Doesn’t time fly when you don’t have all the answers?
I am, I think, finally starting to understand Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who.
That’s been a point of contention for a little while now, something I’ve spoken about in my review of each part of Spyfall; there’s been, to my mind, a frustrating almost-anonymity to Chibnall’s Doctor Who work, leaving a lot of it feeling like a weak, Davies-era tribute act. I’ve never entirely understood what exactly drives Chibnall, what he thinks Doctor Who is for, what he loves about it. “Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who” has never felt as coherent a concept as “Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” – much as the latter is often misunderstood, there’s an obvious set of easy to appreciate personal idiosyncrasies that the former very much lacks.
But! I recently read quite an interesting interview with Chibnall (in a magazine, otherwise I’d link it) which I think sheds some light on it all. He described series 12, in contrast to series 11, as “a journey deeper into Doctor Who” – where series 11 was about setting the stage, this is Chibnall finally getting towards doing what he actually wants to do with the series.
Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Granted, I’m inclined to question just how well series 11 functions as an introduction to how good Doctor Who can be – given that it, uh, was rarely as good as Doctor Who could be – and I’m more than a little suspicious of how in tune his populist instincts actually are, but it makes sense. Series 11, in that sense, almost starts to look like Chibnall’s version of series 10 – not quite treading water, exactly, but a prologue inspired by a popular predecessor in the same way that was an epilogue. Series 12 is what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who should be – as he put it in the interview, “all the treats of the Doctor Who universe and then some”. That, immediately, is much more interesting to me than the (deliberately) simpler, less overtly authored series 11.
Granted, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this vision – it’s perhaps a little too rooted in established canon and continuity call-backs, even for me – and, more to the point, I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going. Jo Martin’s Doctor is fascinating, though, and introducing her character feels like the most ambitious the show has been since… well, I suppose since casting Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in a long time, to me at least, the series feels genuinely quite compelling – and that’s a pretty nice feeling, actually.
Which isn’t to say, though, that it’s necessarily actually any good. Honestly, there’s a case to be made that Fugitive of the Judoon is scarcely an episode at all – just an hour of set-up, moving the pieces around the chess board so that they’re ready for (presumably) the finale.
So, it’s probably worth discussing Jack for a moment. On a production level, it’s more or less inevitable that the character would end up returning – he’s the most easily revisited Davies-era character, for one thing, and certainly one of the most popular (like, I’d love to see Martha back – the only other character you could bring back without having to tie yourself in knots to explain how they’ve returned – but I can’t imagine many people are really clamouring for that). Even setting aside the Davies-era nostalgia, though, Jack was always going to return because John Barrowman is something of a household name. In 2005, he was a theatre actor, with a couple of small film roles; now, he’s been on I’m a Celebrity, he’s a judge on Dancing on Ice, he’s hosted game shows and talent contests and he’s a talk show regular. John Barrowman is, if you like, Bradley Walsh after the watershed – of course he was going to return in Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And, you know, John Barrowman aside, I do basically like Captain Jack, as indeed I like, well, everything from Doctor Who when I was 10. Yes, it’s pretty much entirely nostalgia, but it just about worked for me (even if, structurally, it was a bit of a mess).
What was interesting, though, is how much his sheer force of personality – for better or for worse – nearly entirely overshadowed the other companions. There’s something fundamentally really, really strange about Yaz sharing screentime with Jack – the difference between caricature and character writ large in a Bristol Cathedral dressed as a spaceship. Yaz, of course, was already poorly served by this episode, which was already especially egregious given it was the alien space police episode, but Jack’s return threw it into even sharper relief.
Granted, I don’t actually think Jack was especially well-served by Chibnall’s writing either – often feeling more like a memory of the character’s quirks, and too reliant on technobabble that was never Barrowman’s strong suit anyway – and structurally, his involvement in the episode was a mess. (You couldn’t have given the three companions something to do within this – helping Jack somehow, rather than just watching?) But it highlights, I think, the limits to Chibnall’s skill, even now, as we’re starting to get a better understanding of just where he wants to direct that skill.
On the plus side, though, Jodie Whittaker had one of her best weeks yet. So that was nice.
As I noted last week, Whittaker has always done best in the role when she’s had to play against a strong guest actor; the reason, I think, is that it draws out her otherwise fairly passive take on the character. Pushed to the margins, she’s forced to try and reassert herself over the narrative – so in that sense, pairing her with another Doctor is sublime. Here, the challenge to her place as lead is, by necessity, much stronger that it ever is with Tesla or King James – because Jo Martin, and Jo Martin’s Doctor, offer a very different vision of what the programme could be. It’s not a huge surprise that there were people left sort of wishing the series stayed with Martin at the end – that means it’s working!
(Although, of course, I suspect the two Doctors will eventually find themselves a little more closely aligned by the end. It’s surely not a coincidence, after all, that the Ruth Doctor evokes Grace – who was very consciously, explicitly paralleled with the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.)
In places, yes, I do still wish Jodie Whittaker was being given more to do. She’s plainly capable of so much, and the show is often so close to giving her things to do – that confrontation with the companions at end, where she brushes them off and insists they don’t know her, has a bitterness and an edge to it that’s almost entirely unlike anything she’s got to do so far. That’s brilliant! I’d love to see more of that! But it was resolved, so, so quickly, it didn’t really go anyway. A shame.
At the end of my review of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – an episode that, I think, is actually probably better than Fugitive of the Judoon – I commented that it’s perhaps not a good thing that it was the best Doctor Who could do. This week, though, I welcome the ambition on display – even if it doesn’t always add up to much, it feels like Doctor Who has regained a certain sense of momentum. I’m really, really glad of that.