The Doctor, a 4.5 billion year old body changing Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Stealing (sorry, “borrowing”) a TARDIS at the young age of just 209 (they leave primary school at the age of 45 to give you some context), our favourite Time Lord has been travelling across space and time on our screens for over 55 years. Saving civilisations, stopping villains, and living inside a time machine that is bigger on the inside and looks like a 1950’s Police Box. Despite all this history of the show, where during its time off our screens a Time War occurred between Time Lords and Daleks that ravaged reality (and come the 50th Anniversary special had to be ended by hiding Gallifrey inside a pocket universe just out of sync with time itself), people in 2018 had to come to terms with the most shocking thing to ever happen to Doctor Who… he was a woman!
Never mind that time The Doctor landed inside the Big Brother House, or the time Moffat turned our beloved pepper pots into the new cast of the Power Rangers, The Doctor changing gender was a disgrace, and the cry of Whovians around the world was heard come Wimbledon 2017. How dare a multi billion year old alien that has the ability to change every atom of its very being, be able to change gender, when most Time Lords around him (sorry, her) had already done it at some point? Disgrace I tell thee, disgrace!
And so, in October 2018, Jodie Whittaker’s first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. The Woman Who Fell to Earth took the next chapter of The Doctor’s story to modern day Sheffield, where Yas, Ryan, and a bloke who looks like the presenter off The Chase, became the Doctor’s “friends” (because the phrase “companion” is too much for snowflakes now apparently). Over the course of ten weeks the new occupants of the TARDIS helped Rosa Parks, landed on board medical spaceships, raced across the planet Desolation, and even landed in the warehouse of a future take on Amazon called Kerblam. So did the series do the show and it’s new Doctor justice, or did it miss the mark?
It depends what angle you wish to look at the series from I guess. From a ratings standpoint, its overall average is going to be considered strong in modern viewing standards (comparing Jodie’s ratings to say David Tennant, who didn’t have the luxury of Netflix, iPlayer and BBC America on demand, is an unfair comparison). Going by casual viewers of the show who tune in for Sunday night drama, it’ll be considered a success. However, going by the core fan base of Doctor Who who stuck with it through thick and thin, you could argue there needs to be some changes made to the format to improve the next series.
Let me make one thing clear, Jodie has proven that a woman can play The Doctor and it not be an issue. She isn’t going to be my favourite Doctor, but she’s far from the worst to have played the role. The issue, similar to Capaldi’s first series, is the writing. Doctor Who is a Science Fiction Drama, but the Drama element should come secondary to the Sci-Fi. Chris Chibnall, with his previous work including award-winning shows such as Broadchurch and Life on Mars, is a great Drama writer. However, he has shown a weakness when it comes to the science fiction element of the show’s formula. The best example of this is probably what will be considered the series’ strongest episode, Rosa.
The story of Rosa Parks is powerful, and bold, and needs telling. The direction of the episode and the way in which the story was told was amazing. I’m sure at some point in the next year it will receive an award for being as bold and intense as it was. But it wasn’t Doctor Who, it was a BBC drama. A loosely used plot involving a Time Agent (similar to that of Captain Jack, without asking Captain Jack to come back) who wanted to change the course of history, was the only element considered Sci-Fi during the entire story. I do get why the writers didn’t want to go nuts, as you have to respect the nature of the real-life story. But then if you’re going to feel this way, don’t tell the story. Let the BBC drama department tell it, not your headline Sci-Fi product. A lot of people were moved by the episode, especially during the sequence in which The Doctor and her friends have to sit by and watch Rosa be arrested to maintain the course of history. But then the episode becomes a sticking point when Yas and Ryan sit and discuss racism and how terrible it still is in the present day. Again, a subject matter very important that needs discussing, but does it need discussing on what is meant to be easy Sunday evening family viewing?
And this is where the frustration from the whole series came for a lot of viewers, the need for Doctor Who to become PC, politically correct. Treading on eggshells throughout, the series maintained its need to consistently remind the viewer what was morally wrong in the world today. Whether it be racial issues, people’s outlook on death, even a pop at America’s gun crimes and Donald Trump worked their way into an episode of a British family entertainment product. It’s simply too much. Doctor Who has tackled sensitive issues throughout it’s time on our screens, whether it be Matt Smith’s Doctor trying to help a suicidal Vincent Van Gogh at the end of his life by breaking the rules of time travel and showing him the legacy he’ll leave behind, or Peter Capaldi’s amazing speech as the Doctor discusses war as a concept between humans and Zygons. But as deep and emotional as they were, they were still based in the realms of Science Fiction. The closest Rosa came to the genre was a Time Agent who was basically written as a racist white elitist who didn’t want black people to succeed, and that is most certainly not what Doctor Who is about.
The drama element of Doctor Who this year is just one of several things that are hopefully going to be tweaked now that the next series with Jodie has been delayed until 2020 (I’m presuming the online reactions, as well as rumours regarding Chibnall’s relationship with the BBC not being wonderful, are reasons for this delay). The show’s strange need to not use a single traditional villain was a strange decision, but at least back it up with new villains that are memorable. I can safely say not a single villain from Series 11 will become the next Weeping Angel or Cyberman. At best, the Pting (yes, that’s its name) will do well as a plush in Smyths toy store at some point akin to Tennant’s Adipose. The series simply wasn’t memorable and missed so many good opportunities. Arachnids in the UK was the perfect chance to take on one of humanities most inexplainable phobias and run wild with it, instead of making a completely unfrightening giant CG spider that ended up dying because it was dying anyway (and let’s not go into the use of Stormzy as a soundtrack in that episode). The story of India being divided through religion did at least have an alien villain in it, but instead wasn’t a villain and was actually some sort of outer space undertakers for people who die alone. And the series finale, bringing back the villain of episode one that killed Graham’s partner, missed its perfect sci-fi moment of bringing her back from the dead for a happy ending and instead used the concept as vengeance for Graham’s loss. So many beats of the series were missed, and I don’t really understand why for a show that’s hit the mark for 55 years and counting.
I understand that the show has to grow and change to introduce new audiences to it, as it’s not just The Doctor that regenerates, but the show itself. Between Tennant and Smith we went from Kitchen Sink Drama to Disney style fantasy, and it worked beautifully. Because despite the change in look, music, and character portrayal, it was still Doctor Who. It was still a fun, light-hearted look at the universe with well established villains being stopped by a Time Lord from Gallifrey. Series 11 didn’t do that. Series 11 established a Doctor that is constantly confused, unsure and relies far too heavily on her friends to get anything done. And while this may be accepted by a new audience (hence the ratings), the core fanbase won’t agree with it forever. Since when for example, can The Doctor walk into a garage and make themselves a new Sonic Screwdriver from random circuit boards found on Earth? It’s alien tech, it’s Gallifreyan, and most importantly comes directly from the heart of the TARDIS. Not from the back of a disused garage that Kevin Webster from Corrie could have thrown together. It’s almost making the accessory insignificant, especially given how at least three times during the series her creation literally broke down and didn’t work! Yes, Doctor Who is fiction and not realistic, but a writer’s job is to take you into that world and make it believable. Chibnall simply isn’t doing that.
And so Doctor Who, barring the New Year special (Resolution, which I predict will eventually be called Resolution of the Daleks, watch this space), will not be on our screens in 2019 and instead will come back “early 2020”. What does Chibnall and the BBC need to do to stop Jodie’s second series suffer from Capaldi Syndrome? Well, the main argument is of course to make it Sci-Fi again, instead of a BBC drama. Secondly, don’t forget the show’s legacy and heritage. When the show was missing from our screens, and Russell T Davies needed to explain why The Doctor had been missing for so many years, he created an almost Lord of the Rings style mythology which added so much gravitas to Doctor Who. Chibnall needs to use that established mythology and make it deep and rich and fandom drool worthy. Not be adamant to carve his own mark to the point of forgetting where the show came from. I also think it’s safe to say that the friends/companions need to become less foreground and give The Doctor more room to breathe. I appreciate that the first series for a female Doctor needed to play it safe and not scare people away, but Jodie is now established and not hated, so make The Doctor strong again and not give room for forums to lay on stereotypical woman remarks about her being ditsy and forgetful. If I’m right about the Daleks returning at New Year, let the show’s catalogue of villains roam free once more. It’s worked for 55 years, it’ll work for another 55 if done properly. People want The Master, Cybermen, Ice Warriors… that’s the shows DNA, so don’t ignore it.
Overall, Series 11 of Doctor Who did miss the mark. Not because of Jodie’s Doctor, but because of the overall change in direction the show took. The writing made The Doctor look weak and confused, the lack of popular villains made the show feel more like a spinoff, and the constant need to turn the show into a Drama with a point to prove became more irritating as the weeks went on.
Chris Chibnall is an award-winning and revered writer, who can do so much better. The budget is bigger than ever, with the talent pool and options for filming locations also more flexible than Doctor Who has ever dreamt of. There is no excuse for the show to not be up there with the likes of rebooted Star Trek and Star Wars now, and instead still feels like a smaller British grown product with wobbily white spaceship sets and poor CGI spiders. If the remastered Blu-ray boxsets of Tom Baker and Peter Davison (a review on these new collections will be coming soon) can look more enthralling and true to the concept when their episodes are now decades old, we have something to worry about. Especially when the show’s ability is now stronger than ever.
TBG Score: 5/10