of HBO, AMC and Netflix. You make a show that doesn’t worry about broad or populist touches, you just write the best, boldest juggernaut you can, and trust that there are sufficient numbers of people who appreciate such efforts to justify the risk taking.

Sometimes the BBC gets confused and thinks the licence fee means that you have to cater for everyone WITHIN a format, when of course what it means to say is that a flat fee necessitates producing programmes that cater for every section of the audience: niche programming. So if you write a Doctor Who that talks up to a genre loving audience, knowing they’ll pretty much follow you anywhere (while the casuals complain) you’re meeting the remit. Are you with me, Chris? You can break the mould and people who love the show, rather than just see it as comfort food, will approve.

So consider, Chris. Are you the man for the job? Once Steven’s finished with us, his final set of fuck yous due to hit in 2017, we’ll be wanting a transition into an era of confident, varied and intelligent storytelling – the kind that holds hands with the show’s most astute followers, turning around every so often to encourage the rest to catch up. Figuratively, we’re talking about a Barry Letts to Phillip Hinchcliffe type regeneration. Not a shift that disavows the past, merely one that recognises the series can and must do more; that there are no limits and no concessions to those who really aren’t sure about this sort of thing.

A show like Doctor Who can never go backwards, Chris. The time travel must remain in-story. So if you’re not one hundred percent sure you can innovate, talk up to the oldest members of the audience and hire some lunatics to produce head popping serials, then get off your cloud and help find the right person before it’s too late. After all, you don’t want to be the man who killed the show, do you? You don’t want to be the John Nathan-Turner of modern times, prompting some poor kid to go on a daytime discussion show and complain the programme’s become a camp laughing stock?

Thought not.

Think on.


Published in: on January 23, 2016 at 22:22  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Still. I mean. We did dodge a Mark Gatiss-sized bullet here.

  2. This was totally fun to read, even though I think Chibnall’s both a logical and a good choice. He’s shown talent in a variety of genres, and been a loyal corporal of the franchise. I agree about Broadchurch/Gatemouth or whatever being middlebrow, but his script “Adrift” (Torchwood) is my favorite of the entire series, and his Who eps were IMO usually better than the Dinos one.

    Every showrunner for Dr. Who has had his ups and downs. Chibnall’s had to write to the orders of superiors (Hidden Earth/Cold Blood, Law & Order UK) for much of his career. This is an opportunity for him to follow his own tastes less encumbered. I wish I could see more of his work, but Life on Mars and other BBC/ITV productions aren’t so easy to view here.

    • I take the point about Chibnall not having free rein up to now, but at the same time every writer commissioned to contribute to the show has the opportunity to show off their unique sensibilities. I don’t really recall Chibnall’s Torchwood episodes but I suppose my point is this: though it’s hard to remember now, there was really no question that Steven Moffat was the obvious successor to Russell T Davis because his episodes a) stood out as superior and b) were better slabs of Who than those being offered by the show runner. To put it another way, Moffat understood the show and (then) respected what had come before. I accept the candidates are much less obvious this time around. Chibnall has the history and show running experience within that universe, so I agree, there’s some logic to the choice, but it feels safe and pedestrian to me, rather than creatively bold. He may prove to be great of course; I sincerely hope so. But I wish the decision hadn’t been clique based. I mean, did they consider any left field choices? Any risk takers? I suppose we’ll never know. Look, I don’t know who I’d have picked. Maybe the BBC didn’t know either and that was the problem. What the show needs is a new Robert Holmes. Is Chibnall that man? Because nothing less, at this stage in the show’s development, will do.

      • Consider the evidence: 42 – entirely forgettable. Hungry Earth/Cold Blood – dull, cliched and unmemorable return for iconic Who characters. Dinosaurs – risible filler. Power of Three – passable enough character piece that went nowhere with a rushed and pointless ending.

        He hasn’t even written one strong Who story yet – and we want him to be the new Robert Holmes? He’s a desperate choice.

        Even Gatiss would have given me more cause for optimism 😦

  3. Should have been Toby Withouse 😦

    • Agreed. I think a real opportunity has been missed, and Chibnall’s at best an ‘alright’ choice. Nothing in his Who episodes so far has excited me, none of them. They’ve all been forgettable. Whereas each of Moffat’s pre-RTD stories were either the best of that season or at least right up there.

      • I wonder why they didn’t pick Whitehouse. He wrote Under the Lake/Before the flood. But it was a good take on the base-under-seige format. So obviously, he can do meat and potatoes Doctor Who with some charm. I have fallen asleep through all of Chibnall’s episodes. But again, It’s not Mark Gatiss. Thank God. I think BBC wants to hit the reset button. Let’s go back to RTD era with it’s mass audience friendly material. Let’s find a young and cute Doctor again. Whatever Moffat’s faults are, you cannot deny that his Who is ambitious and fails more often than not but at least he is trying. I know people complain that it’s become darker and more continuity-heavy. But this is what I like about it. And if you think about it, this is what TV is like now. Nobody complained when Breaking Bad was dark and continuity-heavy. BBC should decide what it wants Doctor Who to be – a show for the casual mass audience that people can dip in and out off as they please or ambitious Genre TV? You cannot have it both ways.

  4. Ed. I felt the exact same way as you did when you wrote the original comment a couple years ago. I hoped against hope we were wrong. We were not. I write this after seeing the finale of series 11, the magnifi-so-so/not so good “Battle of Raasker all something or other” He also suck as titles.

    I only found this article because I was looking for images from the old Open Air show. You see, a talented photoshop fella or gal could take said images of JNT and the Bakers getting roasted by a bunch of 15 year olds and easily turn the scenes into current day Chibs sitting in the JNT hotseat *and* on screen sitting next to the ancient, raven haired Jane Baker.

    Anyway, enjoyable and spot on analysis ahead of your time. “That was okay,… I suppose” That’s the watchword after watching this, the worst series since the 1980’s, bar none.

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