Doctor Who's current showrunner, and the third since its return to the air in 2005, Chris Chibnall, has announced he is leaving the series after the next season (expected to air this autumn) and a series of four TV movies to follow, airing up to the end of 2022. A new showrunner is expected to take over in 2023. This would ordinarily be daunting, but might be even moreso in this case, as 2023 is also Doctor Who's 60th anniversary.
The field of potential replacement showrunners is much more open than it was in 2014, the last time this question arose, with more chance of a wildcard selection creeping in. Still, let's take a look at the options.
If you want a slam-dunk, "that was easy," choice, Mark Gatiss is arguably the most obvious selection. He has more than twenty years of experience as a television writer and showrunner, having co-showrun the League of Gentlemen franchise (along with his co-creators) since its TV inception (and on radio before that). Since 2010 he has also written and co-produced Sherlock, alongside ex-Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat. He also co-created Dracula. He is also an experienced actor, having recently starred in Taboo, Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones (as Tycho Nestoris, of the Iron Bank of Braavos).
His Doctor Who experience is significant: he has written five Doctor Who novels and four audio plays since 1992, written multiple short stories and penned no less than nine episodes of the series itself, ranging from 2005's The Unquiet Dead to 2017's Empress of Mars. He also wrote the 2013 drama about the creation of the show itself, An Adventure in Space and Time, which was a highlight of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Bearing in mind that the new showrunner is taking over in the show's 60th anniversary year, Gatiss is probably the strongest candidate to do something interesting that draws on the show's history.
A few things may count against Gatiss: the BBC has been showing signs of preferring a clean slate from the Russell T. Davies/Steven Moffat era, and might prefer someone with a fresh attitude to the show. In that sense, Gatiss might be over-experienced from his previous Doctor Who work. His episode form is arguably variable (though his novel form was much stronger). However, his recent break from the show (he did not pen any episodes during the Chibnall era) and pursuing other projects might have helped develop his experience (just as Chibnall arguably had to earn his chance to work on the show via Broadchurch).
Sally Wainwright is a formidably-experienced British television producer and writer, noted for creating the offbeat drama At Home with the Braithwaites (starring former Doctor Who Peter Davison), followed by Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and the critically-acclaimed Gentleman Jack.
She has no Doctor Who experience and limited SFF genre form, but is otherwise one of the most critically-regarded TV producers and writers working in British television; several papers and commentators have ranked Wainwright as the leading choice for the role. The BBC might also consider it a bonus to have a woman as showrunner, something that has not happened since 1965 (when Verity Lambert, Doctor Who's first effective showrunner, stepped down), especially if the next Doctor is also to be played by a woman (which remains unconfirmed).
The main negative against Wainwright is the success of Gentleman Jack in the United States, where it airs as a co-production with HBO, potentially opening up the US film and TV market to Wainwright, which she might choose to pursue over several years attached to a difficult-to-make and under-funded Doctor Who. Wainwright may also prefer to focus on Gentleman Jack, which is shooting a second season and may continue beyond that, rather than hand the project over to someone else.
Whithouse was easily the favourite choice to take over from Moffat when he announced his departure, and some fans remain baffled why he wasn't selected over the arguably less-experienced Chibnall (though Chibnall had scored a bigger one-off hit with Broadchurch).
Whithouse is best-known for creating and showrunning No Angels, Being Human, The Game and Nought and Crosses, which have attracted reasonable degrees of critical acclaim over the years. His Doctor Who experience has also been reasonable, consisting of six episodes of the show proper (from School Reunion in 2006 to The Lie of the Land in 2017) and one of spin-off show Torchwood. His Doctor Who work has been relatively well-received by the (notoriously fickle) fanbase.
The points against Whithouse are not particularly strong. He is less of a known "superfan" than Gatiss, which the BBC may prefer (although that might count against Whithouse in the anniversary period). More significant is the fact that he has signed on to executive produce and showrun a new TV adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels alongside Neil Gaiman. However, the project has not moved forwards in three years and Gaiman's recent development of multiple new projects with Netflix and Amazon may have put it on the backburner, potentially freeing up Whithouse for Who.
J. Michael Straczynski
A writer-producer with arguably more showrunning experience than everyone else on this list combined. Straczynski is most famous as the showrunner and executive producer of the cult space opera classic Babylon 5, whose unusually-for-the-time heavily-serialised story arc was strongly inspired by both Doctor Who and fellow BBC SF series Blake's 7.
Straczynski's other work is extremely formidable: he co-wrote and co-showrun (with the Wachowskis) the Netflix drama series Sense8, and was the lead writer-showrunner on Jeremiah and Babylon 5 spinoff projects Crusade, Legend of the Rangers and The Lost Tales. He also wrote and produced for Murder, She Wrote, Jake and the Fatman and Walker, Texas Ranger. He was also a key writer in animation, and got a lot of acclaim for his work on The Real Ghostbusters.
In film, he co-wrote the 2011 Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Thor (and had a cameo in the film), and also has script credits for Underworld: Awakening and World War Z. He wrote, and was nominated for an Oscar, for his screenplay for the 2008 movie Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie.
In comics, Straczynski has had popular runs on The Amazing Spider-Man (including the acclaimed 9/11 issue), Silver Surfer, Thor and Superman: Earth One, as well as creating the properties Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. He recently created or co-created and wrote, The Resistance, Moths and Telepaths.
He has also penned three novels, an autobiography and two guidebooks on scriptwriting and writing in general. He has also posthumously prepared for publication The Last Dangerous Visions, a fifty-year project undertaken by his friend and mentor Harlan Ellison before his passing in 2018.
Straczynski has not written in the Doctor Who franchise before, but has noted his fandom of the series since watching the original series on PBS, starting in the 1970s. He has cast multiple Doctor Who actors in his shows (including Sylvester McCoy and Freema Agyeman on Sense8), has frequently mentioned it on his Twitter account and certainly has the writing chops to tackle the project and the showrunning experience to make it work.
He does have one potential strike against him: he is American. Although there is no formal rule against an American working on Doctor Who, especially as a producer-writer (American actors have appeared on the show before), the BBC seems lukewarm on the idea. They rejected a script idea by acclaimed American SFF novelist Joe Hill a few years ago, despite the endorsement of Neil Gaiman, apparently solely because he was American. Doctor Who is seen as the jewel in the crown of UK TV productions with worldwide appeal, and putting an American in charge seems politically iffy at the BBC. However, as many have pointed out, Doctor Who was created in 1963 by a Canadian (Sydney Newman) and its second showrunner, John Wiles, was South African.
There is also the possibility that, despite Straczynski's enthusiasm on Twitter for the idea, that when presented with the reality of the pay (low by US standards), the time commitment (all-consuming) and the need to move to the UK for the duration, he might reconsider the idea, especially given the other projects he is involved with. However, Straczynski is, easily, the most popular current choice with the fans, has a wide-ranging knowledge of the show and its history, and would bring back the sense of SF adventure whilst continuing the apparent BBC wish for social awareness in its storytelling (as a cursory look at Sense8 would confirm). Straczynski is arguably the strongest choice on the list, but I suspect not the most realistically likely.
Herron is a nuclear-hot writer-producer-director at the moment after directing the extremely well-received first season of Loki for Marvel. Herron has already ruled herself out of returning for a second season and is looking at other projects. Her other credentials are reasonable and varied.
However, Herron may be ruled out due to inexperience: she directed Loki but was not the showrunner. She also does not have a ton of recent writing experience, her sole writing credit since 2014 being the short film Smear. Still, Herron is a favourite for those looking for a fresh creative with a lot of talent, especially those who have been advocating a return to Doctor Who's "classic" setup of splitting the showrunner role between a business-focused executive producer and a creative-focused script editor.
If the BBC decides to promote from within, arguably the most likely choice from Chibnall's existing roster of writers is Pete McTighe. McTighe wrote Kerblam! and Praxeus.
A British writer with strong experience in both the UK and Australia, where he served as a leading writer on the critically-acclaimed Wentworth (a more serious and contemporary reboot of Prisoner: Cell Block H), McTighe ticks most of the boxes as a good "compromise candidate." He has solid experience on The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Tatau, Cara Fi, Nowhere Boys and Glitch. He also became a writer and executive producer on A Discovery of Witches (produced by Bad Wolf Productions, a company founded by ex-Doctor Who vets) and earlier this year produced the well-received BBC mini-series, The Pact.
McTighe mixes recent Doctor Who experience with freshness and a lot of experience from other TV projects.
If the BBC wants continuity from the current era and McTighe is not chosen, then the next logical choice would be Vinay Patel.
He showed range with Demons of the Punjab, a serious (and Hugo-nominated) historical drama about postcolonial India, and Fugitive of the Judoon, probably the best-regarded story of the Chibnall era that mixed humour with an unexpectedly epic left turn into Doctor Who's history and future.
Patel's other work includes the critically-acclaimed television film Murdered by my Father and the first season of The Good Karma Hospital. However, Patel is seen as an outside choice due to a relative lack of experience.
Another established Doctor Who writer whose experience in the franchise ranges all the way back to the 1991 novel Timewyrm: Revelation (which inspired multiple storylines in both the Davies and Moffat eras). Cornell is widely-acclaimed as the greatest living Doctor Who writer, having penned many of the best novels in the franchise (including Love and War and Human Nature), some of the best comic stories and penning three of the best-regarded episodes of the TV series: Father's Day, Human Nature (loosely based on his novel of the same name) and The Family of Blood. All three episodes were nominated for Hugo Awards.
He has also written three Doctor Who audio dramas and the animated Doctor Who short Scream of the Shalka in 2003. He also created Bernice Summerfield, by far the most popular Doctor Who companion to never appear on screen. Cornell's other TV work includes episodes of Casualty, Holby City, Robin Hood, Primeval and Elementary.
Despite his formidable Doctor Who writing experience, Cornell has limited recent TV experience and no showrunning/producing experience, which makes him a very outside choice for the role. However, he could be formidable as script editor if the BBC decided to resurrect the split producer-script editor approach instead of a single showrunner.
Other, more unlikely-to-impossible choices:
- Neil Cross: a highly-regarded writer and producer for his work on Luther, and a leading candidate to succeed Moffat. He has written two episodes of Doctor Who. However, he is currently committed to a multi-season project for Apple TV+, The Mosquito Coast.
- Sarah Dollard: A popular choice due to her mixture of Doctor Who experience (as the writer of Face the Raven and Thin Ice) and work on other properties, including Merlin, Primeval, Being Human, A Discovery of Witches and Cuckoo Song. However, she is unlikely to be available given her commitments as a writer-producer on the hit Netflix show Bridgerton.
- Neil Gaiman: one of the most popular SFF writers in the world, with two Doctor Who writing credits to his name and a huge amount of TV experience. However, Gaiman has already ruled himself out, citing both a lack of interest in a full-time role and his existing commitments to The Sandman on Netflix and Good Omens and Anansi Boys at Amazon.
- Howard Overman: The creator of Misfits and Atlantis, and at one point a favourite to replace Moffat if the BBC wanted a fresh face with no Doctor Who experience. He recently produced the War of the Worlds mini-series and The One for Netflix, which is not expected to return for a second season. He feels like an outside chance at the moment, but not impossible.
The BBC has reportedly not yet made its choice for the role of the new Doctor Who showrunner, and I'm sure we'll hear the choice (which might very well be none of these!) in due course.