William Shaw on Doctor Who, his new book about The Rings of Akhaten, and more (Part One)

will shaw doctor who rings akhaten black archive 42 neil cross farren blackburn chris chibnall jenna coleman leaf matt smith

I think The Rings of Akhaten is one of the boldest, most ambitious, and most radical episodes in all of Doctor Who. It’s a heartfelt story, lushly realised and beautifully performed. It’s a vital early step in the journey of Clara Oswald, the best companion (and arguably the best Doctor) the show has ever had. It’s an early commentary on the show’s fiftieth anniversary. And, as I talk about in the book, it’s a fascinating engagement with contemporary politics. I basically think it’s a critique of New Atheism (cf Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc) and its relationship to Doctor Who, but in doing that it necessarily touches on the legacy of colonialism, and Clara and Merry’s relationship in the story is an interesting way into some topics from feminist theory. Like Clara’s leaf, it looks simple, but it contains multitudes.

I spoke to William Shaw about his new book, the latest in the Black Archive series by Obverse Books, and the definitive account of The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a stellar book, full of all sorts of interesting things about New Atheism, feminism, orientalism, and Doctor Who – and Will had even more interesting things to say about them in the first instalment of our two part interview. So many interesting things! It’s a marvel he’s not run out yet.

Check back in a few days for Part Two, which covers Will’s thoughts on classic Doctor Who, ideas of faith in the Chibnall era, and how Neil Cross compares to Chibnall as a writing. (I told you – no end to the number of interesting things Will has to say about Doctor Who and associated.)

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Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

doctor who review timeless children chris chibnall gallifrey morbius destroyed canon hartnell jamie magnus stone

I see how you got there, but it lacks vision. Right, what if we, um, workshop this? You know, kick it around a bit? I have notes.

It’s the 1st March 2020. Chris Chibnall is fifty years old. The Timeless Children, his second series finale as Doctor Who showrunner, has aired. Watching it, you get the sense that this is what it’s always been leading up to, where it’s always been going – not for Doctor Who, of course, but for Chibnall.

What the BBC was after was risk and boldness. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

— Chris Chibnall, 2017

After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall could have done anything. The ITV crime drama was, put simply, a huge hit, a piece of television that sparked a genuine cultural moment. It was the sort of success that would have guaranteed Chibnall any commission he wanted. Certainly, it’s no surprise that the BBC wanted Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, nor that they went to such lengths to accommodate him; for all the critical success of the Peter Capaldi era, Doctor Who’s ratings had dwindled, long removed from the dizzying heights of its unimpeachable imperial phase. After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall was exactly the sort of populist writer needed to reinvent Doctor Who once again, to move it away from a vision oft-criticised as being too convoluted, too insular, catering solely to dedicated fans rather than general audiences. It was clear, in the dying days of the Moffat era, that Doctor Who needed Chris Chibnall.

It’s the 22nd January 2016. A little under two months shy of his forty-sixth birthday, Chris Chibnall is announced as Steven Moffat’s successor, taking on the dual role of Head Writer and Executive Producer on Doctor Who.

“I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and I’m relishing the thought of creating new characters, creatures and worlds for the Doctor to explore.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2016

Crucially, though, Chris Chibnall did not need Doctor Who. Why would he? In terms of his own career, he’d never been more successful – the expectation, surely, was that he’d follow Broadchurch with another original drama of his own. It’s not that Doctor Who was a step backwards for him, per se, but certainly it represented a degree of commitment and an intensity of work markedly different from his own professed preference for doing different things and frequently moving from project to project.

“Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2020

It’s the 17th January 1976. The first part of The Brain of Morbius airs. Chris Chibnall is six years old.

Not quite yet eight, but close enough.

doctor who brain morbius doctors timeless child chibnall hinchcliffe holmes harper jo martin hartnell first tectuen boundary

It’s the 1st March 2020. I am twenty-something years old. The Timeless Children, Chris Chibnall’s second Doctor Who series finale, has aired. Watching it, it isn’t the sort of episode I ever thought Chibnall would write – but I do get the sense that perhaps I should’ve seen it coming, representing as it does the culmination of all of Chibnall’s worst instincts.

“I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.”

— Me, reviewing Spyfall (Part One), 2020

Fundamentally, I’m of the belief – and have been for some time – that references to the past are best used sparingly in Doctor Who. There’s a certain weight to its mythology, bound up as it is in over fifty years of history; something like Gallifrey and the Time Lords exert a narrative gravity that can easily distort and distract from new, original ideas. Sure, it can be intoxicating, and I understand how; I’m deeply, deeply invested in all this myself. Still, though, it’s hard not to look at The Timeless Children and be genuinely baffled by the lack of restraint on display, an episode that’s about as far from a popular reinvention of Doctor Who aimed at the general public as is possible. Often, it’s like something out of a bad piece of fanfiction, or an easily forgotten bit of expanded universe fluff – a novel or a comic or something, the sort of story you could read, review, and then forget about entirely until some years later, at which point you realise you’ve written about so much Doctor Who there is some Doctor Who you’ve forgotten writing about. In any case, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d ever expect Bradley Walsh to star in on prime-time BBC One.

 “Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.”

— Me, reviewing Supremacy of the Cybermen, 2017

It’s the 9th December 2018. I am still twenty-something years old, albeit a little less so. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos airs on television. It was – and still is – awful. But it’s remarkable, looking back, for its lack of classic Doctor Who villains. That’s the first finale you could say that of since 2012 – since then, the show has relied on Daleks, Time Lords, the Cybermen, and the Master, often all at once, sometimes a few times in a row. There’s something to celebrate about its willingness to take a step away from recognisable Doctor Who iconography: in a sense, despite quite how small scale it was, it’s actually a more ambitious piece of television than The Timeless Children.

“It’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.”

— Me, reviewing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, 2018

It’s the 29th February 2020. I am, unsurprisingly, twenty-something years old. I rewatch The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

It’s aged better than I thought it would. Better, in fact, than I’d realise.

doctor who timeless children cybermen cyber master gallifrey time lord supremacy rassilon comic panopticon

It’s the 5th December 2015. Hell Bent airs. It’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who. (At the moment, anyway. My favourite episode of Doctor Who had previously aired on the 17th June 2006, the 23rd November 2013, the 1st July 2017, and, I’d like to think, at some point after that too.)

“Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.”

Me, on why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode, 2017

With hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on quite how much The Timeless Children is the Hell Bent’s opposite – if Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has so far been a cracked mirror reflection of the Russell T Davies era, then this is apparently Chibnall’s take on his immediate successor’s finest hour. Where Hell Bent was an exercise in narrative substitution, promising a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifreyan epic but delivering instead an intimate character drama, The Timeless Children has a rather different set of priorities. The point of Hell Bent is the Doctor and Clara’s conversation in the cloisters, their almost-goodbye in the TARDIS, or when the Doctor play’s Clara’s theme in the diner. The point of The Timeless Children is Sacha Dhawan saying “Panopticon”, a Cyberman in front of the Seal of Rassilon, or airing a clip of The Brain of Morbius on BBC One after Countryfile and before Call the Midwife. One is concerned with character, with emotions, with relationships; the other is a leisurely scroll through a newly updated Wikipedia page, largely devoid of any particular flourish or intimacy. There’s something oddly funny about Steven Moffat emphasising that the Hybrid doesn’t matter, and Chris Chibnall writing an episode where a Hybrid of two warrior races stands in the ruins of Gallifrey, having broken a billion billion hearts to heal its own.

“It’s tricky going back and watching old episodes now, because I think emotionally there’s very little there.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2007

This, perhaps, is the issue – or one of them – with The Timeless Children. It’s Doctor Who that demands we care about it simply because it is Doctor Who; not because it offers new creatures, new characters, new worlds, but because it never dares look away from the old ones. No, not even that; it doesn’t see a value. It’s Doctor Who for people who catch the references to the Leekley bible, who could tell you that Douglas Camfield, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Banks Stewart were three of several Morbius Doctors, who know about the Other and Penelope and Ulysses and Soul and Zezanne. Hell Bent is for those people too, yes – but not exclusively so. Not like this.

“Probably gonna end up watching Doctor Who on a half-hour delay or so. Kinda weird to think you’re all gonna know that Bradley Walsh is the Other, Yaz is Rassilon, and Ryan is Señor 105 thirty minutes before I do.”

— Me, tweeting about Doctor Who, 2020

It’s the 1st March 2020. In hindsight, Time Hunter might’ve been a better punchline.

doctor who timeless children hell bent classic tardis peter capaldi jodie whittaker rachel talalay jamie magnus stone

It’s the 6th March 2020. The BBC complaints department, for the second time this year, have had to put out a statement about Doctor Who – addressing, on this occasion, The Timeless Children’s attempt at a new Doctor Who origin story.

“I don’t necessarily want all the gaps to be plugged. Kids out there are making up their own stories about how Missy escaped that place and regenerated into Sacha. They’re doing their own version of it. And that’s much more exciting.”

— Steven Moffat, 2020

Perhaps it’s a little uncharitable to say that The Timeless Children added nothing new to Doctor Who; after all, that’s what everyone was up in arms about the other day. No longer just a mad woman in a box, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, the Original Time Lord – not important because of what she does, but what she is, with all the uncomfortable implications that holds. It doesn’t, obviously, change what’s gone before in any meaningful sense – Peter Capaldi was no more playing a Timeless Child than William Hartnell was playing the First Doctor – but it does feel like, going forward, it’s all a little bit… less.

“You mean you’ve changed time? Was it the reason you left your home?”

— Barbara to the Doctor, in a fanfiction I wrote in 2012

Part of the fun, surely, of something like the Morbius Doctors, or how old the Doctor is, or what her true name is, is the debate, the argument, the theorising. The not knowing. Why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey? Because they were bored. Because they were scared of the Hybrid. Because they changed time. Because of Omega. Because Irving Braxiatel warned them of a plot against their life. No, actually. None of that. In fact, the Doctor was once a secret agent on an ill-defined mission for the Time Lords, somewhere between James Bond and Jason Bourne; despite having their memory wiped and being turned back into a child, the Doctor was always destined to be the Doctor again, to run away from her own people in a rackety old TARDIS, disguised as a police box.

Oh.

Not knowing, surely, invites greater creativity and affords more storytelling opportunities than The Timeless Children. It doesn’t open up new avenues; it imposes a shape onto ones that were already there. It’s not an infinite set of possibilities: it’s a forty pound Big Finish boxset called Timeless, starring Jo Martin in an adventure with Krillitanes, Daleks, and an amnesiac Paul McGann, written by the same four people as usual, each of whom will inevitably struggle against the Jason Bourne of it all and opt to tell fairly typical Doctor Who stories instead.

It’s certainly not the progressive victory some have chosen to read it as, by the way. Diegetically, yes, we know the ‘first’ Doctor was a young Black girl, and had a series of different female and non-white incarnations before they ever looked like William Hartnell. But look at what’s actually on screen: each of these female, non-white incarnations were tortured to death (because all female characters, the Doctor now included, get a backstory of abuse) before another eight white guys were newly canonised, and this information leads to a white woman telling a South Asian man she’s genetically more than him. It used to be that you didn’t need to be real to be the Doctor; now, however, you need an inherited birthright.

The Timeless Children is not an especially forward-looking piece of television (even if, of course, it is guaranteed that Tecteun, the Doctor’s Wicked Stepmother, will return by the 60th anniversary). It’s a series of set-pieces building up to a montage of archive footage and very little else. Frankly, it’s no wonder the episode is so heartbreakingly disinterested in Jodie Whittaker, in the here and now. The Timeless Children is an hour of Doctor Who that has no greater aim, nor believes it needs no greater justification, than to gesture at the trappings of Doctor Who; indeed, it might as well quote directly from stories past, so derivative and self-referential is its writing. (Ahem.) Chibnall’s vision, his promised risk and boldness, his ideas are so insular, so inward looking in both ambition and approach, that it ultimately renders Doctor Who smaller on the inside.

“It doesn’t seem to have much to it. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”

— Chris Chibnall, 1986

It’s the 8th March 2020. Thinking about it, actually, Chris Chibnall might have a point there.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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