Season/Series 11 of the modern series of Doctor Who has just ended (the New Year’s Special is not part of the regular season) and woo-doggy is there a mountain of things to unpack about this latest batch of episodes. What was meant to be a great starting point for old and new fans alike has turned into arguably the most hotly debated season of the shows entire modern run.
Now, hyperbolic criticism AND praise is nothing new for an oncoming Doctor (in this case, the awesome Jodie Whittaker), especially when under a new showrunner (Chris Chibnall). Any longtime fan has been on this ride more than a few times, but the division seems the deepest and most vitriolic I’ve ever seen. None of this has been helped by Season 11 being the most lopsided season I’ve also ever seen. For every beautifully executed movement the show pulled off this year it followed it up by slipping and face-planting hard.
I have nothing but respect and admiration for all the hard work and dedication that went into making the show this year, but this was nowhere near the “bring everyone together” season the creators and the BBC were hoping for. So I’m here to cut through all the garbage and name-calling on both sides and take as honest a look at what did and didn’t work this year. I’m sure to piss off one if not both sides here, but I want to re-insert some reasonable debate and civility back into one of the most important genre franchises ever.
Two Words: Jodie Whittaker. I was more excited about Jodie during her reveal because of her immense acting talent shown on shows such as Broadchurch than I ever was about the fact that this time our favorite Time Lord was going to be a Time Lady. The first female Doctor has some serious acting chops and the more she was given to do in the episodes the better she got. She did everything she could with what she was given. We didn’t have even a whiff of a romantic or extremely flirtatious relationship between the Doctor and anyone, an overused trope of the modern series that was in need of a break. She was also given a sensible and practical wardrobe that neither played-up or downplayed Jodie’s femininity and was easy enough for most anyone to cosplay as which is a nice bonus because of how important dressing as various incarnations of the Doctor has become to the fandom.
The Doctor’s travel buddies, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham have different backgrounds and life experiences making the show feel more inclusive and diverse and had their own arcs throughout the series. Also, it’s a boon to the show to try and inject more real-world history and social commentary. Another positive point is the show has finally gotten around to show characters in history who would most likely be racist act racist instead of sidestepping or ignoring the issue. All the people moaning that the series is now just “SJWs” telling people they are bad when it used to be just the Doctor fighting monsters have severely selective memory. Calls for tolerance and inclusion while talking about some of the issues of the day is something that goes all the way back to the classic series.
The back half of the episodes, from Kerblam and onwards saw a major uptick in quality and it felt like they had found their footing as the season closed. And yes, I did like the bit with the frog in It Takes You Away, it was an interesting twist and made sense in the episode. The production quality was consistent and while the show still doesn’t have the biggest budget, none of the scenery or effects seem lazy or poorly used. It is easy to see that there was an effort to make each episode look as good as possible with what they had, using their budget wisely across all the episodes and not blowing things on an effect or two in one episode and leaving the others with nothing to work with. It shows good planning and foresight throughout.
Creatively and content-wise, this show has way more ambition than it can reasonably pull off. First of all, while having three different friends/companions of the Doctor all with full personal arcs progressing across each episode seems great on paper, it eats up a lot of screen time; time that could be put to better use. Remember that Doctor Who constantly changes locations and supporting characters plus dealing with whatever problem of the week needs to be explained as well.
All of this in a single hour of television is simply too much. Something had to give, and unfortunately what did was the plots. Previous plotting issues were bad enough, but the creative team seems to have lost any trust in the intelligence of their audience. It is hard to not feel like the plots for this season haven’t been dumbed-down. Sure, Doctor Who is ultimately all-ages entertainment, but what made it such a success for so long with fans young and old is that it always sought to push the boundaries of what that could be, remaining accessible to kids without talking down to them while maintaining a level of sophistication that older fans could also enjoy.
This recent season has suffered from overall messages with middling to lousy execution. The main storyline of Demons of the Punjab, for example, is a gripping tale about the horror that occurred due to the partition of India and the direct impact on Yaz’s grandmother, but it is executed with all the tact and ability of those soulless HR videos people have to periodically sit through at work with aliens thrown in, because, y’know, Doctor Who. Telling a well-crafted story has to be the first and foremost goal or who is going to want to sit through the show and listen to the message? Without it, the show just seems smug and that gives off the aura that they think the audience is stupid. Does nobody remember the lessons of the first two seasons of Star Trek: TNG?!
The decision to purposely not use any classic baddies this season was a gutsy one and could have worked if any of the bad guys had been worth a damn. I have no interest in seeing “Tim Shaw” or any of the other losers from this season ever again. They are here to serve the message of the episode and that’s it. Not a standout in the whole damn lot. Hell, half the time this season they turned out to be not bad but misunderstood, which can be a nice occasional twist but here it is used repeatedly as a crutch to make sure the Doctor doesn’t have to make any hard choices.
Repeatedly the stories bend over backward to prevent the Doctor from having to make a hard choice or to be responsible for somebodies death. I’m not bloodthirsty here, but this is a hard road the Doctor walks; people good and bad die around the Doctor, even sometimes because of the Doctor. The Doctors, as much as they hate it with every fiber of their being, aren’t above lethal force in cases where any and all peaceable solutions have been exhausted. Why would you get a talent like Jodie Whittaker and then strip away some of the most compelling and dramatic elements of the show?
Bottom line, to properly accommodate all the societal commentary Chibnall & Co. want to put into the show without sacrificing storytelling, we need to either switch to two episode stories or they need to drop at least one companion to free up the time for single episode outings.
I love Doctor Who. Even with every criticism I leveled at this new season, all of it is coming from a loving place from a fan who only wants to see what this show is capable of: beauty, creativity, intelligence, and almost limitless imagination. The show needs to make some changes and fast lest The Doctor be removed from our TV screens yet again. Here’s hoping the new year can bring that change.
All images © BBC
-Written by (Spider) John Eckes.