Doctor Who Review: Series 12

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I wrote half of this a few weeks ago, before the world caught fire; feels a little silly to publish it now, a million years after the end of Series 12, but you know, gotta keep doing content.

This is a post-script, dotting each i and crossing every t. I approached my review of The Timeless Children as though it could be my final word on the Chibnall era – I don’t expect things to change much, and those episodes were often a chore to watch. I’ve always said, of the Jodie Whittaker era, that if it got to the point I didn’t particularly enjoy them, I’d simply stop writing about them; if nothing else, I don’t particularly want to be one of those people, you know? There are better, more positive things to direct energy towards, and I never want to get to the point where I’m just sick of Doctor Who entirely. That review of The Timeless Children felt like a good one to go out on, if necessary.

But, you know, I’d have been sad if I didn’t get to do the traditional graph. Love the graph.

First, a reminder of the ten episodes that made up Doctor Who Series 12, as well as the scores out of ten that I gave to each on Rotten Tomatoes. Given that those are always a little arbitrary, never not feeling at least a little wrong in hindsight, I’ve also included two preferential rankings – one compiled before rewatching the series, and another afterwards.

  1. Spyfall (Part One) | By Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  2. Spyfall (Part Two) | By Chris Chibnall | 4/10
  3. Orphan 55 | By Ed Hime | 5/10
  4. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror | By Nina Metivier |7/10
  5. Fugitive of the Judoon | By Vinay Patel & Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  6. Praxeus | By Pete McTighe & Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  7. Can You Hear Me? | By Charlene James & Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  8. The Haunting of Villa Diodati | By Maxine Alderton | 5/10
  9. Ascension of the Cybermen | By Chris Chibnall | 6/10
  10. The Timeless Children | By Chris Chibnall | 1/10

That comes to an overall score of 58/100, or 5.8/10, which rounds to 6/10. (The maths has gotten a lot easier now Doctor Who has ten episodes to series.) While I am as always inclined to quibble some of those scores in hindsight – Spyfall (Part One), Fugitive of the Judoon, and Ascension of the Cybermen each feel a little too high, and I have the sense I was unfair to Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – on aggregate, I think that’s about right. (Though I do wonder if I should’ve tried to weight the finale a little more, somehow, given that one did rather overshadow the rest of the series.)

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By way of comparison, Series 11 got 65/100, or 71/110 if you include Resolution – so that’s 6.5/10, or… oh, actually also still 6.5/10 if you include Resolution, which is kinda neat. Let’s round that to 7/10, then – a whole point higher than Series 12. It’s not necessarily exactly what I’d have expected, but it makes a degree of sense – where I think Series 12 was, on the whole, perhaps a more confident and sure-footed piece of television, Series 11 benefitted from the momentum of a new Doctor (and, probably, a patience on my part that’s since vanished). Series 12 also lacked, I’d posit, any proper ‘classics’ in the same sense that Series 11 had them – there’s no obvious equivalent to Rosa or Demons of the Punjab this year, or even It Takes You Away. Even in its best episodes, there’s a certain awkwardness – the consensus favourite, Fugitive of the Judoon, pales in comparison to Vinay Patel’s previous effort, the episode’s character drama struggling in the face of its obligation to double as a trailer for the series finale.

Otherwise, the numbers don’t offer a massive amount of insight – I can’t really compare, say, episodes on Earth vs episodes on alien planets, because save for the finale they were all on Earth. There aren’t really enough repeat episodes from individual writers either – of those who returned, Pete McTighe improved most, perhaps unsurprisingly – though it’s notable that Chris Chibnall’s cowrites are, across the board, more highly rated than his sole credits.

In terms of the preferential ranking, the biggest change is Spyfall (Part One) falling four places – on rewatch it was just deeply, painfully dull. A really turgid hour of television, probably the greatest struggle to get through of the ten – which surprised me, actually! I’d remembered it being basically fun, but no. (I did notice, actually, that it’s quite obviously written as a classic series four-parter, each instalment roughly sixteen-minutes long; I can’t help but wonder, though, if the two parts might’ve been better off edited together and cut down to an eighty-minute movie special. Part Two has a better cliffhanger, if nothing else, so you might’ve kept a few more viewers.)

Outside of that, things were largely consistent: Can You Hear Me? took the top spot from Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, pushing Praxeus down one as well, but I’d say the three are largely interchangeable in terms of their quality – equally as good as one another, just at different things. I don’t know that any of them would’ve been standouts in any other year – Can You Hear Me? feels like an admirable failure in the same vein as Sleep No More, worth celebrating for trying something new even if it wasn’t brilliant at it – but I suppose it’s just the case that you’ve got to take what you can get in the Chibnall era.

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As ever, Chris Chibnall remains difficult to understand; his compulsions and his idiosyncrasies continue to elude me, and I’m yet to entirely grasp why he thinks Doctor Who stories are ones worth telling. Casting his eye across the long arc of Doctor Who’s history, Chibnall apparently saw a Möbius strip: Doctor Who that mattered because, and only because, it was Doctor Who. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine The Timeless Children airing a decade ago and being met with the same acclaim as any of its predecessors – the issue isn’t simply that Doctor Who is has been on television for fifteen years and that’s just what happens, but that Chibnall’s vision for the show is inherently insular and uninviting, a far cry from the mass populist beast Doctor Who once was. Increasingly, I’m convinced that whoever replaces Chris Chibnall shouldn’t be – needs to not be, in fact – a fan of the same generation as Davies, Moffat and Chibnall. In fact, they almost shouldn’t be a fan at all: we’ve reached the natural limit of that approach now, I think. Time for new ideas. Having an opinion on the Morbius Doctors should almost disqualify you from the job really.

I suppose it is worth noting – if only because I so often give him a hard time – that Chibnall is in fact quite talented as a producer. It shows on screen: I’m not quite convinced by claims that Doctor Who looks better now than it ever has before, but certainly it impresses in terms of its location shoots, and how often it’s able to take advantage of overseas filming. Similarly, note how Doctor Who accommodates Bradley Walsh’s ITV commitments; he’s taking a week off during the production of each episode, but it rarely feels that way. Indeed, they’re quite clever about it sometimes – hiding inside the Cybermen in The Timeless Children is a great conceit, but the only reason for it was so that Bradley Walsh could ADR his lines without actually being on set.

Otherwise? Those inclined to argue Chibnall is privately quite conservative, only writing Doctor Who as superficially progressive because he thinks that’s in vogue at the moment, will have picked up a few new talking points this year. Not just in terms of the obvious – yes, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, made special by her genetic inheritance; yes, the white Doctor did say she was genetically better than the Indian Master, and turn him over to the Nazis as well; yes, being a billionaire is something to aspire to, and it’s a shame Tesla never got to be one – but subtler things that only stand out on a full rewatch. There’s this interesting recurring language choice that keeps cropping up, this idea of being “offended”: the Doctor in Spyfall (“I hate being inside livers. People always get so offended”), Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon (“Anti-theft attack system? Oh. Well, now I’m offended”), and Graham in The Timeless Children (“You’re doing the whole human race proud. Sorry. I haven’t offended you, have I?”). They each jar in isolation, but taken together – especially alongside the “conversion-shame” quip – they suggest a certain worldview of middle-aged contempt on Chibnall’s behalf subtly bleeding through.

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Jodie Whittaker, meanwhile, is perhaps starting to struggle with the part. I think she’s brilliant, for what it’s worth, and I feel the need to stress that first and foremost: Whittaker is an excellent actress, and in many ways was a really clever casting choice for the Doctor. Equally, though, it’s hard not to feel as though she’s not being given enough to do with the part, and – even now – is struggling to define the role in that absence.

Most instructive in that regard, I think, are Praxeus and Can You Hear Me? – two of the best episodes of the series, yes, but also two of Whittaker’s weakest performances. In Praxeus, she’s on autopilot; in Can You Hear Me?, she’s caught between two interpretations of the character, the socially awkward Doctor or the emotionally aware Doctor, neither quite cohering. It’s this, as I said at the time, that I suspect prompted such an outburst over the Doctor’s response to Graham’s cancer; there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor, from episodes like Arachnids in the UK or Orphan 55, who is socially awkward. But there’s also a version who’s quietly insightful, and keenly empathetic: the Doctor who apologises to Yaz, Graham and Ryan when they see a dead body in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, for example, or connects with a grieving Mabli in The Tsuranga Conundrum, or officiates a wedding in Demons of the Punjab. Sometimes those two depictions cohere, and sometimes they don’t, but Can You Hear Me? revealed an interesting pressure point – reactions were quite so polarised because people each favoured different visions of the character.

When Whittaker eventually leaves the role – which at this point is surely sooner rather than later – and moves on to pastures new, I wonder which episode will endure as her great acting showcase piece. It’s relatively easy to point to the highlights of her predecessor’s performances; Eccleston had Dalek, Tennant Human Nature, and Capaldi of course had Heaven Sent. It’s hard to think of a recent episode of Doctor Who that seems to set out to challenge Whittaker, to let her deepen her interpretation of the Doctor, to push her outside her comfort zone. (In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies deliberately conceived of an episode like that for David Tennant – granted that episode ended up being The Doctor’s Daughter, so they’re not always going to be winners, but at least Midnight was still coming up.)

Indeed, across the course of series 12, it’s often felt as though the Doctor is written with little consideration for Whittaker as an actress, or what she’s good at; this Doctor’s earnest optimism is worlds away from the guarded secrecy of Trust Me, or the raw emotion of Broadchurch. Whittaker is better, I think, at playing characters who are less secure, often with something to hide, but there’s little of that being written for her. Oddly, hiding Gallifrey’s destruction, smartly cribbed from Gridlock, would’ve been a great chance for Whittaker to actually engage with these emotions; instead, Chibnall does little more than gesture at this (see the opening of Orphan 55), simply asserting character in flat, listless dialogue rather than letting his actors actually, well, act it.

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What’s most frustrating is that Doctor Who is still so close to working – it’s struggling, yes, but the potential is there (and even when it does fail, it often still fails in interesting ways that suggest scope for improvement). There genuinely is a lot to appreciate, even if it is pushed to the margins at times: Tosin Cole is a brilliant comic actor, Bradley Walsh is always reliable, and Mandip Gill finally got something to do. Indeed, Yaz came much closer to working as a character this year; I wonder, idly, if her two best episodes (Praxeus and Can You Hear Me?) had been spaced out across the season a little more, it might’ve done some of the heavy lifting for episodes that didn’t quite find space for Yaz.

It’ll be interesting to see what Series 13 looks like – particularly if, as rumoured, Ryan and Graham both depart at Christmas, with Yaz staying on alone. It’d be a welcome change to the dynamic, and indeed probably a necessary one: three companions has never quite worked, and shedding two of them would give the remaining characters a lot more space to breathe. (Could three companions have ever worked? It’s hard to say.) Somewhat concerning is the persistent, and plausible, suggestion that John Barrowman might join Doctor Who as a regular companion alongside Mandip Gill; he makes a certain degree of sense as a longer-term replacement for Bradley Walsh, in terms of their respective star-power, and it rather feels like exactly the kind of ill-conceived decision that Chibnall might make.

Otherwise? At a certain point, I’m almost reduced to saying “just be good”, or “don’t make basic mistakes”. If you have four regular characters, and a new setting each week, you shouldn’t also have quite such a large guest cast (and they probably shouldn’t have names like Bescot, Yedlarmi and Fuskle). Try and find something for each of those four regular characters to do every week, if you can. Your midseries centrepiece episode should probably have a function beyond plot exposition for the finale – and your finale should definitely have a function beyond plot exposition for next series. These, I think, are reasonable expectations to have of a television drama in 2020. There are other things I’d like, sure – it’d be nice if the show actually was as leftist as its worst detractors seem to think, for one thing – but, you know, first things first and all that.

I’ve long thought that it’s more instructive to think of Doctor Who as several television programmes, rather than just one. There are two television programmes called Doctor Who I really like; at the moment, there’s a television programme called Doctor Who I don’t particularly. Maybe I’ll like it next year, maybe I won’t. Fair enough.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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4 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review: Series 12

  1. If I may ask what makes Jodie a ‘brilliant’ actress? A lot of people use that word and maybe it’s just hyperbole but I don’t see brilliant. I see an actress who frequently overacts her lines. I know there’s a lot of the audience who love her boisterous wild and crazy gal take on the Doctor but I find that take on the character tedious. The writing doesn’t help but you know, great actors can deliver the lines with gravitas even if the lines are mumbo jumbo (e.g. Alec Guiness, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery).

    Compare how the Ruth doctor delivered her lines with presence. She was great.

    In Jodie’s defence, I think she’s expected to play the wild and crazy gal. I think there’s a huge segment of the audience who just want “female Matt Smith”. Maybe she’s just doing what she’s told and maybe I should just deal with it.

    I will also say that even if it was (say) Matt Smith acting these past two seasons, i’d still be grumpy. The stories lack tension, the ‘baddies’ are just props in order to hang the story upon, and the stories are too often just social commentary that is so thinly veiled as to be see through. I reckon most people are self-aware enough to spot allegory. What’s that saying, ‘show, don’t tell’?

    Three companions don’t fit in the tardis and the tardis interior has this weird ‘see through’ feel that doesn’t work. Plus the dead spider doesn’t help. I think it was a mistake to cast three companions, they are one-dimensional and their backstories have become meaningless and inconsequential. How many times would a real police officer have taken charge of the crisis? Every time. Because that’s what they are trained to do. Of course, in the show it’s the doctor’s role to take charge, which only goes to show that the companions were miscast. Just like the awkward disability that had to be inflicted upon Toisin Cole’s backstory because any other disability would require an actual disabled actor to play that role.

    So yeah, there’s a lot of strategic problems with the Jodie era, not all of them her fault, and I haven’t even touched upon the lack of overarching story which is pretty much mandatory in the age of GoT and binge watching.

    Like

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