Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.
I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.
Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.
It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.
The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.
In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.
As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.
Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.
Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.
An unexpected comparison can be drawn this holiday season between two of the biggest science-fiction franchises – Doctor Who and Star Wars. In both Peter Capaldi’s final turn as the Doctor in ‘Twice Upon a Time’ and Rian Johnson’s sequel The Last Jedi, central characters openly advocate rejecting both their pasts, and indeed intertextually the pasts of their product’s own history. The Doctor, an old man on the verge of rejecting a new lifespan, ‘let’s go’ of his incarnation while The Last Jedi‘s ostensible villain, Kylo Ren, just about avoids fratricide as he advocates killing his own past, killing his own history and letting it die (and by default the known galaxy) to create something new.
In both examples, you have two long-standing, iconic storytelling franchises, both with powerful, ingrained and dedicated fanbases, actively attempting to jettison aspects which made them adored in the first place. And, indeed, in both cases, the fandom of both properties have lost their minds in desperately rejecting this rejection. I won’t rake over my earlier thoughts about the current state of fandom, but it gives birth to another question – why can’t fans let go of the past?
Bidding goodbye to another incarnation of the Doctor has now become as much a staple of Christmas Day every few years as Del & Rodders or Morecambe & Wise used to be in the days classic comedy dominated the British television landscape. Doctor Who over the last decade has cemented itself as *the* storytelling event in the UK on Christmas Day, after Russell T. Davies revived the series with a new, modern, American ‘showrunner’ style of production in 2005. We have in twelve short years got through four Doctors (five if you count John Hurt) and their life-cycle has become a repeating standard – barring Christopher Eccleston, every successive Doctor has roughly been around for three seasons over a three to four year period. Peter Capaldi has been no exception but this regeneration, in ‘Twice Upon a Time’, is different. We’re not just getting a new Doctor. We’re about to get an entirely new Who.
The last time this happened was 2009, at the very end of David Tennant’s hugely successful run as the Doctor. ‘The End of Time’ saw an emotional goodbye for Tennant, which perhaps reflected outgoing showrunner Davies—the man who had revived this entire world. “I don’t want to go!” the Doctor admitted before regenerating into Matt Smith, who sailed into a new era in 2010 with Steven Moffat at the helm. Moffat had already been well-regarded during RTD’s reign, writing some of the cleverest and more memorable stories over the first four seasons such as ‘The Empty Child/’The Doctor Dances’ (“are you my Mummy?”), ‘Blink’ which introduced the terrifying Weeping Angels, and ‘Silence in the Library’/‘Forest of the Dead’ where he introduced Alex Kingston’s River Song and her unique, complicated relationship with the Doctor. Moffat was the natural choice to take over.
Arguably, Moffat changed the very texture of Doctor Who. His term as show runner coincided with a move to HD and a ramped up budget, allowing for numerous filming excursions abroad to places such as Spain or New York. Davies’ style of storytelling had been earthy, grounded and accessible; his Doctors were broad-accented Northerners or charming, swaggering men. Their companions were council estate girls or traditional British working class, strong women who were swept away into a world of adventure, carried off from their humdrum lives. Davies’ stories centred heavily around Earth or the defence of Earth from alien invaders, introducing classic monsters from the Original Series of Who, tapping into B-movie concepts, and generally having a similar arc each season, building to an apocalyptic battle to save humanity and the planet Earth.
Moffat immediately changed that paradigm when Smith’s Doctor was born. His Doctor was famously an old man in a young man’s body, far less aware of his own charm and sexiness than Tennant’s incarnation, and stripped of Eccleston’s severe angst. Moffat’s companions were far more caustic, sarcastic and in many respects middle-class professional; women who were embroiled very much in the dark, strange fairytale Moffat converted the style of the show into. Smith’s Doctor was presented as ‘a mad man in a box’, a modern-day wizard entrenched in a level of myth and legend; indeed Smith’s entire run was characterised by how the Doctor was viewed by the rest of the universe, how he tried to reinvent himself as a different man, before facing his ultimate, unspoken sins at the end of Smith’s run. To time with the series fiftieth anniversary, Moffat literally asked, in dialogue and subtext: Doctor… Who?