Russell T Davies’ new series of the iconic show stars Rwandan-Scottish star Ncuti Gatwa as the 15th incarnation of the Doctor.
“Doctor Who is back!” read the press release from BBC Studios, after David Tennant’s 14th Doctor and Catherine Tate’s enduringly beloved Donna Noble exploded back onto television screens across the country (and worldwide, thanks to big Disney bucks) just before Christmas. It was a perfectly appropriate welcome back; on the face of it, an innocuous statement, yet primed to spark infighting amongst the mountain of fans who either hated or loved the tenure of departed showrunner Chris Chibnall and his 13th Doctor, acted brilliantly by Jodie Whittaker.
The reality is, viewing numbers, audience approval, and relative coherence of the script all do indicate that Doctor Who has returned in a big way, perhaps aiming towards the heady heights of showrunner Russell T Davies’ all-conquering first spell in the big chair. But Doctor Who is always back. It’s a show about returning, about enduring. “We’re all different people, all throughout our lives,” said Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor on the verge of regeneration. “And that’s okay, you have to keep moving forward, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” The Doctor dying and being reborn is just a metaphor for ageing.
As I write this, it is the eighth anniversary of maybe my favourite Doctor Who story ever told, Heaven Sent. I figure there’s no better place to start. Heaven Sent is not conventional Doctor Who—there are no Daleks, no companions, no Welsh quarries pretending to be alien planets, but to me the point of Doctor Who’s scattergun approach to episode style (and quality) is that all its best episodes are out of the blue. No one expected Heaven Sent to be what it was. 45 minutes of Scotland’s own Peter Capaldi acting out of his mind, his acerbic and brilliant 12th Doctor dancing through a personal torture chamber, a huge contraption in the shape of a castle that on the face of it is a metaphor for grief (The Doctor has just lost his closest friend Clara.) And yet I think there is more to Heaven Sent than the genius of one man punching a diamond wall for billions of years, refusing to do anything other than battle through the pain. I think Heaven Sent is a metaphor for Doctor Who, a ceaseless reordering of puzzle after puzzle, with no end in sight, a fictional character desperately trying to solve real and terrible things like the death of a loved one.
The Star Beast was not transcendental brilliance. It was camp and often outright stupid, at its best when cracking jokes or piggybacking on the enduring Tate/Tennant chemistry. It is also a remarkable test of faith by Russell T Davies to tell a transgender story, one that explicitly refers to the Doctor (and his metacrisis offspring) as possessing some kind of non-binary superpowers, powered by big Disney bucks. I can commend it endlessly for this, even if the “preferred pronoun” mentions are awfully stilted, even if it does absolutely read like a middle-aged man is writing while still not caught up on the lingo.
But this story is for the common denominator, the average family that Doctor Who has always had to contend with. You’re trying to scare them, and enlighten them, and make them laugh, but you can only push the boat so far. Steven Moffat took the show to the limit conceptually, and Chris Chibnall tested plenty of viewers’ patience with his all-secrets, minimal-character writing approach. And then there’s the show’s complicated history with tinfoil sets and silly green monsters. The gloriously goofy Wrath Warriors, brought to life from the 1980s Tom Baker comic story this episode is (loosely) based on, encapsulate the exact sort of Doctor Who nonsense that I love, but am perpetually cautious about. Goofy monsters can make for a fantastic story, and they often do, but in an era of increasingly sanitised superhero narratives, a distinctly ordinary hero and these distinctly stupid baddies are a difficult sell for audiences.
It remains to be seen whether Davies can inspire a new era of Who-mania. He’ll probably give the Daleks another runabout, and the combination of Tennant and the brilliant Ncuti Gatwa to follow him essentially covers every possible kind of Doctor Who fan, new and old. Davies is even pushing for a Marvel-style multiverse branding with the Whoniverse gimmick on iPlayer and plenty of credible spin-off rumours. I just don’t want the Doctor Who I love to be lost. Keep giving us silly green men. I don’t want to limit the show, but there is such a specific image of what the general audience wants now that risk has become near-impossible in the age of the streaming service. Doctor Who is formatted specifically to challenge people from within their frame of reference. A kindhearted transgender narrative and low-level lore intrigue are exactly on the money. But the last few years have been all-too shaky for my liking. Chibnall did not know if the show would survive beyond him. I think that by sticking to the enduring principles of Doctor Who—ironically, that it must never stand still or capitulate to slicker, cooler sci-fi—audiences will start to care again. And then Doctor Who will really be back.