Doctor Who Series 11 Was Okay

Last night, I went out to a Christmas party and met some old friends and some new ones. Many people there had never watched Doctor Who. Others had stopped after David Tennant left, or part way through Matt Smith’s run. Some had stuck it out through Peter Capaldi, and others still had never missed an episode since the classic era.

But one thing was common with all of them. They loved this new series. Especially those who had walked away. People who had hitherto shown no interest in the show were suddenly invested, talking passionately about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. Costumes were being drawn up, ideas for stories were being discussed, and I realised I was witnessing the birth of the new generation of Doctor Who fans.

New Beginnings

Chris Chibnall

Chris Chibnall’s first series as showrunner was under a lot of pressure right from the start. With viewing figures at an all-time low for series ten, frustration at the BBC, and wide criticism in the press, the show needed a shot in the arm.

Casting Jodie Whittaker as the first female interpretation of the character was the first big move. The cultural importance of this is hard to ignore. It’s been something people have speculated about since at least the late 70s and possibly before.

What’s more, the impact this has had on young viewers is certainly something to watch for. Young girls have so often been starved of heroic figures that reflect them, and young boys are similarly starved of heroic women to look up to.

In the words of author Joanne Harris…

Boys need female role models to teach them how to identify with women, rather than just see them in terms of attractive/unattractive.
(source)

The rather predictable outpouring of faux outrage from certain corners of the internet tried to use every platform they could get their hands on to voice their rage. But regardless, when the show finally aired, the viewing figures were much healthier than in previous years. In fact, this is the first time for a long time the average viewing numbers have gone up between series.

Yet, the roars of dissention still put a lot of pressure and expectation on this series. After Steven Moffat departed, the show was in uncertain territory. Having put such a recognisable stamp on the series, any new show runner would have faced the conundrum what to do with it now. Chibnall seemed to take to differentiating his vison of the show from Moffat’s wherever possible. In tone, look, feel and themes. After all, what’s the point of getting a new showrunner if not to put a new spin on the series?

Under Pressure

Segun Akinola, composer

Add to this the fact that Murray Gold, who had been providing the music since 2005, also decided to depart. It was inevitable that Gold would leave, and it honestly surprised me he stuck around for as long as he did. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot of his work, but I did worry he was burning himself out. So, a new composer, Segun Akinola, arrived on the scene with a very different interpretation.

It seemed like everything was changing. New Doctor, new showrunner, new music, new look, new direction. With so many fresh things on offer, it put a whole lot more pressure on the series to perform well. That’s a lot to expect of any show, but this is Doctor Who, and it has always been special.

The marketing was also on a much higher level than it has been for years. Trailers, posters, social media, comic cons, and a whole lot more. It was everywhere for the first time in years. In many ways, it felt like the BBC was throwing money at the show, almost with an air of “okay, we’ll give you another shot.”

With all of that and more riding on this new show, how could anything live up to it?

The series as a whole was good in my opinion. The odd episode fell flat and some characters were given more space and time than others. But, it wasn’t amazing, nor was it dreadful. It was okay.

The One-Shot Stories

Some of the decisions made in this series seemed strange to me. Chris Chibnall is a writer best known for his long form drama Broadchurch, and known in Doctor Who circles for Torchwood.

Series two of Torchwood had something of a through line, a story arc surrounding Captain Jack and his past. It’s one of my favourite Torchwood series and shows some of Chibnall’s skills at playing the long game.

When he was announced as the new showrunner, I and many others instantly speculated about what kind of story arc he’d do. It’s clearly something he’s good at and has experience in. Then came the announcement that each episode would be stand alone. Which struck me as an odd move. Surely you would hire someone like Chibnall to do more story arcs?

In retrospect, it seems like this is the BBC’s preference for the show. If you cast your minds back a few years, you’ll remember Peter Capaldi’s last series also had this premise. At least in the marketing. We’ve had times of no two-part stories, and times of only two-part stories. The show has been experimenting with the format for some time.

If I were to put a little conspiratorial hat on, I’d wonder if this was a decision made with an eye on BBC Worldwide selling standalone stories. Either online or on disk.

It could be seen as a blank slate series. Starting from page one, with fresh faces and a fresh audience, the drive to give people a variety series seems to make sense. Don’t drag it on with a series arc that could leave some uninterested. A new story every week, going somewhere fresh and exciting with no baggage.

The problem is that I’m not convinced this is a) Chibnall’s strength as a writer, and b) wise in the modern age. I wonder how much of the fear of series arcs has been fuelled by the mixed-at-best response to Steven Moffat’s complex web of plots during the Matt Smith era. We saw fewer, and simpler, series arcs for much of Peter Capaldi’s run, and here for Jodie Whittaker’s first, some minimal arcs at best.

An Arc in Time

A simple series arc could have helped some of the weaker stories maintain some momentum, and could have helped shape more of the character arcs. Something as simple as getting the TARDIS back might have worked. The Rally of the Twelve Galaxies is also a good framing device, and with the TARDIS itself as the prise – along with the promise of returning the companions to their homes – could have given them all something to fight for.

With the introduction of Krasko the time crime boy in Rosa, the team might have got their hands on a Vortex Manipulator, travelled to 1950s America with him. The could have formed more of a mystery and given the team more of a reason to want to deal with the situation as quickly and quietly as possible.

Similarly, after Krasko has been dispatched, the Doctor and company might have used the Vortex Manipulator to return to Sheffield in the modern day. This would have changed the whole tone of Arachnids in the UK, with the Doctor having more of a struggle with her priorities. Investigate the mystery, stay with her new friends, or go back on the hunt for the TARDIS.

Arachnids in the UK was one of the weaker stories, and an ongoing story like this could have given it more stakes. Personal stakes. What’s more, the decision of the team to stay with the Doctor could have resulted in a more emotional drive. She helped them get back home, so they want to help her get back home.

Swinging between past and future throughout the series in search of the TARDIS could have been nicely rounded off in the finale, with the recovery of the ship being key. Also, it could have made the reunion with the TARDIS even more cathartic.

My main point being, a series arc like this could have given the show a bit more structure. With everything else being new and different, a little bit of structure could have done it good. An arc that really drove the Doctor to define who she is, to rediscover herself, and the TARDIS, would have been an effective way to do it.

Groundwork

But, rather than speculating on what the show could have been, let’s have a look at what it actually was.

In many ways, this felt like a palate cleanser of a series. After the long and complex Moffat era, full of big ideas and speeches, it was a lot more down to earth.

Few of the threats were about the fate of the universe, or the planet. Most of the time, the stories revolved around saving a specific group of people, or even a single individual.

With each story standing alone (for the most part), it was a variety series. Delving into the past, present and future, space, earth, and alien worlds. We had horror, action, and mystery. We get a taste of the characters and their relationships with one another. There are hints at Ryan and Yas getting friendlier. Suggestions that Yas and the Doctor might be a thing. But most of all, we got a deep dive into Ryan and Graham’s grief and coming to terms with it and one another.

This often left the Doctor and Yas with very little growth and focus this year. While part of me is willing to chalk this up to ‘they’ll get it them next time’, it’s still frustrating. If this is a series that is simply laying the groundwork for things to come it may be looked back on favourably. But right now, it feels a bit lacking, especially given the massive build up.

The Doctor

Jodie whittaker, the Doctor

The Doctor herself was in stark contrast to much of how Steven Moffat had envisioned them. Gone are the endless innuendos, one-liners, and self-deprecating physical descriptions. No jokes about women, no sex references, and no snogging. If you grew up on Moffat-Who, this must have been utterly shocking.

We get to know the Doctor in very small details. It is reminiscent of the classic series in this regard, which rarely gave the titular character much development. She’s hopeful, optimistic, and energetic. There’s a lot of looking things up, asking questions, finding things out. The Doctor doesn’t always simply know things right away, and has to find them out somehow.

As this is her first outing, it’s hard to know exactly how to define the Thirteenth Doctor. Chibnall has, it seems, kept her deliberately a little off to the side of focus. Perhaps to let the audience fully acclimatise to the gender change, perhaps to give both him and Whittaker time to really decide what they want to do with her.

Keeping her development vague has some advantages, opening the door to future avenues. But it does make it hard for audiences to really get to grips with who she is, and big shifts in how the Doctor acts can be quite difficult to justify.

For example, was the Eleventh Doctor an awkward, asexual man child who squirmed at the very idea of kissing? Or was he an often-naked vagabond snogging his way across time and space? Was the Twelfth Doctor a brooding, unhappy philosopher, pondering what it meant to be a good man? Or was he an aging rock star just looking for the next thrill?

These swift and head-jerking changes can be bad, but in both cases, the initial characterisation is strongly emphasised. Even though it is later ditched in favour of something Steven Moffat was more comfortable writing, it was firmly established to begin with. This woollier approach makes it harder to grasp who the Thirteenth Doctor is, but may make any future changes a little more seamless.

The Tim Shaw Trilogy

The Woman Who Fell to Earth certainly felt like the episode that had had the most polishing done on it. Which is to be expected; of all this series, already under pressure to impress, this was the most under pressure. It was well paced, played into a lot of Chibnall’s strengths, and delivered some great scenes for Whittaker to show her range.

Tim Shaw was a decent villain all things considered. Given how the series panned out, it made for a nice little arc, though it was certainly nothing out of this world. This was not a series designed for a long and convoluted arc, though, so he didn’t get a whole ton of development. Perhaps we will see more of the Stenza one day. I bet Big Finish will do something with them eventually.

But, along with The Ghost Monument and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, there is a nice little trilogy there to be enjoyed. Pulling together themes of revenge, the search for identity, and the growth between Graham and Ryan.

Rosa

Rosa has been widely praised and widely discussed. It certainly pulled no punches and did not shy away from concepts and scenes that make viewers uncomfortable. In an age where racism is making a comeback in many areas, this was a brave story to do, and it certainly touched a nerve with the right wing.

Indeed, so much of the faux outrage flung at the show this year repeats the same phrases repeatedly that it sounds exactly like a coordinated effort. I wouldn’t be surprised if a 4chan thread emerges where a lot of the stock arguments the right has been flinging are found word for word.

Arachnids in the UK

Arachnids in the UK was the one episode that felt like a bit of a let-down. While I enjoyed much of what was there, Yas’ family was especially delightful, the story felt a little rushed at times, especially towards the end.

Tsuranga

The Tsuranga Conundrum was okay – it certainly had a strong start, atmospheric and powerful. Thematically tapping into themes of empathy and curiosity. It was again a chance for Ryan and Graham to have a bit of growth.

It was a fun story, though I still feel like it may have been more powerful if we had never seen the monster. Kept it hidden so the audience can imagine what it is.

Demons of the Punjab

Another historical, focussed on subverting expectations. From Yas’ gran to the aliens. I was initially worried that we were seeing the return of the over reliance on the sonic screwdriver and the Doctor just looking up the answers on Space Google. But here when she found information on said Space Google she jumped to conclusions and got it wrong, which was a twist!

I like that we have a Doctor that isn’t afraid to look things up and research. It’s a very modern take. We are a generation of googlers. What this episode says is ‘getting info off a website isn’t going to help if you just jump to conclusions’. Much like Manish, listening to angry men on the radio has led him to jump to all sorts of conclusions instead of talking to people and investigating. The Doctor has a lot to learn still and I hope we see more of this.

It did also have some bad dialogue at the start. Owch.

Kerblam

This was certainly the most quintessentially Doctor Who episode Chibnall has overseen so far and that serves to highlight how much of a break from tradition so much of this year was. The approach of most episodes has been from new angles, a little experimental, a little different. This episode, by contrast, was not trying to be anything else.

The message of the story is something that will no doubt be a sticking point for many as it left no clear impression of who was at fault. The system that forced people into pointless jobs, the increasing automation of the work force, or the acts of terrorism. All was treated as equally bad and to have the Doctor stand up and actively defend ‘the system’ was troubling.

The Witchfinders

Here we headed back to a historical story – the third this series. Again, there was a lot of atmosphere, interesting concepts and secondary characters.

As I discussed in my review of the episode, I liked its themes of hidden identities and the wearing of masks. Contrasting the lumbering zombie-like Morax with the flamboyant King James. And, to an extent, the Doctor herself.

It Takes You Away

It Takes You Away will be a favourite for many, and is already generating a speeding momentum of fan fiction. Who knew that a talking frog would be part of one of this series’ biggest ships? It Takes You Away is a cunning exploration of trust, grief, and longing. Jamie Childs direction pours atmosphere and beauty into every scene that guarantees it will leave an impression. What’s more, we finally get a little bit of character closure as well as some very strange friends.

Finale

As I said above, the finale, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos works best as the end of a three-part story along with The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument.

This rounds off the big character arcs for this series, which focussed on Graham and Ryan. Their building comfort around each other and growing mutual support has been a delight to watch.

The focus and time spent on them paid off, but it did have the side effect of letting both the Doctor and Yas feel like side characters. Neither are allowed to develop much through the series. Which is highlighted by the fact that one could easily watch episodes 1, 2 and 10 back to back and not really notice a difference between Yas and the Doctor’s characteristics therein.

Chibnall has hinted that he has a five year plan, which suggests that perhaps series 12 and 13 will give us more of Yas and the Doctor. When focussed on a single series it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there is more to come and that the story isn’t over yet.

Overall

Doctor Who is very much a show that appeals to a very wide audience and on a lot of levels for a lot of reasons. Having each episode stand alone can be a good way of jumping stories, genres, and styles to suit as many people as possible. Especially for people who walked away during the Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi eras.

However, Chris Chibnall does have more of a talent for story arcs and playing the long game. His work on Torchwood series 2 and Broadchurch display this. He is also a writer who has demonstrated an ability to learn from his mistakes. The Chris Chibnall who wrote Cyberwoman is not the same Chris Chibnall who wrote The Woman Who Fell to Earth. I do not think he is bad at writing stand-alone episodes, but it’s clearly not his greatest strength. Which is interesting, as it is the opposite of my main complaint about Steven Moffat.

I have wondered if the decision to stick to stand alone stories was made by somebody higher up in the BBC. But, I imagine this is something we may never know about. At least not until we’re twenty years down the line and the Tell-All books start coming out.

Most of series 11 has felt like a palate cleanser. Something to break away from the Steven Moffat era and build something new. For views who got used to seeing the Doctor through Steven Moffat’s eyes, it might have been a bit jarring. But, for those who have been with the show for years and have spent time going through change after change, it’s nothing to be scared of.

Wrapping Up

Going back to that party I mentioned at the start. It reminded me of how I felt when I first started watching Doctor Who. That sense of having found something that awakened adventure, the longing and the joy of seeing that big blue box.

This is a new era for the show. New showrunner, new Doctor, new production team, new music, new everything. It’s fresh, it’s different, it’s trying new angles.

While I had been wittering away on my own, pondering over the story mechanics, I had missed the people were discovering Doctor Who for the first time. I miss that sense of awe and wonder the show can instil. Seeing new fans embrace the show, I felt able to see it again.