It would be safe to say that Season 11 of Doctor Who was…divisive. From the start it had the fandom completely split over the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first ever female Doctor, a move which promptly brought all the trolls out of the woodwork. But even if you’re not a frothing sexist, there was little in Whittaker’s first season that was really engaging. It quickly became clear that this casting was the most ambitious thing about it, with a bunch of standalone, formulaic, by-the-numbers episodes that had none of the mad (albeit inconsistent) genius of Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffatt. So season 12 seemed pretty promising when, after its action-packed premiere, it appeared to be going in a completely different and much more interesting direction.
There were still some really forgettable snooze-fests, such as the ham-fisted ‘Orphan 55’, or ‘Praxeus’, a completely throwaway episode which ranges between the mediocre and the laughably bad. The characters in this one are all just bit-parts existing merely to state their various motivations, their arcs go exactly where you expect them to, and the resolution to the episode is just ridiculous, as a guy’s who’s been feeling inadequate next to his astronaut boyfriend saves the day through his piloting of an alien spacecraft, proclaiming that flying a spaceship really isn’t that difficult actually. Oh yeah, flying a spaceship, there’s nothing to it.
The episode’s political points also feel really on the nose, and not in a good way. Whether it’s space Nazis or giant maggots created by pollution – Doctor Who has never been a show which is subtle when it comes to political issues. But these past episode have at least had other stuff going on in them, they’ve still been a fun watch for kids. These episodes however have little substance beyond simply going “Plastic BAD!”
These episodes aside however, there was nevertheless a lot more of interest in this season. The return of the Master in Spyfall, followed by the return of Jack Harkness, and a new, previously unseen Doctor in ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’, seemed to promise a switch from the kind of largely standalone episodes we’ve had for most of Jodie Whittaker’s run, to much more of a genuine story arc, with a real sense of mystery and ambiguity.
The questions thrown up in these episodes gave the impression that this season would feel far less throwaway, and far more consequential both for plot and character. For the first time since Whittaker’s installation, I was actually interested in what was around the corner. However, while this season poses a lot of interesting ideas, the end result disappoints and, in an attempt to relive the shows glory days, it leans far too much into fan service and other irrelevancies.
There is no denying that this season is far more ambitious and impressive than Season 11 ever was. ‘Can You Hear Me’, for example, is probably one of the biggest highlights of the Whittaker era so far – though probably anything would have looked good coming right after ‘Praxeus’. From the start the premise is an interesting, spooky one, with each of the team seeing the same mysterious figure in the middle of the night, nightmares coming to life, and beings that feed on all of our worst fears and anxieties.
It doesn’t do nearly as much as it could with this premise – one comparison which springs to mind is that of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Restless’, an episode which mines the setting of a dream to its fullest potential, it being filmed in a surreal, disjointed way that genuinely captures the feel of a dream. Nevertheless, there’s still a tonne of interesting stuff in here. The episode has a lot of nice little moments touching on issues surrounding mental health, and the animated scene giving us the history of the beings behind it all makes for a unique, engaging way of detailing such backstory.
Most importantly, this episode does successfully mirror ‘Restless’ in one important aspect, in that it uses this context of a dream to get us inside the characters heads. Perhaps the biggest flaw of the Whittaker era so far is that all its characters feel two-dimensional, with almost nothing to flesh them out. This episode however actually shows some effort in realising these characters a tad better – the stuff with Yaz in particular is really nice, since she’s a character who really has had nothing to do over the past season and a half.
The last three episodes after this one finally return to the arc that began to be explored with ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’, but was then dropped. ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ starts out with what seems a run of the mill episode, a haunted house piece set on the night Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, before then abruptly introducing the ‘Lone Cyberman’ mentioned previously.
This whole plotline is drawing heavily upon the audio adventures produced by the company Big Finish, who also realised that Mary Shelley and the Cybermen fit perfectly together within the context of a Doctor Who story. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to like here, the team trying to leave rooms only to then walk straight back into them being a tantalisingly creepy idea. It’s the finale this feeds into that’s most intriguing however, as well as being the point where it all falls apart.
If taken entirely on its own, the penultimate episode, ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ is really good, and would be the best episode of the season. The stakes continually feel high, with the last of the humans on the run from Cybermen who, rather than being simply the tin robots they usually are, feel genuinely dangerous and unstoppable. Whittaker is again gifted the chance to give a more serious, vulnerable performance, which is where her Doctor truly shines. But most of all, this episode – like ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ – develops a sense of mystery and intrigue that I really love.
It’s no surprise writer Chris Chibnall is best known for Broadchurch, ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ being the same sort of tight, well-paced little mystery which works to set up a lot of intrigue over where this storyline is going. Throughout, we cut from the main plot revolving the war against the Cybermen, to something that seems like it might as well be from an entirely different show.
We have a baby abandoned in what appears to be a quaint little village rural Ireland, in the middle of the twentieth century. We see the baby grow into a man, becoming a police officer and living a thoroughly normal life. And then, they are shot. They fall off a cliff to what should be certain death. Only for them to get up, uninjured and relatively unshaken. Finally, in what made for some far more intriguing closing scenes than the main cliffhanger featuring Cybermen and the Master, we see him retire as an old man – only to be confronted by an apparently ageless father, and strapped up to a mysterious device which purges this entire life from his memories.
These scenes are given almost no context, and no explanation. It makes for a far more interesting cliffhanger than the rest of the episode’s closing moments because it leaves you genuinely clueless as to what’s going on and how it’s supposed to tie into everything else. It feels unusual and experimental, and it’s this sort of thing that the show really should do more of regularly.
For a show like this, which is not only science-fiction, but which is set in entirely different places and time periods every week, getting stuck in a formula is death. It’s where Doctor Who has dared to be different – in stories like ‘Human Nature’, ‘Heaven Sent’ and ‘Blink’, or in Big Finish’s content – where it’s always been most interesting and engaging. Perhaps the biggest flaw of Series 11, and the more standalone episodes of this series, is that you essentially always knew exactly what you were getting from the episode description.
Casting a female Doctor may have got headlines, and had many fans and reviewers labeling the new era as some huge, radical departure, but in fact, Season 11 was probably the most formulaic and by-the-numbers that Doctor Who has been since it was first revived by Russell T. Davies back in 2005. The kind of weird, high concept scripts that the likes of Steven Moffatt came up with were something that the show has been really missing, and this strange, disconnected side-plot made me more interested to catch the next episode than I’ve been about this show in a long, long time.
Unfortunately, this show has a habit of teasing a lot of really interesting stuff in the first half of a finale, and then completely dropping the ball in the second half. The final episode, ‘The Timeless Children’, is in fact one I enjoyed. It’s torn the fandom apart online, with its revelation that the Doctor has this huge backstory that we (and she) never knew about, but I had fun with it. The thing is though, this was very much a fanboyish sense of fun. It was my geeking out about references to stuff from the ’70s, its callbacks, and references, and canonisation of stuff that had only ever been pet theories among your Chris Chibnall-types, that made it worth watching. But it goes without saying that the casual viewer is not going to care one jot about the various ins and outs of Gallifreyan lore, and when you strip away the powerpoint presentation the Master gives on the Doctor’s past – looked at objectively, it’s a terrible episode.
The whole thing is carried by this kind of fanservice, and when you move past that it becomes pretty clear there is literally nothing that happens. There is no plot to this finale – the whole thing amounts to little more than just the Master acting as camp and as melodramatic as he possibly can. It’s a crying shame, because you can tell the actor playing him, Sascha Dhawan, is genuinely talented, but here, through a mixture of choices in both writing and direction, we have some of the worst overacting I’ve ever seen.
There are zero stakes – his big plan to create this new master race of Cybermen amounts on screen to little more than just some robots with silly heads standing around, doing nothing, giving off no sense of danger or threat. If you’re not invested in these characters (which no one is), or these plot twists (which only the hardcore fans are), there is nothing here to keep you engaged, and the end result makes for a dull, forgettable 50 minutes.
Much of this season felt like it was simply regurgitating a lot of Doctor Who’s greatest hits. From the return of the Master, the Judoon, and Jack Harkness, to the Doctor once more being the last of their kind – it all felt like it was very deliberately trying to emulate the glory days of the David Tennant era, when everyone and their mums tuned in. But in doing all this, it completely misses what made that era such a hit.
The show under Davies was one that was very much focused on having that mainstream appeal – which had the same mix of horror and comedy that made the classic years popular, while also completely dropping most of the camp and the fan service. It was a show which at all times aimed to feel grounded, giving us not only a fully-fleshed out Doctor and companion, but also their families and their domestic life. It was above all else accessible, with characters that managed to be relatable, who fell in love or had realistic flaws – even though they were 900 year old aliens who flew around the universe in police boxes.
The newest iteration of the show has none of this. Even after two seasons, you feel like you barely know the main characters, and its biggest highs have come entirely through fan service and nostalgia baiting – all stuff which will mean absolutely nothing to the casual viewer. It feels like a show which is only being carried on out of habit, staying afloat by clinging to the legacy of what came before. If this had been the first run of this show, it would have got nowhere. It certainly wouldn’t be getting another season.
Season 11 left me unenthused and apathetic about the show as a whole – but in many ways this season has been far worse because there has genuinely been a lot of stuff to like in it. Whittaker’s Doctor is far more compelling than she was previously, there have been plenty of interesting ideas thrown into the mix, and unlike the last season it has at least felt like it’s trying to do something different. It has without doubt been ambitious, but at the same time it still gives viewers very little reason to care about anything that’s happening, and the end result is simply a feeling of “oh, that happened,” rather than any actual urge to find out what happens next.
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There is plenty to like in this season, with a lot of interesting ideas and a game changer of an episode for the continuity of the show as a whole. But for all of that, viewers are given very little reason to care, with nothing that feels at all consequential or memorable.
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