This Mad British Monster VIII: Laughing Madness, Jamming, 28/01/2016

You’ll notice I skipped ahead by five instalments and about 45 years. Largely because news in the real world interrupted my plan for a slow-moving, once-per-week chronological walk through the production eras of Doctor Who.

Chris Chibnall has been a Doctor
Who fan all his life. Being a fan of
the show (who is also a talented
television writer) is important to
being a good producer and writer
of Doctor Who. You'll force
incredible quality control
standards on yourself because
you know how fans feel about
producers they hate.
Because Chris Chibnall will be the new creative producer of Doctor Who, taking over from Steven Moffat full time in 2018. People have been thinking a lot about what kind of Doctor Who Chibnall will produce, based on all kinds of flimsy speculation. But there’s an easy and perceptive way to think through what kind of Doctor Who the Chibnall era will be.

Look at his Doctor Who stories. And Broadchurch. Broadchurch is important too.

I think what makes me most hopeful that the Chibnall era will continue this period of generally excellent Doctor Who is that he’s capable of changing. If the Chris Chibnall of 42 and Cyberwoman was taking over the show, I’d be seriously worried.

Instead, we’re getting the Chris Chibnall who wrote Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Power of Three, and Broadchurch

Ten years ago, Chibnall’s scripts either paid no attention to characterization, or painted in such broad strokes that he usually had people directly describe themselves in the moment and as people. 

An example. When David Tennant is possessed by demonic enraged star creatures in 42, he’s agitated, nervous, hyperventilating, so desperate to escape their grip that he’s about to flash freeze himself. In the middle of this histrionic, explosive performance of a breakdown, Chibnall writes an utterly useless and superfluous line.

“I’m scared!” So would I have been if the Chris Chibnall of the mid-2000s was taking over Doctor Who.

But instead, the Chris Chibnall of the mid-2010s is taking over Doctor Who. Ten years ago, he was making horrifyingly sexist tripe like Cyberwoman and empty action stories like 42 and Countrycide. In 2012, he was capable of crafting a character like Brian Williams.

Rory’s dad only appeared in two episodes at the end of the Ponds’ time on Doctor Who. But he became integral to the emotional network of that family, a beautiful character who took only a single, already jam-packed 45 minute episode to nuzzle into the viewers’ hearts.

Chibnall remembers how fans treat creatives they think
fucked up because he was one of the first fan
interrogators! In 1986, he appeared on a BBC panel
show tearing strips off writers Pip and Jane Baker for
their terribly flawed stories, particularly Terror of the
. Long before the social media era, he wasn't
afraid to throw punches. He knows what fans can do.
Then he wrote PS, the epilogue to Amy and Rory’s story that, from the perspective of Rory’s letter to his father, made a perfect epilogue to the Pond narrative. It’s a wonderful five minutes. Watch it right now.

Are you done? Wasn’t that fantastic? Do you see what Chibnall can do now? How far he’s progressed beyond his limitations? 

I’m impressed by writers who are good pretty much from the beginning. They have a touch of genius in them at the instinctual level. But the writers who are most impressive are the ones who start as mediocrities, or at least reasonably average.

Then they improve. They keep improving until they become a genius through grinding practice, dedication to aesthetic growth, and attentive self-analysis. That’s more impressive because they’re actually expanding their talents, becoming better than what they once were. 

Any genius can write like a genius. It’s a seriously amazing achievement for an average person to become a genius. Now, I’m not calling Chris Chibnall a genius, but if he continues his developing quality at the same pace as the last decade? That’s where we might end up.

So what kind of Doctor Who will Chris Chibnall write? I have three guesses as to his focusses, all extrapolated from his previous work.

1) Chibnall is primarily a writer of detective stories. That’s obviously true of Broadchurch, but it’s also true of his two seasons of Torchwood, as many episodes involved mystery and crime plots. 

So Chibnall will probably develop the Doctor as a detective, and build stories and season arcs around the investigation of mysteries. 

In all its wackiness, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship still had
the most attentive and finely crafted characterization
work of any story in the Ponds' half of Matt Smith's
third season.
2) We should also see similarly fast character development, set primarily in kitchen sink stories overflowing with characters, images, and ideas. And that character development will be efficient and complex, with more characters that have the depth and power of Brian Williams.

3) They won’t be pure kitchen sink stories. Chibnall is good at making credible stories out of goofy premises and absurd juxtapositions, a skill that’s perfectly suited to Doctor Who. 

Think about some of the images that Chibnall has created. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, the silly weirdness of this premise and setting, and how the story (and the characters, in their more self-aware moments) laughs giddily at its insanity.

Even one of his worst stories, Cyberwoman, contains the simply bonkers moment of a half-cybernized woman punching out a pterodactyl. Torchwood’s visual distinctiveness was rooted in these moments of utterly goofy weirdness, which the camera work depicted as completely normal. 

I have the feeling the Chibnall era is going to get weird and surreal. I’m going to like that a lot.

Also, given Peter Capaldi’s age, Chibnall will probably be in charge of casting the following Doctor during his tenure. 

And as I’ve said, Chibnall understands how to improve himself as a writer and push himself to do new, different things. So he’ll quite likely follow Moffat’s imperative in recasting the Doctor as a woman. 

Vicky McClure gives wonderfully nuanced, deeply
thought performances, and has an arresting physical
presence that would make her an excellent fit to play
the Doctor.
I have some preferences among the middle-aged British actresses I’ve seen recently. Ruth Wilson could bring a rather noir feel to the Doctor, and we know from her role in Luther that she can be chilling when the need requires. It would suit Chibnall’s propensity for detective and mystery stories. 

Or he could pull a Russell T Davies, and cast a remarkable and distinctive female actor who’s starred in a show that made his reputation: Olivia Colman. 

Or Indira Varma, who can be extremely intense if the need requires, but also play charismatic and eccentric. Maxine Peake can be suitably mad. Or Vicky McClure, a talented and unpredictable actor who’ll play the female lead in an upcoming adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, probably my favourite of his novels.

So yes, I’m excited. Optimistic, hopeful. I won’t ever stop watching Doctor Who, even if it eventually goes through a rough patch. I’ll be able to find redemptive readings. 

But I think Doctor Who will be in good hands come 2018.

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