Series 11 is a controversial series of the show. It was the first (proper) appearance of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, her trio of companions, and Chris Chibnall as showrunner. Like Steven Moffat before him, Chibs had some pedigree. Sure, he was behind some forgettable episodes of Doctor Who, but he’d written some absolutely fantastic episodes of its sister show Torchwood. And he was just coming off the success of his smash hit Broadchurch. So expectations were high. Then they announced the new Doctor…
Firstly, I love Jodie Whittaker in the role. I think she’s so great. She brings a really energetic, almost childlike wonder to much of the show (a stark contrast to previous incarnation Capaldi). But she can do serious too, she just doesn’t do it quite as often. She’s all about love, all about her little family. It’s a nice change of pace. But there were certainly some detractors. Now, I’m certainly not saying that everyone who dislikes Jodie is a raging misogynist. In fact, the vast majority have legitimate grievances with this era of the show and/or her performance. But her casting did bring out the worst in the fandom, including that very vocal minority who couldn’t cope seeing a woman in the TARDIS. These guys basically stopped watching by series 12, but they pop up when any discourse begins on the Whittaker era. And that usually leads to accusations of “wokeism” – a ridiculous criticism.
Firstly accusing something (or someone) of being woke is insane in itself. It’s not an insult, and no matter how much right-wing pundits try, it never will be. It’s something you should be proud of. And secondly, it’s something the show has always been proud of too. Now, the terminology and buzzwords have changed but the show’s always been the most progressive thing on TV. Last series we saw the 12th Doctor ridiculing gender norms and criticising capitalism. It’s one of the reasons so many people who might ordinarily be on the outside love the show. It’s made for us. So anyone who is going to whinge about progressive ideas and messages of social justice were already on the way out. I guess what I’m saying is that despite the fancy changes, the show is the same as it’s always been. And, for the most part it’s just as good.
Now, I really enjoyed this series – way more than I did on my first rewatch. But there are some misfires and pretty glaring issues. There are too many companions, first of all. Three is too many and a lot of the time there isn’t always something for them to do, and they’re often fighting for backstory and development. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting, however. Yaz (Mandip Gill) is the most traditional companion, and is probably the most capable. Ryan (Toisin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) sort of come as a package deal, with their grandson/grandad dynamic – and that stuff is actually really touching and well handled. But on top of countless guest stars (some amazing, some underutilised) many episodes feel overstuffed.
Another glaring issue is the Doctor’s characterisation. The Doctor’s morals have never been super concrete, with all incarnations being willing to commit an evil act for the greater good. But with 13, it feels like they were too afraid to commit to this darker side of the character, leading to some inconsistencies. One moment, she’ll berate the fam for using weapons, or talk about how evil something is. In the next, she’s doing the same thing herself (such as using the DNA bombs on Tim Shaw). By themselves, these moments are okay. But across a series, the cracks start to show. Some of it is just plain mind boggling. She wants to humanely kill some giant spiders – so how is a bullet to the head more evil than starving them of oxygen? These moral questions could be interesting, but they’re rarely dwelt on. It doesn’t spoil the series, but it’s disappointing coming from Chibnall. He wrote one of my all time morally questionable Doctor moments, when he let evil slaver Solomon die in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. And he also wrote the Torchwood episodes “Countrycide” and “Adrift”, which are both absolutely phenomenal and deal with some really dark subject matter. So it’s a little disappointing he couldn’t make the Doctor’s moral compass a little less random.
But enough negativity! Because there are some absolute blinders in this series. The Malorie Blackman-penned “Rosa” is the one people always talk about, and it is a fantastic episode that deals with a really sensitive time in our (fairly) recent history. But it’s beaten, for me, by “Demons of the Punjab” which I think is one of the most interesting and melancholic ideas that the series has ever touched upon. It’s sort of the like “The Fires of Pompeii” but far more personal. The direction on this episode is also stellar and the plot presents a nice twist on the usual “evil alien” story. “The Witchfinders” is another brilliant episode, that leans heavily on the camp and macabre – basically it’s the best Mark Gatiss story not written by him, and it features a standout guest performance from Alan Cumming as Prince James. That’s followed up by “It Takes You Away” which might be the weirdest episode the show’s ever done, which culminates with the Doctor making friends with a frog (okay, that’s over simplified). It is certainly strange, but you have to go with it. I commend the show for doing something a bit surreal, in an episode with a climax that feels more Twin Peaks than anything. Let’s be honest, if Dale Cooper had a conversation with a frog, we’d all be praising David Lynch’s genius.
An unpopular opinion now – I really liked “The Tsuranga Conundrum”. This is the lowest rated episode of the new series, or one of them, on IMDB. But I think people took it too seriously. If you view it like a sci-fi riff on the old Twilight Zone episode with the gremlin on the plane (or The Simpsons parody) you’ll probably enjoy it more. There are too many characters, but it’s fun and the CG is really great. “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is an exciting opener, that introduces us to the new guys, and “Kerblam!” and “The Ghost Monument” are fun, if a little inconsistent.
The big misstep here is the finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”. Don’t let the exciting name fool you, because this is a deeply disappointing series closer. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled, but I’d have liked to see some sort of returning monster, and not the forgettable teeth-faced monster. It’s not terrible, but it’s a really mediocre note to end the series on – as these episodes are usually where the show goes really big (for better or for worse). Luckily, the New Year’s special goes a long way to sorting these problems, delivering a really entertaining hour which mixes some gross horror with the return of the Daleks. That should have been the closer.
I hate change. We all do. But with a show like this, it was always going to happen. (And it’s coming up again soon, with the recent news that Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall will both be leaving next year). That’s the cycle of the show, and of course some people won’t like every era as much as the last. With series 11, there were more changes than ever before, and I’ll admit that some of them did take away from what made Doctor Who the show we all loved. But give this series another go, and ignore the hatred that seems to have overwhelmed the 13th’s tenure. Not every moment is great, but there is far more good than bad. And, for me, that’s what the show has always been. One week, you’re taken away for the most fantastic adventure of your life. The next, you’re watching literally the worst hour of TV you’ve ever seen.
Apart from a few missteps and a weak ending, this series is really very good. Next up, the Master is introduced and scenery is chewed. And we finally get to the bottom of what or who exactly the Timeless Child is…