The world of Doctor Who has some big news! Russell T Davies, who brought Doctor Who back to television in 2005 and served as showrunner during Christopher Eccleston’s time as the Ninth Doctor as well as David Tennant’s tenure as the Tenth Doctor, will be returning to helm the show once more. On July 29th it was announced Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall – having completed their “‘three series and out’ pact” – would be “handing back the TARDIS keys” after Series Thirteen (a six-part event serial) this fall and a trio of event specials through 2022, ending with a feature length special as part of the BBC’s Centenary Celebrations. Often, a hallowed air surrounds discussions of Russell T Davies time as Doctor Who showrunner amongst fans (with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor being the most widely favored of the modern Doctors) so people have understandably been freaking out all day. Well I’ve got thoughts and feelings, too! So let’s chat about the potential future of Doctor Who shall we?
(Also, quick sidenote, the photo credit for this post’s featured image goes to Titan Comics as the Thirteenth, Tenth, and Ninth Doctor art above are all from covers of their Doctor Who comics. A post’s in the works about reading Doctor Who novels and comics but I love the art so I figured I’d use it here.)
Since Whittaker and Chibnall said their time on Doctor Who was over, people have been speculating about who the next potential Doctor and showrunner could be. Heck, people were speculating about that before they announced their departure. And some “fans” who’ve never been able to accept a female Doctor, have been speculating about it since Jodie Whittaker was first announced as the Thirteenth Doctor ◔_◔. Right now, for me, it’s hard to track my thoughts and feelings about this.
At lunch, I saw “Doctor Who” trending on Twitter and as soon as I began to investigate I learned Russell T Davies was coming back. I immediately ran across the hall to tell Theresa. Was I interrupting her class to do so? Of course. But I interrupt her class for all kinds of reasons! (I’ve even got one of her freshmen classes to applaud when I come in and laugh in a ridiculously canned way when I make a joke so it feels like we’re on a classic sitcom (now we just need a voiceover to say, “Theresa’s B1 Class is filmed in front of a live studio audience”).) But I couldn’t wait to tell her! The woman responsible for bringing me into the wonderous world of Doctor Who needed to know IMMEDIATELY. After I shared the news I said, “…and I don’t know what I think. I’ve got lots of feelings about this and I just don’t know.” Theresa echoed the sentiment, being in the same place herself. Neither of us were jumping for joy but we weren’t rending our garments in lamentation either.
After talking with Theresa, I called Jeff. It was so pressing I left him a voicemail. I haven’t done that in years! After work, I called Kalie. When she asked how my day was I said, “I don’t know. I got some big news and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing yet.” Kalie was nervous…annnnnnd then harassed me when I told her it was about the new Doctor Who showrunner XD. She claimed I setup the news like it was some sort of massive, life-shaking event. BUT IT IS.
And it’s complicated. Here’s why.
On the one hand, I adore Russell T Davies’ work (to be fair, I’ve not experienced an era of Doctor Who I’ve not fallen madly in love with and I’m beginning to realize every Doctor is your favorite Doctor at some point). The very first episode of Doctor Who I ever watched was “The Christmas Invasion.” So I began my Doctor Who journey with Davies’ work! I started with David Tennant’s first episode as I had heard so much about him. He’s Theresa’s favorite Doctor, too, and I was beginning the show so we could enjoy talking about it at work. Plus, I knew the show had been on for a zillion years so I figured I might as well just jump in with a “beloved” Doctor (don’t worry – Theresa soon corrected my error (she didn’t so much say I had to go back and begin with Christopher Eccleston but her sad sighs every time I’d bring it up were convincing and I went back after only a few episodes of David Tennant’s run)). Davies’ given us so, so, so many wonderful characters and amazing stories. He gave us Doctor Who again! And he gave us spin-offs! During his time on Doctor Who, he also created Torchwood (which ran for four series from 2006-11) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (which had five series from 2007-11).
Who doesn’t like more of a good thing, right? So I’m happy and excited and optimistic and looking forward to it.
But I’m also a little worried. Obviously, Chris Chibnall made a historic move with Doctor Who when he cast Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor in the show’s then fifty-five year history and, as one would expect, it’s been divisive. For all those fans who’ve adored the Thirteenth Doctor and Chibnall’s vision for the show (myself included!) there have been those who’ve struggled with it. We’ve seen both thoughtful/serious critiques of the show’s creative direction during Chibnall’s tenure as well as the angry backlash anchored in irrational and/or outright false premises which really rise from the Doctor being a woman. So I think it’s important this return to Russell T Davies be framed – and continue to be framed – in a way that doesn’t open any door to “justify” those who, upset at a female Doctor, say Doctor Who lost sight of what it was over the last three years.
As Jeff observed in our conversation today, following on the heels of the first female Doctor, perhaps the BBC could’ve chosen a woman or person of color as the next showrunner (I know she’s crazy busy but can you imagine a world with Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Doctor Who showrunner??). While Davies made Doctor Who a shining example of LGBTQ+ visibility in its revival, even if the fatphobic trend running through several of his stories meant the inclusion wasn’t as egalitarian as it could be, this choice does leave Doctor Who in the hands of another white male. It would be exciting to see the same progress in the show’s creative hands as we’ve just begun to seen with the Doctor themself. And I still don’t know how I feel about his returning in general.
I read an article several weeks ago (which, for the life of me I can’t find again to cite properly) where the author said (and I’m paraphrasing because, again, I can’t find the article) perhaps more than any other show, change is wired into the very DNA of Doctor Who. I loved the observation and I think it’s accurate. Thirteen Doctors (not counting the War Doctor, the Fugitive Doctor, the Metacrisis Doctor, and the Morbius Doctors) with a Fourteenth Doctor soon to come, a myriad of companions, so many writers, so many producers, a story stretching across nearly sixty years – Doctor Who is always changing. Naturally, there’s a part of me that’s nervous a “going back” (even with a tried and true showrunner at the helm) could result in losing that ever-present movement of change, making Doctor Who stagnant.
But my biggest concern about Russell T Davies returning to Doctor Who comes from an interview he gave earlier this year. Speaking with Paul Kirkley back in January, Davies said:
I was in the middle of running an empire. And my god I did that 10 years too soon, didn’t I? There should be a Doctor Who channel now. You look at those Disney announcements, of all those new Star Wars and Marvel shows, you think, we should be sitting here announcing The Nyssa Adventures or The Return of Donna Noble, and you should have the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors together in a 10-part series. Genuinely. And I think that will happen one day. If we can just shift Doctor Who up a gear. You laugh, but did Star Trek fans ever think they’d be getting a Captain Pike series? Ever? That’s insane. The whole science fiction world is so creative and so money making right now, I think your wildest dreams can come true.
Just a few short months before this announcement, Davies was saying Doctor Who “should be just as ambitious as Hollywood’s major franchises.” And…I don’t like that. At all. In fact, I think it’s a terrible idea.
First, the BBC doesn’t have Disney money. No one has Disney money. God doesn’t have Disney money. So anyone else looking to create on that scale is chasing something unattainable. Second, even with Disney money, Disney can’t keep their Star Wars narratives consistent. The Last Jedi undercut The Force Awakens and then The Rise of Skywalker undercut The Last Jedi. The brilliant novel and comic about Captain Phasma added so many dimensions to her character…all of which were completely ignored in The Last Jedi. The comics contradict novels published at the same time. Ahsoka is everywhere, even though there’s no logical way she could’ve been around during the Original Trilogy. In the effort to sell as many stories as possible, it has all become very muddied very fast. Then there’s the quality of the stories themselves. If Russell T Davies is looking to create Doctor Who stories on the level of Star Wars or Marvel, he risks dragging Doctor Who down with the Star Wars Effect.
Star Wars Effect – when stories that don’t need to be told are told, despite their watering down and cluttering an existing narrative, for the sake of producing more content; a term coined by Jeffrey Cagle of The Imperial Talker. Examples include (but are in no way limited to) Rogue One, where a single line from the opening crawl in A New Hope is expanded to a feature length film; Star Wars #17 (2015), where Han is shown literally herding nerf aboard the Millennium Falcon to explain where Leia’s insult in The Empire Strikes Back came from; the discussion of (and this is real) Lando’s “bulge” in Star Wars: The Last Shot; the Solo film which has the Kessel Run and awkwardly forces in an Imperial officer giving Han his last name; or the upcoming Disney+ Kenobi series where the twenty years Obi-Wan spent in quiet meditation watching over Luke will most likely be filled with action that in no way, shape, or form fits with the tone of A New Hope.
Doctor Who works. It’s worked for nearly sixty years. And it’s worked so well for so long, in part I’d wager, because of it’s size. Doctor Who isn’t small by any means. It’s a universe of some 847 episodes (by the time the Thirteenth Doctor comes to the end of her run) and hundreds of novels, comic books, and audio dramas created across the decades. But it’s not Star Wars big. It’s not Marvel big. All those other stories are there to give fans more Doctor Who to explore but they aren’t necessary to understand the show.
You can watch, understand, and love Doctor Who without ever seeing an episode of Classic Doctor Who. You can watch, understand, and love Doctor Who without ever picking up a single novel, comic, or listening to an audio drama. You can read the comics while ignoring the novels. You can read the novels without listening to the audio dramas. All add to the experience but all exist on their own, too. It’s safe to say the next wave of Marvel movies will be more difficult to understand if you’ve not watched the Disney+ shows. And all the setup for the Disney+ shows has happened in the Marvel movies. And while the MCU has largely avoided the narrative problems that have arisen in Star Wars over the last few years, I’m worried there’s the chance they lay ahead (you can read more about that here, if you’d like to see why Loki left me worried and angsty).
A little over a year ago Doctor Who seemed to dip its toe in the big “event” world with “Time Lord Victorious,” “a multi-platform story released between 17 August 2020 and 16 April 2021. The series was set in and around the Kotturuh crisis and featured the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Doctors, as well as Rose Tyler, Brian the Ood, and the Dalek Restoration Empire.” It was a story with twenty-six parts and:
Various stories were released, across media, by Penguin Random House, Doctor Who Magazine, Titan Comics, Escape Hunt, Big Finish Productions, Eaglemoss Hero Collector, Immersive Everywhere, Maze Theory, BBC Books and BBC Audio. As ensured by series producer James Goss, the overarching story was “inclusive”, so even without purchasing all of the releases, readers could still get a “completed story”. With the exception of the escape room and immersive theatre elements, all of the stories were available globally.
But here’s the thing…it didn’t work. Despite promises of a complete story, I read Jody Houser’s Doctor Who Time Lord Victorious: Defender of the Daleks comic along with Steve Cole’s Doctor Who Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, the Fool, and the Dead and Una McCormick’s Doctor Who Time Lord Victorious: All Flesh Is Grass novels and I had A LOT of questions. They all felt incomplete to me. Overall, “Time Lord Victorious” is the only Doctor Who story I’ve encountered which has significantly disappointed me (but that’s the story for another post). This cluttered and clunky interconnected story’s inability to work (or even authentically portray the Doctor in a few key ways (but again, that’s another post)) doesn’t leave me confident about making this a central feature of Doctor Who let alone doing it on a larger scale.
Talking about the difference in continuity integrity and consistent narrative quality in Doctor Who as opposed to Star Wars a few years ago Theresa said, “It seems like there’s less ego in Doctor Who. With Doctor Who it feels like the writers approach their job asking, ‘What can I do for Doctor Who?’ whereas with Star Wars it feels like the writers are approaching their job wondering, ‘What can I do with Star Wars?’ It feels like it’s more about them leaving their unique mark than it is their adding to a story that was there long before them and will be there after they’re gone.” I’d’ve never framed it that way myself but as soon as Theresa did it felt right. What also interests me about Theresa’s observation is everyone with whom I’ve shared it has immediately agreed in a similarly instinctive way.
I’m scared of a watered down, overextended, retred version of Doctor Who so I’m nervous and anxious and cautious and a bit hesitant about how this all could go.
Also, it’s hard to even try and process what the future will be while I still have another series and three specials left with the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz! So I love Russell T Davies’ work and I’m genuinely excited about what he could do once he’s back running the show again. But I’m also worried his aim may pull Doctor Who into a sphere inauthentic to the nature of the narrative, too. But I also may be overthinking the whole thing, which I’ve been known to do.
So where am I with all this? How am I managing all these feelings and emotions moving through me? At the end of the day, I’m doing my best to listen to the Doctor :). In her statement about leaving Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker reminded us all, “I know change can be scary and none of us know what’s out there. That’s why we keep looking. Travel Hopefully. The Universe will surprise you. Constantly.”
 “Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall to leave Doctor Who in a trio of Specials in 2022,” BBC Doctor Who. Published July 29, 2021. Accessed September 24, 2021. https://www.doctorwho.tv/news/?article=jodie-whittaker-chris-chibnall-leave-doctor-who
 “Russell T Davies to return as Doctor Who showrunner,” BBC Doctor Who. Published September 24, 2021. Accessed September 24, 2021. https://www.doctorwho.tv/news/?article=russell-t-davies-to-return-as-doctor-who-showrunner
 Well, forty-two years at that point, with “The Christmas Invasion” airing on 25 December 2005 and “An Unearthly Child: An Unearthly Child” premiering on 23 November 1963. But c’mon, if you’ve not seen any of the show before and you don’t know it restarted in 2005 and you don’t know it has multiple jumping on points it feels like two zillion years.
 Matt Morrison, “Jodie Whittaker Deserved Better Than Chibnall’s Doctor Who,” Screen Rant. Published August 3, 2021. Accessed September 24, 2021. https://screenrant.com/doctor-who-jodie-whittaker-chibnall-failed-deserved-better/
 Rachel Charlton-Daily, “Think Doctor Who is getting too political? You’ve not been paying attention…and perhaps it’s not the politics winding people up,” Digital Spy. Published January 13, 2020. Accessed September 24, 2021. https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/a30499765/doctor-who-political-woke/
 Jon O’Brien, “A Guide to Russell T Davies’ Queer Canon,” Vulture. Published February 18, 2021. Accessed September 24, 2021. https://www.vulture.com/article/russell-t-davies-queer-canon-streaming-guide.html
 David Craig, “Russell T Davies says Doctor Who should have Marvel-style shared universe of spin-offs,” Radio Times. Published January 22, 2021. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/sci-fi/doctor-who-marvel-shared-universe/
 “Time Lord Victorious (series),” TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Time_Lord_Victorious_(series)
 “Time Lord Victorious (series).”
 “Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall to leave Doctor Who in a trio of Specials in 2022.”