It takes only a few minutes reading blogs and watching YouTube to see that, by near universal consent, the most recent series of Doctor Who was the worst ever. In fact, not only was it the all-time worst series of Doctor Who, but actually one the worst things ever: ranking as objectively far worse than the sweet, silent scalding of unrequited love, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or even treading barefoot on an upturned 3 pin plug. Doctor Who died with Steven Moffat; and it was only the fact that the BBC persisted in screening all of Series 11, and millions of people felt obligated to continue watching it, that cloaked its bones in a sickening parody of life.
The reasons Series 11 was so egregious are complex and need not trouble us too much here. Poor writing, feeble acting, misguided attempts at celebrating ethnic diversity, and needless efforts to undergird the show with a ‘message’ are often mentioned; however, one reason for the fiasco is cited above all. Showrunner Chris Chibnall shattered 50 years of custom and stability by casting an actor who turns out not to have a penis.
We don’t know if Chibnall knew this before or after the contracts had been signed. Jodie is a gender-ambiguous name, after all; it might have been a simple misunderstanding that escalated horribly. But there are fans who entertain the darker suspicion that Chibnall was deliberately duped; refusing to believe that the wholesome young Whovian who appeared on Open Air in 1986 would ever grow up to knowingly allow the Doctor to be possessed by a woman. These fans cite as precedent the account of Ioannes Anglicus — the supposed female Pope Joan of 855-857 — which the Catholic Church still denies ever happened. So the story has it, once wise to their mistake, Vatican officials instituted a ritual by which the Pope-elect would be carried over the heads of the cardinals in a chair with a hole in its seat. Only once they had satisfied themselves as to candidate’s bona fides, would the white smoke be allowed to issue forth. Apocryphal or not, an adaptation of this ritual may point the way forward for BBC Drama in 2021.
But regardless of whether it was intentional, Chibnall’s choice shed light on a truth previously only implicit: while never actually seen, the knowledge – the faith, even – that the Doctor had more than just a sonic screwdriver, was the secret to the series’ magic and power. ‘Feminisation’ would be a disaster: ‘It wasn’t Womb of the Cybermen’ cried the fans; Black Orchid, not “Black Ovary”, Frontier in Space, not “Front Bottom”’. Imagine the impoverishment of the moving denouement to The Dalek Invasion of Earth, if the Doctor had told Susan, ‘One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. But I might not have my old chap.’ In short, without the Doctor being an heir to the Rod of Rassilon, we would have been deprived of the series’ every seminal moment.
But let us come back to the point of this article by stating an even deeper truth. While Series 11 was unquestionably the worst ever and the end of Doctor Who, so was Series 10. And Series 9. And Matt Smith’s first series. David Tennant’s third series was also the worst. And Christopher Eccleston’s year in the TARDIS, that was the worst, too. All of Sylvester McCoy’s era was the worst – except for Colin’s. Anything after Tom Baker left was rubbish as was anything before him and the seven years in between. In fact, according to the BBC’s Audience Research Panel, William Hartnell’s second season was thought the worst ever by everyone but a handful who still thought Series 1 was the worst (and had been saying so since October 1963).
So, where does this leave us? Who’s most right about which Who’s most wrong? I believe I have finally answered his question by providing the definitive hierarchy. And you’ll see that this formulation is bold, for it dispenses with the moribund methodologies of yesteryear. These all skirted the subject by taking as their unit of analysis the seasons, series, serials or episodes. This was misguided and failed to get to the bottom of the problem. So, here it is, the definitive ordering of Doctor Who, in ascending order of worst to slightly less worst:
1. The current/most recent series.
2. The next series.
3. The series from 5 years ago that you previously thought was a disaster until you re-watched it after the most recent series finished.
4. The series that was showing when you were twelve.
5. The Big Finish CDs that other people have listened to.
6. That one you’ve not seen in 10 years and can’t quite remember but it definitely had the Master in it.
7. Colin Baker’s third series.
8. Shada (until it was released).
9. The lost Troughton stories.
10. The episode that Neil Gaiman would write before he actually wrote any.
11. The feeling you had during the broadcast of the first 30 seconds of The Trial of a Time Lord.
12. The episode you want Philip Pullman to write.
And finally, since 1963, the least terrible Doctor Who ever is:
13. The first season under whoever might replace the current, awful producer.
One good solid hope is worth cartload of certainties.