Over the last half-decade or so of Doctor Who-watching I’ve been slowly and reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the kinds of stories the show wants to tell are not the kinds of stories I’m necessarily interested in watching. (A case in point: I am apparently the only person in the world to have genuinely adored spin-off series Class, which was cancelled after one season.) Ever since Steven Moffat took up the reins as showrunner in 2010, the show’s tone has shifted from the monster-of-the-week, metaphor-driven storytelling of the Russell T. Davies era to something much more frenetic and self-referential: to me it often felt like each episode was stuffed with enough ideas to power a series, with none of them getting the breathing space they deserved. Some of Chris Chibnall’s early episodes for Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker seemed to indicate that a reversal of that trend might be on the cards: with their focus on characterisation, sparing use of speculative concepts and unity of place, “The Tsuranga Condundrum” and “Demons of the Punjab” were some of my favourite Doctor Who stories of recent years. But Chibnall’s second series returned, unfortunately, to form: its opening story Spyfall was packed with competing ideas and poorly paced, and later episodes turned increasingly inward to focus on Whovian lore – at the expense of atmosphere and coherent narrative.
So, when the BBC announced that, for the first time since 1986, we’d be getting an entire Doctor Who series dedicated to a single story, I was optimistic. Perhaps now all those ideas would be given space to breathe, to generate atmosphere and resonance; perhaps, with the survival of the universe at stake, we’d get some real poetic grandeur going.
The series’ premise is appropriately dramatic: a sort of cosmic storm called the Flux is sweeping across the universe, destroying everything in its path. Meanwhile, a pair of powerful beings named Swarm and Azure are attacking the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time, presumably not for philanthropic reasons; a Victorian industrialist frantically digs a network of tunnels beneath Liverpool, muttering dire prophecies; and a pair of lovers travel the universe in an attempt to find each other.
There’s some brilliant material here. Add the Doctor and her companions, wind the story’s mechanism up, and let it run: that’s all Chibnall and the writing team needed to do. But they seemingly can’t resist the urge to add extra bells and whistles in: more navel-gazing about the Doctor’s parentage and history; a Sontaran invasion; some timey-wimey shenanigans courtesy of the Weeping Angels. Once again, it’s all too overstuffed; and inevitably, with so much going on, some of the payoffs are fluffed. What happens to Peggy, the child who lies at the centre of the plot of the fourth episode, Village of the Angels, and then is never seen again? Why do the Weeping Angels need to transform the Doctor into one of them to take her to her mother? What’s the deal with the Temple of Atropos?
There are high points, of course, in which it’s possible to detect what Chibnall’s Who might feel like if it was paced a little more sedately: Vinder and Bel, the star-crossed lovers; the make-up and costuming on Swarm and Azure; the appearance of Mary Seacole in the Crimea (one of a series of marginalised people from history who have made their way into the Thirteenth Doctor’s story). But overall, it’s hard to detect much thematic coherence beyond “many apocalyptic things are happening and it is Very Bad”.
Have I learned my lesson vis-a-vis placing my faith in the hands of Doctor Who writers? Of course not. Hope springs eternal, and Russell T. Davies is taking back the reins. Perhaps we’ll see monsters of the week again yet.