Perhaps the first thing one has to reconcile when reviewing the latest season of Doctor Who is “What do we call it?” Is it Series 11 or Season 11? Season 37? Is it 13th Doctor Season 1? Depending on which fan site/VOD service/wiki article you look at you might get a different answer, but that’s due to the absolutely enormous history and longevity of the show. To add to the confusion, Classic Era seasons had multiple “Serials” within each season, and video collections in certain regions use different numbering schemes. Seasons, serials, series…It’s convoluted.
If you step into the TARDIS and do some timey-wimey stuff, you can end up in 1963 when the first season of the show aired. Over the next quarter of a century (give or take a year) the show assembled 26 seasons, ending with the Seventh Doctor in 1989. This is known as the Classic Era. In the mid-nineties (1996) there was a short resurrection in the form of a TV movie that featured the Eighth Doctor.
Although the story of the Doctor still continued in other various mediums over this time, it was a long 9 years of television drought before we’d see the Doctor on the small screen again. This modern Revived Era began with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor in 2005, and with it came a labeling convention change, proclaiming itself Series 1. The Revived Era has continued unbroken to present day, with Doctors Ten through Twelve chalking up 9 more seasons (Series 2-10.) Still with me?
That makes the 2018 season with the Thirteenth Doctor “Series 11.”
So there it is. We got there! Series 11.
Series 11 continues right where the Series 10 Christmas Special “Twice Upon A Time” concludes (at least from The Doctor’s point of view) with a newly regenerated 13th Doctor tumbling through the sky and landing on a train in Sheffield. This is, of course, where chance has laid the path for our soon-to-be-new companions, and first contact with something that will prove to be a series villain. The Doctor, for her part, will end up spending A LOT of time in Sheffield over the next 10 episodes, and Earth at large.
It’s immediately clear to longtime watchers that Series 11 is something different. It’s a soft reboot, for all intents and purposes. There are sweeping vistas of the countryside coupled with impatient synth music, a cast that could perhaps be described as The Representation Checklist Superfriends, and a general sense of rebirth and retelling. This will not be adventure as usual: there will be lessons, and “art” and desperate grasping for relevance with The Kids. It’s like a random group of Tumblr users were forced to watch Stranger Things on a loop for two weeks and then told “You’re the production crew now, go make Doctor Who. And for gods sakes, make it go viral.” Who cares about story when you can instead talk politics and get lots of smug self-satisfied likes?
If I sound salty, you’re misreading. The cinematography is striking, the score moody and pregnant in all the right ways. The casting is phenomenal. The politics are thoughtful, reasonable, factually correct, and perfectly aligned with my own.
The writing just sucks.
For every victory of presentation there is hurried pacing that ruins it. For every academy-award-winning performance there is trite pandering and heavy-handed exposition. The action sequences, the witty banter, the fantastic locales and creatures…It’s like someone wrote these things using only the dictionary definition of “fun” but having never experienced it firsthand. It’s lifeless, dry, forced. It’s mimicry without respect.
The failure in the writing is a greater tragedy because of the steadfast support around it. Tosin Cole, who plays the confident-in-his-restrictions Ryan Sinclair, delivers performance after performance of heartfelt realism. He portrays a character that one can simultaneously sympathize with and look up to. At times he exhibits a tangible frustration that is delivered to the viewer via true empathy, and other times he is the life-coach we all need, cheering us on and telling us we can do it. His quiet character moments are the only times in the series when the writing slows down long enough to let us make a true connection, to allow the careful cinematography to capture real moments, and deliver scenes that the synth background music accurately scores. When I am brought to tears (which, admittedly, is all too often while ingesting cinema these days) Tosin Cole is usually on screen.
Yaz (Mandip Gill) is the immediately likable embodiment of capability. She commands respect without demanding it, and carries herself with an air of trustworthiness. Anything you ask of Yaz will be done, and done correctly. Perhaps that’s the major problem with her character’s presence on the show: there’s not much for her to do. Often times this character with a deep and interesting backstory is left to the wayside, or separated from the group in what amounts to “side quests.” The writers just don’t know what to do with her. There are three other main characters, after all, and that’s a lot of bodies and personalities to juggle in a scene. The successful past formula of “1 Doctor 1 Companion” has been altered here, and perhaps we now know why that system was in place. It CAN be done with more regulars, of course; Captain Jack Harkness was essentially a second companion for many episodes in the early years of the Revived Era, and his presence made every episode better. Rory was along for the ride during the majority of the Matt Smith years, and he never stretched the writing thin. Yaz, however, feels like an afterthought, a chore of a ball to keep in the air. It’s unfortunate for a character that could easily be the star of her own series. It would almost feel more natural to have her in a sort of Torchwood-esque spinoff roll, keeping the streets of Sheffield safe as she balances the life of a police officer with the secret knowledge of the vast cosmos that constantly attempt to encroach on Earth. Use her or dump her, don’t leave her standing in the peripheral next season.
Graham (Bradley Walsh) brings a unique element to the group, both as a character and with the actor’s comedic background. At times a foil, at other times a representation of endurance in the face of adversity, Walsh tinges every performance with subtle humor and determination. Graham’s connection to the group is anchored in his relationship with Ryan, a minor plot vein that pays off with the most impact overall, even beyond the season’s “main” storyline. His episode-centric presence is perhaps less necessary than even Yaz’s, but it’s through his plotline with Ryan that both characters gain relevance and experience real personal growth, cementing him in the cast. He occasionally bumps heads with the Doctor, which makes him all the more interesting, but there is a constant feeling that the Tardis could leave without him at any time.
And finally there is Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor. A long overdue gender swap lands big with this casting, as Whittaker immediately embodies the Doctor with a natural swiftness unseen in previous iterations. A prophetic line in the first episode of the season has Whittaker suffering from temporary amnesia and spouting off “I’m looking for a doctor.” She found her. I’ve never before been so immediately accepting of a regeneration. Jodie Whittaker IS the Doctor. I didn’t have to get over the abruptness of physical changes or “warm up” to her version. There was none of this “eh, this doesn’t feel like the Doctor” that I’ve had with so many others (even those I eventually came to adore.)
But that’s not to say that the Doctor she was handed was perfect. Or rather, the opposite: she’s TOO perfect. The writers have not given Whittaker enough room to stretch the character out, to seek it’s dark corners or hidden undercurrents. This Doctor is 100% righteous and infallible all the time. It presents an unrealistic hero and one that comes across as shallow and empty. Although I do love her unwavering and unapologetic desire to do “right,” I worry that the one-sidedness will grow tiresome and repetitive without some more depth and exploration. The heroes I react to the most are those that choose righteousness in spite of shortcomings and temptation to the contrary, not those that are inborn beacons of perfection without effort.
To say that the writing is terrible is unfair. It’s not terrible. It’s not without its triumphs and brilliance. The season as a whole may seem rushed and hollow, but it’s bookended by solid episodes that really show what this version can be. Sometimes it’s the editing that fails. It largely lacks those quiet peaceful moments of character study that helps an audience form bonds with the people on screen. The synth tracks can often be a distraction, or an unfit pairing with the true mood of the scene. And there’s too much just running around for running around’s sake, with the Doctor rattling off long monologues of clumsy exposition (“Of course! The <insert aliens> have <insert scifi-y element> that make the <reasonable course of action> impossible!”) And then, of course, there’s the politics…
Representation is an important thing. It’s something that every show SHOULD have. It’s certainly one that Doctor Who has done well at times in the recent past, with numerous companions of varying color, gender, and sexuality. I mean, it had a major recurring queer character in 2005! It didn’t shy away from it, either. It was just natural. Captain Jack told us it was okay to be unabashedly bisexual. Martha Jones told us that WOC were not just background characters, they were doctors and scientists and stars. Bill showed us that a young black lesbian and an old white man can be COMPANIONS. This is the reason representation in media is so important, it lets us see ourselves on the screen. What the show never did in those days–nor does any show EVER need to do–is say “Look at how diverse we are, love us for it.” Representation is not just a nice gesture. It’s not a way to sell products. It’s a NECESSITY. It should be the default. You don’t get to celebrate yourself for it, and that’s what this season feels like it’s doing.
Every politically-charged theme or bit of dialogue is a pat-on-the-back to the writers and show-runners. In fact, so much of this is shoe-horned into the plot that a natural flow of story and theme is difficult to maintain. Between trying to prove how woke it is, AND trying to make every action sequence entirely riveting, AND trying to mimic whatever the current hit show on Netflix is, AND trying so hard to not be the Doctor Who of the past because young people won’t watch it…well there isn’t time for much else but to catch the audience up through Scooby-Doo style exposition. It becomes a field-medic patch job. It forces the writing to be lazy, or hurried, or just plain…plain. Or, as in the case of the New Year’s special, it forces the writer’s to completely reinvent the Daleks. It’s one thing to freshen up a series; it’s another thing to destroy canon.
You don’t have to reinvent the show to be successful. This isn’t about locking in to a system of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, either. It’s not a “New Star Wars” situation. It’s okay to change and grow and evolve; in fact, it’s vital to. The Doctor herself says it best: “We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” There’s a duality there. It’s not just a heavy-handed plea to audience members and critics to put the burden of the show’s appeal upon their own shoulders (which it is.) It is also a warning from a self-aware fictional character to her new caretakers: please do this thing right. For all of us.
We’re not done regenerating yet.