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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Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

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I see how you got there, but it lacks vision. Right, what if we, um, workshop this? You know, kick it around a bit? I have notes.

It’s the 1st March 2020. Chris Chibnall is fifty years old. The Timeless Children, his second series finale as Doctor Who showrunner, has aired. Watching it, you get the sense that this is what it’s always been leading up to, where it’s always been going – not for Doctor Who, of course, but for Chibnall.

What the BBC was after was risk and boldness. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

— Chris Chibnall, 2017

After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall could have done anything. The ITV crime drama was, put simply, a huge hit, a piece of television that sparked a genuine cultural moment. It was the sort of success that would have guaranteed Chibnall any commission he wanted. Certainly, it’s no surprise that the BBC wanted Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, nor that they went to such lengths to accommodate him; for all the critical success of the Peter Capaldi era, Doctor Who’s ratings had dwindled, long removed from the dizzying heights of its unimpeachable imperial phase. After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall was exactly the sort of populist writer needed to reinvent Doctor Who once again, to move it away from a vision oft-criticised as being too convoluted, too insular, catering solely to dedicated fans rather than general audiences. It was clear, in the dying days of the Moffat era, that Doctor Who needed Chris Chibnall.

It’s the 22nd January 2016. A little under two months shy of his forty-sixth birthday, Chris Chibnall is announced as Steven Moffat’s successor, taking on the dual role of Head Writer and Executive Producer on Doctor Who.

“I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and I’m relishing the thought of creating new characters, creatures and worlds for the Doctor to explore.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2016

Crucially, though, Chris Chibnall did not need Doctor Who. Why would he? In terms of his own career, he’d never been more successful – the expectation, surely, was that he’d follow Broadchurch with another original drama of his own. It’s not that Doctor Who was a step backwards for him, per se, but certainly it represented a degree of commitment and an intensity of work markedly different from his own professed preference for doing different things and frequently moving from project to project.

“Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2020

It’s the 17th January 1976. The first part of The Brain of Morbius airs. Chris Chibnall is six years old.

Not quite yet eight, but close enough.

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It’s the 1st March 2020. I am twenty-something years old. The Timeless Children, Chris Chibnall’s second Doctor Who series finale, has aired. Watching it, it isn’t the sort of episode I ever thought Chibnall would write – but I do get the sense that perhaps I should’ve seen it coming, representing as it does the culmination of all of Chibnall’s worst instincts.

“I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.”

— Me, reviewing Spyfall (Part One), 2020

Fundamentally, I’m of the belief – and have been for some time – that references to the past are best used sparingly in Doctor Who. There’s a certain weight to its mythology, bound up as it is in over fifty years of history; something like Gallifrey and the Time Lords exert a narrative gravity that can easily distort and distract from new, original ideas. Sure, it can be intoxicating, and I understand how; I’m deeply, deeply invested in all this myself. Still, though, it’s hard not to look at The Timeless Children and be genuinely baffled by the lack of restraint on display, an episode that’s about as far from a popular reinvention of Doctor Who aimed at the general public as is possible. Often, it’s like something out of a bad piece of fanfiction, or an easily forgotten bit of expanded universe fluff – a novel or a comic or something, the sort of story you could read, review, and then forget about entirely until some years later, at which point you realise you’ve written about so much Doctor Who there is some Doctor Who you’ve forgotten writing about. In any case, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d ever expect Bradley Walsh to star in on prime-time BBC One.

 “Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.”

— Me, reviewing Supremacy of the Cybermen, 2017

It’s the 9th December 2018. I am still twenty-something years old, albeit a little less so. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos airs on television. It was – and still is – awful. But it’s remarkable, looking back, for its lack of classic Doctor Who villains. That’s the first finale you could say that of since 2012 – since then, the show has relied on Daleks, Time Lords, the Cybermen, and the Master, often all at once, sometimes a few times in a row. There’s something to celebrate about its willingness to take a step away from recognisable Doctor Who iconography: in a sense, despite quite how small scale it was, it’s actually a more ambitious piece of television than The Timeless Children.

“It’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.”

— Me, reviewing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, 2018

It’s the 29th February 2020. I am, unsurprisingly, twenty-something years old. I rewatch The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

It’s aged better than I thought it would. Better, in fact, than I’d realise.

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It’s the 5th December 2015. Hell Bent airs. It’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who. (At the moment, anyway. My favourite episode of Doctor Who had previously aired on the 17th June 2006, the 23rd November 2013, the 1st July 2017, and, I’d like to think, at some point after that too.)

“Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.”

Me, on why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode, 2017

With hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on quite how much The Timeless Children is the Hell Bent’s opposite – if Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has so far been a cracked mirror reflection of the Russell T Davies era, then this is apparently Chibnall’s take on his immediate successor’s finest hour. Where Hell Bent was an exercise in narrative substitution, promising a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifreyan epic but delivering instead an intimate character drama, The Timeless Children has a rather different set of priorities. The point of Hell Bent is the Doctor and Clara’s conversation in the cloisters, their almost-goodbye in the TARDIS, or when the Doctor play’s Clara’s theme in the diner. The point of The Timeless Children is Sacha Dhawan saying “Panopticon”, a Cyberman in front of the Seal of Rassilon, or airing a clip of The Brain of Morbius on BBC One after Countryfile and before Call the Midwife. One is concerned with character, with emotions, with relationships; the other is a leisurely scroll through a newly updated Wikipedia page, largely devoid of any particular flourish or intimacy. There’s something oddly funny about Steven Moffat emphasising that the Hybrid doesn’t matter, and Chris Chibnall writing an episode where a Hybrid of two warrior races stands in the ruins of Gallifrey, having broken a billion billion hearts to heal its own.

“It’s tricky going back and watching old episodes now, because I think emotionally there’s very little there.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2007

This, perhaps, is the issue – or one of them – with The Timeless Children. It’s Doctor Who that demands we care about it simply because it is Doctor Who; not because it offers new creatures, new characters, new worlds, but because it never dares look away from the old ones. No, not even that; it doesn’t see a value. It’s Doctor Who for people who catch the references to the Leekley bible, who could tell you that Douglas Camfield, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Banks Stewart were three of several Morbius Doctors, who know about the Other and Penelope and Ulysses and Soul and Zezanne. Hell Bent is for those people too, yes – but not exclusively so. Not like this.

“Probably gonna end up watching Doctor Who on a half-hour delay or so. Kinda weird to think you’re all gonna know that Bradley Walsh is the Other, Yaz is Rassilon, and Ryan is Señor 105 thirty minutes before I do.”

— Me, tweeting about Doctor Who, 2020

It’s the 1st March 2020. In hindsight, Time Hunter might’ve been a better punchline.

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It’s the 6th March 2020. The BBC complaints department, for the second time this year, have had to put out a statement about Doctor Who – addressing, on this occasion, The Timeless Children’s attempt at a new Doctor Who origin story.

“I don’t necessarily want all the gaps to be plugged. Kids out there are making up their own stories about how Missy escaped that place and regenerated into Sacha. They’re doing their own version of it. And that’s much more exciting.”

— Steven Moffat, 2020

Perhaps it’s a little uncharitable to say that The Timeless Children added nothing new to Doctor Who; after all, that’s what everyone was up in arms about the other day. No longer just a mad woman in a box, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, the Original Time Lord – not important because of what she does, but what she is, with all the uncomfortable implications that holds. It doesn’t, obviously, change what’s gone before in any meaningful sense – Peter Capaldi was no more playing a Timeless Child than William Hartnell was playing the First Doctor – but it does feel like, going forward, it’s all a little bit… less.

“You mean you’ve changed time? Was it the reason you left your home?”

— Barbara to the Doctor, in a fanfiction I wrote in 2012

Part of the fun, surely, of something like the Morbius Doctors, or how old the Doctor is, or what her true name is, is the debate, the argument, the theorising. The not knowing. Why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey? Because they were bored. Because they were scared of the Hybrid. Because they changed time. Because of Omega. Because Irving Braxiatel warned them of a plot against their life. No, actually. None of that. In fact, the Doctor was once a secret agent on an ill-defined mission for the Time Lords, somewhere between James Bond and Jason Bourne; despite having their memory wiped and being turned back into a child, the Doctor was always destined to be the Doctor again, to run away from her own people in a rackety old TARDIS, disguised as a police box.

Oh.

Not knowing, surely, invites greater creativity and affords more storytelling opportunities than The Timeless Children. It doesn’t open up new avenues; it imposes a shape onto ones that were already there. It’s not an infinite set of possibilities: it’s a forty pound Big Finish boxset called Timeless, starring Jo Martin in an adventure with Krillitanes, Daleks, and an amnesiac Paul McGann, written by the same four people as usual, each of whom will inevitably struggle against the Jason Bourne of it all and opt to tell fairly typical Doctor Who stories instead.

It’s certainly not the progressive victory some have chosen to read it as, by the way. Diegetically, yes, we know the ‘first’ Doctor was a young Black girl, and had a series of different female and non-white incarnations before they ever looked like William Hartnell. But look at what’s actually on screen: each of these female, non-white incarnations were tortured to death (because all female characters, the Doctor now included, get a backstory of abuse) before another eight white guys were newly canonised, and this information leads to a white woman telling a South Asian man she’s genetically more than him. It used to be that you didn’t need to be real to be the Doctor; now, however, you need an inherited birthright.

The Timeless Children is not an especially forward-looking piece of television (even if, of course, it is guaranteed that Tecteun, the Doctor’s Wicked Stepmother, will return by the 60th anniversary). It’s a series of set-pieces building up to a montage of archive footage and very little else. Frankly, it’s no wonder the episode is so heartbreakingly disinterested in Jodie Whittaker, in the here and now. The Timeless Children is an hour of Doctor Who that has no greater aim, nor believes it needs no greater justification, than to gesture at the trappings of Doctor Who; indeed, it might as well quote directly from stories past, so derivative and self-referential is its writing. (Ahem.) Chibnall’s vision, his promised risk and boldness, his ideas are so insular, so inward looking in both ambition and approach, that it ultimately renders Doctor Who smaller on the inside.

“It doesn’t seem to have much to it. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”

— Chris Chibnall, 1986

It’s the 8th March 2020. Thinking about it, actually, Chris Chibnall might have a point there.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

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If it gets worse, I’ll call the doctor.

Not a lot actually happens in World Enough and Time, on a purely technical level. The plot, if you distill it right down, is fairly easy to describe in a sentence or two; it’s not exactly the most involved or convoluted episode Doctor Who has ever done. Rather, it’s much more of a mood piece, a fifty-minute statement of intent: here’s why the Cybermen are scary, this is what’s engaging and compelling about them, this is why they’re going to matter next week. It works – The Doctor Falls benefits a lot from following World Enough and Time, with all the momentum and mounting dread it offers.

Ascension of the Cybermen, then, is Chibnall’s attempt at the same. A lot of this is just part of the DNA of the new series (when do we stop calling it the ‘new’ series, by the way?) two-parters: they’re all chessboard episodes, moving the pieces into position, an hour of set-up ready for next week. Almost invariably, then, they’re difficult to discuss and engage with on their own terms – it’s difficult to talk about Act One without knowing how it’s going to resolve in Act Two. A lot depends on The Timeless Children. Often, I’m inclined to be kinder to the first episode of a two-parter, because of the difficulty in judging them in isolation – but Ascension of the Cybermen shows the limits of that inclination. All this episode does is move pieces into position for next week, an hour of Chibnall spinning wheels. There’s action but not drama, plot but not story; you could pare most of this back to a cold open without really losing anything. (I think the only thing I’d miss is that lovely transition to the title sequence from within the Cyberman’s eye, which is one of my favourite shots of the year.) Often, it feels like the televised equivalent of procrastinating – the extended sequence of the Doctor and the companions setting up and explaining anti Cyberman weapons, only for the Cybermen to shoot at these weapons before the Doctor turned them on, felt particularly egregious.

But then, that illustrates the other, far greater, flaw afflicting Ascension of the Cybermen. When Chris Chibnall sat down to write that scene, he surely wasn’t actually just trying to fill five minutes of screentime, even if it felt that way; the point of that scene was to show off the Cybermen. All your defences are useless: there is nothing you can do to stop them. Much like World Enough and Time, Ascension of the Cybermen is a fifty-minute statement of intent. This is why the Cybermen are scary. But where its predecessor – and, actually, by the way, I’ve criticised Chibnall a few times this year for lifting directly from Russell T Davies’ work, but I cannot imagine what prompted him to want to do a finale with the Cybermen and the Master so soon after Steven Moffat wrote two Cybermen/Master finales that are each among Doctor Who’s best. But, anyway, where World Enough and Time was invested in an almost post-austerity sort of body horror, Ascension of the Cybermen thinks the Cybermen are scary because they’re brutish, sci-fi robots from in a grimy space war. Nothing in Ascension of the Cybermen holds a candle to the nurse turning down the volume dial as a partially converted patient screams in pain – which rather undercuts this grand statement of intent.

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To be clear, I enjoyed Ascension of the Cybermen, more than I enjoyed a lot of episodes this year (and across Series 11 too). It’s a cut above a lot of Chibnall-era episodes in terms of sheer competence alone: Yaz gets a nice, decent role; there are a few moments where Jodie Whittaker gets to be angry and frustrated; it’s capably directed, avoiding a lot of the mistakes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos made even as it indulges in a similar aesthetic. (Plus, there’s a handful of bits where, surely by accident, Chibnall seems to be setting up the idea that Yaz has a crush on Graham, which is just really, really funny.) More to the point, though, it has a certain momentum to it – Chibnall is spinning a lot of plates here, and there’s an intrigue to it borne of not knowing what’s coming next.

But it faltered on rewatch. I can’t imagine Ascension of the Cybermen is going to age especially well; familiarity blunts that momentum, all those big explosions and expensive Cyberman action feeling like little more than a cheap thrill in the end. Up to a point, I suppose that’s just my own lack of patience for Cybermen that are trying so hard they actually have spikes – it doesn’t emphasise any of the concepts I find interesting about them, a reinvention that leaves them feeling generic rather than distinct. Clearly, it worked for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I understood exactly why: few of the action set-pieces made much impression, relying on spectacle that Jamie Magnus Stone proved unable to provide. It’s functional rather than memorable.

What’s frustrating is that when the episode does offer something compelling, it largely languishes in the margins, never given the chance to graduate beyond the peripheral. I noted last week that The Haunting of Villa Diodati “offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back”; Ascension of the Cybermen, in much the same way, is littered with interesting ideas that never quite cohere. (Incidentally, Ascension of the Cybermen does a relatively poor job of following The Haunting of Villa Diodati on its own terms – why do we need an episode establishing the Cybermen as a significant threat if that was the point of last week? Certainly, it exacerbates the sense that this episode is just procrastinating the finale.)

An almost religious Cyberman is a genuinely interesting idea – not least because of how it might bring them back in line with Kit Pedler’s original idea of the Cybermen as Star Monks. Similarly, Ashad’s voluntary conversion is a neat way to complicate our idea of the Cybermen; his talk of resurrecting a dead empire, alongside his angry outbursts, have an obvious potency. Even the flying Cyberman heads have a germ of an interesting idea to them, actually. After all, if the Cybermen were solely about preserving life, they’d be digital: you’d upload people to the cloud, or something similar. For the Cybermen to exist, on some level there’s got to be a fetishisation of image, of shape – which ties neatly to that idea of reaching for an abandoned imperial past, and my own preferred take on the Cybermen as a sort of forced heteronormative, patriarchal conformity. Of course the Cybermen would use drones with that particular shape! (That said, though, imagine how neat it would’ve been if the Cyberheads didn’t just shoot lasers, but – like in The Pandorica Opens – tried to latch onto and convert the remaining humans.)

Little of that made an impact, though – because, in the end, that’s just not what this story was about.

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If, then, there’s not a whole lot to say about this episode – and if I’m still determined to write these reviews in three sections, which I am – then let’s devote some time to speculation. I never really do this, but hey: Ascension of the Cybermen is written essentially as a fifty-minute trailer for next week. I think speculating is exactly what we’re meant to do at this point.

Which brings us to Brendan, the nominally Irish police officer, and the most interesting part of Ascension of the Cybermen. I say “nominally-Irish” because I’m convinced that these scenes aren’t actually taking place in Ireland – rather, they’re on Gallifrey (or at least some sort of visual metaphor for it), the punchline to that old joke about how “Gallifrey is a place in Ireland”. Brendan, I assume, is the Doctor somehow – a policeman, not unlike how the Doctor travels in a police box, “sorting out fair play across the universe”. Brendan being found as a baby is, presumably, how Chibnall intends to reinvent the Doctor’s origins – not a Time Lord, just raised by Time Lords, instead an adopted (Timeless?) child from another world. “Everything you think you know is a lie, Doctor” – you’re not a Time Lord at all. (Is the Master? Dunno – but I do like the idea of him being so invested in the Doctor that he’s treated this as a much bigger, more personal, revelation than it actually is.)

The question that poses in turn – “If not a Time Lord, what is the Doctor?”, or more simply, “Doctor Who?” – is a neat way to turn the series on its head. You can see, suddenly, the dramatic engine of Chibnall’s five-year plan, a sweeping change that offers stories both intimate and epic. It’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should embrace, I think; there’s little benefit to being beholden to decades-old canon if it prevents you from telling new, compelling stories today. Plus, there’s something very neat about Chibnall scrawling over Doctor Who’s mythology with his own ideas in an episode that borrows a key scene from Broadchurch.

Admittedly, the danger is that what’s compelling about these stories is walking up to the line, flirting with the idea of crossing it, indulging in the blasphemy of it – but its rare that these questions might have a satisfactory answer. The Doctor isn’t a Time Lord. She’s a human.  She’s a Cyberman. She’s a Timeless Child. She’s half-human on her mother’s side. She’s a Slitheen. She’s something we’ve never heard of before, from a race that… looks human and can regenerate. Hmm. Best case scenario, The Timeless Children is 2020’s answer to The War Games – more likely, it’s going to be akin to The TV Movie, and we’ll all just sort of ignore whatever happens next week the same way we all sort of ignore the half-human thing. (That said, there’s a get out; if Time Lord is a rank, the Doctor can still be a Time Lord but not a Gallifreyan, and a happy ending reclaiming an imperial birthright is… well, we’ll see.) In any case, Doctor Who might be about to quite radically reinvent itself: I’d be lying if I said I thought Chibnall could pull it off.

Equally, I could be entirely wrong – it’s surely not a coincidence that both Ashad and Ko Sharmus are played by Irish actors, after all. Suppose we’ll see!

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Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Can You Hear Me?

doctor who review can you hear me chris chibnall emma sullivan charlene james yaz mandip gill ryan tosin cole

I didn’t know who to say it to, so I thought I’d say it to you.

[Note: this review, like the episode itself, touches on themes of mental illness/depression.]

Let’s start with the most striking detail of this episode: Yaz, for a long time the most anonymous and vaguely drawn Doctor Who companion of the past decade, was here revealed to have a history of depression. Not just that, though: three years prior, she ran away from home, intending to commit suicide.

Can You Hear Me? stops slightly short of making this explicit, admittedly, but it’d be understating it to call this subtext. Yaz is running away, yes, but note the framing: Sonya is “worried you’ve left and you’re gonna do something stupid”, the policewoman is trying to convince her that “there’s so much ahead of you”, and coming home is “better than the other way”. Running away isn’t the issue; it’s what she might do next that’s cause for concern. The episode avoids saying the word “suicide”, yes, but you don’t have to read into the episode very far to see what they’re getting at – if nothing else, an anniversary meal to commemorate the day Yaz didn’t run away doesn’t quite fit the way the characters actually talk about this.

It’s worth asking, perhaps, how effective it is to frame it this way – and I mean that less in terms of whether the episode should’ve used the word “suicide” or not (Vincent and the Doctor uses it far fewer times than you’d expect and got the point across), but rather the metaphor of running away specifically. Granted, at this point it begins to get into questions of children’s TV, and what exactly is appropriate where; my sense, personally anyway, is that a line like “grades have gone a bit wonky, parents don’t get what’s up” is going to come across as patronising rather than striking a chord. (Actually, that’s a wider thing I’ve wondered about for years – does it do a disservice to young people to talk around the issue like this? Do, say, anti-cyberbullying campaigns, that frame the worst bullying as “you’re a loser” style taunts, give the wrong impression of how severe these things can be? Is that why so many people think it is as simple as just turning off the computer and walking away? Not a clue, but it’s been an ongoing idle thought over the years.) But, that said, you never know, and as is it’ll surely mean a lot to someone.

Even outside of that, though, there’s a bit of a sense that the episode was holding back a little. That’s come up before, a little, in The Witchfinders, the last time we noted that Yaz has a history of being bullied. Implicit-but-unsaid then, as now, is the idea that it was specifically Islamophobic bullying that Yaz was experiencing. There’s been an odd reticence, actually, to address Yaz’s faith across the series – Demons of the Punjab exists, yes, but I’d argue that episode was often more about Yaz’s family than Yaz herself. Interestingly enough, actually, we know that Juno Dawson, who wrote a Doctor Who novel about faith and religion, was told by the BBC not to dwell on Yaz-as-a-Muslim – for whatever reason, this era of the show, which has often engaged with religion in a way Doctor Who rarely has before, is strangely reluctant to admit to the faith of one of its leads. That’s not to say, for what it’s worth, that I’m suggesting Doctor Who’s first Muslim companion should’ve been driven to suicidal thoughts because of racist abuse – just that, in telling this story, they’re still perhaps a step or two away from anything resembling character specificity.

doctor who review can you hear me yaz yasmin khan mandip gill emma sullivan sonya charlene james zellin depression suicide

Which gets at one of the more obvious faults in this episode – it really, really should’ve aired last year. As it is, there’s a sense that someone in the production office realised that Mandip Gill was probably going to be leaving at the end of the year, in turn prompting a slightly-too-late attempt at giving Yaz some interiority. It’s not ideal: Can You Hear Me? would have benefitted a great deal from having something to build off of, or at least more than a throwaway reference to bullying in one episode. (After what Mandip Gill has been saying about a big plotline for Yaz this year, her secret finally revealed, it does make me wonder slightly if she felt it was always building up to this, or if that’s just PR-speak.) But, you know, equally, for the past few weeks now I’ve offered that caveat, suggesting these episodes are better when judged in isolation – perhaps after a few weeks of “this would be better if the episodes around it were better”, it’s time to concede that maybe things are starting to work?

Certainly, Ryan’s nightmare this week is, I think, the closest that a particular vision of the Chibnall era has ever come to working: it feels grounded and character-driven in the way that Doctor Who has clearly been intended to be but fallen short of in recent years. That Ryan’s worst fear is, essentially, a form of climate grief – cleverly tied back to Orphan 55, and the sense he’s missing his friends’ lives – is sublime. That’s a deft bit of character work, letting the science fiction resonate emotionally in a way it hasn’t in quite some time; between Orphan 55, Praxeus, and this, Series 12 is actually starting to feel not just incisive but almost vital in its engagement with that growing cultural sense of environmental anxiety. (It even goes some ways towards redeeming the clunky ending of Orphan 55, for me at least – it’s now consciously unresolved, that “you can still do something” speech having a degree more weight to it because it now seems like Ryan actually will.) Tosin Cole again is doing stellar work: of the four leads, it’s him who’s impressed me most across Series 12. Perhaps it’s a case of him getting better material than last year; maybe he’s just a better actor now. Either way, I’m now quite determined to watch 61st Street, the American drama he’ll be in next year.

And, again, Graham’s storyline basically works – with none of the same caveats I might offer about Yaz or Ryan’s. Given Chibnall’s Doctor Who has always been more interested in him than the other two companions, there’s more for Can You Hear Me? to work with – his cancer is long-established at this point, and Grace’s cameo has a weight and significance that Tibo’s appearance can’t sustain. (It’s sort of odd, isn’t it, that Grace has essentially entirely become Graham’s supporting character, and very rarely has any relevance to Ryan’s plotlines? Again, I can’t help but feel that it should’ve been Ryan reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away rather than Graham – here, at least, it’d make her appearance in Graham’s nightmare all the more poignant.) It’s not the standout moment of the episode, albeit with one exception I’ll get to in a moment, but it works: something that all involved are very good at, have done very well before, and are doing very well again here. I suspect few people would’ve expected Bradley Walsh’s performance to be the most consistently and reliably good bit of any given Doctor Who episode, but hey, it’s hard to complain too much.

doctor who review can you hear me jodie whittaker bradley walsh graham cancer chris chibnall charlene james emma sullivan

Unexpectedly, then, Jodie Whittaker was the weakest part of this episode. Much like last week, actually – if you’d said to me at the start of the series that two weeks running that Mandip Gill as Yaz would leave a greater impression than Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

Part of this is because she’s found herself stuck with a plotline that doesn’t quite work, running around and doing quirks at the latest iteration of a generic Doctor Who space god. Zellin and Rakaya – more consonant heavy names from Chibnall – don’t make much of an impression, Ian Gelder’s performance aside. That’s more of a dialogue issue than anything else: that sort of eternal being type character is hard to get right at the best of times, and Zellin’s dreary monologing was very much not “the best of times”. The detachable fingers is a nice image (though surely they should’ve gone into the ear the other way up?) and the animated sequence is a genuinely lovely experiment of the sort I wish Doctor Who would do more often, but really the best thing that can be said of Zellin and Rakaya is that their plotline is introduced and resolved in about twenty minutes. Even if they had been a little more interesting, though, the Doctor would still have been a little disservice by the nightmare plot – her worst fear is, uh, a teaser for an arc we still don’t quite understand? I get what it’s going for, but it’s plot over character, and it doesn’t particularly work. It’s not unlike how one of the duller parts of The Time of the Doctor was revealing what was in the Doctor’s room in The God Complex. You’d think, if it absolutely had to be an arc thing, that a flashback to Jo Martin’s Doctor might’ve been a bit more appropriate.

It gets at a wider problem, though, which is that I’m not actually sure anyone involved has a sense of this Doctor as a character. There’s a personality, yes, and a voice, a collection of quirks and tics and attributes… all of which, to my mind, still fall a little short of a character. This, admittedly, is often something that’s difficult to articulate – in part it’s a question of range and of flaws – but, handily, there’s actually quite a good example of this in the episode. A little surprisingly, the ending to Can You Hear Me? – the Doctor’s “I’m actually still quite socially awkward” response to Graham opening up about his cancer – has proven quite controversial, to the point that the BBC actually issued a statement about it. Some people love it; some don’t. What I found interesting about it though is that there’s certainly a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that is socially awkward, that would say something like that, and it could still read as touching. But at the same time, there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that’s more keenly, openly empathetic than her predecessors – there are two competing and contradictory versions of this character, the writing has never quite cohering. It’s no wonder Whittaker is starting to struggle with the part.

Ultimately, despite its flaws – which I spent longer on than I’d perhaps intended at first – I really, really liked Can You Hear Me? I’d quite confidently say it’s one of the best of both Series 12 and the Chibnall era as a whole – but it also points, quite clearly, to some improvements that will have to be made across Series 13.

Related:

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Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

doctor who review praxeus jamie magnus stone chris chibnall pete mctighe jodie whittaker mandip gill

Seven billion lives. Separate, and connected, from the edge of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.

It says a lot about how little I trust Pete McTighe after last time that those opening lines had me worried the Doctor was suddenly going to start advocating Malthusian population control measures. But she didn’t! Sure, the framing monologue itself was rubbish – it’s only nominally connected to the actual content of the episode itself, probably more befitting a butterfly-effect narrative a la The Pyramid at the End of the World – but, given the Doctor didn’t explicitly come out in favour of anything actively evil this go around, we can probably call it a wash.

I joke, of course, but that sort of “well, yes, but” despite itself sentiment largely prevails across the episode – a story which, caveats aside, is actually I guess probably one of my favourites of the Chibnall era, and certainly of this series. Which I can’t say I was expecting after Ker-blam! (There’s an obvious comparison to be made between another debut episode I disliked, and the same writer’s subsequent offerings that I rather did, but I’ll elide that for the moment. Points if you can guess what I have in mind though, I suppose.) Anyway, damning with faint praise or not, I was reasonably fond of Praxeus. As with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, I imagine I’d be inclined to be more critical of it any of it any other year – for the moment, though, there’s a lot to appreciate about an episode that manages to get the basics right.

For the most part, Praxeus is an episode that’s comfortable in itself, one of the first episodes that feels like a ‘year two’ piece in a meaningful sense. Where Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or Orphan 55 might quite easily have found a spot in a twelve-episode Series 11, there’s a sense about Praxeus that some lessons have been learned. The growing pains are gone: it balances the large guest cast that is, for some reason, a staple of the Chibnall-era better than most; it’s more assured in its exposition (no small feat – contrast the Doctor just showing up in each location, accompanied only by the TARDIS sound effect, with the level of hand-holding needed to explain each sci-fi contrivance in any other given episode); it manages to be touch on modern concerns, and indeed actually be about something, without relying on awkward, almost extra-diegetic proselytising. There is, perhaps, something to be said for McTighe’s own showrunning experience here – he’s a writer who, if nothing else, very much knows what he’s doing.

(Which, incidentally, raises an interesting question about Chibnall’s cowriting credit. McTighe is exactly the sort of experienced screenwriter that Russell T Davies wouldn’t have rewritten at all – a Steven Moffat, Matthew Graham, Stephen Greenhorn, and indeed Chris Chibnall type screenwriter – so it’s not, presumably, simply Chibnall being more inclined to take a credit for the work his predecessors did unrecognised. At the same time, though, there are no obvious moments – or wider, arc-related signifance – that stands out about Praxeus; it’s a fairly easy bit of archaeology to assume that Chibnall wrote the scenes with Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon, and provided at least a steering hand on the Jo Martin scenes. So, anyway: curious.)

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Granted, though, that comfort obscures some flaws. Sometimes, clarity is sacrificed for momentum – not a huge problem when it’s fridge logic plot details like how exactly Adam texted Jake, but rather more so when it’s a question of emotional clarity, like Gabriela mourning her friend’s death right up until she seemingly just sort of forgets about it. The environmental message is fumbled somewhat when the blame is placed on an alien pathogen rather than human action. It’s difficult to care about Jake’s almost-sacrifice, given how trite and contrived that trope so often is. The direction lets the episode down, never quite managing to really push the idea that this is what a particularly frantic day looks like for the Doctor, trying to be everywhere at once. Jodie Whittaker is mostly on autopilot; every Doctor has an episode like that, and she more or less manages, but there are a few moments where it really stands out. When she eventually leaves the part, I don’t know that we’ll be sad her tenure is over, but that rather that it never really began – I can’t quite think of what we might point to as Whittaker’s Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Doctor’s Wife, or Heaven Sent. That’s a shame, really, no matter how you look at it.

Yet I’m finding it hard to summon the enthusiasm to stick the knife into Praxeus particularly. Yes, any other year, this episode is going to be something like The Idiot’s Lantern or Knock Knock – the middle of the road piece where, you know, there’s certainly something to be said of them, but they’re never going to be the most compelling, or most polarising, of their respective series. It’s the 6/10, ‘pleasantly surprising when you rewatch it a few years later but nothing special’ episode. Which is fine! Not every episode can be Love & Monsters or Hell Bent – and I’ve been deliberate in choosing episodes that I know some people will have quite different opinions on. No, it’s not great that it looks like Praxeus is going to be one of the highlights of Series 12 is, almost by default. But I wrote a review bemoaning the wider state of Series 12 a few weeks ago; I don’t need to write another. (Especially because I suspect I eventually will, so the longer I can put that off, the better.) I suppose, had Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus been swapped in the running order, I’d have been decidedly more positive about the former, and more inclined to criticise Praxeus.

And, hey, there’s still a lot to like about Praxeus. Tosin Cole in particular had a good week, offering a more confident, mature take on Ryan – the slightly Doctor-ish, three-quarter length coat an especially nice touch to reflect that. It’s a neat premise too: I love it when Doctor Who is big, expansive, and worldwide, and outside of New Earth we’ve not really done alien viruses in the new series. The romantic plotline between Jake and Adam was surprisingly touching, too, and a welcome effort from an era that’s really struggled with its promised LGBT representation. And Bradley Walsh’s quiet, wordless smile on the beach in that scene with Jake is surely some of his best work on Doctor Who yet. Plus, a lot of the jokes are good too. So, sure, why not.

doctor who review praxeus mandip gill yaz bradley walsh graham warren brown pete mctighe plastic jamie magnus stone chris chibnall

Of course, it’s not just Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh who did well in Praxeus – let’s just pause for a moment and imagine Mandip Gill reading the script for this episode, a single, solitary tear rolling down her face, overjoyed and (ironically) speechless that Yaz, finally, miraculously, at last has something to do.

Embarrassingly, actually (though you be the judge as to whether I should be embarrassed, or Chibnall et al) when Yaz displayed a hitherto unseen personality this week, I assumed it was a function of the plot – like, the computer panel was exerting some alien influence on her, and we were supposed to notice her sudden flash of independence and see it as cause for concern. Not so, thankfully, but it says a lot that, for a moment at least, that felt like the natural reading of that scene. So rare is it for Yaz to actually have something to do, and for Mandip Gill to play a line as anything other than earnest, that Praxeus arguably might well be a better story for the character than her nominal spotlight episodes, Arachnids in the UK and Demons of the Punjab.

Yaz has always been a bit of a problem companion – not particularly connected to Grace’s death, the catalyst for Series 11’s emotional arc, nor the big name actor everyone’s keen to write for (or, alternatively, who has a contractually obliged number of lines per episode) – and Mandip Gill, unlike Tosin Cole, isn’t a strong enough actor to make an impression despite being underserved by the material. At times, actually, she’s been such a non-entity it’s felt like there’s some merit to the occasionally vaunted idea that Yaz wasn’t part of the initial plan for Series 11 – either added later when Chibnall realised the gender balance of the regulars was a little off, or when Vinay Patel pitched a partition episode. It’s unlikely, of course (though perhaps notable that ‘Yasmin Khan’ shares a name with a prolific partition era historian), but it speaks volumes that the character plausibly could be excised without making much difference.

Little about Yaz’s role in Praxeus feels like it follows on from her presence in prior episodes – I mean, certainly, “independent and resourceful” is something you might expect of Yaz, given her introduction in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but it hardly chimes with The Tsuranga Conundrum or Resolution. But then, you know, who cares? Praxeus feels like a glimpse into another universe – the middle of the road episode from a genuinely very good series, where Mandip Gill got to play this version of the character all the time. As it is, this middle of the road episode feels like something genuinely quite significant by virtue of the stories around it – and, after complaining so much about how little Mandip Gill gets to do, it’d perhaps be remiss of me not to celebrate Yaz finally starting to resemble an actual character.

Related:

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Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin ruth doctor chris chibnall vinay patel nida manzoor

Doesn’t time fly when you don’t have all the answers?

I am, I think, finally starting to understand Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who.

That’s been a point of contention for a little while now, something I’ve spoken about in my review of each part of Spyfall; there’s been, to my mind, a frustrating almost-anonymity to Chibnall’s Doctor Who work, leaving a lot of it feeling like a weak, Davies-era tribute act. I’ve never entirely understood what exactly drives Chibnall, what he thinks Doctor Who is for, what he loves about it. “Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who” has never felt as coherent a concept as “Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” – much as the latter is often misunderstood, there’s an obvious set of easy to appreciate personal idiosyncrasies that the former very much lacks.

But! I recently read quite an interesting interview with Chibnall (in a magazine, otherwise I’d link it) which I think sheds some light on it all. He described series 12, in contrast to series 11, as “a journey deeper into Doctor Who” – where series 11 was about setting the stage, this is Chibnall finally getting towards doing what he actually wants to do with the series.

Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Granted, I’m inclined to question just how well series 11 functions as an introduction to how good Doctor Who can be – given that it, uh, was rarely as good as Doctor Who could be – and I’m more than a little suspicious of how in tune his populist instincts actually are, but it makes sense. Series 11, in that sense, almost starts to look like Chibnall’s version of series 10 – not quite treading water, exactly, but a prologue inspired by a popular predecessor in the same way that was an epilogue. Series 12 is what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who should be – as he put it in the interview, “all the treats of the Doctor Who universe and then some”. That, immediately, is much more interesting to me than the (deliberately) simpler, less overtly authored series 11.

Granted, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this vision – it’s perhaps a little too rooted in established canon and continuity call-backs, even for me – and, more to the point, I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going. Jo Martin’s Doctor is fascinating, though, and introducing her character feels like the most ambitious the show has been since… well, I suppose since casting Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in a long time, to me at least, the series feels genuinely quite compelling – and that’s a pretty nice feeling, actually.

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Which isn’t to say, though, that it’s necessarily actually any good. Honestly, there’s a case to be made that Fugitive of the Judoon is scarcely an episode at all – just an hour of set-up, moving the pieces around the chess board so that they’re ready for (presumably) the finale.

So, it’s probably worth discussing Jack for a moment. On a production level, it’s more or less inevitable that the character would end up returning – he’s the most easily revisited Davies-era character, for one thing, and certainly one of the most popular (like, I’d love to see Martha back – the only other character you could bring back without having to tie yourself in knots to explain how they’ve returned – but I can’t imagine many people are really clamouring for that). Even setting aside the Davies-era nostalgia, though, Jack was always going to return because John Barrowman is something of a household name. In 2005, he was a theatre actor, with a couple of small film roles; now, he’s been on I’m a Celebrity, he’s a judge on Dancing on Ice, he’s hosted game shows and talent contests and he’s a talk show regular. John Barrowman is, if you like, Bradley Walsh after the watershed – of course he was going to return in Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And, you know, John Barrowman aside, I do basically like Captain Jack, as indeed I like, well, everything from Doctor Who when I was 10. Yes, it’s pretty much entirely nostalgia, but it just about worked for me (even if, structurally, it was a bit of a mess).

What was interesting, though, is how much his sheer force of personality – for better or for worse – nearly entirely overshadowed the other companions. There’s something fundamentally really, really strange about Yaz sharing screentime with Jack – the difference between caricature and character writ large in a Bristol Cathedral dressed as a spaceship. Yaz, of course, was already poorly served by this episode, which was already especially egregious given it was the alien space police episode, but Jack’s return threw it into even sharper relief.

Granted, I don’t actually think Jack was especially well-served by Chibnall’s writing either – often feeling more like a memory of the character’s quirks, and too reliant on technobabble that was never Barrowman’s strong suit anyway – and structurally, his involvement in the episode was a mess. (You couldn’t have given the three companions something to do within this – helping Jack somehow, rather than just watching?) But it highlights, I think, the limits to Chibnall’s skill, even now, as we’re starting to get a better understanding of just where he wants to direct that skill.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jodie whittaker jo martin doctor ruth gloucester

On the plus side, though, Jodie Whittaker had one of her best weeks yet. So that was nice.

As I noted last week, Whittaker has always done best in the role when she’s had to play against a strong guest actor; the reason, I think, is that it draws out her otherwise fairly passive take on the character. Pushed to the margins, she’s forced to try and reassert herself over the narrative – so in that sense, pairing her with another Doctor is sublime. Here, the challenge to her place as lead is, by necessity, much stronger that it ever is with Tesla or King James – because Jo Martin, and Jo Martin’s Doctor, offer a very different vision of what the programme could be. It’s not a huge surprise that there were people left sort of wishing the series stayed with Martin at the end – that means it’s working!

(Although, of course, I suspect the two Doctors will eventually find themselves a little more closely aligned by the end. It’s surely not a coincidence, after all, that the Ruth Doctor evokes Grace – who was very consciously, explicitly paralleled with the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.)

In places, yes, I do still wish Jodie Whittaker was being given more to do. She’s plainly capable of so much, and the show is often so close to giving her things to do – that confrontation with the companions at end, where she brushes them off and insists they don’t know her, has a bitterness and an edge to it that’s almost entirely unlike anything she’s got to do so far. That’s brilliant! I’d love to see more of that! But it was resolved, so, so quickly, it didn’t really go anyway. A shame.

At the end of my review of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – an episode that, I think, is actually probably better than Fugitive of the Judoon – I commented that it’s perhaps not a good thing that it was the best Doctor Who could do. This week, though, I welcome the ambition on display – even if it doesn’t always add up to much, it feels like Doctor Who has regained a certain sense of momentum. I’m really, really glad of that.

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part Two)

doctor who review spyfall part two chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker sacha dhawan gallifrey timeless child

A little chaos is a wonderful thing.

A few days ago, I asked just what Chris Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who was. I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.

The answer, it’s starting to seem, is “exactly the same stories Russell T Davies was telling a decade ago”.

I think everyone always assumed, more or less, that Chibnall would owe something of a debt to Davies as showrunner. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was first announced that Chibnall would take over from Steven Moffat – forgive the needlessly dramatic headline, I was still working a lot of this out – although it was hardly a unique observation on my part. After all, it was an easy enough prediction to make from his Doctor Who work – especially something like The Power of Three – and his working relationship with Davies on Torchwood. To say nothing of his work outside of Doctor Who: I’m inclined to suspect, though it’s an admittedly slight assertion, if you asked Moffat and Davies to write a drama about a murder in a small coastal town, Davies would write something more closely resembling Broadchurch than Moffat would.

This largely proved a sensible assumption across series 11. Granted, it was always a slightly superficial bit of analysis – sure, we saw Ryan and Yaz’s family, just like we saw Rose, Martha and Donna’s, and Demons of the Punjab definitely had some Father’s Day vibes, but beyond that there was an obvious gulf between what Chibnall and Davies did with their respective supporting characters. Still: whether consciously positioning himself that way or not, Chibnall did indeed have a lot more in common with Davies than his immediate predecessor. Spyfall suggests series 12 will be shaping up the same way. The first part of the story had plenty of what we might charitably call little nods to Davies throughout – the death-by-SATNAV set piece lifted from The Sontaran Stratagem, the Kasaavin owe an obvious visual debt to the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, that sort of thing.

It’s not, obviously, that imitating Davies is a bad thing. He’s a talented writer who made huge creative contributions to Doctor Who: returning to and recontextualising those ideas anew holds a lot of potential. That’s not limited to Chibnall either, after all – The Pilot was quite clearly Steven Moffat doing Russell T Davies, so to speak, and that’s a perfectly charming series opener.

After Spyfall Part Two, though, it looks rather like Chibnall doesn’t actually have any ideas of his own to add to this – his vision for Doctor Who is increasingly looking like a weak cover version of what’s gone before.

doctor who review spyfall part two graham bradley walsh ryan tosin cole yaz mandip gill chris chibnall

Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and look first at Ryan, Yaz and Graham, if only because I largely neglected to mention them last time. But then, that’s understandable, I think: there’s still so little to say about them.

It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the issue is with the ‘fam’ – it’s something of an imperfect storm, I suppose. In part, I’m inclined to criticise the actors themselves: Mandip Gill, I’m increasingly convinced, puts on a voice as Yaz, the overly earnest intonation of a children’s TV presenter, drawing attention to quite how hard she’s acting without really evoking anything you might call ‘character’. But then, that feels a tad unfair – how else is she meant to ask “what’s the plan?” five times an episode?

There’s a moment in his book, The Writer’s Tale, where Russell T Davies is talking about The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and juggling the dialogue for each companion while still ensuring each character remains distinct. “They’re all sci-fi women on the side of good”, he says, or words to that effect, “so they’re all going to be giving broadly similar speeches”. Davies goes on to explain how Rose, Martha and Donna’s specific, individual character traits influence the rhythms and perspectives of those speeches, keeping the lines distinct, but you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chibnall’s version of the same would’ve cut that explanation short.

Yaz and Ryan are both still given largely interchangeable dialogue, veering between inquisitive and expository; Graham fares a little better, although that’s mostly down to the gravity Bradley Walsh exerts on the script.  Four companions was always going to be difficult to juggle. I’d assumed, wrongly, that there might be an effort to dedicate an episode to each companion – a Ryan focused piece, not unlike an American procedural drama, or something out of 90s Star Trek (which I’m convinced Chibnall is quite heavily influenced by, actually). At this point, though, it’s difficult to imagine that working: I don’t think for a second that Ryan, Yaz, or Graham could sustain a Doctor-lite episode like Flatline, Turn Left or so on.

I’m just not entirely convinced, I suppose, that anyone involved – actors or writers – have a particularly strong handle on who these characters are supposed to be. Dropping them into a more or less straight recreation of The Sound of Drums largely confirms this: Yaz gets the ‘Martha calls her family’ beat, but you’d think, perhaps, as a police officer in training she might have had a slightly different reaction to being on the run. They each have their moments, sure – Ryan has a few cute moments, and Graham’s laser tap dance was charming, if a little tonally off – but for the most part, they remain frustratingly anonymous, still little more than vague archetypes. It’s hardly encouraging at this point.

doctor who jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor gallifrey time war timeless child omelas chris chibnall spyfall

That, actually, is what gets at me about the Russell T Davies of it all: Chibnall isn’t actually particularly good at it. ‘Character focused’ is a fairly superficial reading of Davies – and more than a little uncharitable to Moffat – but you’d hope that if Chibnall was going to simply rehash what we’d seen before, he’d at least do it well.

But, no: the Bond parody falls apart, turning briefly into a repeat of The Sound of Drums before being entirely forgotten. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton simply leaves, not unlike a lot of series 11’s villains; perhaps we’ll see him return to team up with Chris Noth’s President Robertson, in a toothless wannabe-satire that says nothing at all about right-wing politics or powerful tech companies. The Master, unfortunately, is a caricature rather than a character, an attempt to ignore Michelle Gomez and return to John Simm, with none of the personality that made Simm’s Master work. The series arc – Gallifrey’s mysterious destruction – is, in effect at least, an almost wholesale recreation of the Time War. Spyfall even lifts from Moffat, actually, with some timey-wimey back and forth drained of all the bravura and panache it used to have.

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for this when I can just open iPlayer and watch the better versions of the stories that inspired Chibnall.

Most striking, though, is that it just feels thoughtless. Deeply, deeply thoughtless. Which is fine – well, ‘fine’ – when thoughtless means recreating Simm’s Master without realising why he worked in the first place. It’s ‘fine’ when thoughtless leads to one of the most bafflingly erotic scenes in Doctor Who history, apparently without even slightly realising how intensely sexual it is. It is not fine when thoughtless means repeatedly introducing Ada Lovelace as Byron’s daughter, rather than in terms of her own achievements; it is not fine when the Doctor tells a woman the fascists never win, a few months before she dies at Dachau; it is not fine when the Doctor defeats the first POC Master by very nonchalantly sending the Nazis after him. There is at times something quite ugly about Chibnall’s Doctor Who – accidentally, I’m reasonably sure, but in a real sense it’s far more reactionary than anything that ever provoked the ire of the stfu-moffat crowd.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing these episodes a bit of a disservice with the rough wordcount I stick to. At some point, I suppose, I’d like to do a podcast, or some other more detailed breakdown of these episodes (yes, I am asking to be invited to your podcast or roundtable discussion or similar), because there are absolutely lots of little moments in these episodes that are worth celebrating and shining a light on, which I never quite find the time for in amongst the complaints. But also, well, ugh. What on earth was that?

In the end, I’m reminded of this joke – I think from Robert Holmes – that Doctor Who only ever uses the best original ideas, just not necessarily its own original ideas. Spyfall, I think, might just be the perfect illustration of a version of Doctor Who that only uses its own original ideas – long after they might reasonably be described as “original ideas”.

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part One)

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker chris chibnall sacha dhawan the master lenny henry wayne yip

I did say look for the spymaster. Or should I say spy… Master?

There’s something strikingly anonymous about this, as has been the case with much of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who work.

When Chibnall was first announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I spent a while reading some of the interviews he’d given over the years, trying to pick up on some sense of his taste, the eras of the show he liked and disliked, anything that might prove to influence him. There was surprisingly little, in the end – the exception, of course, being that infamous video of teenage Chibnall on Points of View complaining about Trial of a Time Lord. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the whole thing – it’s too skin-crawlingly awkward – but, ironically enough, the excerpt I did watch acts as a fairly damning critique of his own first series, which, as we’ve established, never quite lived up to its potential.

Still, though. It’s not that having a history of hot takes about Doctor Who is a prerequisite for the job – at some point, it’ll probably become necessary to have a showrunner who isn’t a fan particularly – but that I never really got the sense that Chibnall had a particularly strong vision for the series. That, largely speaking, has been borne out on screen too: there’s something a little anonymous about it, a little impersonal. Compared to his predecessors, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, or the people who might once have held the top job instead of him, like Mark Gatiss or Toby Whithouse, it’s hard to get to grips with what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who is or what its for, or indeed what stories he’d like to tell with the show.

It feels, even now, fairly easy to describe what a Mark Gatiss-led version of Doctor Who would look like: quite traditional in many ways, motivated by a lot of Gatiss’ own idiosyncratic nostalgia, likely a few Gothic touches, so on and so forth. It’s much more difficult, though, to do the same for Chris Chibnall – even despite having watched a full series of the show under his stewardship. Yes, you can highlight the nods to the Davies era with relative ease, but it doesn’t feel especially as though Series 11 revealed much about Chibnall’s own individual concerns or interests – and Spyfall is much the same again.

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker james bond chris chibnall wayne yip lenny henry

It isn’t, for what it’s worth, anonymous in the same way that The Rise of Skywalker was: that was anodyne and hollow, cynically sycophantic in both content and construction. Spyfall is nowhere near so egregious – if nothing else, there’s actually a lot to like here, even if it is difficult to get to grips with it properly.

It’s better than a lot of series 11, certainly. The spy pastiche is a clever milieu to ground Doctor Who in, especially for what is at least nominally a New Year’s Day special; it’s a fun bit of genre-hopping, and crashing Doctor Who into a James Bond movie is self-evidently a good idea (much as I might’ve wished it had a slightly more coherent understanding of which sort of spying it was trying to be about – laser shoes are fun, extra-judicial assassinations are not). If nothing else, it’s more effective than its most obvious Capaldi-era antecedent, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, finding a lot more fun in the spy pastiche than Doctor Mysterio did with its comic book equivalent. Spyfall is well directed, too, featuring the debut of Jamie Magnus Stone, who’ll be returning once more later in the series. That said, though, it still feels wanting at times. For all the fun that Stone, Segun Akinola and Lenny Henry are clearly having with it, the episode is often oddly disconnected from the genre it’s aping – to the point that it drops out of the genre entirely in the middle, pausing to introduce the alien of the week without making a great deal of effort to tie the two plotlines together.

Spyfall seems, in short, as though it’s simply assembling a ticklist of tropes and signifiers into a series of set pieces, rather than presenting any meaningful perspective of its own. Yes, the episode gestures at the malign influence of multinational tech companies, but that never really registers as genuine critique or commentary. Undeniably, it’s better than Ker-blam! last year, but in the end it’s just throwaway: there’s no sense that Spyfall wants to be about something. Here, then, is how Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels anonymous and impersonal. Not because it’s constructed, especially – though it is much easier to pick up on Chibnall’s populist interests than his creative ones – but because it doesn’t especially feel like it has anything to say.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad, exactly, because it isn’t. Indeed, Spyfall is an episode of Doctor Who that feels properly at ease with itself in a way the series hasn’t for quite some time; it feels like the show has found its footing again, found its sense of humour. There are some genuinely nice touches – I loved that bit with the Doctor working on the TARDIS like a car at a garage – but those nice touches punctuate something that, as a whole, continues to be difficult to get to grips with.

doctor who review spyfall part one sacha dhawan master o missy michelle gomez chris chibnall wayne yip waris hussein

What’s perhaps most telling, with respect to questions of Chibnall’s vision, is that cliffhanger.

Series 11 studiously avoided references to the past, or the return of old monsters. That, I’m inclined to say, was probably Chibnall’s best instinct. This year, though, we’ve got the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Judoon, and now the Master – and it’s surely not out of the question that there might be more we don’t know about yet. It’s such a complete turnaround it’s hard not to wonder what prompted it: genuine desire to engage with and reinvent old favourites? A belief that, actually, Doctor Who should always feature old monsters, but not immediately after introducing a new Doctor? Or perhaps throwing things at the wall to see what might stick?

Certainly, it feels early to be bringing back the Master. Yes, it’s been the better part of three years since The Doctor Falls, but in terms of the show itself, it’s only been about twelve episodes – there were forty-four episodes between John Simm’s last appearance as the Master in The End of Time and Michelle Gomez’ first in Deep Breath (or fifty-five, if you’re more inclined to count her first appearance as Dark Water). It feels early because it is early. Bringing the character back so soon – and, indeed, bringing the character back as a man, despite how exciting it might’ve been to see, say, Indira Varma or Ruth Wilson in the role – is, I think, reason for pause. So too is how much of a throwback the character seems here, worlds away from where Michelle Gomez’ arc as the Master ended. It speaks to a limited conception of the character on Chibnall’s part, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, I’m immediately inclined to like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. I like Dhawan as an actor – he’s one of the few male actors I’d be interested in seeing as the Doctor – and he acquits himself admirably here. It’s a great performance, with an impressive, erratic physicality to it; it’s also more than strong enough to hide some of the sloppiness of the reveal itself, Dhawan making it look like the Master is desperate to reveal himself to the Doctor, obscuring how contrived that dialogue about sprinting really is.

Ultimately, then, Spyfall suggests a stronger series its predecessor. It has a lot of the same flaws, yes – Mandip Gill still seems to be struggling to find a note for Yaz beyond earnest, and I wish they’d tried to tie her fear she’d died to her rarely mentioned faith – but there is a degree more confidence to it, there is a degree more wit to it, and I had a degree more fun with it. The real question, I suppose, is if we’ll ever get a clearer picture of Chris Chibnall’s vision – and what that vision will prove to be.

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Doctor Who Review: Series 11 Overview

doctor who series 11 review poster overview criticism jodie whittaker chris chibnall bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill jamie childs

Arguably, Doctor Who series 11 was poised to be the programme’s best. Certainly, in the weeks prior to its debut, it looked set to be bold, vibrant and new – a confident step forward into a new era, exactly what the series needed.

It wasn’t.

In fact, it was probably the weakest run of eleven consecutive episodes across the past fourteen years – even the genuine highlights diminished by dint of the stories nestled around them. Watching Doctor Who week on week was a demonstration of the rapidly shrinking potential of Series 11; the contours of the Chibnall era became increasingly well-defined with every passing episode, serving at least to dull the blows of each new disappointment. It was frequently messy, routinely uninspired, and impressed only in terms of how unimaginative it so often was. All that potential amounted to little more than a shrug, in the end – there’s a sense that Doctor Who was a piece without any real direction or drive, but eleven hours of television content to simply just… be.

Yet that drab adequacy was so frustrating because the distance between what Series 11 was and what it could’ve been was, in many ways, aggravatingly short. It so very nearly was bold, vibrant and new; the building blocks were all there. The bigger picture got a lot right – smaller, moment to moment details left a lot to be desired, and in turn ultimately meant that bigger picture never quite came into focus. My central critique of Resolution was its inability to quite cohere into the story it thought it was; if I was going to try and distil Series 11’s faults into a single sentence, that would quite possibly be it.

Reviewing the episodes was difficult – for the most part, they were broadly entertaining to watch, but considerably less so to write about. The reviews quickly began to trend negative because – well, in no small part because I was growing steadily less enthused with the series generally, but chiefly because the episodes were more easily understood in terms of what almost worked rather than what actually did. By the end of the series, I was a lot more casual (and condemning) with the score afforded to each episode; they’re usually a little arbitrary anyway, because I’m inclined to resist reviews that can be simplified that much (but I still include them for individual episode reviews because, well, I always have). Here, in any case, is a reminder of each episode’s rating:

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth | Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  2. The Ghost Monument | Chris Chibnall | 6/10
  3. Rosa | Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall | 9/10
  4. Arachnids in the UK | Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum | Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  6. Demons of the Punjab | Vinay Patel | 9/10
  7. Kerblam! | Pete McTighe | 2/10
  8. The Witchfinders | Joy Wilkinson | 6/10
  9. It Takes You Away | Ed Hime | 8/10
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos | Chris Chibnall | 3/10
  11. Resolution | Chris Chibnall | 6/10

Immediately, some stand out as egregious – much as I do enjoy The Tsuranga Conundrum, it is terribly basic – and there’s an obvious point where my patience runs out. (And, as already noted, they were fairly arbitrary scores – Resolution was very close to being a 4/10 until I changed it on a whim I’d struggle to justify.) In any case, that leaves the traditional graph (my favourite part of these series overviews) in a bit of a tricky spot – it’s always based on fairly spurious data, but this year even more so. To try and supplement it a bit, I’ve also included a preferential ranking, worked out using this website – again, I’m not entirely sure how accurate I’d say it is, but it strikes me as worthy of inclusion.

doctor who series 11 review ranking rating jodie whittaker chris chibnall tsuranga ranskoor av kolos punjab woman witchfinders resolution jamie childs graph bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill

Again, some choices stand out – I’d have expected It Takes You Away to have been higher, though I have admittedly soured on the story since watching it the first go around. (My rankings the weekend immediately following The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos had It Takes You Away in fourth and, oddly, The Witchfinders in second.)

Really, though, what stands out about this list of episodes is… this list of episodes. Each series, of course, has had its high points and its low points; that Series 11 holds episodes that are amongst the very best and very worst of the post-2005 series is a rather more significant feat. Something like Rosa is going to define Doctor Who in the public eye for a long time (rightly or wrongly, I’m struggling to think of anything in the Capaldi era that’s going to have the same staying power within the zeitgeist), but something like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is a strong contender for the single most bland and boring hour of television that’s gone out under the Doctor Who name since 2005. Granted, that comparison obscures the impact of the series as a whole – as would several other comparisons, probably most obviously Demons of the Punjab (one of the best episodes of the past decade plus) and Kerblam! (which is borderline evil in many respects). For all that Series 11 might seem eclectic in its compulsions and interests, there is in fact a stilted uniformity to it all – perhaps because of how the same problems recur again and again, or the lack of any sense that the series built towards anything (that the majority of the episodes could play in any order speaks volumes). Equally, it may simply be a result of the fact that Chibnall wrote over half the episodes in this already reduced series. It’s unclear, beyond that, exactly how much influence Chibnall had as showrunner in comparison to Moffat or Davies; confused rumours of an American style writers’ room in the leadup to broadcast served to obscure Chibnall’s involvement and exactly how intense it was.

In a sense, though, that speaks to something of a wider anonymity surrounding Chibnall’s involvement – as a showrunner and as a writer, he’s considerably less of a personality than Moffat or Davies were. Obviously, Chibnall loves Doctor Who – it’s very much the sort of job you’d have to love to actually want to undertake it, that much has become clear over the years. And, of course, he’s got deeply embarrassing fan credentials of his own stretching back to the 1980s, starring in what’s got to be one of the most awkward and uncomfortable pieces of Doctor Who ephemera ever. Despite that, though, whatever love Chibnall presumably feels for the show seems decidedly… non-specific. If there’s an affection, it’s a broad, sweeping one; series 11 gives little sense of exactly what it is that fascinates Chibnall about Doctor Who, what draws him in and compels him to keep writing. Moffat and Davies both, very obviously, had their own idiosyncratic and personal interpretations of the show – their respective eras are very heavily authored in contrast to the Chibnall era. (Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, though, there was also a greater sense of variety within that authorship – the stilted uniformity of the Chibnall era is tied keenly to its anonymity, one suspects.)

Charitably, you could chalk that up to an attempt to get out of the way of new voices, even if it didn’t quite work – and I’ll concede, too, that the distance of a few months might mean I’m not remembering things quite right. More cynically, though, Series 11 feels constructed rather than conceived – a piece of television that doesn’t aim higher than being very popular. It achieved that, for a time, but contributes to a sense that there’s just not a lot going on this year.

doctor who series 11 review thirteenth doctor tardis ghost monument jodie whittaker chris chibnall

In my review of Resolution, I described the episode as “little more than a collection of remixed and rehashed beats from prior stories, with little thought paid towards how those beats might cohere in this story”. That aforementioned anonymity to Chibnall’s writing leaves Series 11 as a whole feeling much the same – a half-hearted return to a Davies-style format, lacking in much identity of its own. Particularly – and heartbreakingly – this applies most obviously to the Doctor herself. There’s a certain difficulty to critiquing this Doctor, because of how easily one might get lumped in with certain crowds who, to say the least, aren’t arguing in good faith. A caveat, then – one I’d hope is obvious, but feels worth repeating anyway – Jodie Whittaker was a brilliant, necessary choice for the Doctor, and she’s often the best part of any given episode.

Again, though, there’s a sense that the character has failed to meaningfully coalesce across the past eleven episodes. Often, the Doctor plays like a cynically conceived, populist minded Tennant/Smith tribute act, caught between a collection of empty quirks that don’t quite add up to anything on one hand, and character beats transposed without thought on the other. Her rebuke to Karl at the end of The Woman Who Fell to Earth recalls various scenes throughout the Tennant era, without a consistent (or intentionally inconsistent) sense of morality to back it up; Resolution lifts a line of dialogue wholesale from Daleks in Manhattan, of all episodes, and tries to position the Thirteenth Doctor as the type of character who says things like “I learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago”. To say its unearned would be quite the understatement. It’s not necessarily the end of the world; with each new Doctor, there’s a period where lines are still scripted for the previous incarnations while everyone gradually works out how the new actor will approach the part. It goes further here, admittedly, in terms of basic characterisation, and it’s exacerbated by the noticeable absence of anything even vaguely resembling a character arc for the Doctor. Broadly, it’s an easy fix – but it’s frustrating that it’s even necessary at all, given how close the Thirteenth Doctor actually is to working. Indeed – and it might be vastly overreaching to say this, but I’ll do it anyway – this Doctor could easily have been the most introspective and nuanced take on the character we’ve seen so far.

When I reviewed The Ghost Monument – an episode I’ve seen four times now, and liked less and less each successive time – I spent a little while talking about the Doctor’s suddenly very defeatist attitude when the TARDIS hadn’t appeared yet. Rather than seeing it as unearned, it struck me as an interesting character note:

That level of self-doubt – and more to the point, very sudden self-doubt that the audience understands as unfounded – feels like something we’ve never actually quite seen before. It’s a take on the Doctor that emphasises a certain vulnerability and insecurity […] and it’s obvious where Jodie Whittaker is going to do some of her most interesting work with the Doctor: carving out a space for subtler, quieter emotions, and in turn evoking the interiority of the part in a way we’ve not seen before.

I’d hold to that, even now, and maintain that was true of Whittaker’s Doctor across the rest of the series – even if, at this point, it’s obviously more down to her portrayal than anything as scripted. This Doctor is most compelling when she’s gleefully taunting Krasko as he tries to kill her; when she quietly apologises to a dead body; when she’s desperately searching for justification to destroy a Dalek, and almost kills Aaron as collateral. Again, there’s something frustrating to the way these threads don’t coalesce into a single character – but it’s obvious, as she gives the Doctor an interiority beyond what the script grants, that Jodie Whittaker makes the role bigger on the inside.

doctor who series 11 yaz yasmin khan mandip gill ryan sinclair tosin cole graham o brien bradley walsh the woman who fell to earth companion jodie whittaker chris chibnall

Of course, if the Doctor is thinly characterised at best, it does beg the question – what about her friends?

Well, actually, let’s start there. One of the more interesting things to note (well, interesting if you’re inclined to pick over every small detail and language choice) about the marketing for Series 11 is the way it tried to position Yaz, Graham and Ryan not as ‘companions’ but as ‘friends’. Ultimately, it was about as reflective of the actual content of Series 11 as… well, as the rest of the marketing for Series 11 (if only it had genuinely been that colourful!) but it’s interesting in how it speaks to intent. Again, it’s an unfulfilled intent: there’s a certain sterility to the relationships between the TARDIS crew this year, and little resembling actual friendship. I’ve touched on it a few times, but theirs is a very impersonal relationship – that none of them paused to ask the Doctor where she’s from is, to my mind, still a huge flaw. It’s particularly obvious at the end of Arachnids in the UK, when Yaz says the Doctor is “pretty much the best person she’s ever met” – what? Really? (It’s a bad scene generally – after a space desert that nearly killed them and a harrowing experience in segregationist Alabama, it’s pretty much inexplicable why they’d want to keep travelling in the TARDIS at all – so the fact that line sticks out is indicative of just how egregious it is.)

But then, it’s perhaps to be expected with a regular cast as crowded as this (to say nothing of the strangely counter-intuitive insistence on stacking each episode with guest characters too). Of course, the relationship between Doctor and companions feels oddly impersonal – there’s not enough time to make it work. There’s only just enough time to introduce them all as individuals, and in turn establish the dynamic between Ryan and Graham. Eleven episodes in, and it’s difficult not to think that making a four-person regular cast work in modern Doctor Who is impossible… though at that point one would be inclined to note all the ways it might have been easier. Perhaps a version of Series 11 that didn’t have multiple guest stars with their own emotional arcs in each episode would’ve fared better; perhaps a version of Series 11 that gave each character their own focal episode would’ve fared better. (Quite how difficult it is to imagine a Doctor-lite episode lead by Yaz speaks volumes, I think.) There are ways to make these three characters work, even if Series 11 doesn’t exactly manage it.

Or, maybe more accurately, “there are ways to make these three characters work better” – because they do work, up to a point. Certainly, Graham and Ryan do; theirs is a thinly sketched arc, but it’s something, at least. It helps that the pair are good actors, too; Bradley Walsh has an obvious confidence as a performer that goes a long way, and Tosin Cole is obviously well equipped to rise to the material when the opportunity presents itself. Yaz, admittedly, is more of a problem – it’s difficult to tell whether Mandip Gill is a weak actress, or if she’s just not a good enough actress to make the sheer paucity of material she’s given work. I go back and forth on what I think of that, really; the only thing I’m certain of, when it comes to Yaz, is that a 30-year-old woman is too old to play a 19-year-old, and dressing her in pigtails and primary colours doesn’t make a difference. (This is something I do think is deserving of more critique than it received, actually.)

It’ll be interesting, in any case, to see what the response to these characters is like a year later – when the version that exists in people’s memories and headcanons and memes is far more well-defined and specific than the version that eventually returns to screen.

doctor who series 11 review the witchfinders joy wilkinson sallie aprahamian chris chibnall jodie whittaker mandip gill bradley walsh tosin cole

Drawing this to a close, now, there’s a lot that could still be said of Series 11. There are lines of criticism I’ve neglected, like the often borderline incompetent direction, and very real rebukes to the arguments I’ve made so far – if nothing else, there’s surely a genuine, material good to the series that goes renders a couple of dull episodes effectively irrelevant? Surely it doesn’t matter how boring The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was, if the sheer fact it starred Jodie Whittaker rather than Kris Marshall offers some tangible real-world impact? That’s a genuine question. I’m not sure how much I agree with the premise of the question – even though I posed it – and I think if it was a stance I’d adopt myself, it’d have to be a heavily caveated one.

Mainly, though, I keep thinking about the end of Rosa. It’s the scene that cemented Jodie Whittaker, and I suspect will also be the scene that defines the series in the public eye for a long time to come – certainly, it’s going to have a staying power in the zeitgeist far longer than anything since the 50th anniversary. The Doctor has to sit and watch as something awful happens, something ugly – suffering she’s ultimately complicit in. It’s powerful and meaningful because it’s so different from what we’re used to in the realm of Doctor Who; the fact it’s necessary here speaks volumes. It’s such a stark contrast from everything that’s gone before it.

But not, notably, what comes after it – a complacent and often complicit Doctor is the new normal across the rest of Series 11. Jack Robertson gets to walk away; Kerblam gives its workers two weeks pay and closes for a month; the Doctor walks away from the violence of partition, rather than bearing witness with the Thijarians; a woman dies in the witch trials because the Doctor hesitates over saving her.

Something, somewhere, went wrong with this series, for that to be the new normal.

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Resolution

doctor who review resolution of the daleks jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor tosin cole daniel adegboyega wayne che yip charlotte ritchie chris chibnall nick briggs mandip gill bradley walsh

Not even Netflix?

It’s obvious enough what Resolution is reaching for. It’s trying to be big and bold and impressive, a confident and sweeping holiday special that’s both a reminder of why you’ve liked Doctor Who for the past year, and why it’s going to be worth the wait until next year. Unfortunately, though, the only thing that’s impressive about Resolution is how shockingly, stunningly vacuous it is.

Resolution wasn’t lacking in ideas – just the conviction to follow through on any of them. As a piece of television, it’s quite staggering how much time is devoted to establishing its premises, simply to abandon them in favour of the next idea. There are ways that can work, obviously, but it doesn’t here – it’s not the madcap whirlwind of Moffat era narrative substitution, one idea rolling into the next with dizzying intensity. No, instead Resolution is just an exercise in moving from one set-piece to the next, with little heed towards internal consistency or any economy of storytelling. There’s a real sloppiness to, say, the way Resolution establishes and then discards the Order of the Custodians, but probably more indicative of the story’s overall failure to cohere is the emphasis it places on the Dalek assembling itself anew out of a bunch of farmyard scraps… before revealing it also has hidden missiles still.

The Dalek is an interesting throughline to approach Resolution from, actually, indicative both of the episode’s ambitions and its failure to meet them. Positioning the special within that tradition of periodically refreshing the Daleks and scaling them back as a reminder of their significance was, in all fairness, a good move – it’s not wrong to point out that there hasn’t been a ‘proper’ Dalek story since 2014, but they’ve still felt present in such a way that a reintroduction was an obvious necessity. Hence an episode that’s consciously designed to, if not ‘make the Daleks scary again’, certainly to remind audiences of what it is they like about the Daleks. It’s a shame, then, that Resolution takes such a superficial approach to the Daleks – it seems that, to Chris Chibnall anyway, the most interesting thing about a Dalek is the explosions that come along with it. There’s a focus on being cool more than anything else, obvious in the way the camera lingers on those explosions, or in giving the Dalek a claw rather than the traditional plunger. (Surely if the Dalek has been made out of scraps, the obvious joke – much funnier than call centres or conversations – is giving it an actual, genuine toilet plunger for once?)

Again, the frustrating part is that Resolution isn’t lacking in ideas – it’s not even lacking in good ones. Deconstructing the Dalek, taking it out of its shell, is a neat idea; combined with the possession storyline (even if it very obviously should’ve been given to Yaz rather than Lin, no matter how good Charlotte Ritchie was) it had the potential to really sing. There’s something particularly potent, in 2019, to the idea of a long-buried evil reconstituting itself, borne from scraps, and extending tendrils to corrupt and control. It’s not an idea that Resolution does a lot with, though; granted, argument could be made that those ideas wouldn’t suit a holiday special, but if you’re ruling out the fascism angle after already opting against Christmas of the Daleks (self-evidently the best Dalek holiday special), then Resolution is already being forced to work with, at most, the third best idea available. As a Dalek episode, Resolution is little more than a collection of remixed and rehashed beats from prior stories, with little thought paid towards how those beats might cohere in this story.

doctor who review resolution jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor dalek eye view wayne yip chris chibnall nick briggs nicholas pegg power of the daleks alex moreland

Indeed, the general lack of coherence makes one wonder if Resolution’s most interesting sequence was an accident – the mirroring between the Dalek constructing a new casing here, and the Doctor constructing her sonic screwdriver back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It is, surely, too specific a parallel to be an accident. Again, though, there’s a messiness to it, because it’s a parallel that never broadens, never really goes anywhere.

That feels particularly noteworthy with this incarnation of the Doctor, though – or at least, this incarnation of the Doctor, after a series that’s pointedly avoided framing the lead character in terms of wider mythos points like Daleks, Time Lords and Time Wars. (Not that that’s a bad thing, particularly – indeed, it’s probably a good thing – though it is admittedly odd the Doctor’s new friends never thought to ask basic personal questions like “where are you from?”.) There’s a strange disconnect between how the Dalek is understood by the audience, and by the characters; it leaves moments like the Doctor reflecting that she’d learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago feeling oddly unearned. It harkens back to Eccleston’s Doctor or Tennant’s Doctor, where the Time War and that history with the Daleks is never very far from the surface – with this Doctor, it feels like an attempt to tap into a darkness that just isn’t there.

And yet! The shape of something interesting lurks in the subtext. It’s easy to read the Doctor’s attempt to kill the Dalek at the end not as going wrong unexpectedly, exactly, but an act of sheer recklessness and desperation to the point that she’s willing to sacrifice Ryan’s dad to make sure the Dalek dies. That would be thinking like a Dalek, with all the destructive drive and determination that it implies, and it could be the springboard for a much-needed effort to add some nuance to this incarnation of the Doctor. It’s a long-held truism that any Doctor is defined by their first clash with the Daleks (literalised in Into the Dalek), but the Thirteenth Doctor might be the first one that doesn’t quite hold true for – the character is hardly manifestly different, or understood in some new light, by virtue of this meeting of foes. If any interpretation of the character was particularly crying out for that meeting, it was this one; after ten weeks of moral leanings best described as “confused”, something to more starkly define the character against would’ve been welcome. (Plus, it would’ve been neat to have the Dalek immediately recognise her as the Doctor, recalling Power of the Daleks, but no dice on that one too. In its own small way that’s almost the biggest missed opportunity of the piece.)

It’s not, of course – and this really does bear repeating – that Jodie Whittaker is in any way a weak performer. In some sense, it’s the opposite; she’s realising a weak role well. Or, no, not a weak role – that’s too simplistic a way to describe it. Rather, eleven episodes in, the Thirteenth Doctor feels like a collection of disparate threads that haven’t quite been brought together – an unfinished join-the-dots picture where you can just about make out the overall shape, if not quite the finer details.

doctor who review resolution jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole dalek daniel adegboyega charlotte ritchie nikesh patel wayne yip chris chibnall gchq wifi conversation a

The same is true, still, of the companions. For all that this series has tried to position Yaz, Graham and Ryan as friends rather than companions, the relationships between them this year have felt like the most distant and detached across the past decade; there’s still very little familiarity, very little interiority, to these characters and how they interact with one another. It’s a problem. A problem generally, obviously, but here particularly, in an episode that’s supposed to act as the culmination of the year’s emotional arc with the return of Ryan’s dad.

Notably, though, it’s actually the same set of constraints and limitations that affected Resolution’s Dalek plotline – the return of Ryan’s dad is little more than a collection of remixed and rehashed story beats. (There’s something almost reassuring about the consistency of the issues inherent to Doctor Who at the moment, because that at least implies a simple solution, albeit perhaps not an easy one.) Tosin Cole does an admirable job with the material he’s given – arguably, in fact, Cole has been the strongest performer all year – and much the same is true of Daniel Adegboyega as Aaron. But what’s admirable about their performances is how they elevate the material, taking scenes that could easily have been very flat and turning them into scenes where you can at least say “well, the acting was decent”. Once again, it’s a case of ideas with unfulfilled potential; there’s a version of Resolution that, for example, draws parallels between Aaron and Graham, both running as far and as fast as they can because of their grief, only one able to do it in a TARDIS. There’s a version that reaches a spikier, more difficult resolution between Aaron and Ryan, not as simple as a catch-all panacea in the form of a near-death experience – if the episode is going to end by postponing the majority of the eponymous resolution anyway, it’s difficult not to wonder what it might have looked like if Aaron had actually died. It’s not that killing characters is always or even often a particularly compelling narrative choice, but it might have helped here a little to dispel the nagging sense that, at almost every turn, Resolution opted against the more interesting decision.

But then, that’s nothing new with this series of Doctor Who, or even particularly unique to Ryan and Aaron’s plotline. (It really does bear repeating: this episode would’ve been vastly, vastly improved if Yaz had been possessed by the Dalek, rather than Lin.) All of the same foibles and flaws that that you could track across Series 11 recur here – killing off a side character immediately after they mention they’re gay was egregious bordering on parodic, and deserves much more criticism than its got from certain quarters – and even escalate in some cases. What’s particularly damning, though, is that Resolution is probably still one of the better episodes of Series 11. There’s a confidence to it, a certainty, and by comparison to its immediate predecessor, it’s difficult not to concede the point. Wayne Yip is the best director the series has had all year; Charlotte Ritchie does give a great performance; the Dalek redesign does look alright, actually.

As the episode that closes Doctor Who series 11, Resolution is probably perfect – a microcosm of the all the year’s flaws and some of its strengths. As the episode that closes Doctor Who across the past decade… well, it hardly even makes the case that there’s much to miss until 2020.

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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