Doctor Who: In Celebration of the Chibnall Era.... So Far - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: In Celebration of the Chibnall Era.... So Far

Tony makes a controversial case.
With the announcement that both Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall will be leaving Doctor Who in 2022, it’s certainly premature to publish a celebration of the Chibnall era, because it’s far from over yet. We’ve just got our first teaser trailer of Series 13, and there are three specials, David Tennant-style, to pave the way to the 14th Doctor.

But even from this point in his time in the showrunner’s chair, there’s still plenty to be thankful to the Chibnall era for.

Where to start? Hmmm…
The First Female Doctor

OK, we all know that’s not TECHNICALLY the case – the Doctor has been female both in a Comic Relief special written by Steven Moffat (The Curse of the Fatal Death), played by Joanna Lumley, and in audio at Big Finish as an ‘Unbound universe’ Doctor, played by Arabella Weir. But both of those were workarounds or novelties.

When Chris Chibnall took over from Steven Moffatt, he made waves with his first major decision – that the 13th Doctor would be the first to be played by a woman within the main storytelling arc of the show.

Naturally, the fandom went batfink crazy – some loving the idea, others forming a vocal, and let’s not beat around the bush here, a screamingly misogynistic #NotMyDoctor camp, which continues to howl that the Doctor can only ever be played by male actors to this day.

The fact of course is that the Doctor, along with gods (Hello, Thor) and superheroes who can pass on their mantles (Hello, Iron Man), is among a very small number of mainstream leading roles that can be played by anyone, so long as they can bring something new and exciting to the new-old character. The idea of a female Doctor had been hanging around for decades, but it took Chris Chibnall to acknowledge the 21st century and the almost-uniqueness of the role, and to back the idea to the hilt, giving Doctor Who its first ‘proper’ female Doctor.

Yes, the decision split the fandom – though it should be noted, the fandom has always been ready to split over practically any minute detail of Doctor Who lore – but essentially, that’s not Chibnall’s fault, and it can’t legitimately be laid at his door.

If fans don’t want to accept the obvious reality about a character who changes everything about themselves at the point of death, like the fact that they can change types of bodies, that’s on them, not on the showrunner who goes with the times.
Casting Jodie Whittaker

While there were early rumours – when are there NOT early rumours – that the 13th Doctor would be played by a woman, the casting of Jodie Whittaker still came as a surprise. If anything, that was mostly because Olivia Coleman’s had been bandied around as a potential Doctor for some years, and Whittaker’s had absolutely not. Even those who thought Chibnall might choose from his Broadchurch cast more or less universally thought it would be Coleman.

Sidelining Whittaker though was always a mistake. Many people said she didn’t have the experience for the role, but as Matt Smith proved, experience is sometimes less necessary to the role than sheer talent.

And, as it happened, Whittaker actually had both – her first stage lead was at Shakespeare’s globe. Her first film role was as the title character in Venus – a film written by Hanif Kureishi, which co-starred Peter O’Toole, Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Philips and Richard Griffiths – as debuts go, that’s not a bad one!

She’d also starred alongside Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Brendon Gleason, Cillian Murphy, Jim Broadbent, John Boyega, Dougray Scott, Emilia Fox, Ray Winstone, Paddy Considine and more in films before the Doctor ever came calling for her.

If you want a Doctorish comparison for that body of work, you’re looking at Patrick Troughton or Christopher Eccleston, rather than any of the relatively inexperienced Doctors.

And as the 13th Doctor, she’s given the character a relative release from some of the swirling darkness of recent years – yes, it pokes through from time to time, but a return to a more happy-go-lucky style of Doctoring has made her a fan favourite, especially with some younger viewers, and some who remember the relatively unburdened years of Classic Who.
Ryan Sinclair

As part of a general trend in New Who, Ryan Sinclair had a backstory. He had a mother who had died, a father who was absent, a grandma who was brilliant, and a new sort-of step-grandad about whom he was less than sure. He also had dyspraxia. Probably (though we’re willing to be corrected on this), this was the first time a companion had had a recognised condition (beyond weak ankles and claustrophobia) that made it ACTIVELY DIFFICULT for them to do the things that a life with the Doctor entails.

While it was never especially over-egged in the writing, there were moments when the universe presents Ryan Sinclair with big challenges – and he overcomes them. It’s important to say that travelling with the Doctor is not presented as a CURE for his dyspraxia. But he realises that he has to meet the universe on his terms, and still find ways to win. That representation was enormously helpful to plenty of people with dyspraxia in the audience.
The Recognition That There’s More Than White History

This was a trend that had begun under other showrunners – Russell T Davies introduced both Mickey Smith and Martha Jones to time and space, and pointedly had Mickey immediately questioned by police when Rose went missing for a year. Steven Moffat added Bill Potts to time and space and even had the Doctor punch a Victorian racist when he got out of hand.

But travelling to times in the past when the concerns were fundamentally non-white – like the partition of India and the resistance of Rosa Parks – that was a Chibnall difference.

It’s also true that Chibnall used his position as showrunner to actively invite more women writers and more writers of colour onto the show, which had for most of its time (and bizarrely, in spite of its origins) been relatively pale and male (if hopefully only occasionally stale) in its outlook. Let the record show that Malorie Blackman, Joy Wilkinson, Vinay Patel, Rona Munro et al are damn good writers, whether or not they ever had a chance to write for Doctor Who.

But the fact remains that under Chris Chibnall, they all got that chance, opening up doors that hopefully will now stay open for good. (Yes, we know Rona Munro wrote Survival in the Classic era. Don’t @ us!)
More Representation In Front Of The Camera Too

From gay astronauts (Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty) to black billionaires (Lenny Henry), the brilliant Grace (Sharon D Clarke) to the first black female Doctor (the superb Jo Martin) and the first Master of colour (Sacha Dhawan) – and not forgetting Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), the Chibnall era has seen a greater variety of diversity on screen than many network shows have been able to deliver. That’s not a thing that happens by accident.

As with Russell T Davies’ determination to give companions a background and a home life, and Steven Moffatt’s determination to allow for complex plotting, Chibnall-era Who actively set out to more vividly represent the real world of the 21st century in Doctor Who.

Perhaps importantly, he also showed no fear in casting black people and people of colour in villainous roles, without their villainy in any way RELATING to their colour. Casting Lenny Henry as a billionaire determined to essentially wipe out humanity – while, let’s not forget, Stephen Fry’s sexist character gets shot dead halfway through an episode – could be seen as a brave move, but the ‘novelty’ of having a black man as the villain is rightly never given the dignity of a mention. Daniel Barton’s not evil because he’s black, any more than Tobias Vaughan was evil because he was white – they’re both evil because they’re utter gits. That the role of a billionaire is played by one of Britain’s favourite black actors, though – that’s a coup for Doctor Who.

If some of this led to odd storytelling moments – Sacha Dhawan’s Master being probably the first one since Delgado’s who would need to use a perception filter to mix with the Nazis(!) – it nevertheless enriched the world of Doctor Who by showing variety, diversity and not an endless parade of names out of white Equity.
Fearless Creativity

There’s a sense in which a show like Doctor Who can become hidebound in its own history, and in particularly in its own greatest hits villains. Certainly, the fans continue to demand stories with their favourite villains in it, and the Chibnall era managed to redesign both the Daleks and the Cybermen in ways which at the very least did not set the fandom howling (as Steven Moffatt’s New Paradigm Daleks had).

But more than that, Chibnall-era Who was never afraid to invent new villains. Now, you might have to go some way to find a fan who’d argue that the creations of the Chibnall era were as memorable as some from other times – no-one’s ordering cuddly P’tings, probably only a few people would be able to place the Morax in the story they were from, and if anyone remembers the name of the otherwise quite effective glowing aliens from Spyfall, we’ll give you a Custard Cream. But the fearlessness to invent wildly to tell new stories – or retell old ones with new twists, in some cases? That’s how you grab NEW young viewers, rather than giving dull old 50-year-old fans like us something to nod about. And that’s how the programme THRIVES. The extended universe is there for those older fans, especially through audios from Big Finish, but the main TV show needs that bravery of invention to speak to its key family audience.
Breaking The Canon Into Teeny, Tiny Pieces

In the same way, a series as old as Doctor Who occasionally needs to break its own rules, like repotting a plant to give it new room to grow. It’s been done several times in the show’s history – just in New Who, there was the destruction of Gallifrey, the growth of a new body from a jar in a hand, the granting of a whole new regeneration cycle (Yes, yes, the Five Doctors and the Master, we know), a whole hidden incarnation we’d never heard of before, and so on.

Chris Chibnall blew the doors off EVERYTHING we thought we knew about the established history of the Doctor, and of Gallifrey. And he did it in such a brazen, “The Doctor is half-human!” way, it blows the roof off too, by ensuring that not even the Doctor knows the whole truth.

It allows for new trauma for the mostly-happy Doctor, it allows for relatively endless regeneration and odd unseen Doctors to make appearances, and it reiterates an idea from Classic Who of the Time Lords being “Decadent, degenerate, and rotten to the core.”

There’s every chance a future showrunner will retcon the whole Timeless Children idea as a plan of the Master’s, just as we these days skip over the line about the Doctor being half-human. But the braver move would be to accept this new reality and all the opportunity it brings to a show that occasionally groans under the weight of its own ‘canon.’

This way, without in any way destroying the history the Doctor has had with the Time Lords, it opens up that mystery again in a way only ever hinted at by the Cartmel Master Wink – who exactly is the Doctor, after all?

There will be fans who’ll hate every word of this article. Who’ll rant and rage about the destruction of Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall, and claim the whole era was objectively bad.

But there are also those who have, so far, found it invigorating, refreshing, vivacious and brave. Who have, quite simply, loved it.

It hasn’t always worked – but then, no era of Doctor Who has been successful on every level – no, not even the one you love.

But the Chibnall era so far has told some deeply interesting stories, given the Doctor a new way to be, and done a great deal of good for the show – both on screen and behind the scenes - along the way.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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