Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

One of the more interesting things Steven Moffat has said about Doctor Who – one of the things that’s informed my own thinking about the programme, and what I expect from it – came in 2014, as part of the promotion for Capaldi’s first series. Moffat, talking about Danny Pink’s role as a foil to the Doctor, as well as Robot of Sherwood, “a high-born nobleman, used to wealth and privilege, who decided to come down among us lot and help out. He thinks he’s one of the guys, but never stops assuming that he’s in charge and that people will make him tea”.

Since I read that, and indeed across the Capaldi era and some of the more frustrating aspects of Whittaker’s opening series, it’s struck me as one of the more compelling points of tension to the character. (Actually, it could perhaps be a particularly compelling lens to approach Series 11 from, given Whittaker’s Doctor seems less inclined to take charge of a situation in the way her predecessors would – how much of that is down to an evolving position on the Doctor as an autocrat, can it simply be ascribed to her gender, is there anything more engaging to consider beyond dismissing it as the limitations of Chibnall’s writing? Admittedly, the answer to that last question might just be “no”, but you know.)

It was on my mind again watching Planet of the Dead, in case that weren’t already clear. The quote often feels particularly applicable to Tennant’s Doctor, actually – much as I do genuinely love this take on the character, and much as I am willing to defend it to its detractors – but it seems especially relevant to Planet of the Dead. Not because of any egregious excesses on the part of the Doctor here (this episode is, for the most part, an almost self consciously ‘business as usual’ piece, very much the light episode that comes at the start of a series), but his almost-companion this episode: Lady Christina.

Christina is embarrassing, frankly. There was something more than a little uncomfortable about the bourgeoise cat burglar, from Michelle Ryan’s cloyingly self-satisfied performance (which, in fairness, is exactly the right way to pitch the character) to her dismissive jokes about the other characters, and indeed the still-recent financial crash. One imagines the latter would’ve played somewhat worse in 2009, but even now it’s hardly endearing.

What’s embarrassing, though, isn’t simply that the character is so obnoxiously, so aggressively bourgeoisie – rather, it’s embarrassing to see Doctor Who hold this character up as a perfect foil to the Doctor. More than that: the ideal companion.

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If Planet of the Dead can be said to have any particular throughline – and it is, otherwise, a remarkably slight affair – it’s how the episode parallels the Doctor and Christina.

It’s far from subtle, certainly: she’s a Lady and he’s a Time Lord; they’re both always prepared for any eventuality, both always looking for adventure; he’s a thief just like her, revealing I think for the first time in the new series that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. The point is screamingly obvious – they were made for each other, as the dialogue even declares. It’s hardly unique to this episode; as a way to introduce a new companion, overtly paralleling them with the Doctor is one of the more obvious options to pursue. (Indeed, it’s why I spent most of Series 11 caught between surprise and relief that Chibnall never really drove home the Yaz-is-a-policewoman/the-Doctor-lives-in-a-police-box angle.) The last time Davies introduced a companion as an almost-Doctor figure (he tended to be less fond of it than Moffat), though, it was Martha – a resourceful medical student, a character as clearly from the Doctor’s same sci-fi milieu as Rose was separate from it. There’s something a little similar to Lady Christina – she does, arguably, trade on a lot of adventure fiction staples that recur throughout Doctor Who – but there’s a vast difference between Martha-as-perfect-companion and Christina-as-perfect-companion. (Perhaps particularly considering how obviously attracted the Doctor is to Christina, and how he very much wasn’t to Martha.)

Another version of this story wouldn’t have been quite so positive about Lady Christina; there’s a version of this story, a more interesting one I suspect, that uses the parallels as a way to complicate the Doctor, to question his privilege and to question his actions. It’s the sort of story Tennant’s Doctor might have benefitted from, and surely would’ve fit well within the examination of his hubris and arrogance that forms the bulk of this gap year. (Or, at least, I recall forming the bulk of the gap year; Planet of the Dead, and indeed Waters of Mars, are quite plausibly the episodes I’ve rewatched least.) It also, of course, very much isn’t the sort of story I’d expect Gareth Roberts to write; openly bigoted and openly conservative (and openly Conservative, insofar as that can’t be assumed already), one struggles to imagine him writing an episode that questions the Doctor along those lines. (Davies, for his part, probably would be more inclined too, but he’s much too enamoured with the aesthetic of the rich cat burglar to actually do it – and, I suspect at this point, basically content with having a comparatively throwaway victory lap episode that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.)

No, instead the point is to show that the Doctor, despite meeting the perfect companion, turns her down. It’s a story about how much he’s struggling after losing Donna; it’s about the deliberate refusal for Planet of the Dead to be the first episode of Series 5, turning down the prospect of thirteen episodes with Lady Christina.

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Christina, of course, is the wrong character to tell this story with. It’s difficult not to think it might be considerably more effective with another Lynda-with-a-y type character in Christina’s place, someone closer to the Tracy Flick type envisaged as an alternative to Christina. The version of Planet of the Dead that sees the Doctor reject, you know, Daisy Evans, or a similarly botanically named character, would likely go a long way towards underscoring the actual point of the episode.

Granted, it’s likely just a personal thing – my own general disinclination towards a character like Lady Christina, and the sort of self-critique I’d like to see Doctor Who occasionally offer. (As an aside, though, I’m largely convinced that Michelle Ryan thinks you’re supposed to dislike Christina too; the way she delivers the line about getting people-dust in her hair is markedly different to how Catherine Tate might have read a similar line, part of a wider disinterest in making Christina especially sympathetic.) It’s not difficult to imagine people liking this episode, and liking Lady Christina – if Big Finish is anything to go by, there’s apparently a market for a Lady Christina spin-off, so. Maybe there’s an appeal to the character I just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, though, I’d still maintain that Daisy Evans is the better character for a story like this – if the point is to shut down Tennant’s next series, to deconstruct the conventional opening episode we’ve become so used to, a character more straightforwardly evocative of previous companions is likely the more effective way to demonstrate that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a version of this episode that’s much more obviously structured as such; there’s potential, for example, to introduce Daisy’s version of Jackie or Mickey on the bus alongside her, the life she’s forced to go back to after seeing her first alien planet, her first alien species. That, surely, is an episode that’s much more important to the broader interrogation of the idea of the Doctor alone.

As an episode, this story is altogether less ambitious than the series openers it models itself upon – showy and arrogant, a programme so convinced of its own strengths that it doesn’t actually get around to displaying any of them. Planet of the Dead amounts to little more than a shrug, in the end; if this is the beginning to the end for the Tennant era, it’s also the most obvious indicator that there’s nowhere left to go.

4/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Unicorn and the Wasp

doctor who the unicorn and the wasp gareth roberts agatha christie tenth doctor david tennant donna noble catherine tate fenella woolgar

Can we return to sanity? There are no such things as giant wasps!

So, I had this review structured slightly differently, but it was bothering me, so I performed a bit of a quick cut and paste job. Leaving us, then, with this.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is pretty much the first episode of the new series to just unambiguously and straightforwardly play the whole thing as a comedy. And it works! It is a funny episode. There are lots of good jokes. I was particularly entertained by Colonel Mustard’s double layered flashback, that entertained me.

But I find comedy almost uniquely difficult to write about. A lot of that, for sure, is down to my own – numerous – limitations as a writer, but I’ve never quite been able to review comedy without essentially just descending into putting together a bullet point list of all the funny lines. At that point, it starts to beg the question as to why you don’t just go and watch the original piece, you know? And I’m finding largely the same issue with The Unicorn and the Wasp; accordingly, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to just giving up and writing a fairly simple, one-line piece affirming my enjoyment. “Yep, that was pretty entertaining”.

Nonetheless, though, here we are. And I’m increasingly reminded of my need to reposition these reviews as something a little more intelligent, and not half collected thoughts put together immediately after watching the episode, in a rush so as to not miss a self-imposed deadline. Still, though, I’ve not managed to make the switch this week, so we’ll stick with it, and see how much – in this typically disorganised fashion – I can actually make of The Unicorn and The Wasp.

(I also feel the need to note, incidentally, that Gareth Roberts is absolutely vile. This was not something I said when I wrote about The Shakespeare Code, because it didn’t entirely feel relevant. Now I’m much less concerned with relevance, and feel like it’s worth noting anyway, because he really is quite awful.)

Anyway. What is there to be said about The Unicorn and the Wasp?

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There is probably an interesting line of criticism derived from just how, exactly, Doctor Who tends to engage with artists of history. With Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie and later Van Gogh their enduring appeal is grounded and talked about largely in terms of the fact that their works sold a lot, or continued to sell a lot, essentially forever. It’s easy to argue that there’s something more than a little capitalist about that, and quite uncomfortable as a result – distilling the worth of art down to its monetary value, as opposed to any other intrinsic value it might possess. That said, I don’t think that’s entirely what these stories are going for; more accurately, it’s about how they continue to be consumed. People continue to want them and engage with them and, in the case of Agatha Christie, buy the books. In that sense, it feels decidedly in line with Davies’ more hedonistic embrace of art, because it’s a stand in for continued enjoyment.

But of course, for all that there are lots of people who very much enjoy Agatha Christie novels and will continue to buy them for a billion billion years, I am not actually one of them (so far), because I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie book. No particular reason for it, I just sort of… haven’t.

It’s not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the story, though, which largely treats Christie as a set of symbols and archetypes to engage with – it’s the Agatha Christie story as a genre, more than anything else, and that’s very easy to recognise even if you’re not intimately familiar with the actual stories themselves. A game or two of Cluedo is basically enough to get the joke.

And it’s a good joke, as it goes. We’ve already established it’s funny. Catherine Tate makes it work really, really well. It’s probably a stretch to call it a good episode for Donna, but it’s definitely a great episode for Catherine Tate, one of the first times she’s got to flex that comedy muscle in quite a while.

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The only other thing that jumped out at me, I suppose, is the ending. Since reading The Writer’s Tale, I’ve been watching these episodes largely in light of what that book discusses, and the changes made to The Unicorn and the Waspdo strike me as quite interesting.

So, the original ending to The Unicorn and the Wasp had the Doctor run the Vespiform over in one of those 1920s cars – knocking it into the river, I think, as opposed to leaving a big squashed wasp in the middle of the road. That was filmed, but changed because David Tennant pointed out, rightly, that essentially that was the Doctor committing murder. Which isn’t great, obviously.

Whenever I read that, though, I could never quite remember how the episode itself ended. So it’s interesting to notice that they basically swapped the Doctor murdering the Vespiform for Donna doing it – which doesn’t strike me as much of a solution at all? Perhaps if this had been much earlier in the series, and we’re meant to read it as being a crucial point in her development where she realises aliens are people too, even the ones who don’t really look like people, it might have worked then. But I don’t know. It’s a weirdly misjudged moment – especially considering that, at one stage, they’d planned to have the body of the vicar float up to the surface, like some kind of reminder that the Vespiform had spent all those years living as a person anyway.

It’s the one weird moment in an episode that had, for the most part, always controlled its tone quite well. This feels decidedly different from all the comedy murders we’ve seen so far – it’s outside the joke of the genre, after all, and it’s just decidedly uncomfortable.

I don’t know. I suspect this was a fairly substanceless review, even by the standards of these fairly weak posts. I’d try and make it into a commentary on a substanceless episode, but that’s perhaps unfair. I don’t know. It didn’t inspire a great deal of thought in me. It was fine. A fine episode. You know. I just sorta struggled to bring myself to care about this one, though I did basically like it.

6/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Shakespeare Code

doctor who review the shakespeare code title sequence dean lennox kelly gareth roberts charles palmer globe carrionites

Stand on this stage, say the right words with the right emphasis at the right time. Oh, you can make men weep, or cry with joy.

In many respects this is an episode that’s quite well tailored to my interests – if not aged 8, certainly now, when I’ve got into literature a bit more. (Or, more accurately, studied it in depth a bit more.)

Certainly, the basic ideas are all ones that I quite like; language shaping and influencing reality is a great concept, particularly when tied into Shakespeare and the obviously iconic witches. In some respects, this central conceit just about writes itself. It’s undeniably effective; while a lot of details are sketched in shorthand, they can afford to be, because a lot of the imagery it’s trading on is so iconic. There’s a sense of atmosphere that’s created easily and conveyed effectively, carrying across the story and defining its tone quite well. I’d have liked it more, admittedly, if it had gone a little deeper on the Shakespearean aspects though; while what we got what was fun, it was also in some respects just superficial iconography. Maybe some deeper thematic allusions, or writing the entire episode in iambic pentameter (though I freely acknowledge that’s an absolutely nonsensical demand to make).

Still, though, this idea very much works within the conceit of Doctor Who – it’s the power of stories. (In that regard, it might be more in line with the thematic interests of the Moffat era, really, with his focus on story and memory, but I’m getting ahead of myself there.) It’s great to see the show embracing this, but again, it’s something I’d have hoped to see explore in more detail – it’s a concept with so much potential, you can really dive into this. (One day I’ll bring the Carrionites back, don’t worry.)

This feeds into my largest quibble, admittedly: the “expelliarmus” line. It’s nice in theory, but I am inclined to question the structure of it from a dramatic point of view – surely the solution should grow from Shakespeare, using a word he invented? Admittedly, something like “assassination” or “zany” or “skim milk” does lack the potency of “expelliarmus”, but then perhaps it shouldn’t have been structured in that way at all? I suppose it casts JK Rowling and Harry Potter in the same tradition of great literature, and would probably enthuse children towards Shakespeare by comparing them, but something about it still feels a little bit off.

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Haunting the narrative, though, is the story of Rose. She’s still being set up as this ideal to compare Martha against (even as Martha repeatedly proves her competency, again continuing this idea that she’s the model companion) and it… well, it’s not great.

Most obviously, when putting Rose on a pedestal, it warps everything else around her. You can understand this in the general terms – Rose was the story of Doctor Who in those first two years – but I can’t help but feel like it’s been overdone here. Arguably from a story perspective, it makes sense, because the Doctor would miss her, but it’s being done too overtly, too openly. This should really be relegated to subtext – after all, we’ve seen the Doctor grieve for Rose in The Runaway Bride, and this is some time after that for the Doctor, but crucially also for the audience. It could simply be that I’m more familiar with the concept and I’m willing to accept companion changes intuitively, and maybe it was different for audiences then, but having been watching the series in ‘real time’, I’m not sat here missing Rose. I liked Rose a lot, sure, but I don’t actively miss her. In turn, then, I’m inclined to question just how necessary this all was.

Necessary or not, it’s a problem – specifically, it’s a problem for Martha. I’m reminded of a bit in The Writer’s Tale (my bible) where Russell T Davies is a bit panicky about how The Daily Mail or someone took quotes out of context to make it seem like he said Martha would always be second best to Rose. Which is an understandable concern, but for the fact that they do present Martha as a second best to Rose. Overtly so, in fact – yes, you can argue that it’s just the Doctor who believes that, and it’s part of his character arc for the season, but insofar as we consider the Doctor an authority over the narrative (and we must, since he’s now transitioning to the main character in a way he wasn’t before when Rose was around) that in turn means we’re inclined to treat Martha that way too.

Which is quite unfortunate, to say the least. Particularly so since we’re sticking with the idea of Martha being in love with the Doctor – again, it’s a bit of a problem. There’s no reason why it couldn’t work if it was built to more gradually (this is, after all, leading straight from Smith and Jones, so Martha’s only known the Doctor for about a day!) but here it feels far too quick. It’d be enough of an issue on its own terms, really, but alongside the fact that the Doctor is treating Martha as second best? It’s not great.

Indeed, the whole thing really undercuts her character, taking the wind out of her sails completely. Admittedly one gets the sense that this is less a specific failing of The Shakespeare Code and more that Martha is just being poorly served by the overarching narrative of the series, but nonetheless, it’s difficult to see how this is appropriate.

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Another interesting aspect of this episode – albeit a fairly fleeting one – is how it treats race. Martha is, after all, Doctor Who’s first non-white main televised companion (various caveats withstanding, of course) so this is an angle that’s worth some exploration, right?

Well, no. The episode more or less sidesteps it completely; while Martha does question it, the Doctor dismisses her concerns with one of the most fascinating and breath-taking displays of privilege the character has ever uttered. (More on which shortly.)

I’m inclined to say, almost, that this is probably the best way to handle it in an episode where you’re not going to make a thing of it. But then that does beg the question – why wouldn’t you make something of it? It’s not that it can’t be handled deftly or appropriately (not to spoil things too much, but this is an idea they return to later in the series) and it certainly throws up some interesting potential – Martha is going to have a fundamentally different experience with time travel than Rose would, so why not depict that? I suppose the decision was to acknowledge it but not dwell upon it, which – while I can understand that – I do question somewhat.

Far more interesting, though, is what the Doctor said:

Just walk about like you own the place, it’s what I always do.”

That’s an absolutely fascinating quote, in terms of how it highlights just how different his perception of events is. (Really, it’s sort of awful, and the Doctor should absolutely have made more of an effort to resolve Martha’s concerns rather than dismiss them, but that’s another issue again.)

In turn, though, it’s also the one line in the entirety of Doctor Who that so fundamentally encapsulates why I’d love to see a female Doctor, or a non-white Doctor. A huge part of Doctor Who is throwing the character up against these power structures, seeing the character backed up against a wall, etc – a female Doctor offers an entirely new perspective on every aspect of the series that we take for granted. It wouldn’t change the dynamic, per se, but it’d filter it through an entirely new lens, offering a huge amount more potential – isn’t that exciting?

Not that the above has a huge amount to do with The Shakespeare Code, admittedly. But still. It’s a perfectly entertaining episode – it’s very funny, and I suspect I enjoyed it a lot more this go around than I would have last time, on account of actually understanding more of the Shakespeare references.

And yet the episode is hobbled somewhat – both by its treatment of Martha, and oddly by its treatment of Shakespeare, who can’t quite be important enough within his own story to actually save the day. (Contrast this with Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, where the resolution did revolve around him.)

So, it’s an imperfect but enjoyable second episode. It’s not a problem, because in the end, this always happens – after all, the course of Doctor Who never did run smooth…

7/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Caretaker

doctor who the caretaker review gareth roberts steven moffat paul murphy skovox blitzer peter capaldi jenna coleman samuel anderson

You’ve explained me to him. You haven’t explained him to me.

One of the things I always love about Doctor Who is the juxtaposition of the mundane and the ordinary. I know, so original! I imagine that just about every person commenting on Doctor Who ever has brought that up. In fact, I am fairly certain that I learnt the word “juxtaposition” from a Doctor Who documentary.

But, of course, the reason why people always mention this is because it’s true. It’s one of the things Doctor Who does best! And it’s never more apparent than in episodes set in schools. Personally, I always find it stranger to see the characters in a school rather than just in contemporary Earth, but I suppose that’s because I spend quite a lot of time in school still. Perhaps one day the Doctor in an office block will be the most disconcerting thing ever.

I digress, however. Review time. So, as per the usual, starting with the good. And there’s a lot of it!

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It’s a wonderful concept, an absolutely fantastic idea. There’s been similar episodes before, on the fringes of the topic, like School Reunion or The Lodger, but there’s still a remarkable amount of mileage in the idea. Coupled with the fact that the school is also Clara’s workplace adds another dimension to it again. The focus on Clara here was nice, especially because it did, once again, develop her character some more. They’ve really stepped things up with regards to Clara this time around, and it’s nice to see the possibilities for the character.

As is probably to be expected with Gareth Roberts writing, it’s a really funny episode. Just, throughout, there’s lots of brilliant jokes. The Jane Austen exchange and the Doctor whistling We Don’t Need No Education were both quite memorable, but the obvious best was the one surrounding the similarities between Adrian the teacher and the Eleventh Doctor. It was almost quite sad really, but also very, very funny.

Speaking of the Doctor, Peter Capaldi did really well again here. That must be so boring to read over and over in a review, mustn’t it? It’s never boring to watch, certainly. (I know it’s a strange thing to pick out, actually, but I really liked his intonation at the start, when talking about sinister puddles. It just… I’m not quite sure I could put my finger on it really, but it felt very distinctively Twelfth Doctor-y, as opposed to a line any Doctor could say.)

The strange thing to note, however, is that one of the best exchanges of the episode also highlights the biggest problem.

The exchange I refer to is the one which takes place in the TARDIS between the Doctor and Danny, with regards to the aristocracy and soldiers vs officers. It’s really well written, and it’s remarkably well acted, particularly by Samuel Anderson. It’s also a relatively different take on the Doctor vs Boyfriend conflict we’ve had over the years, because here the cause of the conflict isn’t (wholly, anyway) to do with Clara, but the Doctor’s own prejudice against soldiers.

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Except… I mean, lets just come right out and say it. This is a plot device. It’s totally and completely contrived, and simply a reason to engender conflict. Arguably an unnecessary conflict really – if you want to do something new, which this is meant to be, why not have the Doctor and the Boyfriend take an instant shine to one another, and be friends from the start?

(This basically out of thin air hatred of soldiers was almost, actually, handled quite well in Into the Dalek, where the implication was that the Doctor disliked soldiers because the way the power their weapons gave them could be a corruptive influence. That could be tied into the aristocracy idea – only certain people can handle power, in his opinion? – or a reflection on the Doctor’s past – he believed he had that power because of his Time Lord heritage, which corrupted him, which is why he made those mistakes he referred to in Deep Breath. It’s also somewhat topical, actually, given the nature of events around the world currently.)

Largely, you can ignore this. Certainly, it bothered me more on first viewing; by the time of the rewatch, I was more accepting of it, and I could see the merits of the rest of the episode. And, hey, maybe the disdain for soldiers will receive some more development soon.

Another good episode, yes, but one affected by a relatively large flaw. Thankfully though, unlike Listen, this flaw doesn’t overpower the rest of the episode. 7/10.

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Doctor Who: The Next Showrunner?

doctor who steven moffat action figures next showrunner leaving replace chris chibnall mark gatiss neil cross toby whithouse neil gaiman russell t davies

It seems that the general consensus of Doctor Who fans is that Steven Moffat has had his day. Obviously, this isn’t the case for everyone – there’s still some who’ll sing his praises. Other’s are vehemently against his staying even a year longer. Some just think it’s time for a breath of fresh air.

(Personally, I’m somewhat ambivalent – whilst some of Moffat’s recent work has faltered, there’s generally a high standard throughout)

Even so, I believe he’s said in interviews that he doesn’t see himself staying any longer than 2016 at the most – which, really, isn’t that far away now. Just 2 more seasons, give or take.

Either way, he’ll be going eventually. The question that’s asked, then, is… Who next?

The likely candidate is Mark Gatiss, not least because of his close partnership with Moffat. He’s got a fair bit of experience in different production roles – producer, director, writer, and actor, meaning he’d certainly be able to understand all the different aspects of the roles. He’s also, obviously, a big fan of Doctor Who, and has a lot of experience as a writer – of all the current team, he’s probably the most experienced as a Who writer.

Other candidates are few and far between really, perhaps because Moffat is using the same writers over and over again – Neil Gaiman and Chris Chibnall would likely be too busy, for example, and Toby Whithouse has perhaps not written enough Doctor Who yet…

Personally, I think Gatiss would be a great choice. In my opinion, An Adventure in Space and Time is the best piece of writing ever to have gone out under the Doctor Who name – if his episodes as showrunner were even half that standard, it’d be a rather impressive run.

His would also be quite a different direction to Moffat’s and RTD’s, which I think would be good – life depends upon change and renewal, after all.

What I think might be interesting would be a sharing of the role, like how Gatiss and Moffat run Sherlock. That is, perhaps, what leads to the overall quality increase there, in comparison to the pair’s Doctor Who work.

I doubt it’d be Neil Cross. Whilst he might have enough traction to return as a writer, I say he’d be far, far too divisive to be a legitimate choice to take over. The choice would, I assume, need to be approved by some BBC bosses somewhere – bosses who would presumably have seen quite how divisive his episodes were, and not want to take such a risk.

Nick Briggs is a name that’s thrown around a fair bit, but I sort of doubt it’d be him. Whilst he’s probably one of the best suited to the job, given his work at Big Finish, he’s perhaps not experienced enough in terms of TV writing?

What’s also interesting to note is that, way back in… 2003 it would have been, when Mark Gatiss had a pitch in the running to bring back Doctor Who, it was a collaborative pitch with Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman – perhaps the three of them, or Gatiss and Whithouse working together, would be the right choice?

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