Okay now I realize that I am somewhat late to comment on this, but still I am going to offer my thoughts on the announcement that Chris Chibnall is due to take over Doctor Who from Steven Moffat in 2018.
Now if I’m being honest Chibnall is not my ideal choice for showrunner. I don’t think he’s a terrible writer by any means he’s just never really stood out for me. He’s kind of a bit of a “meh” writer for me. Still I like to keep an open mind and in this article I am going to look through his past Who related work and offer hopefully a balanced view of the man, giving both points for and points against the idea of him as showrunner before reaching my conclusion.
Though obviously we can’t tell for sure what he will bring to Doctor Who based on his previous work, but still perhaps this might give us an idea of what we will be getting for the next few years.
So lets get started then.
He Writes More Straight Forward Adventures
Now this might sound like a bad thing to some but trust me I mean it as a compliment.
I think a big problem with Doctor Who over the past two years is that it has to put it bluntly gone too far up its own arse.
We keep seeing stories that try and analyse the Doctor’s character and what he means, and stories that revel too much in the shows back story. The recent season 9 two parter was a prime example of this.
I’m not saying a writer can’t use a story to analyse the main characters from time to time, but it eventually gets too much when every story has to do that and every story arc is about the Doctor learning something about himself like that he is an idiot or that he is too in love with his companion.
It also gets frustrating when the characters all have to talk about how they feel and about all the other characters emotions and even just what they are doing around them which happens a lot in recent Moffat era Who.
On top of that Moff has revelled too much in timey wimey paradoxes and in rewriting the shows own history.
Just about every Moffat penned story has to involve the time lord going back and changing something or his actions in the past, but his own personal future having been revealed to have created the present situation. Now at first this was quite an interesting new take on Doctor Who.
Surprisingly despite being a show about a time traveller Doctor Who apart from a very few exceptions has never really focused on time travel that much. Its often just simply used it as a plot device to get the Doctor to planets for adventures.
Moffat was the first to really focus not just episodes, but whole story arcs around the concept of time travel and it was interesting and fresh at first. Sadly over time not only has it become somewhat stale but I also think that it has helped to drive some viewers away as time travel stories do tend to be overly complicated and needlessly confusing.
I also think that its impossible to write a time travel story without a plot hole. I mean look at Terminator. Easily one of the greatest films ever made but it still has a big plot hole. If the Terminator did kill Sarah Connor then John would never be born and so the Terminator would never have gone back and killed Sarah and so then Sarah would spring back to life so its plan is flawed. Does that ruin Terminator? Absolutely not and it doesn’t ruin Moff stories like Blink either, but an overdose of time travel stories at the same time can often bring these type of plot holes to the viewers attention, and since Moff constantly writes about Time Travel stories well then his work naturally suffers from this more than other Who writers.
Finally I think rewriting the backstory of the show is always a bad thing. To start with it does generate controversy among fans. Doing it once or twice you might get away with it. Like the War Doctor and making Handy count as a regeneration. A lot of people hated those things. I myself didn’t mind them, but then he also made it that time lords change gender when they regenerate, had the Master fall in love with the Doctor, ended the Brig’s storyline a second time when it was already completely wrapped up, and in a very controversial way, changed why the Doctor left Gallifrey, made Clara be the person who not only inspired him to become the hero he is, but also told him what TARDIS to steal, and was retconned into being behind basically all of his victories. On top of that he also rewrote the history of the Daleks by making out that they always had a concept of mercy which contradicts one of the greatest moments from Genesis.
Chances are if you aren’t pissed at one of his changes you’ll be pissed at another. In the past I have tried to defend Steven Moffat’s changes in my “Has Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who” article by pointing out that other writers have made changes comparable to Moff’s in the past such as Robert Holmes. I don’t think that any more sadly as I think that a lot of Bob Holmes’s changes were different in that to start with the show wasn’t set in stone back then. There were a lot of gaps you could fill in during the first 4 Doctors era’s like why he left Gallifrey, the name of his planet, the nature of regeneration. By the end of Tom’s era however all of that has been filled in and really until Moff no one else, Williams, JNT or RTD goes back and changes the history of what has come before. They build on it but they don’t go back and say “actually no THIS is why he left Gallifrey”.
Also I got the feeling that with Bob Holmes he didn’t absolutely revel in changing the past like Moffat did. Yes he changed some things for the sake of a story, but with Moff there is almost barely an area of Doctor Who he hasn’t changed.
Rewriting the shows past also alienates mainstream viewers too as in order to rewrite an old story you naturally have to indulge in continuity porn. Again look at the series 9 opener that rewrites the Daleks origins slightly, it has references to stories from 40 years ago that only the most die hard fan would get. One recent review of Hell Bent said that “You’d need a PHD in Doctor Who to watch it these days” and sadly that is true.
Chris Chibnall based on his previous work seems to write stories that are more straight forward, boys own adventure type stories like Terry Nation.
I think that’s what is needed at this point. Just fun, enjoyable adventures that don’t need to go into 40 years worth of continuity and change it, adventures that anyone can enjoy.
Whilst some people may knock it I found Dinosaurs on a Spaceship to be excellent Saturday night teatime television, full of lots of excitement, self contained and not reliant on past episodes even from new who never mind the original series.
On top of that I have never found Chibnalls work to be guilty of the Moffat mistake of show don’t tell. For instance compare the Doctors murder of Solomon the trader to 12’s attempt to threaten the Daleks in The Witch’s Familiar. In the Witch’s Familiar we have to have Missy go on about “This is what the Doctor looks like without hope”. In Dinosaurs on a Spaceship the Doctor just tells Solomon that he deserves it and leaves him to die and its quite shocking when he does. That shows the Doctor pushed to his limits more than if Matt Smith had gone into a big speech saying “This is what I look like when you push me too far Solomon!”
Thus I think that in this respect Chibnall’s approach will be a breath of fresh air.
He’s Good At Characterisation
Now I actually don’t think Moffat is as bad at characterisation as many have said. I think he has throughout his time on Doctor Who alone written some truly inspired leading and supporting characters, but its true he does tend to rely on some of the same character types. I think its true he is probably more of a Terry Nation type of writer who tends to focus more on his plots and world building than characterisation.
That doesn’t mean either he or Nation are bad writers, far from it. All writers have their strengths and weaknesses. Some like Nation and Moffat are clearly better at plots, generating atmosphere and thrills, whilst others like Davies are better at characterisation.
Chibnall I think is stronger at characterisation. All of his supporting characters in stories like 42, The Power of Three, and even Dinosaurs on a Spaceship feel fully fleshed out.
Brian, Rory’s father quickly became a fan favourite after appearing in just 2 episodes both by Chibnall. The Torchwood episode Cyberwoman I also feel did a good job of making the relationship between Ianto and Lisa Hallet believable. Normally I don’t like it when they just spring a heroes one true love that we have never heard of before out of nowhere, but I think Chibnall did a good job of making their relationship as well Ianto’s anguish seem very believable and human.
He also I feel wrote for Kate Lethbridge Stewart better than any other writer.
In The Power of Three Kate feels like a competent leader in her own way. She doesn’t even bring her father up until half way through the story when the Doctor realizes that she is the Brig’s daughter and even then its handled in a very subtle and a more human way. Rather than just spout her dads catchphrases and say “Hey I’m the Brig’s daughter wasn’t he cool” we get the feeling of her genuinely wanting to do her father proud and honour his legacy when she and the Doctor say that they can’t let him down.
Little moments in Chibnall stories like Martha calling her mother one last time before she thinks she is going to die I think really show how Chibnall has a real talent for making characters seem real even in the most absurd situations.
He Has Experience Running A Series
Leaving aside his stellar success with Broadchurch a non Doctor Who related series starring David Tennant, Chibnall has already run a successful series in the Doctor Who universe, Torchwood.
Chris Chibnall was the showrunner for the first two series. Now I have some mixed feelings on Torchwood, but I do think Chris did some excellent work on the second series of Torchwood. I liked the story arc about Owen’s death, I felt it was a very interesting story arc that helped to flesh the previously unlikable Owen out into a more sympathetic character. I also think that he handled the death of two major characters Owen and Tohsiko superbly too.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of Torchwood it was a big success throughout its first two seasons. It won many awards, achieved record viewing figures and helped the show develop a very strong cult following which persists to this day.
His Stories Are Unoriginal
One area Steven Moffat definitely has over Chris Chibnall is that Moffat both before and after he became showrunner explored new territories for Doctor Who. His stories did feature new and exciting ideas about time travel, terrifying and fascinating new monsters such as the Angels and the Vashta Nervada.
Sadly Chibnall’s Doctor Who work though not bad has been very unoriginal and somewhat repetitive of previous stories. His Silurian two parter in series 5 is basically a remake of Doctor Who and the Silurians. Similarly 42 and Dinosaurs on A Spaceship though fun are essentially just generic running up and down corridors type of stories. The Power of Three meanwhile is kind of just a Russell T Davies style invasion earth story except it lacks the spectacle and really the sense of comic book fun of stories like Army of Ghosts and Doomsday.
It also has a similar premise to The Lodger from series 5 which revolved around the Doctor having to be domestic.
I understand that it must be virtually impossible in 2016 to do anything new, never mind in Doctor Who, but still I think its safe to say that Moffat has a much greater imagination for Doctor Who at least than Chibnall does.
His Stories Are Somewhat Bland
When you look at Moff’s stories though he can reuse some of the same tropes I feel he does at least try to make them all stand out as something unique.
His episodes during the Davies era were all very different and the monsters, science fiction concepts and the worlds they took place in were all very fleshed out.
Chibnall’s stories however are not only unoriginal, but the villains and the setting are often more bland and thin than in Moffat’s scripts.
Like look at Solomon the Trader. Whilst David Bradley is excellent he is just a generic, evil badguy, the villain in Power of three is just another old monster thought only to exist in legend and its dealt with in about 3 seconds. The settings for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and 42 are just generic space ships. Compare that to the Library, also even when Moffat sets his stories in more ordinary environments such as in Blink.
Moffat uses the house in the middle of nowhere to create a real frightening atmosphere when Sally and Larry are on their own and we see the Angels creeping up on them.
Chibnall’s stories sadly have never been able to generate that kind of atmosphere or menace.
I think that overall Chibnall is a perfectly fine choice for showrunner. Yes his stories so far may not have been the most innovative and original, but I think he is overall a good writer who is capable of producing solid, entertaining episodes and furthermore I think that in some areas such as characterisation he is actually better than Moff.
I think Moffat has left the show in safe hands. My only objections to Chibnall being showrunner is that I think the showrunner system is flawed overall. Its never a good idea to give anyone complete control of the series. Its best run by a partnership like Letts and Dicks or JNT and Andrew Cartmel.
I also think that the showrunner system ends up spreading the main writer of the series too thin as it often forces them to write about at least 5 episodes per year. Terrance Dicks and Andrew Cartmel didn’t write any stories during their tenure’s as script editor.
Also I think that making one guy the figure head basically of all things who can bring out the worst in fandom as it can lead to that person obviously becoming a hate figure.
Really I think its better to let two people, a script editor and a producer have equal say over the show and work together. I hope Chibnall realizes this and hires a script editor and gives him just as much control.
Still whilst the system may be flawed Chibnall is a good choice overall despite the shortcomings of some of his previous Who work and as much as I like Moffat’s earlier work (11th Doctors era is still the top era of New Who for me) I think its definitely time he moved on and we got some new ideas.
Best of luck Chris.