It’s a rarity that a show manages to have the same lifespan as Doctor Who. Due to its science fiction nature and the fact that its protagonist can change actor, the show has managed to live over half a century on our screens (on and off, of course). Here in the UK too it’s embedded in the zeitgeist of our country- there’s something quintessentially British about The Doctor and the TARDIS, something that manages to go further than the concept of beloved iconography.
When the show was brought back in 2005 by writer Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, A Very English Scandal) it managed to reclaim Saturday night television, bringing the Daleks, Cybermen and hard sci-fi concepts to the mainstream as it did all those years before. Steven Moffat soon took over, and whilst some found his quality to slip throughout his tenure, the announcement of Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch) as the new showrunner for season 11 left many fans a little worried about what was going to happen to their show. The announcement of Jodie Whittaker (Journeyman, Adult Life Skills) as the new Doctor filled many with hope, and the announcements of new talent had many excited for the show to begin its 10-week run late in 2018.
It’s difficult to talk about the quality of the show now thanks to the numerous outcries of those who either accuse naysayers of being sexist or those who praise the show as being ‘too politically correct’. Frankly, in a television show which has dictated the rules of the Time Lords many times over, having a female Doctor doesn’t make any difference as long as the performer is up to the challenge, and I feel as though Whittaker was, and continues to be, a strong choice. It’s disgusting the way people have treated the show online, and it’s an elephant that no longer sits in the room but takes up the whole table. This change in Doctor Who is natural, and isn’t trying to coerce any kind of agenda or correctness regime… but that doesn’t mean it’s good television.
Chibnall’s previous work as a writer on the show includes episodes such as ‘42’, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ and ‘The Power of Three’ – none of which are particular high points in the show’s run. The role of a showrunner has previously involved writing pinnacle episodes for the series too, and whilst it was yet to be seen how he worked when steering the overall direction of the show, his dual duty as a writer made many worry. So here we are, the shortest series since the show’s revival, filled with standalone episodes and no returning enemies or overarching storyline as per Chibnall’s requests. The overall experience is one of just nothing, and to be honest I don’t see myself returning to really any of these episodes in the future apart from completionist’s sake.
The season’s opener ‘The Woman who Fell to Earth’ actually works rather well as an introduction to this new era of the show. Absent for the first time are the show’s titles, and we’re only briefly shown Segun Akinola’s wonderful incarnation of the theme during the episode’s credits, but that makes the premiere feel more like an event. Instantly we can see this is the best the show has looked too, thanks to the anamorphic lenses the BBC has decided to utilise. The visual effects are sharper, and the cinematography and direction throughout the series remains top-notch throughout, with particular praise going to Jamie Childs who tackle four of the ten instalments. There are small standout visual moments and technical achievements that are hard to ignore sprinkled throughout the season such as in ‘The Ghost Monument’ that features a stunningly-confident long take within a crashing spaceship helmed by director Mark Tonderai that just makes me wish the content of the episodes themselves were as good as their packaging.
Aside from Chibnall, every writer for the show this year is new, including the show’s first black and minority ethnic female writers (which is insane, considering how old the show is). Novelist Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses) co-wrote the season’s third instalment ‘Rosa’ surrounding activist Rosa Parks with showrunner Chris Chibnall, while the rest of the new writers each took control of episodes on their own to various degrees of success. If there was a word to describe the overall feeling of the plots this season, it would have to be something along the lines of ‘light’. Almost every story felt bare-bones in terms of concepts and character motivations, with none of the synergy present within the previous years of the show. Instead of allowing complex science fiction concepts flow in and out naturally within the narrative, instead episodes usually consisted of ‘get from A to B. Avoid C. But wait, C is actually nice. Watch out for B instead’. It’s been a common criticism between fans this year that the number of alien or monstrous threats is worryingly low, and that the show tended to follow the rule of ‘it’s humans who are the monsters all along’ every week. Episodes such as ‘Demons of the Punjab’ and ‘Arachnids in the UK’ in particular are offenders of this, with the latter in particular feeling like a wasted opportunity for a fun ‘monster-of-the-week’ adventure that the show used to pull off so well when instead we were heavy-handedly given a Donald Trump-esque lecture on the dangers of being selfish which, again wasted the rather good visual effects work on the giant spiders inhabiting an abandoned hotel.
The quality of the writing sadly reflects onto the new characters too. We’re now a full season into her tenure as the pivotal Time Lord and yet I feel as if Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is the least developed of the four main protagonists. Initially she stumbled onto the scene with a curiously restrained eccentricity that placed her somewhere in between David Tennant and Matt Smith. Many Doctors’ first outings feature a similar portrayal, however as the episodes went on I began to worry more and more about the lack of change. She still stumbles around and talks over herself; she becomes infatuated with the smallest little details and whilst this is a welcome personality for many different incarnations of the character it never stood in the way of the Time Lord’s drive or his need to solve the problem. There are multiple occasions in season eleven where her companions often figure out pivotal information at the same time as, or even before her. I understand the idea behind a more immature Doctor, but to make her a liability in her own show does both the character and Jodie Whittaker a disservice. We know that she’s capable of electricity on screen, yet aside from a futile episode or two where the writers attempt to give her some gravitas we’re still yet to really know anything about this Doctor. It’s the most glaring problem in a season filled with them and one that the show might not be able to recover from it if isn’t rectified soon.
This season also introduces us to a trio of new companions. Police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) is the most underutilized of the three. Aside from ‘Demons of the Punjab’ and ‘Kerblam!’, Yaz is sadly limited to small reactionary roles within the episodes. Even after meeting her family we’re still left in the dark about her character. There’s also (sometimes) Dyspraxic Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) – a struggling young man who went to school with Yaz who serves as the show’s primary source of comic relief. His ordinary attitude to alien worlds is unoriginal but welcome in a series like this, and Cole takes any moment he can to try and flesh out Ryan with some background work and small comedic moments which are nice to see.
Then there’s Ryan’s recent grandfather Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh). Simultaneously managing to be the best performed and written character on the show, he’s driven to escape the Earth alongside The Doctor after the death of his wife/Ryan’s grandma Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) at the hands of an alien bounty hunter in the season opener. Walsh, whose only acting experience thus far has been small guest appearances or stints on soap operas in the UK, is a revelation. He embodies Graham with a warmth and desire to strengthen his relationship with his grandson, whilst managing to be the heart and soul of the TARDIS team. Even when sidelined during an episode Graham’s role feels larger than it is thanks to his performance, and his ability to bare the front of the emotion throughout the season is nothing short of wonderful. He essentially takes on some of the roles that The Doctor would have had in previous seasons, which brings me onto something else entirely.
The presence of four protagonists works for a number of shows that are used to segregating individuals for a period of time, but for a show like Doctor Who where everyone needs to be involved for the full fifty minutes it leaves a lot to be desired. As a byproduct of having to juggle so many characters, more often than not one is completely forgotten (typically Yaz) whilst traits that used to be found together in one character (The Doctor) are split up between multiple individuals. The Doctor herself doesn’t feel important. I understand the Scooby-Doo esque aesthetic they’re going for here, with them operating as a team trying to solve what’s going on, but more often than not it doesn’t work.
When it does however, we’re offered a glimpse of hope that shines brightly. New writer Pete McTighe’s episode ‘Kerblam!’, about an Amazon-like shipping company that holds a dark secret, reeks of classic Doctor Who. Characters are sectioned off to figure different aspects out, but everything seems to flow. The comedy is on point, the guest stars actually add things to the plot instead of acting as a hilarious distraction (cough, Alan Cumming, cough) and better yet, the episode also makes full use of Yaz. It’s another relatively simple story, but features just enough twists and turns (that are actually relevant to the plot) to be satisfying throughout its runtime, and is easily the best episode of the run. Both ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab’ harken back to the BBC’s original intention with the show to offer up some form of educational entertainment within its time-travelling premise. Both work well enough too, with ‘Rosa’ in particular telling a timely story solidly up until its finale, where a misguided and manipulative melodramatic pop song is played over the final minutes robbing it of its impact. The opposite can be said for India-set ‘Demons of the Punjab’ whose final moments wipe away some of the episode’s cold exterior with a bolstering emotional chant that cries with a desperate betrayal and murder within the episode.
Don’t get me wrong, no episode is without its merit. Writer Ed Hime’s ‘It Takes You Away’ features a bold and brilliant concept, one which should have been granted a two-parter to save it from becoming a jumbled mess thanks to rushed pacing. Instead, alongside trying to inject some education into the show, Chibnall also swore to steer away from two-parters or story-arcs for the season, as well as ruling out any returning foes from a previous year. A noble statement, for sure, but one that ended up leaving the majority of antagonists feeling unfinished or forgettable in comparison. To forget every foe The Doctor has come up against leaves returning viewers like myself feeling cold, unable to feel anything that resembles the show we’ve come to know and love. Chibnall’s own season finale ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Al Kovos’, whilst not even remotely feeling like such, is a faster-paced affair with a nice central story and some strong character moments for Graham, Ryan and The Doctor. It’s just a shame that instead of offering some sense of closure, it instead feels like just another episode, albeit this time one that is slapped onto the end of a run.
I’m not a stickler for change, far from it. The new TARDIS design is flat-out perfect, littered with crystal decor and an unrelenting ‘alien’ feel, whilst the show’s new opening sequence by superfan and Youtube viral hit Ben Pickles simultaneously makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end whilst oozing with sci-fi coolness. Segun Akinola’s score throughout the series highlights the limited emotional trumpths present. Initially I was worried about the show’s loss of noted composer Murray Gold, but Akinola more than brings a fresh perspective to proceedings to again prove that the season’s technical aspects have never been better.
Doctor Who will be back for ‘Resolution’ on New Year’s Day instead of the traditional Christmas special, again another shake-up to the system. Whilst it’ll be interesting to see if any notable changes have occurred in the short period between the two, it won’t be until 2020 when the show returns for season 12 when we can finally find out if the mixed reception to the season has changed proceedings. Until then though, it’s merely a hope that this year has been a troublesome blip in the quality of a show that needs to stay fresh in the minds of many in order to avoid cancelation. The last ten episodes have felt more like pre-revival Doctor Who than anything else. Whilst it could be seen as a welcome change of pace, it’s also a reminder of why the show needs to stay in shape in order to remain on our screens.