It’s not a stretch to say that Doctor Who is an institution. For almost 60 years the show has attracted audiences of all ages across various generations whilst adapting to contemporary climates. Whether you were captivated by William Hartnell’s standoffish and stoic original incarnation or preferred Jon Pertwee’s Earth-bound third regeneration, there’s significant changes in presentation and storytelling depending on what period of the show you watch and it’s only natural for some to hook you more than others. With this in mind, whilst it’s not without its moments of mystery and excitement, I don’t think this particular era of the show is for me.
That’s not to say the show has become stagnant of course. Showrunner and head writer Chris Chibnall has claimed multiple times that he doesn’t read fan comments, yet season 12 largely gets rid of so many of the criticisms from season 11. Instead of standalone stories that feel weightless, we’re given an ongoing story arc that’s easily the most interesting thing about the ten episodes. The only problem is, whilst the flashes of brilliance generate hope that the show could harken back to its glory days, they also highlight some of the larger ongoing problems the show has.
Series opener ‘Spyfall’ carries all the nu-Who traditional values of a blockbuster opener. In many ways the scope of the show has never been bigger. A spy episode that features globe-trotting secret agents being murdered by an alien force is classic Doctor Who, but it’s sorely misjudged in presentation. Not to mention it kickstarts the trend of the entire season by dropping all previous plot developments the moment an iconic location or character comes in. ‘Spyfall: Part Two’ dwells on Sacha Dhawan’s new interpretation of The Master (an evil Time Lord) and instead of wrapping up the spy plot, the companions are left stranded on Earth whilst the destruction of Gallifrey is introduced. Other episodes such as ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ suffer the same fate, sacrificing an actually-engrossing ghost mystery the moment a mystical and terrifying ‘lone cyberman’ shows up. They’re better problems to have than last season’s but they’re still problems.
The return of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, Bradley Walsh’s Graham, Tosin Cole’s Ryan and Mandip Gill’s Yaz means that in order to tell a complete story, each of them has to have their own token five or six lines per episode. The cramped TARDIS team (or ‘fam’ – yes we’re still calling them that) continues to prevent any real characterisation too, and whilst it’s great that Yaz is treated to Clara-like treatment as she steps up to assume a second-in-command role it comes at the cost of Ryan and Graham. Don’t get me wrong, Mandip Gill has flourished and tiptoes the line between enthusiasm and recklessness perfectly, but it ends up feeling one-sided a lot of the time. Graham’s arc is technically finished of course after his revenge for his wife Sharon’s death last season, but the scattered two minute-long scenes that hint towards something deeper and more traumatic for him feels cheap when it’s not backed up.
Bradley Walsh continues to gracefully make the most of his everyman fish-out-of-water mannerisms and even manages to land some of the season’s biggest emotional highpoints, yet for many of the episodes he’s sparsely around. ‘Can You Hear Me?’ features an interesting development that’s left hanging in the air for him, and I can only hope the character’s future continues to develop into one worthy of the performance. Tosin Cole is even more short-changed as dyspraxic Ryan, who at first seems to be on the lookout for companionship of his own before that subplot is just forgotten about altogether. It’s a shame too, because ‘Can You Hear Me?’ also allows for his personal relationships to shine a light on the compassionate side of Ryan, and Cole nails the supportive role with some nuanced pathos. Each companion has an interesting element that could easily be expanded on, but together they continue to feel half-baked archetypes.
The Doctor fares a little better at least. One of my biggest complaints of last season was the waste of Jodie Whittaker’s talent, and here we’re finally introduced to a side of her Doctor that burns with rage and demolishes the childish whimsy she’s otherwise become known for. Seeing her home world burn before her own eyes lends a sombre commitment to her actions moving forward, and the moments where the scripts utilise this are among the best. Vinay Patel and Chibnall unite for ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ midseason, which manages to tell a complete story whilst progressing the overall plot forward and shifting the dynamics thanks to the introduction of a new, previously-unknown version of The Doctor played by a commanding Jo Martin. Not only that, but the surprise return of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness helps the episode attain a Russell T Davies-feel. This is the best episode in Chibnall’s run so far, and a prime example that all these elements can not only form a cohesive whole, but they can be fun too.
Likewise Maxine Alderton’s ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ helps introduce Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) – a lone rogue cyberman destined to bring back his people and take over the universe – and fully takes advantage of its Mary Shelley-setting to heighten the gothic horror and create a genuinely-unnerving monster movie. Director Jamie Magnus Stone takes the helm for four of the ten episodes, and unfortunately, they’re the only times where the action feels exciting and fluid. Doctor Who has never held up when compared to other action set-pieces, but it hasn’t felt distinctly lacking since the show returned in 2005. Therefore scenes of characters being chased through New York City by alien scorpions in ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’ feel extra stunted and joyless because of some strange presentation choices. The much-discussed ‘Orphan 55’ chooses odd editing techniques that highlight the limited interactions of terrifying creature ‘The Druids’ and humans together in a way that feels cheap. Such production issues are strange to see in such a flagship show and have never felt so obvious.
As for Chris Chibnall’s overall plan for the show, his final two-part finale ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ and ‘The Timeless Children’ changes much of the show’s established lore by wiping out the Time Lords and making The Doctor special by explaining she isn’t actually from Gallifrey. The ramifications and reasoning behind this can of course be discussed to death but the simple question of whether it works narratively is difficult to answer. Whilst it alludes to an apparent plan to move the show forward, it makes for a lacklustre finale bereft of action as Jodie Whittaker is paralysed and locked away for the majority of it. Sacha Dhawan’s Master manages to inject some life into proceedings by creating a fleet of CyberLords (Cybermen and Time Lords) but the exaggerated performance and erratic behaviour feel like distractions from what could have been a powerful dynamic between the two enemies. Whilst different versions of The Master have always retained an element of insanity, Dhawan’s is written with a hesitance that makes me wonder if he’s just doing all of this ‘to be evil’. It’s occasionally seconds away from becoming a moustache-twirling silent villain. Series composer Segun Akinola returns to drench scenes with orchestral grace but many of his efforts feel wasted at the hands of this half-cooked story.
Season 12 of Doctor Who improves on many of the problems its predecessor had but replaces them with equally frustrating ones at the exact same time. There is a palpable sense of admirable quality assurance throughout and this signifies hope for the future- if the show can streamline what works within its narratives and fix production issues then Jodie Whittaker and company might end up getting the stories they deserve. Whilst the highs are admittedly higher this time around however, the lows are even lower, and with endless story possibilities it’s a shame to see the show stuck in such a rut.