After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).
For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):
To answer my question immediately: Not really. Ever since season 7, the show has shied away from having an ongoing story or significant running plot or character threads. This approach torpedoed the “Silence” storyline of the Matt Smith era after a promising start, and the Capaldi stories were largely standalone pieces except for the three episodes which closed out Clara’s tenure at the end of season 9 (though the single best episode of Capaldi’s run was among those three). Whittaker’s first season was in much the same vein, which I found disappointing. After five seasons of standalone stories across two show runners and three Doctors, I wonder whether this approach has been dictated from higher up in the BBC. I imagine having modular episodes makes it easier to re-run them, but it makes the seasons less satisfying if they’re not building to or working through something.
I didn’t know what to expect from Chibnall as show runner. On the one hand his own episodes of Doctor Who had been – to my mind – fairly forgettable, but on the other hand he also created Broadchurch, which at least in its first season is excellent (I haven’t watched much beyond that). Unfortunately the stories this season ran more to the former style than the latter.
Here’s my ranking of the season’s episodes, from best to worst:
- “The Ghost Monument” (written by Chris Chibnall)
- “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” (Chibnall)
- “Demons of the Punjab” (Vinay Patel)
- “Kerblam!” (Pete McTighe)
- “Rosa” (Malorie Blackman & Chibnall)
- “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” (Chibnall)
- “It Takes You Away” (Ed Hime)
- “Resolution” (Chiball) – this was the New Year’s Day special
- “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (Chibnall)
- “The Witchfinders” (Joy Wilkinson)
- “Arachnids in the U.K.” (Chibnall)
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” introduced Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor, and her companions: Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) and Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill). Graham’s wife and Ryan’s grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) appeared in this episode, but died trying to deal with the alien threat, Tzim-Sha (pronounced “Tim Shaw” by the characters). Killing off an older black woman character while keeping her while male husband as a regular was pretty controversial in the U.S., I’m not sure if it played differently in the U.K. In any event I don’t think it lead to a great payoff; while Ryan and Graham’s development was the most satisfying part of the season, it took a long time to get there, and felt almost like an afterthought rather than an intrinsic part of the season.
Overall “Woman Who Fell” was a pretty generic episode, though I suspect this was intentional as (I infer) the introduction of a woman Doctor was expected to be enough shake-up for the fan base to process in the first episode. Unfortunately it also made for a pretty forgettable story, and it’s very rare that the first episode really establishes the Doctor’s character as distinct from her predecessors, and this episode was not an exception there.
The ending was pretty great, though, throwing the Doctor and her companions into deep space, where they had to work to survive and find and get to the TARDIS in “The Ghost Monument”. I wished this episode had been a little more serious and a little less nonsense, but the final scene when the TARDIS finally materializes boosted the episode a lot. But this is a pretty low bar for the best episode of a season.
“Rosa” was a routine and blunt period piece, although the recreation of the 1950s South was quite well done. I imagine this episode worked better for some people than others; I’ve never been very fond of Doctor Who episodes that muck around in critical historic events. In any event it was better than “Arachnids in the U.K.”, which despite the clever title was a really stupid horror story, and the worst episode of the season. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” was not a lot better – and made a little weird in that the threat resembled Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. This episode had a number of things going on, but I don’t think any of them worked very well.
The next two episodes were better. “Demons of the Punjab” was Yaz’s one chance to shine during the season – she was largely unused otherwise, and not really a well-defined character. But this episode around a major historical event worked much better than “Rosa”, I think because the event was the partition of India and Pakistan which in this case didn’t depend on specific characters’ actions, but instead was used as the backdrop for the fictional characters in Yaz’s family. The aliens also had some satisfying nuance.
“Kerblam!” was a rare episode which did a pretty good job of balancing the silliness of its premise, the characters going undercover (not usually an element of a solid episode), and some general creepiness and suspense. In some seasons this would have been one of the weaker episodes – enjoyable but not particular memorable – but it’s one of the better ones here.
The next two were not so good. “The Witchfinders” was a routine historical monster story. “It Takes You Away” started off as an interesting horror mystery, but changed into something entirely different, involving a sentient universe and images of lost people – particularly Graham’s wife Grace. As a story it was basically nonsense, but we finally – finally – see some character development in the bonding of Ryan and Graham. It would have been more successful had their relationship been developed gradually over the season, but the writing of the last few scenes was still pretty moving.
“The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” was also largely nonsense as a story, but I found the mystery of what was going on enjoyable enough, as well as appreciating the characters of the Ux (even if their motivations were pretty sketchy). But again it was the story involving Graham and Ryan which was the highlight here. That was also the case in the New Year’s Day episode “Resolution”, which was one of the dumber Dalek stories I can recall (and a waste of Charlotte Ritchie’s great performance as Lin), but the parts involving Ryan and his father were generally very well done, especially their talk in the cafe, which could have gone in one of several disappointing directions, but overall I felt was a very moving talk between two characters who were trying to figure out their relationship. Seeing Ryan stand up for himself was especially satisfying.
In summary, I felt like this season was more of the same – individual stories without much development in either the story or the characters. The best bits of this season were the character development bits we did get, but they felt like more of an afterthought. I don’t expect them to spend every season diving into the history of the Doctor or the Time Lords – indeed, I’d rather they didn’t. But having a basic structure of a quest, or investigating a mystery across a number of episodes, or touching some planet of region at several different points in its history – something that can be built on toward an ultimate payoff at the end of the season – would make these seasons much more engaging than a series of one-offs.
As it is it feels like the series is stuck telling stories as if it’s still the 70s or 80s. And that was a lo-o-ong time ago.