“Doctor Who is dead. Long live Doctor Who!” This is a sentiment which a significant portion of the British franchise’s fan base has echoed worldwide for several years now, given the stunning train wreck of showrunner Chris Chibnall and actress Jodie Whittaker. What was once a beloved mainstay of pop culture has wilted into a limping shadow of its former self.
Setting aside the vastly negative audience reviews (20%, 16%, and 31% on Rotten Tomatoes for series 11, 12, and 13 respectively), viewership has dropped from an impressive 10.96 million viewers in the U.K. at the outset of series 11 to an abysmal 4.68 million at 13’s conclusion. These numbers, however, only tell one part of the story, and are best viewed as symptoms of a deeper rot.
The Ship of Theseus
The last three years of Doctor Who have deconstructed and degraded the whimsical, soft sci-fi/fantasy adventure show into “edutainment” focused on brow-beating its viewers with socially acceptable messaging. In the past, Doctor Who drew analogies and portrayed allegories, thus encouraging the audience to ponder them in a different light and to improve their own world in some small way. By contrast, modern Doctor Who castigates its viewers for things for which they bear no personal responsibility. Punishing the children for the sins of the father is not sufficient; so too must the sins of the race, the sex, the class, the nation, the party, and every other form of division be transferred to those perceived to be more fortunate.
The mere suggestion of “privilege,” in contemporary parlance, is enough to justify verbal tirades and unending scorn from Doctor Who’s writers and cast, bereft of empathy or a good faith attempt to explore the issues. The audience, by extension, is trod upon, its members treated as mindless morons who must be instructed in the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” of modern social dogma. This ethos, in sharp contrast to the generous heart which the Doctor wore on his sleeve in nearly every prior incarnation, is mean-spirited and small-minded.
It is no surprise that viewers have clicked away.
Now, the era of Chibnall and Whittaker has come to an end with the return of showrunner Russell T. Davies. He orchestrated Doctor Who’s original 2005 return to popular awareness and its successful introduction to a global audience—to fan acclaim, through its sincere good humor and good will. Although this change is meant by corporate media managers to promise a renewal of sorts, its prospects for returning the show to its prior standing in the hearts and minds of its audience are not good. That ship has sailed, and it is the ship of Theseus: replacing every previous piece of it does not guarantee that it will be the same. The past three years of programming have undermined decades of storytelling not just in their uncompromising agenda, but also in the historical revisionism of long-established canon premises and events within the show itself.
To soothe the wounds and distrust inflicted by this radical messaging and incompetent writing, Davies would need to either ignore or outright overwrite at least the last three seasons. Though we have not seen his coming work yet, Davies has made public statements suggesting that he does not plan to undo the work Chibnall has wrought. He may even double down on elements introduced by Chibnall, merely for the sake of maintaining the show’s current virtue signaling, which could affect all aspects of the show from casting to plot.
Bandages, Sutures, and Nostalgia
Set the critics aside. Set Davies aside. Set Doctor Who itself aside. In the most fundamental sense, there is no way to bring a dedicated fan back home when that home has been torn down. When something good has been twisted and distorted beyond recognition, it leaves scars which can only fester or grow calloused over time. Redemption is a gift bestowed by and received from heaven—it cannot be manufactured by human means. We cannot artificially resurrect a beloved tale, no matter how many people it has touched before its fall. Every retelling of the old and beautiful will call up specters of the garish and new in those who unfortunate enough to have seen them both.
Luke Skywalker in Star Wars was the quintessential hero for generations, regardless of the viewers’ sex or race, and he epitomized the hero’s journey. Yet, even when re-watching Return of the Jedi, the audience of the sequel trilogy cannot help but picture his future self—an embittered failure whose legacy must be carried on (unearned) by flat caricatures. Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek’s “The Next Generation” was the dignified, thoughtful, and commanding presence that all could aspire to be; but those who have subjected themselves to Paramount’s recent Picard series will forever see this redoubtable diplomat and captain as a broken, maudlin, ineffectual old man living in a debased and flashy shadow of the world he once explored. J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful Lord of the Rings received an excellent film trilogy adaptation courtesy of Peter Jackson, but Amazon’s upcoming The Rings of Power television series threatens to defame and discredit what came before with clumsy storytelling and relentless messaging over artistic and literary merit.
Stories can reach towards truth, portray beauty, and encourage the good. Even if they hint at things grander and greater than us, they are ultimately only human works, however. To any fan who once esteemed and respected these cultural myths and legends, remember that what man has built, man can neglect—and pervert. We cannot turn back time. When a thing is broken, it cannot go back to the way it was; everything leaves its mark, and some stains cannot be expunged by human hands. There comes a point where bandages, sutures, and nostalgia cannot save a story.
A legacy cannot be carried by a shambling, reanimated corpse. Its best and most meaningful elements can only be taken and re-forged into something entirely new: a young and vital heir taking on a new adventure, conquering the unknown and winning over hearts. For those stories which once were great, which we have crumbled into dust with our hubris, greed, and need to dominate others, there is a more fitting treatment than embalming and exploitation: it is simply to lay those words to rest. Remember them for what they were, and let their lasting virtues nourish what is to come, but do not fashion the past into a corporate idol bound with marionette strings, dancing to the discordant tune of man’s making.
“Doctor Who is dead. Long live Doctor Who!”