Kat boards The Tardis for a rendezvous with a genre-defining series of Doctor Who
When the identity of the 13th Doctor was revealed two summers ago, I ran to the bathroom at work to conceal my flowing tears from customers. There had been speculation, sure, that the protagonist of the longest-running science fiction show on television would be recast as a woman, but I wasn’t confident that the world of Doctor Who was ready for that change.
I turned out to be mostly wrong. Sure, there was a wave of sexist backlash at the announcement but those voices have been largely drowned out by the show’s impressive viewing figures, some of the best in Who history. The series 11 premiere was the biggest launch ever for the show and was followed by a fairly normal season-long drop-off (head to Digital Spy for specifics).
This season reignited my waning enthusiasm for Doctor Who, a show that is near and dear to my heart. Despite being just 10 episodes long, the season still had plenty of room for ups and downs. Let’s take a look at what worked about series 11- and what didn’t.
The Cast of Friends
Thirteen (Jodie Whittaker) easily climbed her way up my ranking of Doctors until finally narrowly surpassing Nine (Christopher Eccleston) as my favorite. She does everything a Doctor must; she leaps into situations without a plan. She builds advanced technology before our eyes. She defends the vulnerable with a confidence she sometimes has to fabricate but a determination that was there all along. But to see her do it as a woman when the women of seasons past have been secondary characters on a sliding scale of aimlessness despite their many strengths is something else entirely. I still cry when I hear her say “I’m the Doctor.”
Whittaker ricochets from wonder to wonder with her mouth hanging open in awe- a totally relatable mood if you ask me. She brings an energy, a lightness to Thirteen that is almost reminiscent of Matt Smith’s Eleven. While I am still waiting to catch a glimpse of the countless centuries of tragedy that must weigh on her soul, I am also grateful for this clean start away from the tortured man she was. I have loved all incarnations of the Doctor but this regeneration feels particularly new.
But it’s not just Whittaker who carries the show, it’s the entire new team of cast and creators who breathed life into this new incarnation. I quickly fell for Thirteen’s new “friends” (the replacement term for companion) Yaz, Graham, and Ryan played by Mandip Gil, Bradley Walsh, and Tosin Cole, respectively. All four of them are intrepid explorers, led by curiosity and compassion above all else. It’s unusual to have so many friends at once, but so far it hasn’t prevented the writers from creating memorable one-time characters in each episode. I just have a few more friends to miss when Who isn’t airing. I’d like a tad more quirk from Ryan and Yaz. I simply don’t feel like I know them very well yet, despite spending two whole episodes on Yaz’s family. This is where Walsh’s years of experience in front of a camera set him apart. He’s the breakout star of the season, despite Graham having no more interesting a background than Ryan or Yaz. Maybe they have their sights set on season 12.
The Dedication to Representation
Disillusioned as I was from Steven Moffat’s reign as showrunner, I was cautiously optimistic for Chris Chibnall of Broadchurch success to take over. I need not have been concerned. I have been floored by Chibnall and his team’s dedication to representation, not just in the kind of stories being told, but by careful attention to who tells them. Thirteen (herself a bold act in representation) is surrounded by a diverse group of friends. Yasmin Khan (Yaz) is a Muslim Pakistani policewoman who often speaks of the discrimination she experiences both on the job and off. Ryan Sinclair is a young black engineering student who struggles with dyspraxia, a coordination disorder. Graham O’Brien, a white retired bus driver, married Ryan’s grandmother who was his cancer nurse.
Though I am not the most important testimonial to the impact representation can have, let me tell you how the floor dropped out from under me when I saw Ryan trying and failing to ride a bike. As a chronic pain sufferer, I was in awe. These are the details that ground these characters in reality and give them depth.
This attention to diversity continues behind the camera as well. The number of women and people of color in writing and directing positions is up from last season. Black creators were behind the incredible American Civil Rights era episode “Rosa.” Marjorie Blackman co-wrote the episode with Chibnall and Mark Tonderai directed it. Vinay Patel, a South Asian writer, crafted the Partition era episode “Demons of The Punjab.” My point in going into these specifics is to convey the care with which these stories are told. I’m touched by the thought that shows in Chibnall and his team’s decisions. It’s the kind of care I wish went into other shows.
The Somewhat Disappointing
The Musical Score
Doctor Who lost its longtime composer, Murray Gold, in the changing of the guard after series 10. Gold created many beloved themes during his 13-year tenure that became the hallmark of each Doctor and their companion. He was replaced by relative newcomer Segun Akinola. Akinola refashioned the original 1963 Doctor Who theme to create season 11’s new theme music. While Gold favored big, brash orchestral scores, Akinola is more of a minimalist, found-sound composer. He and the Who team chose to match the style of the music to each episode as needed. While I appreciate his strategy, the score itself will require time and much re-listening upon its release to grow on me fully.
As in all Doctor Who seasons, there are a few episodes that can only be described as unsuccessful. For me, the worst of season 11 was “Kerblam!” and “The Witchfinders.” Both episodes attempted to make a social point, but either bungled it or got enormously off track.
In “Kerblam!” the Doctor investigates a call for help from the space equivalent of an Amazon warehouse. She and her friends fight corporate managers and malfunctioning delivery robots to ultimately foil a terrorist plot by a young activist (Leo Flanagan), unhappy at the mere 10% of jobs reserved for “organics.” Maybe I’m just a millennial, but it seems laughable that “Kerblam!” wants me to side with a mega-corporation concerned merely with profit rather than a kid who wants a better future for his people. I don’t agree with his violent methods, but the resolution of the episode seemed confusingly off-message.
“The Witchfinders” is one of the rare episodes in Who’s long history to both directed and written by women (Sallie Aprahamian and Joy Wilkinson, respectively). Despite this, the episode fell flat for me. The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham travel back to 17th century England in the middle of a witch hunt. The situation seems like the perfect opportunity to address Thirteen’s new female identity and the impact that body has on how she’s treated. “The Witchfinders” does this without hesitation, but whatever point or lesson learned from the experience is quickly lost in an evil alien crescendo that more or less mentally tapes over the earlier part of the episode. I’m left remembering mud and Alan Cumming’s bizarre portrayal of King James I. Granted, I’m American, but is he usually this weird?
Traveling back to Civil Rights era America is a risky move for a British TV show in today’s political climate. But the risk paid off, and we now have “Rosa,” undoubtedly one of the greatest Doctor Who episodes of recent seasons, if not all time. In it, the Doctor and company arrive in 1955 Alabama and stumble right into Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson). They uncover a plan to change history by simply altering the details around Parks’ famous refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Thirteen’s goal becomes simply to protect history.
This is the most emotional episode of the season. As you might expect, Ryan faces racism and repeatedly swallows his anger. Yaz faces discrimination as well and it’s telling of American racial perspectives that people don’t quite know where to place her across the black-white divide. Graham struggles a lot with seeing his grandson be the focus of racist actions, and with the memory of his recently-deceased wife as an activist against these issues. It’s these emotions played out on their faces, paired with Robinson’s quiet and modest strength as Parks that makes this episode the highlight of the season.
Season 11 was as variable as previous seasons of Doctor Who have been story-wise, but Thirteen and her cast of friends make every episode fun to watch. It’s clear that showrunner Chibnall and his team care deeply for the characters they created and for the franchise as a whole. I have fallen for Whittaker’s Doctor. Though I loved Peter Capaldi’s Twelve and Pearl Mackie’s Bill, the convoluted way Moffat chose to end their storylines left a sour taste in my mouth. Season 11 wiped my palate clean and sparked a renewed eagerness for each new episode. To Chibnall, Whittaker, and the entire cast and crew I say “thank you!”
Doctor Who will return on January 1, 2019, with a New Years Day special.
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Writer & nerd. Lover of science fiction franchises. Cries daily about awesome women, representation in media, and the power of film.