Paul Castle once told me a writer needs three qualities. Being friendly with people behind the scenes, being punctual, and writing well. Unfortunately sometimes a Chris Chibnall can bluff the job on just the first two. Perhaps the BBC’s smaller Welsh arm made it easier for local boy Chibnall to climb the ranks with RTD taking him under his ego wing.
MrTARDISreviews highlighted Chibnall’s impressive non-Who works, Broadchurch and Kiss Me Like You Mean It. But Doctor Who seemingly sees him revert to the overgrown nerd desperate for schoolyard coolness via cynically indulging trashy shock violence and sex. Some could lay similar charges at Big Finish’s Stephen Cole, Joseph Lidster, and whoever wrote Nekromanteia.
Yet I loved Lidster’s Terror Firma, though I’ll be damned if I can write a focused review on why. But Terror Firma was complicated and complex in organic, fluidic ways that perfectly suited its stormy nightmare aesthetic. Like Ashes to Ashes, the resulting confusion put us into the protagonist’s traumatised mindset. Solving the mystery was about rediscovering their empirical wisdom and becoming strong again. It was genuinely cathartic, making the Doctor feel conscious in ways he rarely has post-Castrovalva, except for Dalek.
Chibnall’s writing lacks catharsis. But catharsis usually depends on humility. Under RTD or Moffat that’s usually a non-starter.
So let’s talk Warriors of the Deep. A classic demonstration of the worst people to call the shots being fans. Why the reptiles’ fate in The Silurians was an ‘injustice’ is because it intently ended with mankind victorious via overkill and not getting their perhaps deserved comeuppance.
However a fan would want to even the odds, making the humans pay this time. So we presumably got Levine’s desired ending, where the Silurians die getting off the last shot that kills the last human. Nevermind how obtusely this goes against and erases the injustice angle, until the only injustice is that the Doctor’s lizard-loving sycophancy was ever entertained.
Some claim the Doctor’s horrific misjudgement is the point, but what’s the point of the show if it’s now about an uninspiring imbecilic failure of a hero?
This is significantly fans redoing the past, yet doing it signaturely differently in ways stopping the story working anymore.
Perhaps what I’m missing about Moffat’s navelgazing is hidden in plain sight. The Big Bang, The Doctor’s Wife and Day of the Doctor show how Moffat prefers the original story where the Doctor fled Gallifrey in a stolen Tardis, over RTD’s guilt-stricken last survivor of his destroyed world version. He’s delivered verbal and visual homages to Classic Who. Hartnel’s library card. The War Games’ telepathic cubes. Old Dalek designs in Asylum of the Daleks.
But what should’ve made it obvious Moffat wasn’t one to have faith in for the 50th is that like JNT, Moffat’s superficially fixated with pointlessly redesigning these visual past homages to appear updated and personally owned. Especially concerning Daleks and Silurians. He couldn’t get away with the former and so relented, but he’s made his new Silurians so omnipresent they’ve totally superseded the past look. So this new version is the past and always has been. In Day he even crops out the original actors and edits John Hurt into McGann’s place. Making everything look brand new. But he’ll never have the actors from the past back.
RTD at least brought back Elisabeth Sladen and Katy Manning. Albeit to make the show more soapy and appeal more to women, hence the Brigadier’s callous exclusion until it was too late, for which RTD cannot be forgiven.
Sure the Brigadier’s cosy army glory would be out of place during the Ninth Doctor’s recovery from his own Vietnam. But he could’ve easily appeared with Tennant in Poison Sky. Even if they just talked via video-screen from Peru. However RTD’s track record still beats Moffat’s.
Maybe Moffat’s more fannish than I thought and would’ve cast Hartnel as the curator were he still with us, but had to settle for his oldest living next of kin, and recast McGann’s Doctor to be played by John Hurt to rebirth the oldest Doctor (in another Dalek Empire steal, since Hurt’s Doctor was clearly modelled on Kalendorf).
Then there’s Chibnall, whose tastes correlate often with Moffat’s. Exit Wounds was heavily timey-wimey, and the River Song of today is more like Captain John Hart with tits than the more compassionate, mature, loving River of Series 4.
Chibnall was of the 80’s generation that liked Davison and felt things got too pantomime after he left. Where they differ I think is Moffat liked the fairy-tale quality of early 80’s stories like Keeper of Traken, Castrovalva, Enlightenment and Five Doctors (all very inspired by New Romanticism).
Chibnall however seems the kind of fan who not only absorbed the Sawardian zeitgeist, but bizarrely considered Earthshock and Warriors of the Deep’s problem being they weren’t violent, vindictive or mean-spirited enough.
I’ll try again to define the difference between ‘dark’ and ‘mean-spirited’.
Nikita is a dark film. Not mean-spirited. At its core, it’s about an amoral character learning to love life and develop a conscience.
The Saw films however are utterly mean spirited. Principally because they are all in turn about the punishments and come-uppances forced upon the innocent from a serial killer stalker and torturer who we're supposed to admire.
Nikita is about a morally lost character finally rediscovering her moral compass. Mainly through her time spent with a far more cold-blooded ruthless assassin at which point she experiences the existential terror of realising this will likely be her future. This is what she’ll become.
Saw on the other hand has the audacity to falsely appoint its misanthropic, twisted villain as being the moral compass itself, and assumes there’s clearly ‘enough’ good in the villain for them to not need redeeming or deserve erasing no matter what they do, just like Warriors of the Deep did. Because their victims somehow had it coming. Whilst the film’s makers seemed as determined to keep Jigsaw himself from getting his deserved comeuppance as the Fifth Doctor was for the Silurians.
But let’s think about this. We have these victims, who according to Jigsaw’s observations have fallen, sinned or lost the grasp of the worth of life, and need redemption. Few ever point out that for Jigsaw to find out any such dirt on these people he must have been stalking them for months, which means he chose his victims and became obsessed with them long before he found anything spurious on them to retroactively ‘justify’ his fixation. This get’s particularly horrid when he targets one of the investigating officers of his murders for being obsessed with death (yes, which he’s been causing).
But it completely takes the biscuit once we get to the sixth film (and I gave up after the irredeemably rotten third so I’m just going by hearsay), in which Jigsaw starts going after healthcare insurance people for refusing to insure those in dire need of unaffordable healthcare. Fans often praised it for this, but wait a minute. We're supposed to swallow a serial murderer and torturer condemning the health industry for not saving enough lives?
And sure the same could be argued of Captain Scarlett’s vindictive Mysterons. The show’s vengeful Gods sueing mankind for revenge for the one time a misunderstanding from an Earth expedition saw them senselessly attacked. But Captain Scarlett was done with a degree of class, unlike the emotional imbalances or sound and fury that tainted Warriors of the Deep, Saw and Chibnall’s writing. Captain Scarlett was as much about its worldbuilding, it’s future Earth and jazzy 60’s chic glamour as it was about preserving that world from annihilation. Even Manhunt showed an unforeseen mercy of the Mysterons that took us off-guard rather than being morally hammered into us as fact.
Chibnall’s writing tends to just be throughly ugly.
I certainly felt a Saw vibe to Hungry Earth. The speedy flash abduction of the boy, down to the Doctor’s inexcusable negligence, is very reminiscent of Jigsaw nabbing someone in a carpark whilst donning a moose-head. Amy being trapped within the glass cabinet about to be vivisectioned feels very torture porn (as does a similar moment in Day of the Moon).
But it’s not just the aesthetics, it’s the whole attitude. It’s as moronic as Warriors of the Deep, in how the Doctor decides the best way to demonstrate his moral superiority over humanity and begin peace negotiations with the Silurians is to hunt one like an animal and take them hostage.
There’s other reasons this is at jarring odds with the rest of the season. Although posters on the 80stvforum were desperate to suggest Time of Angels was evidence of Moffat running out of ideas, much of the season’s stories felt all new, and the weaker bits tended to be attempts to do something more traditional like Vampires in Venice.
This story however was especially derivative to an almost sad degree, snatching from The Silurians, Inferno, The Daemons (the heat barrier) and Frontios. It felt like it was pulling and dragging the other way.
It’s clear from Power of Three’s needless emergency surgery on the Ponds’ backgrounds how Chibnall believes the show has to be unceasingly about families now because RTD’s era was (in ways that seemingly conned fandom into thinking the old series had never shown Victoria or Nyssa’s family backgrounds), and like Gareth Roberts and many others, he wasn’t ready for the show to bloody move on.
But he sucks at it. Frankly Amy and Rory’s goodbye would be much better without Power of Three coercing us into sentimentality about their personal lives, and certainly without Brian’s horribly scripted final speech. And there’s not enough brain bleach for the Ood on the Loo moment.
It was somewhat nice meeting Kate Lethbridge Stewart but she just hasn’t got what it takes to be a good recurring character. I’d sooner see Hide’s ghosthunters return.
In Chibnall’s favour, unlike Saward or RTD, he writes the Doctor fairly well. The problem is the family being falsely forcefully written to idolise him in a way that makes them utterly unbelievable and puppeteered in ways that are at painful odds with the season’s silky quality and vibrant character chemistry elsewhere.
Rory’s death amidst a senseless war of misunderstanding might’ve been genuinely potent (hinting that maybe Adric should’ve died in Warriors instead), but the subsequent histrionics and the script’s preceding suspiciously manipulative or outright insincere dialogue overall kill it quickly.
Like in Saw, the humans blame each other for Ambrose stupidly killing the Silurian prisoner and even her son treats her contemptfully, just to maintain the illusion of a moral point and prevent the realisation this is morally incoherent. Why would Ambrose’s son, having been abducted by strangers, be disgusted when his mother (who he might’ve well have dreaded he’d never see again) killed one of the abductees? Because we’re meant to be too.
Yet next week the Doctor easily forgives Van Gogh for thoughtlessly killing the genuinely misunderstood blind giant chicken.
This isn’t quite Warriors of the Deep. It resists the temptation to deliver revenge on Ambrose. Which is a relief, because otherwise it’d be punishing her for doing exactly what Amy later does to Kovarian for the exact same reason.
But it’s still horrible. Revealing nothing about our human condition or our misunderstandings. Just demonstrating how a spiteful, evil Silurian willing to die to start a senseless war can terrorise and taunt a distressed mother into killing her with the most survivable millisecond’s accidental tasering I’ve ever seen. How insightful.
But when the writer of the nasty, rotten-hearted Cyberwoman tries preaching about being better people, the results will inevitably be appallingly hollow.
The resolution’s appallingly lazy whereby the race is put back on freeze for another millennium (I was so hoping peace negotiations would be successful enough to decanonise Warriors completely), the hibernation process conveniently pours toxic gas around the stasis pods to kill our villainess. So what was the point? But of course the answer’s just more action figure merchandise.