‘Who’ could have been?

What if… Another Doctor makes the headlines in a different 2021?

July 2021. Foreign news dominates the UK headlines. The first female Labour prime minister meets fellow EU leaders for crisis talks; protests continue in Washington after President Trump’s arrest; and China responds to the outbreak of a new respiratory disease by introducing something called a ‘lockdown’.

UK news is dominated by two entertainment stories. Former MP, Boris Johnson, shocks the nation when he’s unmasked as ‘Tea Tray’ on ITV’s The Masked Singer. Over on the BBC, the big news is Maxine Peake’s announcement that she will be leaving Doctor Who, along with showrunner, Charlie Brooker.

Peake’s tenure as the Time lord has been controversial. Some fans were reluctant to accept a female Doctor initially, although most, if not all, were won over by her portrayal – described by one critic as “combining Hartnell’s irascibility with the dry wit of (Colin) Baker.” Peake’s political views also led to questions in parliament – she was dubbed ‘the Red Doctor’ by one tabloid. Others criticised the series for being too dark for younger viewers under Peake and Brooker. Despite the criticism, the first female Doctor’s emerald Nehru jacket, matching slacks and pixie cut quickly became a common sight at fan conventions.

Longstanding fans also made their voices heard about the show’s new direction and other casting changes. Most liked Steve Pemberton’s suave and charming portrayal of The Master, with some making favourable comparisons with the character’s first incarnation, played by Roger Delgado. But Brooker’s decision to bring back the character of The Valeyard and the story arc that went with it was controversial – although Francis De La Tour’s casting was popular.

Peake’s companions over three series also divided fans; most warmed to clumsy retired policeman, Alex, played by Lenny Henry, and wide-eyed science student, Anita, played by a then-unknown Ambika Mod. But Jack Whitehall’s small-time crook, Charlie, often played for broad laughs it seemed, was not mourned by many when he was exterminated in a season finale.

Former showrunner, Russell T Davies, is rumoured to be stepping into Charlie Brooker’s shoes for the next series, starting in 2023, with Years and Years star, T’Nia Miller, the bookies favourite to be the next occupant of the Tardis…

None of this happened, of course, and we all had to live through a very different 2021. But writing this now makes me wonder whether whoever took on the mantle of the first female Doctor, and whoever took over helming Doctor Who, after two successful showrunners, would inevitably become a target for critics and some fans. With a big show, big changes will inevitably be divisive.

Sexism was undoubtedly behind some of the early criticism of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. When the news of Jodie’s appointment was announced, I remember speaking to a balding and bearded Whovian of a certain age in a pub. I was expecting a red-faced attack from a fan who’d followed the show since the 1970s. Looking me in the eye, he took a slurp of lager and a drag on his cigarette. “The Doctor’s a bloody alien,” he grumbled, “and could regenerate as a goldfish if they wanted to! As long as she’s good, that’s all that matters.”

Firmly put in my place regarding my own prejudices, I nodded.

This particular Whovian passed away before Jodie’s first episode was broadcast, but I think he would have defended her against the show’s most strident critics. But I wonder if, like me, he would have also thought that Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who was not without problems.

The quality of writing and overall plotting has been a popular target for critics, but with a show like Doctor Who this criticism can only ever be subjective. The main problem I had was about time, or rather time on screen: I never thought we saw enough of Jodie’s Doctor.

Too many companions initially, and some that didn’t quite work, plus too much time spent on giving them, and other supporting characters depth and backstory, led to some episodes where the Doctor appeared to be a guest star in her own show. Focusing on companions and supporting characters also had an impact on pace – often slowing down the action, leaving the attention of this viewer drifting.

Appropriate pace is critical for any show, and that’s not to say Doctor Who stories must always gallop along corridors at breakneck speed – they just need to be constructed in a way that maintains interest.

In a series like Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch, with a single story played out in roughly the same setting over eight fifty-minute episodes, there was space and time to focus on a range of characters and allow the action to unfold at a particular pace. But what works in a serious crime drama does not always work with the episodic nature of a series like Doctor Who.

It’s perhaps revealing that the most successful season of Jodie’s tenure was probably her last full one. With companions reduced to a more manageable two, and great interplay between Mandip Gill’s brilliant Yasmin Khan and John Bishop’s surprisingly good ‘Dan’, we got to see more of Jodie’s Doctor at last. Bright and energetic, she reminded me of a more optimistic version of Peter Davison’s Doctor at times, and it would have been fascinating to see what Jodie might have done with her character under a new showrunner.

The future for the series is uncertain, despite the return of Russell T Davies to helm the show. Even the biggest TV shows don’t last forever. To paraphrase Christopher Eccleston, will Russell regret bathing in the same river twice? Some fans welcoming Davies’ return may have forgotten that not every story and idea of his worked. But it’s easy to see why the BBC hired him again. With a prized TV asset, a safe and previously successful pair of hands is always going to look inviting.

Then again, wouldn’t it be exciting to give the showrunner role to someone new with an established sci-fi pedigree? Like Babylon 5 creator, J. Michael Straczynski perhaps, who did express an interest in the show when Chris Chibnall announced he was leaving. It would be interesting to see what an American could do with a British TV icon, but it would also be a risk and one the BBC might not be keen to take.

But what do I know? Not much some will say, and I’m sure there will be many fans out there who’ll disagree with everything I’ve said about the last three seasons of Doctor Who. But maybe we can agree on one thing and take a fantastical trip to an alternate 2021. Can’t you see Maxine Peake saving the day and then giving a disgruntled Cyber Leader a thorough dressing down?

I almost think I can.

❉ Den Cartlidge is a writer of submissions rarely accepted. After two failed novels, he’s currently working on a memoir.

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