In 2005, Doctor Who returned to TV screens after a 9-year absence – or a 16-year absence if you choose to ignore the made for TV movie featuring Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor. To a bright-eyed 11-year-old version of myself, within only a handful of episodes it had become my favourite TV show. The Doctor (portrayed by Christopher Eccleston at the time) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) traveling through space and time meeting aliens, seeing new worlds and putting an end to villainous plots was captivating to me in a way that nothing else had ever been before.
Nearly 14 years and 4 full Doctors later (Meta-Crisis and War Doctors not included), Doctor Who remains my favourite show. It’s a show fully ingrained into my very being, not a day goes past without me making some reference to the show or reflecting back on a favourite moment. My personality and mannerisms have changed as I’ve grown older, oftentimes reflecting the current Doctor. Yes, this does all make me sound like a bit of a dweeb, but when it comes to Doctor Who, I really don’t mind. I love this show wholeheartedly, through all of its ups and downs I have stuck with it and will stick with it. I’m in on this for life.
So then – why is it that Series 11 has left me feeling so conflicted about my love for the show? Am I having some form of crisis? Is the show all of a sudden really bad? Have I grown up? I don’t think it’s any of these things. Join me, as I take a look at some of the things I liked and disliked in Series 11 of Doctor Who in an effort to find some clarity.
It’s fair to say the biggest change for Series 11 is one we don’t really see on screen, aside from in the credits. A new showrunner for any show can be a disconcerting time. Luckily, Doctor Who is a show that has change as a central pillar that it frequently revisits. Chris Chibnall is a man with a pretty decent resume – he’s written the incredibly successful seaside whodunnit ‘Broadchurch’, a couple of episodes for another favourite show of mine, ‘Life on Mars’, as well as several episodes of Doctor Who and its spinoff ‘Torchwood’ in the past. When he was first announced as the new showrunner for Doctor Who, I was more than okay with it, in fact I thought he was the most obvious choice for the role.
However, for me personally, his time thus far as showrunner has been far more miss than hit. As has been customary for previous Who showrunners, he wrote a good number of Series 11’s episode count – 5 in total, with a co-writer credit on another, and then a New Year’s special after the series. This, in my opinion, has led to the biggest issue that Series 11 had to contend with (ignoring the MANY idiots who chose to get angry when a 2000-year-old alien with a time machine just happened to regenerate into a female form for the first time), which is that Chris Chibnall just doesn’t appear to know how to write good episodes of Doctor Who consistently. In the past, for previous Doctors and under the stewardship of previous showrunners, Chibnall has written pretty good episodes of the show if you ask me. Maybe not brilliant ones, but they fit the tone and were generally episodes I’m happy to revisit. However, when you are the showrunner and are writing most of the episodes, average isn’t a good enough benchmark.
Across series 11, my general opinion when it came to episodes written by Chibnall was ‘that was alright’, and often trending more towards the negative side of the spectrum. The only episode of his I truly enjoyed from Series 11 was ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’, which was both the series finale and possibly the worst title an episode of Doctor Who has ever had. As a series finale, it felt a bit lacking. But taken as just an episode of Doctor Who, it was definitely the best Chibnall wrote for this series, and I think probably an episode I’ll enjoy more and more in future rewatches. However, I would still only call it a pretty run-of-the-mill episode, elevated by the fact that the rest of his output for the series wasn’t even average at best.
With all that said, however, I do still have hope for Chris Chibnall’s writing over the rest of his tenure. This past New Year’s Day, we were treated to a New Year’s special episode of Doctor Who, titled ‘Resolution’. It was once again written by Chris Chibnall – but if you hadn’t told me that I wouldn’t have guessed. This episode was much better, arguably my favourite 13th Doctor story so far. But more on the New Year’s special and my hopes for the future later.
Behind the Scenes
Before moving on completely from Chris Chibnall, I would like to touch on some of the other decisions made behind the scenes that have affected Doctor Who in some way, shape or form. First off, the shrinking of a series from 12 episodes to 10 may not seem like much, but we are currently now getting less Doctor Who than we ever have before. This would be less of an issue if the quality was consistently good, but as stated, it really hasn’t been so far. But you know what, it could be teething problems. It’s a new production crew, a new cast, and a very new way of presenting the show to the audience. I think this will be rectified for Series 12, when we have a more comfortable and settled-in crew working on the show. That said, the wait for Series 12 is going to be an agonising one, and I do worry that perhaps a lot of the goodwill and new viewers gained during Series 11 may move on by the time it finally comes around. Time will tell on that one.
On a more positive note, I’d like to credit Chris Chibnall on his vision for the show. For the most part, Series 11 looked stunning, beautifully directed and location shoots really helped some of the worlds and landscapes visited. As well as this, Chibnall has brought in some brilliant writers who’ve had a hand in what have been my favourite 13th Doctor stories so far. Standouts for me include Vinay Patel’s ‘Demons of The Punjab’, Joy Wilkinson’s ‘The Witchfinders’ and my personal favourite of the series, Ed Hime’s ‘Kerblam!’. And I’d also love to mention new music director and composer for the show, Segun Akinola, whose scoring work had the unenviable task of following up 13 years’ worth of Murray Gold scores – and he should be more than chuffed with how well his output fits into the vision that is Doctor Who in 2018/19.
But, of course, the big thing that Chibnall came in and changed was The Doctor himself – Ahem. Herself.
The 13th Doctor
The Doctor throughout each of his/her incarnations has remained fundamentally the same person. Sure, they have a new face, new body, new personality, but the core beliefs have for the most part remained consistent. So, why did anyone think that The Doctor suddenly becoming a woman was going to change that?
It’s obvious to say, but the best thing about Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor so far, is just how much she clearly remains The Doctor. There was a time when there was genuine uncertainty if a gender swap would work, and there remain a fair number of people who will trawl internet forums spouting horrible things about it. For me personally, and an overwhelming majority of Doctor Who fans, I think Jodie Whittaker embodies the role just as much as any of the men who have come before her.
Now, I’ll be honest. It was a while before I really had my ‘Yup, she’s The Doctor!’ moment – honestly, it didn’t fully happen until the New Year’s Day special that has just passed. But that’s not to say she wasn’t The Doctor for me before that. Looking back, I didn’t have that moment with Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor fully until the start of his second series, and he may even be my second favourite incarnation. But now that I’ve had the moment with 13, I’m finding myself wanting to spend more and more time on adventures with her. She a bit of a goofier version of the character, perhaps even a bit clumsier and less forward-thinking, and she’s also a version that’s not averse to making mistakes. I hope we’ve got a good few years ahead with her yet.
Of all the things onscreen in Series 11 of Doctor Who, I think the companions are my biggest issue. Back in the very early days of Doctor Who, and up until the end of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure really, it wasn’t unusual to have 3 companions travelling in the TARDIS alongside The Doctor. Chris Chibnall clearly wants to go back to this style of TARDIS team, and it’s an understandable wish. However, I really don’t think it works in Doctor Who as it is today. It’s worth noting that, until the show was first cancelled in 1989, the show would run for about half an hour weekly, with typically 4 or 6 episodes combining to make one fully formed story. As such, single Doctor Who stories could end up running from 2 to 3 hours long, potentially longer. When you’ve got this much time to work with characters in different situations, everyone can have their time to shine around The Doctor. In series 11, there were 10 weekly episodes, each of which were standalone and 50 minutes apiece (except the premiere, which was 65). This means, whilst having to set up the world and plot of each episode, as well as executing the plot itself, you really don’t have much time to spend with 4 different characters, as well as any additional characters added for the story, whilst then going on to tell the story in a satisfying way. I’d argue even trying this method has been a misstep for the show.
That aside however, we’ve currently got 3 companions that I do quite like, albeit I’m not sure any of them truly stand up alongside previous companions in my taste. 2 of them have had a good ongoing plot thread and regular use that has shown them grow as the series progressed. 1 of them, however, has mostly just sort of been there, doing some expositional dialogue and every so often helping out. There’s Bradley Walsh’s ‘Graham’, my personal favourite of this bunch. He’s a much older companion than we are used to, and often goes into adventures with a sort of bemusement. He’s glad to be there and proves his usefulness to The Doctor on an almost weekly basis. Also along for the ride is Graham’s Step-Grandson, Ryan (Tosin Cole). Ryan has dyspraxia, which means his coordination skills aren’t all that good. It’s written really rather well, and isn’t forced down your throat, but is brought up whenever it fits into the plot naturally. The relationship between Ryan and Graham at the start of the series is very rocky, but by the end when we first hear Ryan call Graham his Grandad, it’s a genuinely touching moment, and a dynamic that it’s been really nice to see in the TARDIS. If I did have one criticism of Ryan as a character, however, it would be the man who plays him. As good as Tosin Cole is in the role, he does appear to fall into autopilot sometimes when performing, and at times seems to lack any real emotion or depth. But that brings us to the third and final companion of this TARDIS team – Yaz (Mandip Gill)
I like Yaz. In any other series of Doctor Who, Yaz would be a brilliant companion, thinking about the dynamic she could have with any Doctor were she the sole companion is tantalising. She’s brilliantly portrayed by Mandip Gill, and I do really feel for Mandip herself. She’s doing a really good job publicity wise, and on social media, her love and appreciation for the fans is lovely to see. Within the show, however, I feel like Yaz is a character that is being very poorly treated. Her character is very underserved in almost every episode we’ve had so far. Whereas Ryan and Graham have developed on an episode by episode basis as the series progressed, Yaz hasn’t. In fact, Yaz hasn’t even been given a chance to regress. She remains who she was in the first episode, and aside from a couple of one-liners to seemingly add to her character, she really hasn’t done a lot. There have been 2 episodes in the series featuring her family, 1 of which was the terrific ‘Demons of The Punjab’, and yet even in those episodes I feel like we didn’t really learn anything new about her. It actually bothers me that it seems her character has been created just to have a female companion in the TARDIS, but beyond that no one really seems to have thought to flesh her out in any real way.
I think my truly underlying problem with anything on-screen in Doctor Who Series 11 is that there are too many companions. Having 3 companions alongside any Doctor in modern Who is a massive misstep in my eyes. The trouble in this group is that Chibnall clearly wanted to take Graham and Ryan on a journey, and Yaz has fallen by the wayside because of it. Maybe this will change in Series 12? I really hope so.
As I mentioned before, the New Year’s Day special has proven to be my favourite episode of the 13th Doctor’s run so far. Frankly, I wish this had been billed as the series finale instead of as a special, seeing as how it was only a few weeks after the series ended that we got to see it. ‘Resolution’ saw the 13th Doctor’s first meeting with old adversaries, the Daleks. Or, should I say, a Dalek. The way each new Doctor deals with Daleks is always something I come to with deep interest, and seeing a darker edge to 13 was very welcome viewing that I hope we get to see more of in the future. The Dalek itself was also brilliant, and was even scary in a way that I don’t think Daleks have been in a good few years. A single Dalek is just far more confrontational than a fleet of Daleks, and arguably a more tangible threat because it becomes far more personal.
I also alluded earlier to the fact this episode was written by Chris Chibnall, and if it weren’t for the fact this was almost definitely written before reviews of the series started coming out, I’d say he’d started taking criticism on board. Perhaps he was watching first cuts of the series and could see things he needed to do? I can only speculate, but the fact he wrote this episode filled me with hope – hope that now the new look and dynamic of the show has been established, maybe Series 11 really has just been an off-year, and Series 12 is where this version of Doctor Who will really come into its own.
If I were to rate Series 11 of Doctor Who out of 10, I think I’d give it a 5, bordering on a 6. The pieces are all there, but just like a jigsaw when you first take it out of the box, you can see a final picture starting to be assembled, yet it’s not until it is fully assembled that you can take it all in for what it is. And I think I’m justified in my hopes that Series 12 of Doctor Who is going to be the fully assembled jigsaw for the 13th Doctor and Chris Chibnall’s version of the show. I’ve got a lot of nit-picky problems with Series 11 that I’ve not mentioned, but at the end of the day I’ve got small bits like this from across the show’s history. If the problems I’ve mentioned across this piece – poor writing and Yaz’s poor characterisation being the big ones – are fixed, I think I’m gonna fall in love with Series 12 when it finally arrives in Spring 2020.
Series 11 always felt to me like something was missing. Some little spark that makes Doctor Who what it is just wasn’t quite there for me. And I really can’t pinpoint what that is. Maybe I never will. But isn’t that what’s exciting about a show that’s over 55 years old? After all, even if it turns out in a few years’ time that this period of the show’s history hasn’t been for me, it’ll all change again. A 14th or 15th incarnation of my favourite Time Lord will arrive alongside a new showrunner, and everything will be different again, whilst in all the ways that matter, remaining exactly the same. There may be episodes or even full series that I don’t like. But as a whole, the package that is Doctor Who is something I will come back to time and time again, whether revisiting old favourites, or going on new adventures in the TARDIS. Allons-y!
By Matt Dobbie