Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the Doctor was an incremental improvement over her first, and while it introduced a big mystery into the Time Lord’s existence, the show seemed reluctant to go all in on that to craft a full story out of it, opting instead to have pieces at the beginning, middle, and end, and otherwise make the season another set of standalone episodes. Much like last season, the stories were enjoyable enough but kind of nondescript and thus forgettable.
And as for that big mystery, well, some of it was carried off quite well, and some of it was not so great. I enjoyed it overall, but it really should have been a lot more than it was, and ultimately while it sets up some interesting stuff for future seasons, if the series continues in this vein I think it’s going to feel more like an afterthought, possibly one thrown away by the next showrunner.
Anyway, if the last five seasons of Doctor Who are the kind of thing you like, then you probably liked this one too.
Spoilers after the cut:
As is customary, here’s my ranking of stories from best to worst:
- “Spyfall” (written by Chris Chibnall)
- “Fugitive of the Judoon” (Vinay Patel & Chibnall)
- “Ascension of the Cybermen” / “The Timeless Children” (Chibnall)
- “Orphan 55” (Ed Hime)
- “Praxeus” (Pete McTighe & Chibnall)
- “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” (Nina Metivier)
- “Can You Hear Me?” (Charlene James & Chibnall)
- “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (Maxine Alderton)
There wasn’t a holiday episode this year, so only 10 episodes in this season, two of which were two-part stories. I’m not going to wait until – presumably – Christmas of this year when “Revolution of the Daleks” airs to write this entry.
If you primarily measure seasons by how few bad episodes there were, then this was a pretty good season, because none of these episodes are bad, although the last two are near the bottom end of okayish. The top three stories are the main stories of the Gallifrey/Timeless Child mystery, which are the ones that I found most engaging.
“Spyfall” was a rare story which had the same title for parts 1 and 2, which is ironic because the two parts are almost more like two separate stories. The first one involves mysterious creatures killing off British spies, and the Doctor tracks down an old friend, Agent O (Sacha Dhawan), who might know what’s going on. It’s very self-consciously James Bond-like (on a BBC budget), and is good goofy fun, until it’s revealed that O is actually the latest incarnation of the Master, when it ceases to be goofy. The second part is a time travel yarn involving Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan, though the Doctor’s companions continue the spy thread, albeit in a style more traditional to the show (lots of sneaking around and trying to figure out what the alien devices do). It’s all a little bit much, to be honest, and feels like Chibnall was showing off what he could write rather than telling a straightforward story. Still, Dhawan is great as the Master, Bradley Walsh gets some great moments as Graham, and we’re left with the mystery of why (and how) the Master managed to destroy Gallifrey.
“Orphan 55” is a tried-and-true template for the series: The Doctor and company land in an isolated location which then starts to have serious problems, and there’s no way to get out. The pinnacle of this sort of story is probably “The Robots of Death” (TBF a fine story), but most of these stories tend to be decent suspense yarns, and this one is right there with them, despite its clumsy reveal at the end that the planet they’re on is Earth.
“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is one of several episodes this season that I characterize as “filler” stories. It’s a period piece with a trendy historical figure, and a bog-standard aliens-threatening-Earth story. File under: “Not bad, but not memorable.”
“Fugitive of the Judoon” is the second part of the running story in the season, which starts off looking like another bog-standard aliens-threatening-Earth story (are the Judoon popular? If so, why? To me they’re Generic Alien Species #768), but quickly takes two left turns. First, there’s the return of Jack Harkness, which is plenty entertaining (another fine moment for Graham, too), but ultimately kind of pointless to the story. More relevant is the revelation that the person being hunted by the Judoon, Ruth Clayton, is in fact an unknown incarnation of The Doctor – complete with TARDIS – and neither one remembers the other, who’s being chased by the Time Lords as a fugitive. It’s left ambiguous whether she’s a past or future incarnation, though that gets resolved later in the season. Jo Martin is great as Ruth, who is at the imperious end of the character’s personality spectrum, and also a bit more ruthless (no pun intended) than what we’re used to.
“Praxaus” and “Can You Hear Me?” are both unremarkable episodes with alien threats (the former to Earth, the latter to the companions), although “Hear” has some fun moments for the companions as they get to do some investigating without the Doctor.
“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is probably the sort of episode that many fans love, but I thought it was a pretty dull haunted house story. I have no particularly affinity for the historical figures in the story, having gotten enough of them in Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard. The portent of the “lone Cyberman” from “Judoon” seemed kind of lame at the time, and the payoff here is not great either, being another alien-masterplan story, with no explanation for why Jack was involved. While the Doctor’s choice about whether to give the Cyberman what it wants is a decent moment, overall it felt like this episode plodded to its inevitable conclusion.
That leads us into the two-part finale, which starts with the Doctor and company going to the far future to save the last of humanity from the Cybermen. (How far in the future? How does this tie into the rest of Doctor Who‘s convoluted future history? Who knows?) “Ascension of the Cybermen” might as well have just been called “Yet Another Cybermen Story” or “This Time the Cybermen Win, Maybe”. I’m not sure what the show needs to do to freshen up its most popular villains, but making them bigger and more fearsome isn’t it. Of course, that means I thought the culmination of the Cybermen part of the story was just plain disappointing, as the Master turns the bodies of the Time Lords into Cybermen who can regenerate. Bigger and more fearsome – I guess.
The Timeless Child aspect was more interesting – to a point. The story of the young policeman in the first part was creepy and compelling such that it completely overshadowed the main story, and they did a good job obscuring its meaning, but implying that this was the story of a Cyberman, maybe even the “Lone Cyberman”. Instead we learn that he was an earlier incarnation of the Doctor, and that the Doctor isn’t actually a Time Lord, but instead a member of an unknown race which was able to regenerate endlessly, which the Time Lords studied and learned to regenerate themselves. But she has no memory before her incarnation we know of as the first Doctor, and it turns out that Ruth is one of her earlier forms.
This is all pretty fascinating, but it is essentially a set-up for future stories. It raises a lot of questions, some of which are endemic to a time travel story, such as why we haven’t heard of any of these previous versions before, especially since at least one of them had a TARDIS just like the one we’re familiar with. But I’m willing to overlook the continuity problems if this opens up new avenues for story and character development. What concerns me is whether they’ll actually do anything with it, given the show’s recent preference for lighter, one-off stories.
What could they do with this? Well putting aside the opportunity to meet thousands of past Doctors, they can explore the nature of self given her complete lack of memory of her past selves. (Are we who we think we are, or are we our actions?) What has the Doctor done in the past that she might regret? That others might hold her responsible for even though she doesn’t remember it? What have the Time Lords done to her? What are they culpable of as a race through their actions toward her, and with her abilities? Is a race culpable? How many individuals have lived since the era when she was found? Will the Doctor travel back to when she was found and explore her origins? What race does she belong to? What happened to the rest of her race? Is she from a parallel universe, or before the singularity of the Big Bang?
Or are they going to cop out and reveal that all of this is a lie told by the Master? That would be completely pathetic (even though I fully expect that the next show runner will end up ignoring or retconning all of this).
“The Timeless Child” is fascinating for the potential it opens up for the future of the series, rather than for what it accomplishes on its own. If they don’t start exploring that potential next season then it’s just going to feel like moving a few chess pieces around without actually accomplishing anything. Other than Matt Smith’s first season, Doctor Who has a pretty poor track record of following through on its extended stories, so color me pessimistic.
But boy, wouldn’t this be a great time for them to prove me wrong?