TV Review: Doctor Who (2018)

TitleDoctor Who
Release Dates: 2018
Series: 11
Number of Episodes: 10

This is going to be tough because I love this show so much, yet I’m going to have to state some unpleasant truths.  This was not a very good series of Doctor Who. The baseline of competency was met again and again, and no episode was truly awful, but this series never seemed to aspire to anything beyond sheer competency.  There are a lot of people involved in creating a television series, but I believe that a lot of the blame for the failures of Series 11 can go to the showrunner Chris Chibnall, who scripted 5 of the 10 episodes, and co-wrote another.  I had concerns about Chibnall going into the series based on his previous work for Doctor Who and Torchwood, but had also admired his work on Broadchurch, at least the first season.

Compared with the previous showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, who each contributed numerous innovations to Doctor Who storytelling, Chibnall did not seem interested in taking many risks in that area.  I should note though, that there was some risk-taking in this series.  For one, this is the first time a woman – Jodie Whittaker – was cast in the role of the Doctor, and while that shouldn’t be risky in 2018, it was nevertheless, controversial.  The consequence though is that Chibnall and company appeared not to want to make any further waves and wrote the Doctor as a very passive character, to the point of criminal indifference, which is not something you want to see paired with your female representation.  The optimist in me thinks that now that the writers have seen how Whittaker performs the Doctor, and with one season under their belt, that they will be willing to take more risks with her character next series.  At the very least I hope they cease writing dialogue where Whittaker is forced to just describe what is in front of her much of the time.  These writers need to heed the advice to show not tell.

Another big risk is that Chibnall chose to cast three different companions, creating the largest Tardis Team since the Fifth Doctor also traveled with three companions in the 1980s.  It was also the first time that 4 major characters were introduced in the same episode since the premiere of the series in 1963.  The consequence of this risk is that there was very little time to develop four new characters and tell new stories at the same time.  Yaz was particularly effected by the crowded Tardis in that the audience never seemed to learn much about her despite her having the potential to be the most interesting character as a foil to the Doctor.  She’s also the most competent character, so her quietly getting things done didn’t leave much time for interesting character beats.  Ryan and Grahams were served better as they had the theme of there growing familial relationship as they mourn Grace to carry them through the series.

Chibnall took risks in how the series is presented.  Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, a series has had 12-to-13 episodes, 45 minutes in length, plus a Christmas Special.  Chibnall cut the total number of episodes to 10, but extended the length of individual episodes to 50 minutes.  The problems of character development may have been better addressed with 2 or 3 more stories.  While previous series usually had some two-part episodes, and at least a semi-serialized nature where the series built on a story arc or theme, Chibnall chose to have all the episodes of series 11 be stand-alone stories, with the exception of an episode 1 villain ineffectively returning in episode 10.  The structure of a Doctor Who episode was modeled on the procedural drama genre of television for the first time.  I can’t criticize that choice because Doctor Who should be able to function in any genre, even if it didn’t work for other reasons.

The series was a commercial success with better ratings than Doctor Who has had in some time.  The argument can be made that more straightforward, stand alone episodes attract a larger number of viewers who can pop in to watch an episode without having to know a lot of the details behind the story.  I’m pleased that Doctor Who is succeeding, even if it’s not the type of Doctor Who I enjoy.  But I would also contend that television viewers – including children – are more sophisticated viewers than they were a generation or two ago and can handle more complex stories and serialization.  Not the least because a large percentage of people who end up viewing this show will do so by bingewatching on streaming services rather than watching each episode as it airs.

Despite my heavy criticism of the show, there was a lot I enjoyed about it.  Whittaker was excellent in portraying the Doctor as funny, compassionate, and a strong leader.  She deserves better material to work with.  I also love all the new companions, they are great characters and each bring something to the team. The production values were excellent for the most part including cinematograpy, sets, costuming, and music.  It was a pleasurable program to look at the vast majority of the time.  While the politics of the show seem to be moving rightward overall, it’s also important to recognize the representation in this series.  Women and people of color are appearing in the show, as well as writing and directing, more than ever before, and telling stories previously ignored in the previous 36 seasons.

Here are my thoughts on an episode by episode basis with links to full reviews.  The number in parentheses is a rating on a scale of 10.

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7) – A good introduction, that swiftly brings together our new Tardis Team with good character beats for each, and keeping Jodie Whittaker on her toes as she resolves both the problem and her new identity.  Sure, the villain is rubbish, but monsters are only secondary to this story and we’re never going to see Tim Shaw again, right?  The biggest downer is that Grace, one of the most compelling characters and a natural for the companion role, dies just as we’re getting to know her.
  2. The Ghost Monument (5) – The first episode introduced all of our new characters, while the purpose of this episode is to reunite the Doctor with her Tardis.  Along the way, the new companions get their “wow, we’re on another planet” moments.  The plot seems only incidental and is discarded once the Tardis is found, setting a pattern of Chibnall-authored stories that are unresolved.
  3. Rosa (7) – The first historical of Series 11 is set in 1950s Alabama and does a great job of capturing the period and the pervasive nature of Jim Crow racism.  The message of the show, that social change occurs only when great individuals like Rosa Parks take small actions (and that they will suffer to achieve incremental changes) seems out of touch with what audiences need from Doctor Who in 2018, though.
  4. Arachnids in the UK  (6) -The return to Sheffield episode does a good job of introducing us to Yaz’s family and setting up an adventure involving giant spiders, and even make us sympathetic to the monsters.  The story once again ends with a feeling of loose ends untied.  And while Doctor Who certainly can’t depict the overthrow of Donald Trump, they could at least offer consequences to a Trump surrogate.
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum (7) – I seem to be alone in liking this space adventure, and certainly think it’s the best Chibnall-authored script of the season.  For one, it actually tells a complete story with beginning, middle, and end.  And the other, all the characters – regular and guest – play a part in the story and have significant character moments.  It’s also funny.  I guess people just don’t like cute monsters.
  6. Demons of the Punjab (8) – This Yaz-centered story travels back in time to visit her grandmother in 1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan.  The personal story of one family set against tragic historical events is definitely the best story of the season.
  7. Kerblam! (5) – Honestly, this story is not as bad as it’s rating.  It’s well constructed and entertaining, and I suppose a good example of Right Wing Science Fiction.  But it loses points because the Doctor being not only indifferent to, but tacitly supporting, the suffering and exploitation of labor is counter to everything I know about the Doctor.
  8. The Witchfinders (8) – Another entertaining historical with Alan Cumming guest starring in a wonderfully hammy performance as King James I.  The Tardis Team have come into their own and work together to solve the problem.  And Whittaker’s Doctor, for once, isn’t hopelessly passive, taking action even when it may be changing history.
  9. It Takes You Away (6) – A strange, entertaining story with a few twists, and a talking frog.  I didn’t think the story was the best, but I did enjoy the bonkers quality of it, and the sign that Chibnall-era Doctor Who was recognizing the previous 10 series of Doctor Who and finding new ways to build on it.
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4) – A total bummer of a finale that seems only to function as a sampler of the worst aspects of Series 11.  The rest of the series looks worse in retrospect because one could no longer believe it was building to something meaningful.

If you have time and desire to read more about Series 11, check out this excellent post from the Movie Blog.

Okay, now we move on to the New Year’s Day Special!  I have high hopes.

Series 11 episodes ranked:

  • Demons of the Punjab (8)
  • The Witchfinders  (8)
  • The Tsuranga Conundrum (7)
  • The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7)
  • Rosa (7)
  • It Takes You Away (6)
  • Arachnids in the UK  (6)
  • The Ghost Monument (5)
  • Kerblam! (5)
  • The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (4)

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