Goodbye Moffat, Hello Chibnall: What Does This Mean For ‘Doctor Who’?

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Over the weekend the website for the Radio Times – Britain’s equivalent to the TV Guide – exclusively announced that current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat would be leaving the show after its 10th season, and revealed that his successor would be Broadchurch / Gracepoint creator Chris Chibnall. They also revealed that season 10 would be airing in the Spring of 2017, meaning we’ll be waiting slightly over a year for Peter Capaldi’s third full season to begin – though we are still getting the prerequisite Christmas special beforehand.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start at the beginning.

Firstly, we’ve all known that Moffat’s departure was on the cards. In an interview with Radio Times back in December he stated that he thought that “The Husbands of River Song” – 2015’s Christmas special – might be the last thing he wrote for the show. He’s also made comments in the past about being nearer the end of his tenure than the beginning, so the announcement isn’t such a surprise.

It is, however, a significant shock. 2015 saw the best full season of the show since Matt Smith’s debut in 2010, which was also Moffat’s first as showrunner. The last two years of the show have been almost entirely fantastic (“In the Forest of the Night” and “Sleep No More” notwithstanding) and have given us some of the best stories in the show’s history, from the phenomenal “The Pandorica Opens”/ “The Big Bang” to “The Zygon Invasion”/ “The Zygon Inversion”. It also gave us “The Day of the Doctor”, which in this writer’s opinion may actually be the single greatest Doctor Who story ever committed to film.

Of course, it’s also given us a handful duds. “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is without a doubt the most disappointing thing Moffat himself as ever written, while season 7’s “The Rings of Akhaten” actually manages to make an alien festival of song seem irredeemably boring, giving us quite possibly the worst story since the show returned from the dead in 2005.

But there’s no denying that Moffat’s approach to the show works. Russell T Davies, the previous showrunner and the man hand-chosen to bring Doctor Who kicking and screaming into the 21st century, wrote the show as a soap opera, with family drama at the forefront. Moffat’s style veers more towards the sitcom. Which makes sense, given the two writer’s backgrounds in soap and comedy respectively.

Neither approach is wrong, though – there’s really no wrong way to make Doctor Who, though the 1996 TV movie comes dangerously close – and both Davies and Moffat have a talent for using their respective styles to bringing emotions to the forefront.

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So what of the new guy? Chris Chibnall – or “good old Chibbers” as Davies referred to him in his 2010 tell-some book The Writer’s Tale – is the creator of Broadchurch, which is one of the most popular dramas in the UK right now, but prior to that he was the showrunner for the first two seasons of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. This is a mixed bag, as his shepherding gave us brilliant episodes such as “Countrycide” and “Ghost Machine”. On the flip side, it also resulted in guff like “From Out The Rain” and the Chibnall-penned “Cyberwoman”, a story which holds the distinction of being the single worst story across the entire Who canon. Oops.

He’s written for Doctor Who as well, having given us “42”, “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Planet of Three”. Nothing particularly dire, though nothing inspired, either. Certainly nothing of the level of Steven Moffat’s Hugo Award winning stories from the Russell T Davies era that earned him the coveted showrunner spot in the first place.

So what does this mean for the show? Some fans seem to think that this change will see a return to the goofy, brightly-colored and occasionally cartoonish tone of the Davies era. Realistically, though, we can’t really say what Chibnall’s era of the show will be like, mostly because his stories have been so… unremarkable. Broadchurch unfortunately doesn’t give us much to work with, either, as it’s a much more cynical and bleak show than Doctor Who has ever been.

If his work on Torchwood is anything to go by, though, we may be in for muddy waters ahead. Granted, his time as Torchwood showrunner was almost a decade ago now, and a lot can change in that time, but still. My default setting during any changeover like this is cautious optimism, but I’m finding it difficult to dredge up any enthusiasm.

This probably means that season 10 will also be Capaldi’s last as the Doctor. My gut’s telling me that he’ll probably step down to give Chibnall a clean slate. This means that the new companion we get in 2017 will either carry over to Chibnall’s era, or will only be around for the one season. If Chibnall is going to cast a new Doctor, now would be the perfect time to bring in a woman. It’d be a fitting way to end Moffat’s legacy – between Missy, the General, and establishing Clara as essentially being a Doctor in her own right, no one has done more work to set the stage for a a female Doctor than he has.

I’ll end on a positive note: Doctor Who has always been a show about change. From the moment schoolteachers Ian and Barbara step into a police box to find it’s actually a time machine, bigger on the inside, the show has stood upon a foundation of renewal, of evolution and revolution. Doctors, companions, showrunners, they all come and go. It’s one of the reasons the show has endured for over half a century. While I’m sad to see Moffat go and disappointed by the choice of successor, the beauty of this show is that if there’s a part of it that you don’t like you typically don’t have to wait long for things to shift.

Chibnall’s era might be a new golden age for the show. Or it could be the biggest disappointment of its five-decade run. Time will tell. It always does.

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