Continued from Part 1...
Too many ideas, too many characters, too little time
This era of Doctor Who can be summed up in one single word: cluttered. Chris Chibnall's thought process in writing the stories of this era is akin to that of an excited child on Christmas Day. He's opened all his presents and is keen to play with all the new toys he has but he can't just pick one to play with and tries to play with all of them, thus resulting in a cluttered mess everywhere. This is what watching Chibnall's Doctor Who can feel like at times and it's confusing because Chibnall's writing is NOT always like this. Having seen episodes he wrote for Doctor Who in the RTD and Moffat eras and having seen his excellent The Great Train Robbery two-part miniseries, Chibnall IS capable of telling stories that have a singular focus and a manageably sized cast of characters so I'm not sure what went wrong here. Maybe as he became showrunner, he suddenly got an influx of creativity and ideas and just went too wild as a result?
Anyway, the most common criticism with Chibnall's writing here is that the plots of his episodes and this era as a whole tend to feel overstuffed and overcrowded with characters to the point the stories suffer as a result. Chibnall wrote a majority of this era with the amount of episodes he didn't write being countable on both hands. No joke, there are only seven episodes he didn't write out of the 19 episodes this era gave us with him either being the only writer for most of them or at least writing with another writer on a few others. It really feels like he needed someone to reign him in or at least should've shared with the other writers because the episodes he wrote had a habit of being badly paced, overcrowded with characters, have too many ideas going off at once and also having weird priorities. Some of the worst examples of this I can give include the worst episode of the era: Orphan 55 (which wasn't written by Chibnall). That episode was filled to bursting with characters and it just proper brought that story down as a result. The Tusranga Conundrum was also problematic for the same reason. Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Child are pretty bad at this too as they try to be both a Cyberman story and a Master story while also juggling the whole Timeless Child reveal and thus we have a haphazard finale that just can't settle and really tried to do too much in just two episodes. Even The Power of the Doctor was similarly overcrowded and overplotted but due to being 90 minutes long, that one managed somewhat and at least managed to be entertaining whereas the other examples weren't as such.
But Flux is easily the worst example of this era. It's a 6 part epic and yet even those 6 parts didn't feel adequate enough as it still felt overcrowded with characters and didn't have enough room to explore all of its concepts fully. We have the apocalyptic Flux event itself, the return of the Sontarans, two new villains with Swarm and Azure, the return of the Weeping Angels, the introduction of new companion Dan, the introduction of more aliens like the Lupari, the introduction of Bel and Vinder, the surprise appearance of Tecteun, more stuff around the Timeless Child and the Doctor's true identity and even a reveal behind what happened to UNIT at the hands of the villainous Grand Serpent! That's A LOT of plot for a six part story and it's just too much as a result! Now granted, this particular season was cut short thanks to the COVID pandemic of 2020-2021 so I won't blame Chibnall entirely for the poor pacing but he still should've picked a few of these ideas and worked with them instead of trying to do all of them. For example, keep the Flux event, make Tecteun the main villain of the event with the Weeping Angels as her minions, have the other parts deal with the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans fighting over the spoils of the universe after the Flux wiped everything out and leave out the Lupari, Bel, Vinder, Susan, Jericho, the Grand Serpent, Swarm and Azure. Keep it to just the Doctor, Yaz, Dan and the villains I mentioned earlier and we'd have a much better paced story and easily manageable cast to make Flux even better than it was.
The overcrowded cast problem can be traced back as far as the first episode what with the fact we had a TARDIS team consisting of four people. The Doctor and one companion is easily manageable. The Doctor and two companions can also be managed. But The Doctor and three companions? That's a bit much. Even the classic series didn't always handle this well with the Fifth Doctor's era being notable for struggling to juggle all three of the Doctor's companions. With Graham, Ryan and Yaz all competing for space and screentime in an era consisting of mostly 10 episodes, it's just not enough and one companion ends up being shafted at the other's expense as a result. Ryan and Graham's departures ended up feeling hollow as a result because after two seasons each with ten episodes and two specials...I still felt like I barely knew these characters and that it didn't feel like we had enough time with them. Yaz in particular really struggled to even be a character until those two left and it wasn't until the near end of the era when Yaz started to be more of a character. Even at that, it still feels too little too late because with the era trying to juggle so many characters at once, it just did her no favours and thus we're left with companions that really didn't reach their full potential. Dan in particular only got Flux and the three last specials that closed off the era. He was a companion that REALLY got the short end of the stick and with how little he ended up getting in the end, it makes me wonder why they even bothered creating this new character and getting John Bishop to play him.
It's of no surprise that the episodes I enjoyed the most in this era are the ones that have a more straight forward plot and not so many characters at once such as Rosa, Demons of the Punjab, Resolution, Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror, Can You Hear Me?, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, War of the Sontarans, Village of the Angels and Eve of the Daleks and most of them are ones Chibnall either didn't write or ones he wrote with someone else. That should say a lot about how haphazard this guy's writing style is in this show. If I was his editor, I can assure you this era would've turned out VERY differently...
The new villains don't leave much of an impression
The RTD and Moffat eras of the show weren't just great at breathing new life into old monsters and villains, but creating new ones to add to Doctor Who's massive lore. This era on the other hand...wasn't.
While Chibnall did great at handling the old villains and even making them feel new again, he really didn't do so well on creating new villains for this show. Most of them feel very bland, one-dimensional or underdeveloped, not helped by the poor pacing and overly stuffed plots I mentioned earlier so many of them don't get a time to really show themselves. The only cool and memorable new monsters and aliens we get in this era are the Skithra and the Dregs, both of which were in episodes that Chibnall didn't write. They have cool, memorable designs and make a memorable impression as a result. Too bad the Dregs were in the worst episode of the era, Orphan 55, while the Skithra were in the best episode of the era, Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror, so only one got a good outing while the other had the worst of the worst.
Let's start with the bland and one-dimensional ones. We have Krakso from Rosa whose personality begins and ends with the words "white supremacist". There is literally nothing to this character other than he'd fit right into the KKK with how racist he is. And he's such a pathetic villain that the Doctor just constantly one-ups him with relative ease throughout the whole episode so he's impossible to take seriously as well. We have Tzim-Sha, a member of an alien race known as the Stenza who are ritualistic hunters. On paper, this sounds pretty cool and interesting but in execution, he's just boring and the most memorable thing about him is that he's covered in teeth. Even when he returned in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, he didn't do all that much and is still as bland as he was the first time. And don't get me started on Jack Robertson. He literally only exists to be a Trump clone because Trump was president at the time and this was the era's attempt at being relevant when all it did was date it really quickly now Trump's no longer in power (thank god). Why this character exists, I'll never know and hopefully the second RTD era will leave him forgotten from now to forever.
And now we get to the underdeveloped ones. There's Swarm and Azure from Flux, both of whom are the main villains of the arc and naturally were interesting to watch as a result. But they pale compared to other Doctor Who villains due to being very surface-level in execution. I still feel like I barely even know who they are by the time the arc is finished! The Kasaavins from Spyfall are no better too. All we know is they seem to be some kind of sentient light creatures and that's it. By the time Spyfall was over, I was confused what their point even was with how vauge they were. And then there's the Morax from The Witchfinders. They have a cool concept as mud like creatures that can infect and take over people but we don't really see them until the last third of the episode where they're defeated just as quickly. Their rushed execution did them no favours and thus didn't give the audience much of an impression of this alien race. The Thijarians from Demons of the Punjab were interesting and a great red herring for the true villains of the episode but all that did was make their presence ultimately pointless in the end. Maybe they SHOULD have been the villains so they could've had more of a point...
And then we have Zellin from Can You Hear Me? Why oh why was this guy so underdeveloped? As a literal god, he had the potential to be an overarching enemy for The Doctor and should've been more than just a one-shot villain. Instead he's fighting for space alongside his sister, the Doctor, her companions and the other characters in the episode and his plot is rushed to an end before he can really get going.
But the biggest offender of them all is easily Tecteun. This is the woman who is responsible for making the Doctor who they are today as the creator of the whole Timeless Child thing that makes up the Doctor's past. This character should be really fascinating and should be a really important figure in this era. And what do we get from her? She's a crazy old lady who wants to nuke the universe...because and she gets killed off as quickly as she was introduced. Talk about a waste of a promising character! Why does she even exist if she's not going to amount to anything other than a footnote in the Doctor's past that will remain barely explored now she's dead? She either should've stayed a mysterious figure in the Doctor's past or just not existed at all with how poorly executed she was. As I said, she should've been the main villain of Flux instead of Swarm and Azure. That way she could've been better utilized as a character and maybe amount to something.
While the show has many memorable things, the new aliens and villains aren't really among them due to poor execution or just being bland in concept to the point they were hopeless from the start. Hopefully the new era can fix that...
Some of its ideas could've worked with better execution
With the haphazard and cluttered writing style that Chibnall exhibits in this era, naturally some of the ideas and concepts it had were really lacking in execution and could've done with a few re-writes to better use them.
Of course, the first example I'm going to give is the Jo Martin Doctor (or the "Ruthless Doctor" as fans like MrTARDIS have coined up for her). First appearing in Fugitive of the Judoon, she's an incarnation of the Doctor from a past the Doctor doesn't remember which also ties into the Timeless Child mystery. That's a fascinating idea and was quite a surprise twist when she revealed who she was. In execution? She...just insults the Doctor and tells her to shut up numerous times and then shows up on the odd occasion whenever the Doctor's having an identity crisis. We barely know anything about this Doctor and it's likely we'll never know anything about her because I doubt RTD will pick this concept up and keep the ball rolling. She's such a waste of an interesting character and poor Jo Martin gets the short end of the stick here acting as this nobody of a character who ultimately results in nothing by the end.
I already covered Flux and how that story could've been better executed so let's cover another story that would've benefitted from a better execution: The Power of the Doctor. Yes it is an entertaining thrill ride and a pretty satisfying conclusion to the era as a whole but it would've been even better with some changes here and there. First of all, the Master should've done something when he regenerated the Doctor into himself instead of get foiled by Yaz and left stuck on a planet until she comes back to reverse what he did. Second, Dan shouldn't have been written out so quickly and should've taken Graham's place alongside Ace in the volcano scene instead of just farting Graham into that scene for no reason. And by far a concept that should've been explored further was that treacherous Dalek that helped the Doctor out. Why even have a concept like that if it's going to be so surface-level in its execution. Had I written the episode, I would've made it so the Dalek genuinely was lying and it tricked the Doctor so its purpose in the plot would've been better used instead of being a wasted concept. Or better still, don't kill off the traitor Dalek and let it be a pseudo companion for the Doctor in the episode and have it join Ace and Dan in stopping the Daleks in where it performs a heroic sacrifice to keep them alive long enough for the two to save the day. And this was just me rattling ideas off the top of my head! Seriously, these ideas would've helped this story be even greater than it was.
And then we have the biggest black spot on this era...the Timeless Child. That was an intriguing mystery and a concept that truly could've been great if it was handled right. It really wasn't and what we get here is just The Master giving Doctor Who wikis and fact file books extra new lore to detail. The Timeless Child twist doesn't change anything about the Doctor as a character, she's not really challenged by this revelation, it doesn't amount to anything in the end as the Doctor has the fob-watch containing her past lives and just...doesn't open it and dumps it into the TARDIS to be forgotten about and in the end it feels like it wasn't worth adding if it wasn't going to amount to much by the time all is said and done. I've talked with a friend about this and both me and him agree that this twist was a good idea...but it should've been THE MASTER'S big character reveal, NOT the Doctor's. Not only does the Timeless Child idea explain why The Master keeps coming back all the time but it would really explain his insanity and why he seems to hate himself so much. He's nothing more than an experiment that gave birth to the Time Lords, and subsequently brought the Doctor into existence, so he's essentially responsible for his own nemesis. How great would this have been if The Master was the Timeless Child instead of The Doctor? That would've been a far better execution of this concept than making it the Doctor!
This era will stand as the definitive example as to why its important to have more than one draft of a story as a few extra drafts can better help polish the script and decide on how to use your ideas while also choosing which ones to use and which ones to leave out or save for later. With some re-writes, the concepts introduced in this era could've truly been special for Doctor Who as a whole...
So that's my reflection on the Chibnall era as a whole. The good parts are really strong highs but the bad parts are really hard lows. I think Chibnall had potential as a showrunner and could've given us a strong era of Doctor Who. If he just calmed down with writing some of his stories and didn't try to use every idea he had while also giving the other writers more of a chance to show their stuff, he could've made this era of Doctor Who a true highlight. As is, his era was a breath of fresh air the show needed and was daring enough to take the risks Doctor Who needed to evolve and feel new again while paving the way for the future. I enjoyed some of this era for sure but I would've enjoyed it even more if it was just less scattershot in its execution. For now, all I can say is farewell to Chris Chibnall as showrunner and Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and welcome back Russell T. Davies as he retakes his old position. Roll on the second RTD era...
And that's it for this essay. I hope you enjoyed it and I'd be interested to hear your own thoughts down below. What do you think are the highs and lows of the Chibnall era of Doctor Who? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Tune in next week as we return to the world of Pokémon with a review on their latest titles, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. See you then!