Doctor Who in the 2010s: the Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, and Jodie Whittaker years

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Doctor Who reinvented itself more often in the 2010s than any other decade. But what did stars Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, and Jodie Whittaker each bring to the show?

Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now approaching its 60th anniversary, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character. In this weekly series, three Doctor Who fans go through the greatest show in the galaxy, decade by decade…

Part Six: The 2010s

“Something old. Something new. Something borrowed. Something blue.”

For the first time since the 1980s, Doctor Who in the 2010s was a going concern on BBC One for the whole decade. After Russell T Davies’ exit, the programme phased out the “newness” that fuelled each series launch and became as constant as any show that changes its entire regular cast every few years can be.

Starting with David Tennant’s regeneration on New Year’s Day 2010, the decade saw the Doctor turn into Matt Smith, then Peter Capaldi, then Jodie Whittaker, with sneaky special guest-Doctor John Hurt in between. Companions ranged from rising stars Karen Gillan and Jenna Coleman to established favourites Matt Lucas and Bradley Walsh. Spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures concluded and another one, BBC Three’s Class, came and went in 2016.

Since quality TV has ticked over into “peak TV”, Doctor Who has competed with a multitude of other geeky franchises. Up against everything, everywhere, all at once, the programme reached new heights of popularity internationally, but also grew up with its 2005 audience and, both for better and worse, narrowed its focus.

This all unfolded under two different showrunners, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall. They each keep companions on for longer than RTD did, but there’s greater separation in their tenures than between the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ eras.

Read more: Doctor Who in the 2000s | The Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years

With a lead that Moffat once gushingly described as “Patrick Moore in the body of an underwear model”, the Eleventh Doctor’s era projects Davies-era domesticity onto an intergalactic adventure sitcom. Smith’s ancient amateur, his future in-laws Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) and the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston) are an unusual family unit, and Moffat’s affinity for plotting setups and punchlines supports the story.

Later, companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) connects Eleven to the more Byronic Twelfth Doctor, whose recent younger incarnations are explicitly compared to masking. Often mischaracterised as a Doctor for the Rick & Morty generation, Capaldi is great from the off, but also grows in the role. Whether intended or not, he gets the most character development of any Doctor on TV. Plus, according to readers of Doctor Who Magazine, he’s in the two best stories ever televised.

While most of the Whittaker and Chibnall era came in the 2020s, their first series is a distinct product of the 2010s, so we’ll cover that here. Series 11 couches its progressive casting and broader scope in a more nostalgic and (small-c) conservative approach, but it’s a stronger vision than fans often credit.

With RTD’s return as showrunner, there’s been much emphasis on his previous run as a golden era, so let’s cut through that here. Yes, as popular entertainment, 2000s Who is tricky to beat. But while each of the three incarnations of the show in the following decade have their fans and detractors, it’s easier to imagine each of them being somebody’s all-time favourite version. Geronimo…!

Arcs of infinity (2010 – 2013)

To paraphrase a certain writer, people assume that Doctor Who is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

Nevertheless, that writer has copped to the script for 2007’s Blink getting him the showrunner job after Davies, which seems straightforward enough. Accordingly, Steven Moffat’s first series as showrunner is a steel trap of arc-plotting, scaling up the pleasing mysteries and resolutions of his previous stories across a 13-episode arc.

After Tennant declined an offer to come back for one more series (the first episode would have seen the Tenth Doctor crash the TARDIS on his way to regenerate in the series finale, then circled back), Moffat designed the new Doctor as an incarnation who’s always dealing with the fallout of events that take place at the end of his life.

In series five’s opener The Eleventh Hour, Smith makes the role his own from his first meeting with seven-year-old Amy Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) and later teams up with Gillan’s grown-up Amy. Though connected by the story arc, the episodes themselves are relatively self-contained, (and none more so than the hugely moving Vincent And The Doctor, a one-off in many regards).

Read more: Doctor Who in the 1990s | The Paul McGann movie and other hiatus adventures

Beyond the sitcom shenanigans, Moffat underpins a lot of his sci-fi and horror with constructs of sight and memory. Kicking off with a big eyeball monster in episode one, he reintroduces the Weeping Angels (who you have to look at to keep from killing you), creates the Silence (who you have to look at to keep from forgetting them), and bases the Eleventh Doctor’s last two episodes around him alternately remembering and seeing the Time War, the revival’s formative event.

Cracks in time and omens of a potential TARDIS-splosion are seeded until the two-part finale, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, gives us a long succession of payoffs and, yes, punchlines. If you’re not on your feet when Amy delivers that opening quote as the TARDIS arrives on her wedding day, then maybe this approach was never for you.

But that series five finale is the biggest departure from the RTD era in two big ways. Firstly, it’s got a definitive happy ending (in which regard it is still all but unique among New Who finales), and second, it refocuses the usual Earth-centric finale on a Doctor-centric crisis, which continues in successive Moffat-written finales.

New Who Mark II was well received by UK fans, critics, and audiences, but the show’s profile was growing overseas too. Starting with A Christmas Carol, new episodes of Doctor Who were broadcast on BBC America on the same day as their UK transmission. As Netflix expanded into a global streaming service, the back-catalogue since 2005 became available for international audiences to catch up on.

Doctor Who was never as big in the US as the biggest shows of the time, but it made stars of Smith and (to a much bigger extent) Gillan, and the American location shoots in series six’s opening Impossible Astronaut two-parter and series seven’s The Angels Take Manhattan certainly reflect the show’s enlarged Stateside profile.

However, the next series is a little shakier, buffeted by a late-in-the-day reconfiguration of the planned story arc around the same mid-season finale format used by AMC’s The Walking Dead. At the midpoint, enemies abduct Amy and Rory’s new-born daughter Melody and transform her into River, while the bookends of each half explore the Doctor’s apparently pre-destined death.

With their Doctor-centric focus, Moffat’s scripts and season-plotting frequently experiment with Doctor Who’s cliffhanger paradox – you know they’re going to get out of whatever the crisis at the end of the episode is, because it’s on next week – by going from micro to macro. It’s not just a whole week until you find out, but often a whole series, maybe longer.

The result is an arc so fluid that two completed scripts on either side of the divide were switched in the running order with minimal changes required, but it shows in the latter episode, Night Terrors, a story in which a child is abducted and Amy and Rory have no obvious feelings about it. (It was swapped with the pirate runaround The Curse Of The Black Spot.)

Series six is peppered with high points from Moffat and other writers like Neil Gaiman (who brilliantly turns the TARDIS into Suranne Jones in The Doctor’s Wife), but it’s nowhere near as satisfying or cohesive as a whole. Maybe because of this, the next series maintains the split-series approach, but creates two discrete arcs.

Read more: Doctor Who in the 1980s | The Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years

The 2012 run (let’s call it 7A) is an extended farewell to Amy and Rory, while the 2013 series (7B) properly introduces Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald and her variants. Episodes are further separated by the proliferation of one-off stories with attention-grabbing titles like Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS, and The Name Of The Doctor.

If Doctor Who is only consistently inconsistent, then Smith’s third and final series may be the most bang-average batch in its entire history. It dispenses with two-parters in favour of the “movie-poster title” standalones, but Moffat hedged by commissioning writers Gatiss, Chibnall, and Neil Cross for two scripts each in case any of their stories needed expanding. Eventually, all six episodes were standalones.

Like the Eleventh Doctor, Clara is at first defined by events that Moffat hasn’t written yet. In the stop-and-start standalone format, she’s introduced with seven episodes in a row of “Who is she?” with no extra clues until the (admittedly very good) finale says, “Here’s who”. It’s no surprise that Clara gets significantly more development in later episodes because Coleman deserves it.

Throughout this time, Moffat was focused more on the impending 50th-anniversary special, which at one point had no one contracted to appear except Coleman. Smith (whose Doctor somehow goes from series five’s socially awkward nerd to the guy who makes Les Dawson faces at any woman in a catsuit or a short skirt) decided to stop at three series, leaving two specials to wrap everything up for the Eleventh Doctor…

The long way round (2013 – 2017)

Series seven undoubtedly suffered from Moffat’s attention being diverted by the 50th anniversary, but most would agree the payoff was worth it. He eventually signed up Smith and Tennant, but when Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston declined to return for a three Doctors special (he was open to it, but there was no script ready for him), the mighty John Hurt was cast as a Time War-era Doctor, revealed at the end of the season finale.

Bolstered by two fan-favourite Doctors and a twinkly, tormented performance from Hurt, The Day Of The Doctor is Doctor Who as blockbuster event drama – a crowd-pleasing 77-minute special, shot in 3D, and simultaneously premiered on TV and in cinemas in 94 countries. You probably can’t imagine what it’s like to have Doctor Who on telly the week after a new Hunger Games movie comes out, but the special had a higher screen-average at the US box office than the 2013 sequel Catching Fire.

On a meta-level, it’s also Doctor Who that’s about Doctor Who, which sets the tone for the rest of Moffat’s era. The double-edged sword levelled at this era is that it was both popular and increasingly more aimed at the sci-fi fan demographic than the family audience, most immediately in Smith’s final special, The Time Of The Doctor. Under RTD and Moffat, the two returns of Gallifrey in Christmas Day regeneration stories in 2010 and 2013 are not like-for-like.

And in one of Moffat’s trademark subversions, the actual name of the Doctor is less important than the name of “the Doctor”, which they chose for themselves. That theme starts in The Day Of The Doctor and foreshadows the kind of thing that troubles Capaldi’s Doctor throughout his lifetime.

Read more: Doctor Who in the 1970s | The Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years

Cards on the table – Peter Capaldi is my favourite Doctor so far. As well as being a lifelong fan, Capaldi is arguably the best actor ever to play the part and across his three series, his Doctor learns and grows and changes the most. He even settles down and gets married for a while there, before an inevitably tragic endgame.

There’s a little correction on the fly here and there, but the Doctor’s arc of introspection and self-interrogation is coherent across the run, from the explicit discussion of masking in Deep Breath to self-acceptance by the time he exits in Twice Upon A Time.

Underneath that, Moffat explores Doctor Who as a monolith. Starting in Smith’s era, the Doctor’s permanence becomes a dramatic sticking point. Rose and Martha grappled with the practicalities of romance with the Doctor, but with the longer-serving Moffat companions, the question is whether friendship is even possible. And whether it might get them killed in the end.

This is tangled up in the Doctor’s longest friendship, with Missy. Michelle Gomez is perfectly cast as the first female incarnation of the Master, and she’s easily the best incarnation since Roger Delgado as she sharks in and out of various stories. That’s also countered by the functionally immortal Me (nee. Ashildr, played by Maisie Williams) throughout series nine.

Plus, the show transitions from “celebrity historicals” with Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon and Queen Nefertiti to fantasy stories that measure the Doctor against figures from legend and pop culture. There’s Robin Hood in Robot Of Sherwood, Santa Claus in Last Christmas, Odin in The Girl Who Died, and even an off-brand Superman figure in The Return Of Doctor Mysterio.

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who 2010s

This doesn’t go on in a vacuum – Moffat’s version of making the companion a central character is for Clara to be a match for the Doctor. Series eight and nine build up their friendship to the point where neither of them can do without it but doesn’t shy away from what that really looks like. And for once, the answer is more tragic for the Doctor than the companion in the end.

Fans quibble about Clara’s prominence in the canon, as if Doctor Who has got one, (it hasn’t) but again, this profile boost is only fair to Coleman, when a couple of years later, she would probably have been in the frame to play the Doctor rather than the companion. (Johanna Constantine is good in Netflix’s The Sandman, eh?)

Running in late 2015, series nine and its (brilliant) Christmas special, The Husbands Of River Song were intended as Moffat’s final work as showrunner. However, when Chibnall was announced as his successor in January 2016, he was committed to a third series of Broadchurch for ITV.

As the incumbent, Moffat ran one more series and two more specials to keep the show going in 2017. And after the catharsis of writing Clara and River out, series ten is something of a soft reboot, which sees the Doctor hole up at St Luke’s University in Bristol for arc reasons.

Read more: Doctor Who in the 1960s | The William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton years

The cheekily titled opener, The Pilot, introduces the marvellous Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, a young lesbian who works in the university canteen, and promotes previous guest star Matt Lucas to the second companion role as cyborg valet Nardole. It’s a dream TARDIS team that could have gone on longer than one series.

However, the second half of the run is more about resolving Missy’s arc, culminating in the return of the original Cybermen (included partly because they were Capaldi’s bucket-list adversaries) and John Simm’s Master in World Enough And Time and The Doctor Falls.

When Doctor Who Magazine recently polled fans for the 60th anniversary, this grimly excellent finale came second only to series nine’s existentially terrifying one-hander Heaven Sent in the top 10 greatest TV stories ever (the ballot included the top three stories from each Doctor’s previous polls). And perhaps there’s no better summation of this era being “the Doctor Who fan’s Doctor Who” than that.

Planned or not, the thread of the Doctor’s place in folklore culminates with the Twelfth Doctor meeting his first incarnation in Capaldi’s swansong, Twice Upon A Time – an episode Moffat described as “both coda and drumroll” for the new era, after Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first female Doctor in July 2017.

Sunday service (2018 – 2019)

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who 2010s

Of course, this was instantly popular, and nobody had any complaints about any of the changes in the Chibnall era, like the reduction to 10 episodes in the face of BBC Drama’s shrinking budget or the entirely practical move to Sunday evenings in an autumn TV schedule dominated by Strictly Come Dancing. Could you imagine if either of these had prompted serious online debates about whether Doctor Who was in terminal decline? Ha!

Anyway, The Woman Who Fell To Earth presents a full 60-minute makeover of the show, led by Whittaker’s bouncy, hyperactive performance. In a decade of stacked TARDIS teams, the show surrounds the Thirteenth Doctor with new companions Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh).

This opener also features Chibnall’s best-ever line for the show, as the new Doctor describes regeneration: “There’s this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die, and then you’re born.” (Take note, all you “10 episodes on Sundays” keyboard warriors.)

We’re only learning more about Chibnall’s behind-the-scenes approach to showrunning from the horse’s mouth in the exit interviews he’s given since leaving the show in 2022. His recent appearance on the WHO Corner To Corner podcast is instructive about his early days as showrunner.

One of the key things is that even as a fan, he wanted a reason to make Doctor Who other than “just making more Doctor Who. As has already been much publicised, he always wanted to cast a female Doctor, but he also wanted to introduce the next generation of writers and directors and crewmembers rather than keeping on the same people.

His first run is most successful in that aim. Series 11 had all-new-to-Who directors and used a writers’ room format that’s unusual in the UK TV system, with Chibnall and writers Ed Hime, Pete McTighe, Vinay Patel, and Joy Wilkinson collaborating to break stories and plan the new season. Chibnall also co-wrote the episode Rosa with Malorie Blackman.

It wasn’t a total success – Chibnall didn’t share his plans to make the Doctor a woman with his writers until the news was announced and also admitted that he ran out of time to rewrite his finale script while also working on everyone else’s scripts. Still, there are triumphs too, in standouts like Demons Of The Punjab, The Witchfinders, and It Takes You Away.

If Moffat’s background in sitcoms informed his Doctor Who, you can also see that Chibnall’s experience showrunning procedural dramas like Law & Order UK, Broadchurch and, closer to home, Torchwood. On top of Yaz being a police officer, series 11 trends more towards investigations than adventures, with the large team built to split up and ask questions. Plus, Walsh poses an entirely different definition of “for the dads” than any companion casting before.

And for the first time since Tom Baker was in the TARDIS, it’s a full series with no returning monsters, which is refreshing in itself. Arriving a week after Christmas, it’s the festive special which pits the Thirteenth Doctor against a ramshackle Dalek. Notably missing an “Of The Daleks” from its title, Resolution rounds off Chibnall’s reinvention of the show and foreshadows more continuity and callbacks in the following two series.

The first and last new Doctor Who episodes of the 2010s both aired on New Year’s Days. As in decades before, what comes between is a patchwork of old, new, borrowed, and sometimes (usually from Moffat) blue bits. On paper, both showrunners drive the show like they stole it, but in practice, their reinventions of the show all colour within the lines of the modern show’s status as a primetime BBC One show. So far, the 2020s have posed other challenges…

One day, they will come back…

We mentioned Kate Stewart in the 1990s column, but it’s the Jemma Redgrave incarnation who’s become a staple of the series. She first appears in 2013’s The Power Of Three, and in the time it took for Nicholas Courtney’s character to meet three Doctors, Jemma Redgrave has acted opposite Smith, Tennant, Hurt, Capaldi, Whittaker, and in the next few specials, Tennant again! Also, David Bradley has gone from playing William Hartnell in the drama An Adventure In Space And Time to playing the First Doctor proper and a “Guardian Of The Edge” in 2022’s The Power Of The Doctor.

The Silence and the Pting both appear with other incarcerated returning monsters in 2021’s Revolution Of The Daleks. Otherwise, it’s a bit soon to tell what elements introduced in the 2010s might turn up in the 2020s and beyond, but there are various new-to-Who writers who we hope will write more Doctor Who – talents like Sarah Dollard, Jamie Mathieson, Vinay Patel, and Joy Wilkinson.

And of course – the Thirteenth Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan all kicked off Doctor Who in the 2020s, so we’ll come back to them before long…

Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 2010s

1. Murray Gold continues as the series’ composer from 2010 to 2017, overseeing a few new arrangements of the theme music, but also creating unforgettable motifs for the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors. The stonkingly good “I Am The Doctor” revs up most of the action and promotion of Smith’s episodes, while the Capaldi-flavoured “Am I A Good Man?” waxes and wanes more subtly throughout his era.

2. Among many more Christmas specials, 2010’s A Christmas Carol is the festive outing par excellence. Drawing from both Dickens’s essential novel and Moffat’s 1996 short story Continuity Errors, the special casts the late great Michael Gambon as a loveless miser whose past and present are reshaped one Christmas Eve. Oh, and there’s a flying shark. Ho ho ho!

3. Filmmaker Rachel Talalay is the strongest Doctor Who director this decade. She directed all three of Capaldi’s series finales, plus Twice Upon A Time, and she’s also directed this weekend’s 60th-anniversary special, The Star Beast. As with those writers named above, we hope to see her credited on further RTD2 episodes!

4. Much of series 11 gets a glow-up on repeat viewing, away from the reactive cauldron on transmission, but I maintain that It Takes You Away will have its time in years to come. By turns dark, creepy, funny, and plain surreal – truly, the most Doctor Who thing that happens all decade is the Doctor having to gently break up with a frog to save the universe.

5. The 2010s saw a boom in Doctor Who video games, with a big Matt Smith-era push that ranged from the BBC’s official online Adventure Games series to the Nintendo Wii games and sonic-screwdriver Wiimote. Jodie Whittaker fronted VR games The Runaway and The Edge Of Time later in the decade. But the highlight of the decade was probably Doctor Who's foray into LEGO Dimensions, presenting the ideal game version of the series with the toy franchise’s trademark sense of humour.

6. It’s marvellous that all the surviving old-testament Doctors were involved in the 50th-anniversary celebrations, from Paul McGann’s return and regeneration in the prequel minisode The Night Of The Doctor, to Tom Baker’s cheeky cameo as “the Curator” in the episode proper. The others appeared in The Five-ish Doctors Reboot, an extended sketch released on iPlayer. Written and directed by Peter Davison, the short sees him and fellow classic Doctors Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (and an unsurprisingly cagey McGann) playing Curb Your Enthusiasm-alike exaggerations of themselves who try to crash the party. Bonus points for Russell T Davies hilariously foreshadowing this week’s big controversy in his final cameo – “Quel dommage, Davros!”

Doctor Who returns to BBC One this Saturday at 6:30pm, and we’ll be back in a few weeks for a look at the 2020s so far. Until then – laugh hard, run fast, be kind. Oh, and feel free to share your favourite things about 2010s Doctor Who in the comments…

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