The start of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who tenure wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather than being a fluke, it turns out “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” was in line with how the rest of his his first series/season would go. I felt both RTD & Moffat overstayed their welcomes as showrunners, but not in their debut seasons! After a string of blogs discussing things I’m excited to recommend like Gotham’s swansong, writing this one felt like a chore. I kept putting it off because writing it was a bummer. A comprehensive essay of how Doctor Who squandered fantastic opportunities is no fun. Lots of SPOILERS for the latest season follow.
Jodie Whittaker has Peter Davison energy. The Fifth Doctor was my least favorite iteration, so this isn’t a positive comparison to me. (Both had the unfortunate timing of following up actors who did stellar work in the role.) While I don’t agree that The Doctor necessarily has to be conflicted to be compelling, I do find this iteration less dynamic because its Doctor is so earnest instead of a willy trickster. She just seems focused on having friends without any deeper layers to her. Her delivery of quirky dialogue either feels stilted or makes her seem air-headed rather than an eccentric genius. Having her freak out when the dematerializing TARDIS isn’t immediately present as the Ghost Monument & throw a hissy fit in a space hospital over being separated from it for a few days isn’t good optics for the first female Doctor. (Speaking of optics, the new TARDIS interior is the ugliest yet.)
The concept of regeneration makes Doctor Who one of the rare shows where the protagonist’s race & gender could change organically. (I apologize if I mess up the pronouns between the current & past versions.) There was trepidation that The Doctor regenerating into a woman would feature a lot of jokes of debatable taste. The series manages to avoid them (possibly because “The Curse of the Fatal Death” parody & OnlyLeigh exhausted them all). While the change has been handled respectfully, it’s also been too nonchalant about this historic development. It doesn’t feel interesting change because The Doctor’s not interested in it. Surely The Doctor should be fascinated by this since all previous regenerations were male. (Please don’t retcon in secret earlier female incarnations as The War Doctor barely works.) Surely it’s possible to highlight how this regeneration is very different yet still positive. Not exploring this contributes to The
Fourteenth Thirteenth Doctor being flat.
I understand why this Doctor would be popular with cisgender women, transgender women, & nonbinary people. Unlike me, they didn’t have numerous versions of The Doctor to see themselves represented as. (Meanwhile non-white Whovians still don’t have any Doctors of their own.) It’s just really unfortunate that their only option is so lackluster.
There’s been complaints about show being ruined by making it “politically correct,” but I have to wonder what show those folks have been watching. While not always a perfect role model, The Doctor is a social justice warrior. After all, the character’s chosen mandate is to help others in need. In “Inferno,” The Third Doctor took a stand against fracking because it turned people into fascist werewolves! The Fourth led a workers’ uprising in “The Sun Makers,” while the Seventh took down a Thatcherite analogue in “The Happiness Patrol.” Numerous iterations have been opposed to slavery even when the slaves aren’t human. Brainstorm your favorite Doctor do-gooder deeds in the comments.
The episodes not written by Chibnall turned out to be the best of the lot, which is kind of like damning them with faint praise. All the other writers have a better grasp on who this Doctor could be than him. None of Chibnall’s episodes even consider The Doctor would face misogyny is this new form, which is bizarre considering the initial backlash. It only comes up in “The Witchfinders” (written & directed by women) as if sexism isn’t an ongoing concern in the present. Unfortunately these non-Chibnall episodes would be mediocre in other seasons. There wasn’t a standout episode like “Blink” or “The Doctor’s Wife” to redeem the lot.
When I first saw pictures of the new companions, I cynically thought Graham O’Brien was added as a sop to old Whovians afraid of change. It turns out Graham is hogging all the good companion bits! He makes Ryan & Yaz seem superfluous. Much like Wilfred Mott, he’s surprisingly well-rounded & charming. His personal drama feels more unique than the typical melodrama the younger companions tend to have since the series was resurrected. Bradley Walsh turns in a great performance. Ironically the problem is that an old straight white guy is the most compelling character by far in a series which is supposed to emphasizing diversity.
Tosin Cole’s Ryan Sinclair fares slightly better than Yaz by his direct connection to Graham. Despite his dyspraxia, he’s able to run out to shoot a bunch of robots with only video game experience & run back without being shot. He can leap onto the right roller-coaster conveyor belt on the first try. Most people without dyspraxia couldn’t perform such feats. It seemed novel to have a companion with a motor disorder be thrust into action, but it’s presented as a non-issue that doesn’t help the public understand this condition.
Yasmin Khan begins as very ambitious cop in the Judy Hopps mold. After the Amy Pond tease, it’s neat to finally have a policewoman in the “police box.” Sadly her characterization evaporates after the first episode. Even though we get a whole episode about her family (“Demons of the Punjab” may be my favorite episode this season, given a boost by adorable bat-headed Thijarians & spooky music.), I still don’t have a sense of who she is. Did she just abandon her police career altogether? We don’t get any ethical debates based on her professional perspective because she blindly follows Doctor’s orders. Some fans speculate that Yaz in love with The Doctor. I can’t tell if the writers intended this subtext like the superior She-Ra reboot, or if fans are trying to will it into existence so that poor Mandip Gill will have something to do on the show. She had her hair done up like cool wolf ears for an episode.
“Resolution” felt like a retread of “Dalek” except longer & much stupider. So much tension revolves around the new recon Dalek with convenient extra powers phoning home from the UK’s Room With The Internet In It when a) the Daleks already know about Earth, & b) The Doctor knows that Skarro is (presently) obliterated. (Skaro was gone in 2005’s “Dalek” set in 2012. New Skaro appears in 2012’s “Asylum of the Daleks,” but the Alaska crash implies those Skaro scenes are set much further in the future. Since the TARDIS is a time machine, whatever Skaro’s current state is irrelevant to the conclusion anyway.) It was much ado about nothing!
The Dalek scout was originally destroyed by tenth century means, so it’s already at an intimidation disadvantage. Somehow it has the power to reassemble itself via teleportation? (The improbable descendants of the custodians of its remains both had their backs turned while this happened.) With its casing destroyed, the Dalek takes control of a human’s body & builds a replica of its armor in a barn. (A doomed traffic copper weirdly uses mph instead of kph.) This is akin to piloting a random ostrich around after your car got totaled & building yourself a new car from the ground up (despite not being an automotive engineer) with all the additional features in an hour. It definitely mirrors the Doctor forging her own sonic screwdriver for ridiculousness. (I would’ve accepted her making a classic-style one that’s basically a door opener, not one that should be classified as a tricorder.)
The reason The Doctor & Dalek can find extraterrestrial equipment in Sheffield is that UNIT was decommissioned due to Brexit. (If it’s still funded by the United Nations despite the name change to Unified Intelligence Taskforce, British politics shouldn’t have such a decisive effect on the organization.) Now alien technology is on the black market. This could finally shake up the present status quo, which seems to perpetually ignore aliens despite the constant interactions throughout the series. It actually just handwaves a plot contrivance that’s still unbelievable instead of bolstering the worldbuilding.
The Doctor criticizes humans for relying on violent yet time-tested tools like knives & guns while being able to solve problems more peacefully with an exclusive sonic screwdriver. (An episode after slagging off knife-carriers like Leela, she’s saved from ghost-rags by one.) Does The Doctor have a moral imperative to make sonic screwdriver tech available to humanity to reduce violence even if it’s anachronistic? The Doctor supposedly destroyed the factory that made Jack Harkness’s sonic gun, but letting beings have access to vortex manipulators & Krasko’s Weeping Angel-gun seem like much bigger threats. Plus The Doctor let Emmeline Pankhurst run off with a laser spanner. (I miss Ace, who was armed with homemade dynamite.)
While The Doctor prefers to solve problems with brains over violence, the character has been effective at righting wrongs. This edition isn’t. Half of the time it feels that stories just ended because the episode ran out of time not because The Doctor satisfyingly resolved the conflict. Future racist Krasko is only vanquished because Ryan deals with him behind The Doctor’s back. When she tells Mr. Bigly that he can’t be President if he fires Yaz’s mum, it comes off as idle threat. We don’t see her sabotage his political career like Harriet Jones or convince him to un-fire her. (On the other paw, she somehow berates the hologram running the Boring Hunger Games in rewarding its winners without even bluffing about leverage.) How is locking enormous arachnids away to cannibalize, starve, & suffocate supposed to be the more humane option than letting Mr. Bigly euthanize them with bullets? (I want to see his presidential campaign poster of him standing astride a giant dead spider.) She even has to confirm with her companions that she warned the murderous Dalek before taking action against it!
This season was weirdly ineffective at punishment. Neither Mr. Bigly nor the scientists are brought to task for their negligence in accidentally making giant people-eating spiders. King James (Alan Cummings’s foppish portrayal is the season’s most charming guest star) just gets scolded for enthusiastically sanctioning unjustified witch hunts, torture, & execution. The Doctor excuses Space Amazon for killing one innocent woman in an unsuccessful attempt to show a mad bomber that mass murder is wrong. The killer of Yaz’s grandma’s first husband isn’t brought to justice. The Doctor doesn’t even suggest counseling for the widower who psychologically tortured his blind daughter with fake monster noises before abandoning her to cavort in a poorly explained mirror universe named The Solitract. (Suddenly ripping off Solaris for the last ten minutes of an episode is a good way to jump the shark, even without getting into the talking frog on a chair.)
The worse example is with Tzim-Sha, who chances into becoming a planet-stealing despot with reality warpers at his command for thousands of years. Despite the interplanetary atrocities of this dishonorable Stenza sadist, The Doctor is still wishy-washy about punishing him. (Having the Doctor complain about how weird Stenza technology is just to make them seem more formidable doesn’t do her any favors.) She even guilt trips Graham & Ryan into not killing him in revenge for Grace’s death. After he’s inexplicably defeated with one blast to the foot, he’s instead put into cryo-stasis, which he’s still susceptible to despite being a literal Ice Warrior. (Mars should sue.) It’s not confirmed whether he’d be conscious for this imprisonment. A forced nap doesn’t feel commensurate with all the genocide he committed. As ironic as turning his stasis collecting hobby against him is, it just feels unsatisfying given the possibility “Tim Shaw” could be defrosted in another episode. (They still haven’t rescued the Earthling sister abducted by a Stenza referenced in his debut.) The Sycorax leader had been killed with a satsuma for far less.
Historical stories are a vital part of the show, but their execution has been lacking for this season. Rosa Parks & King James are such important figures that their lives are never convincingly imperiled. (Fictional characters like Prem & Umbreen offer more narrative leeway, although even that episode ruined the tension with its obvious foreshadowing.) While it’s wise that The Doctor wasn’t directly responsible for Rosa Parks’s civil disobedience, it’s tacky that the presence of her crew were necessary for the event to occur. While time travel rules frustratingly fluctuate from one story to another, it feels like Rosa Park’s arrest should be a fixed point in the timeline. That episode (filmed in the former Apartheid nation of South Africa) depicts all the white Alabamans into cartoonish foaming at the mouth racists, which obscures how insidious low-key racism continues to be. (The episode of Legends of Tomorrow set in the same period does the opposite mistake of having segregation-era southerners not perturbed by a multiracial group of strangers. It’s really tricky finding the right tone for a one-off episode in this setting.) Given King James’s official stance prohibiting sodomy, it would’ve made his episode thematically richer to highlight his hypocrisy in attempting to seduce Ryan.
You could get your cardio in just by watching the fast-paced RTD era episodes. Moffat’s tenure engaged the mind with numerous timey-wimey twists. Chibnall’s oeuvre is dull. The pacing is sonorous. Its episodes tend to focus on the least interesting aspects of each story so they have to have to conclude abruptly. The period pieces have neither enough history to be educational nor enough sci-fi to be intriguing. There’s barely any action in “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos!” Even the spoilery clips that BBCA put up in between commercials to entice viewers not to change channels were comprised mainly of filler conversations. The latest spin of the iconic theme song isn’t thrilling either.
For all my complaints (& those of more enraged viewers), most of them have had precedents in the show at some point. It’s not so much that the show is making new mistakes that it’s repeating those of the past to the point where it’s death by thousands of cuts. For all the hype about this season being a new progressive era, it feels stagnant. While the show has a history of recycling ideas, this season made me yearn for the stories it referenced even more than previously. This new season has been so dissatisfying to me that I’ve been prioritizing watching Supergirl instead of it. This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but Supergirl has been surprisingly engaging this year. I’d also rather watch a full series of Dalek Who.
After the New Year’s Day special, Doctor Who will be off the air for a full year? That’s a terrible way to build momentum. It’d be amazing if they’d take that extra time to overhaul what didn’t work, but I won’t hold my breath since Chibnall is still contracted to return as showrunner. In the meantime, support the superior time travel series, Legends of Tomorrow! (Remember how not too long ago Twelve Monkeys, Timeless, & Time After Time were also options?) In a concurrent merchandise faux pas, UK’s Character Options & USA’s Seven20 have screwed Who North America out of both 5″ Thirteenth Doctor action figures. There aren’t even any Pting products!
While my low Chibnall expectations were underwhelmed, I’m more disappointed at all the missed opportunities than angry. There’s still plenty of older runs that I like, & the property is big enough that it’s bound to be reinvigorated again even if this one proves terminal for the time being. When the next reboot of Doctor Who comes around, I worry the BBC will only consider the superficial. If Chibnall’s tenure is considered a failure, I don’t want a female Doctor & multiracial companions being the scapegoats. It’s much easier to single them out instead of the numerous failings of the episodes themselves. It was the execution that was botched, not the concepts themselves! Don’t learn the wrong lesson, BBC!