One of the oldest, most cliche plot devices, used time and again when the writers are creatively bankrupt, is to throw a pregnant woman into an already-dangerous scenario, making sure that she has a difficult childbirth under difficult conditions, preferably with a lot of screaming and heavy breathing. This ramps up the danger of the overall situation for Our Heroes, helps to prove that they are Good Guys, and in the end, when the danger has passed, it allows the writers to do that deeply hackneyed “New Life in the Face of Death” thing.
This is a plot device so ancient that it looks and moves a lot like Lon Chaney Jr. in full Mummy make-up. It has been done so often that you could throw Rocky Horror-style screenings of it and watch the audience recite the dialogue themselves while throwing toilet paper at the screen. It has been done so often that today, the only legitimate way to use the device is to parody it.
And in order for it to work, even as parody, on Doctor Who, the writer has to bring a lot more inventiveness to this old chestnut than just switching ‘round the sexes. The scene, after all, is ripe for parody, especially on a fantasy show where all the rules about childbirth as we know them are neatly severed.
Chris Chibnall didn’t see it that way. His one “joke” (for it was played as such) was to establish that this time, the pregnant woman would be an otherwise-ordinary looking guy. Even with obvious complications from the sex reversal, the scene played out doggedly and reverently just as it has played out on on every other garbage TV show hundreds of times before, with every cliche intact.
It pains to use the word “garbage” in this context, but that is what Chris Chibnall is doing to Doctor Who. Despite all the evidence trickling in that this would be a dreadful season (especially including the “cliffhanger” from last year’s Christmas Special, which saw Chibnall exploding the TARDIS for the umpteenth time, and ejecting The Doctor into freefall for at least the third time — yawn), I had high hopes for this series. I was one of those who welcomed Jodie Whittaker with open arms, because I knew that she was capable of giving us a memorable incarnation of The Doctor if the writing was up to scratch.
And there it is. In order for the show to continue, the writing had to be at at least as good and as inventive as the best of what we were used to under showrunner Steven Moffat. But instead of giving us inventive, interesting, engaging scripts, Chibnall has been focusing his efforts on making a clean sweep of the TARDIS, and making sure that it looks a lot more like contemporary London than it ever has. Okay, that’s fine. But where are the stories?
The plots in these early efforts have been thin as canned chicken broth. So episode 2 was a parody of The Amazing Race: Russell T. Davies parodied modern TV in his first series of Doctor Who, and did it better. Episode 3 plunked us down in the middle of the Rosa Parks story — but did so in a trivial, patronizing and sadly over-simplified manner that approached a serious issue with all the depth of a sappy greetings-card. It is FINE to hold opinions and address modern issues, but for gods sake do it in a way that doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience.
Meanwhile, the new monsters Chibnall promised us have been sad rejects from The Terminator and The Muppet Show, while the new “family” of supporting cast onboard the TARDIS have utterly failed to make us love, or even like them. Attention has been paid to their skin color and social background, but no attention whatever has been paid to actually making these characters come to life.
No doubt the showrunners of Doctor Who have been under pressure to make the program Less White. But when Stephen Moffat introduced a black lesbian sidekick for his old white Doctor, he made sure that her character resonated all up and down the whole series and had a deep impact on how it developed and played out. We loved Bill Potts not only because of the qualities Pearl Mackie brought to her, but because Steven Moffatt put real thought into who she was and how her presence would impact the stories.
In no way has Chris Chibnall put that kind of effort into his iteration of the show. He has populated his ugly redesigned TARDIS with supporting characters that are straight off of the shelf, with bland, generic motivations and nothing to distinguish them as individuals. Turn them sideways and they disappear.
Earlier in the year, Chibnall was all over San Diego proclaiming that this would be a great “jumping-on” point for non-fans of the series. Perhaps he was right: no one can accuse him of catering to the show’s existing audience. But he neglected to remember what one of my friends told me; that a perfect jumping-on point is also a perfect jumping-off point. I paid for this series up-front, so I will faithfully watch all the remaining episodes and hope against hope that they will get better, but at this point in the run my heart is sinking into despair.