A little chaos is a wonderful thing.
A few days ago, I asked just what Chris Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who was. 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.
The answer, it’s starting to seem, is “exactly the same stories Russell T Davies was telling a decade ago”.
I think everyone always assumed, more or less, that Chibnall would owe something of a debt to Davies as showrunner. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was first announced that Chibnall would take over from Steven Moffat – forgive the needlessly dramatic headline, I was still working a lot of this out – although it was hardly a unique observation on my part. After all, it was an easy enough prediction to make from his Doctor Who work – especially something like The Power of Three – and his working relationship with Davies on Torchwood. To say nothing of his work outside of Doctor Who: I’m inclined to suspect, though it’s an admittedly slight assertion, if you asked Moffat and Davies to write a drama about a murder in a small coastal town, Davies would write something more closely resembling Broadchurch than Moffat would.
This largely proved a sensible assumption across series 11. Granted, it was always a slightly superficial bit of analysis – sure, we saw Ryan and Yaz’s family, just like we saw Rose, Martha and Donna’s, and Demons of the Punjab definitely had some Father’s Day vibes, but beyond that there was an obvious gulf between what Chibnall and Davies did with their respective supporting characters. Still: whether consciously positioning himself that way or not, Chibnall did indeed have a lot more in common with Davies than his immediate predecessor. Spyfall suggests series 12 will be shaping up the same way. The first part of the story had plenty of what we might charitably call little nods to Davies throughout – the death-by-SATNAV set piece lifted from The Sontaran Stratagem, the Kasaavin owe an obvious visual debt to the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, that sort of thing.
It’s not, obviously, that imitating Davies is a bad thing. He’s a talented writer who made huge creative contributions to Doctor Who: returning to and recontextualising those ideas anew holds a lot of potential. That’s not limited to Chibnall either, after all – The Pilot was quite clearly Steven Moffat doing Russell T Davies, so to speak, and that’s a perfectly charming series opener.
After Spyfall Part Two, though, it looks rather like Chibnall doesn’t actually have any ideas of his own to add to this – his vision for Doctor Who is increasingly looking like a weak cover version of what’s gone before.
Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and look first at Ryan, Yaz and Graham, if only because I largely neglected to mention them last time. But then, that’s understandable, I think: there’s still so little to say about them.
It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the issue is with the ‘fam’ – it’s something of an imperfect storm, I suppose. In part, I’m inclined to criticise the actors themselves: Mandip Gill, I’m increasingly convinced, puts on a voice as Yaz, the overly earnest intonation of a children’s TV presenter, drawing attention to quite how hard she’s acting without really evoking anything you might call ‘character’. But then, that feels a tad unfair – how else is she meant to ask “what’s the plan?” five times an episode?
There’s a moment in his book, The Writer’s Tale, where Russell T Davies is talking about The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and juggling the dialogue for each companion while still ensuring each character remains distinct. “They’re all sci-fi women on the side of good”, he says, or words to that effect, “so they’re all going to be giving broadly similar speeches”. Davies goes on to explain how Rose, Martha and Donna’s specific, individual character traits influence the rhythms and perspectives of those speeches, keeping the lines distinct, but you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chibnall’s version of the same would’ve cut that explanation short.
Yaz and Ryan are both still given largely interchangeable dialogue, veering between inquisitive and expository; Graham fares a little better, although that’s mostly down to the gravity Bradley Walsh exerts on the script. Four companions was always going to be difficult to juggle. I’d assumed, wrongly, that there might be an effort to dedicate an episode to each companion – a Ryan focused piece, not unlike an American procedural drama, or something out of 90s Star Trek (which I’m convinced Chibnall is quite heavily influenced by, actually). At this point, though, it’s difficult to imagine that working: I don’t think for a second that Ryan, Yaz, or Graham could sustain a Doctor-lite episode like Flatline, Turn Left or so on.
I’m just not entirely convinced, I suppose, that anyone involved – actors or writers – have a particularly strong handle on who these characters are supposed to be. Dropping them into a more or less straight recreation of The Sound of Drums largely confirms this: Yaz gets the ‘Martha calls her family’ beat, but you’d think, perhaps, as a police officer in training she might have had a slightly different reaction to being on the run. They each have their moments, sure – Ryan has a few cute moments, and Graham’s laser tap dance was charming, if a little tonally off – but for the most part, they remain frustratingly anonymous, still little more than vague archetypes. It’s hardly encouraging at this point.
That, actually, is what gets at me about the Russell T Davies of it all: Chibnall isn’t actually particularly good at it. ‘Character focused’ is a fairly superficial reading of Davies – and more than a little uncharitable to Moffat – but you’d hope that if Chibnall was going to simply rehash what we’d seen before, he’d at least do it well.
But, no: the Bond parody falls apart, turning briefly into a repeat of The Sound of Drums before being entirely forgotten. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton simply leaves, not unlike a lot of series 11’s villains; perhaps we’ll see him return to team up with Chris Noth’s President Robertson, in a toothless wannabe-satire that says nothing at all about right-wing politics or powerful tech companies. The Master, unfortunately, is a caricature rather than a character, an attempt to ignore Michelle Gomez and return to John Simm, with none of the personality that made Simm’s Master work. The series arc – Gallifrey’s mysterious destruction – is, in effect at least, an almost wholesale recreation of the Time War. Spyfall even lifts from Moffat, actually, with some timey-wimey back and forth drained of all the bravura and panache it used to have.
It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for this when I can just open iPlayer and watch the better versions of the stories that inspired Chibnall.
Most striking, though, is that it just feels thoughtless. Deeply, deeply thoughtless. Which is fine – well, ‘fine’ – when thoughtless means recreating Simm’s Master without realising why he worked in the first place. It’s ‘fine’ when thoughtless leads to one of the most bafflingly erotic scenes in Doctor Who history, apparently without even slightly realising how intensely sexual it is. It is not fine when thoughtless means repeatedly introducing Ada Lovelace as Byron’s daughter, rather than in terms of her own achievements; it is not fine when the Doctor tells a woman the fascists never win, a few months before she dies at Dachau; it is not fine when the Doctor defeats the first POC Master by very nonchalantly sending the Nazis after him. There is at times something quite ugly about Chibnall’s Doctor Who – accidentally, I’m reasonably sure, but in a real sense it’s far more reactionary than anything that ever provoked the ire of the stfu-moffat crowd.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing these episodes a bit of a disservice with the rough wordcount I stick to. At some point, I suppose, I’d like to do a podcast, or some other more detailed breakdown of these episodes (yes, I am asking to be invited to your podcast or roundtable discussion or similar), because there are absolutely lots of little moments in these episodes that are worth celebrating and shining a light on, which I never quite find the time for in amongst the complaints. But also, well, ugh. What on earth was that?
In the end, I’m reminded of this joke – I think from Robert Holmes – that Doctor Who only ever uses the best original ideas, just not necessarily its own original ideas. Spyfall, I think, might just be the perfect illustration of a version of Doctor Who that only uses its own original ideas – long after they might reasonably be described as “original ideas”.