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Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Doctor Who: Series 11 Review

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm writing about Doctor Who's 37th season, or series 11 if you're just counting the stories aired since it came back in 2005. Really they've could've drawn another line right here and called it Volume 3, Series 1 with how different the show is behind the scenes and on screen now. It's practically a spin-off of itself: the Star Trek: Discovery of Doctor Who, though I think this regeneration was necessary and the change didn't come a moment too soon.

This was the season that Jodie Whittaker took over from Peter Capaldi as the show's first madwoman in a box and Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner, so it was fairly monumental in that regards. But were the episodes anything spectacular themselves? If you've read my individual episode reviews you already know my answer to that, but I might as well say it again now.

I should also mention that I'm not going to shy away from dropping huge SPOILERS here, for everything from The Woman Who Fell to Earth to the season finale The Battle of Rancon Az Kolor Razkol Ab Kosor Ranschool As Kloplot... Resolution, and no doubt a few of the earlier episodes too.



Chris Chibnall isn't great with endings. Whittaker was suitably weird but her Doctor was toothless. The companions were good but Bradley Walsh was the stand out. Yaz had the same problems Nyssa had in the Davison era, Ryan and Graham had all the character arcs. Killing off Grace was mean. The season looked fantastic, especially the location shots. The series has dropped the fairy tale sitcom tone and is simultaneously more mature, more accessible and less complex. The writing was bland, the stakes were really small, and it didn't build to anything as there was no season-long story arc. History lesson pseudo-historicals were a nice change. Segun Akinola's synthy soundtrack was a nice change too. And they made a real effort to be progressive without having much to say beyond 'bad things are bad' and 'good people can make a difference'.

Right... now that I've covered what everyone else has already said I can get on with my own review full of insightful observations and fresh opinions!

Uh... hmm....

Okay, it turns out that trying to take something that everyone else has done a million times before you and do something original with it is actually pretty difficult. You can't reinvent the wheel, only put your own spin on it, and I think Chris Chibnall and friends have actually managed that here, in a way that's very respectful to what came before them. The trouble is that he's a writer that's good at writing scenes where mature adults deal with their issues in a believable way, and he's following on from a showrunner who liked to ramp up the emotion and make everything happening RIGHT NOW be the MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE UNIVERSE, and a sitcom/mystery writer in love with the mythology of the series who constructed his plots with the skill of a comedian setting up a punchline. The series suddenly seems kind of muted, unimportant and obvious by comparison.

The funny thing is I actually liked every episode, this is not bad television by any means, but I almost always came away disappointed. The previous 10 series of Doctor Who by comparison were a rollercoaster ride for me; I never knew if an episode was going to be insultingly stupid or ingenious, hilarious or gut wrenching, or all of the above. I will never forgive them for the moon egg, forest fairies and sleep monsters. Oh, and the bloody electromagnetic ghost bullshit. But when those previous seasons hit their high points I was hooked and I gave a damn about was happening in a way that I couldn't about this run of episodes.

I watched something like 620 episodes of Doctor Who in 2018 (blame Twitch, it wasn't my idea!) and I came away from it very tired... but I also came away with a good idea of what it is about this dumb show that grabbed my attention 9 years ago and kept me watching: I like that sometimes, on a good day, it can be clever. In my head the series at its best is about smart solutions, witty dialogue, intelligent commentary, ingenious storytelling, and the Doctor running rings around people. Though I'll settle for some good quips and an ending where everything clicks into place, the big damn hero music comes on and the Doctor does something brilliant that I never saw coming to get a satisfying win. This season didn't exactly deliver on that.

What didn't help is that the Doctor was frequently facing dumb creatures that were just doing their thing or social problems she was helpless to do anything about. The best she could do against antagonists like Ilin, Jack Robertson and Manish was give them some cross words and a disapproving glare, and they all got away with it in the end! Stories were often left so unresolved I was left waiting for the villains to return in later episodes. Well, maybe not Manish.

Plus the season liked to set up compelling mysteries and intriguing situations and then head straight down all the least interesting paths on the way to the end credits. I love that the series has had its heart in the right place and it's been taking a stand against racism, greed, superstition, all of that. That's what I want from Doctor Who; it's what I want from sci-fi in general. But it didn't exactly get its teeth into the subjects it took on, and I was often left thinking 'Oh, that's really all you've got to say about that? You're just going to preach to younger viewers and the already converted?' I mean it's a fun family adventure series, not Star Trek, I don't need a heartfelt Captain Picard speech in every episode, but if you're going to make a point then backing it up or examining it a little often helps. There should be some substance and self-awareness there. Failing that, the series could at least be properly funny again next season. Because Legends of Tomorrow has been eating Doctor Who's lunch lately in a lot of respects and it's been doing it dressed as a clown.

Here's some more miscellaneous complaining for you while I'm on a roll:


THE BAD

They've redecorated the Tardis and I don't like it.

I remember when photos of the Tardis console room first leaked people who worked on the series were really disappointed that some people were being introduced to it before the big reveal in The Ghost Monument where it had the proper photography and lighting. Personally I'm glad I was spoiled on it, because it gave me some time to come to terms with it first. Some people love the set, I think it's too basic and cramped after the fantastic Capaldi console room, I don't like the twitching crystal spider legs, the crystal time rotor or the tiny spinning crystal Tardis model, and I don't like that it looks like you could break that metal hexagon background if you accidentally lean on it. When you get shots like this where the actors are barely visible and you can only see half the console because of the big-ass glowing pillar in the way, I have to think that something's gone wrong at the design stage.

I also don't like how crowded it is, or more specifically how the writers have been handling the crowd. This season has continued the modern Doctor Who tradition of writing stories around the characters instead of just having the companions there to ask questions and say 'Look Doctor!' (though they still say that a lot I noticed), but sometimes it felt like the decision to add Yaz came after the scripts had started being written. There's three arcs running through the season: Graham and Ryan dealing with their grief, Ryan coming to forgive his dad for abandoning him and Graham and Ryan bonding as granddad and grandson, and none of them involved her. No grief for Yaz. She's the Doctor's best mate who's really competent and... oh hang on, Graham and Ryan are dealing with stuff right now so she's got to go stand in the background for a while and react to something. Plus the writers finally put a police officer in the police box and only seemed to remember when she used her training to comfort people and get their contact info. Somehow Graham being a former bus driver and Ryan working at a warehouse turned out to be far more relevant to the stories this season. Other shows handle large ensemble casts just fine, how does this one always struggle so much when there's four characters?

I wasn't entirely sold on the Thirteenth Doctor either. There's an episode of classic Star Trek called The Enemy Within where a sci-fi situation splits Captain Kirk into the two halves of his personality: the mean and forceful side, and the nice and passive side, and neither side turns out to be a very effective space hero on its own. I'm bringing this up because I kind of feel like this happened with to the Eleventh Doctor when he regenerated, except his two sides came consecutively instead of simultaneously. Twelve was the asshole Doctor who'd lost his filter, questioned himself, and was generally a bit of a Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty, and now Thirteen is a flawless shining beacon of goodness and positivity, enthusiasm and empathy. They're both so different to their predecessors that each comes off as being incomplete. We never get the manipulative trickster or the fury of a righteous Time Lord out of Thirteen, and she's completely untormented by her past or the darker side that made her former selves withhold information, make emotional choices and secretly hate themselves. She's not even occasionally petty! Her only flaw is her desperation to make friends and reliance on passing spaceships to save them when she accidentally strands them in space or gets them blown up. I'm not saying that she's a bad character, but she's basically a kids TV presenter right now and if her personality doesn't evolve it's going to get as old as Twelve's rudeness did in his first season.

But there were good things about this season too:


THE GOOD

I wasn't expecting them to screw up the look of the police box, but I'm still glad that they didn't. At first glance the series 11 Tardis looks the same as ever, but if you compare it to previous Tardis props you can see how it's a blend of old elements from past designs and new details it's never had before, and the box they've ended up with looks pretty classy. Even if its lost the 'T' shape in the windows.

If you've read my Star Trek: Discovery season one review you might remember I ranted for a while like the entitled fanboy I am about how I wasn't happy with the Enterprise being redesigned, but this is a different situation because a: it's a shapeshifting spaceship, b: if they went back in time and found the old box it'd still look the same (see image above), and c: it's such a subtle change that it'd take a bigger nerd than me to care even if 'a' and 'b' weren't true. If they'd made it pink though you can bet I'd be complaining.

Another praiseworthy thing about this season is how they handled the introduction of the first female Doctor. It's the most successful male to female transformation of a science fiction icon since Holly in Red Dwarf, and I think we can thank Chris Chibnall for that. Steven Moffat's a great writer but I'm fairly sure he would've messed it up, as there's no way he could've resisted trying to be clever and making jokes, and he hadn't quite used them all up already in Curse of Fatal Death. Chibnall's approach was to throw in the occasional line of dialogue referencing it where appropriate but otherwise ignore the change entirely, and it worked I reckon. It took eight episodes before her sex actually became relevant to a story, giving her time to establish herself as being the Thirteenth Doctor instead of being the Doctor Who Has Women Problems Now Because She is a Women, without entirely ignoring the existence of sexism.

I admit, I had my issues with a female Doctor at first for purely nerdy canon reasons, but Steven Moffat's run addressed them all and honestly I was much more looking forward to Jodie Whittaker taking on the role than some of the other names that had been floating around. And she did a great job with what she was given I reckon, immediately bringing back a lot of the joy and warmth the Doctor had been slowly recovering during Capaldi's run. It's strange and interesting to see an incarnation of the Doctor who actually takes the time to care about how people feel, if a little awkward that it had to coincide with her being the first female Doctor. Well, maybe not so much actually when Graham's right there representing emotionally intelligent blokes.

Plus I liked that the companions aren't anything special, except to each other (and the audience). They're a proper team of (almost) equals, but none of them are the most important person in time and space, or a puzzle that needs solving. They have good accents though. Plus I couldn't help but notice the Doctor had a black guy with a disability, a Muslim police officer of Pakistani descent, and a grandfather on her team, even if Yaz was more the traditional hot 20-something female companion than a cop, and Ryan's dyspraxia was just something he mentioned occasionally before being entirely unhindered by it. They also had the first blind actress to ever appear on the show as a guest star, who did an unsurprisingly convincing job of playing a blind woman.

Some people have been... cynical about the extra diversity behind and in front of the camera, but it seems to me it was one of the season's saving graces, especially when it came to the historical episodes. The season dealt with subjects UK television typically hasn't been interested in, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the partition of India, and it did it respectfully without inadvertently making an ass out of itself. It seems that getting writers with an interest in the subject, experiences to draw from and a sensitivity to the issues paid off! I'm not saying Chris Chibnall or Malorie Blackman should be banned from writing an episode set in... I dunno, the Three Kingdoms period of China, but when TV series has been running for 56 years you've got to feed it some fresh perspectives. That said, now they've established their new style they should really bring back people like Rachel Talalay and Jamie Mathieson to add to the mix, as they've knocked it out of the park in seasons past.


CONCLUSION


Well, it turns out that I was right. I've gone back through and checked every episode this season, taking notes on the way characters have been used, and these numbers paint a pretty clear picture: the episode title text HAS been getting smaller over time just like I thought! At this rate episode titles may shrink to the point of disappearing altogether by the time Chris Chibnall's through with the series.

I was going to show a ratings chart as well, but just imagine a line that starts very high and then drops down to somewhere pretty average and that's basically what it'd look like. Series 11 definitely got healthier numbers than the last couple of seasons, but the way the viewing figures steadily fell is not normal for Doctor Who. You'd expect a sharp drop near the start as a lot of people would've checked out the first episode just to see what the new Doctor was like, but it seems like a decent percentage of people weren't getting what they wanted out of the series and I know how they felt. The ones that aren't dicks I mean. A lot of people seem real butthurt that the Doctor's dealing with social issues all of a sudden, unlike last season where he hung out with a black lesbian and helped end capitalism, or the 50th Anniversary special where he negotiated for millions of refugees to live here. The Seventh Doctor got rid of Space Thatcher!

Anyway I figured I'd put the episodes in order of how much I liked them, and I even threw the 2019 New Year's special Resolution on the list as a bonus for you. They might not be putting it on the series 11 Blu-rays, but some of its music ended up on the soundtrack album so I've decided that it counts (even if it does mean that series 11 is no longer the first season without an appearance by a recurring villain in 40 years).

11.The Tsuranga Conundrum - Should've been called The Cute Gremlin on a Spaceship Problem. It's down here at the bottom of the list because it failed to make me care about its characters and their drama in the slightest, though the Doctor did make that FTL drive sound pretty cool.
10.Resolution - Hang on, why is the New Year's special so low on the list? It had an actual iconic Doctor Who villain in it! Yeah, but after a marathon of classic stories I'm all out of hype for Dalek stories, and after 10 episodes of series 11 I was very much over Ryan dealing with his issues with his dad as well. The shine had worn off the regenerated series in general for me by this point to be honest.
 9.Arachnids in the UK - The conversation in the kitchen with Not-Trump and Ryan's shadow puppet performance raised this up a little for me, but it's just an alright episode which barely goes anywhere with its giant spider plot.
 8.Demons of the Punjab - I didn't hate this story at all, in fact I appreciated the history lesson, but it loses points due to the irrelevant sci-fi plot and the fact that Team Tardis are stuck in someone else's story that they can't change.
 7.The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos - Gives Graham and Ryan a satisfying resolution to their character arcs this season... or so I thought until Resolution. Plus there were explosions and I always like them.
 6.Rosa - A worthy episode that could've gone very wrong and didn't. It manages to make 50s Alabama feel terrifying and the 'put right what could go wrong' plot is pretty unusual for Doctor Who. I couldn't shake the feeling that they'd exaggerated the racists though, which isn't what you want in a story showing how bad it really was back then.
 5.The Witchfinders - A great guest appearance by Alan Cumming elevates this a little, but even when he wasn't on screen I found it to be pretty watchable. Plus Graham got a hat.
 4.The Ghost Monument - Features an action packed intro, likeable guest characters, evil telepathic rags and the most moving reunion between a woman and her phone box in television history. That 'timeless child' clue hasn't gone anywhere yet though.
 3.It Takes You Away - This could've been higher but it loses points due to the disconnected detour in the middle and the unconvincing frog puppet with a beloved dead character's voice. Plus "I'll stay with you forever, oh wait I can't" is a rubbish way to finish an episode.
 2.The Woman Who Fell to Earth - It's not all that great, but it did a good job of introducing all the new companions, the new Doctor, the new sonic, and a dude throwing his salad at an alien in an alleyway. Plus it helped that it's the first story and everything about the Chibnall era was shiny and new to me when I watched it. They need to hurry up and rescue the dude's sister already though.
 1.Kerblam! - It's so old school Doctor Who that it has even has purple-tinted skies. The ending had... problems (murderous computer let off the hook, terrorist wins and earns people the opportunity to have pointless soul-crushing jobs), mostly because the implications were glossed over, but it was fun getting there.

It's a pretty meaningless list though this time, because the episodes were all various shades of 'alright' for me. I didn't entirely love Kerblam! and I've got no huge problems with Tsuranga Conundrum. Plus the order they've ended up in really hurts the argument I wanted to make about the Chibnall stories being the weaker ones, seeing as his stories are at 11, 10, 9, 7, 6, 4, and 2, and it doesn't make the historicals seem all that impressive either.

I think people expected the Chibnall era to be fairly watchable but this may actually be a contender for the most consistently okay season of Doctor Who ever! Previous seasons have tormented me by mixing smart dialogue and engaging stories with painfully dumb fairy tale sci-fi, leaving me unsure if I loved them or despised them (seriously, moon egg, wtf?), but this was just comfortable for the most part. Or maybe 'frustrating' would be a better word, as the lack of substance and flair has left the episodes smaller on the inside, and for a series that can go anywhere in space and time they seemed reluctant to take their ideas very far.

With its high production values, down to earth style and focus on characters suffering from grief over clever twisty plots Doctor Who has gone for a wider appeal and some respectability this year, taking a couple of steps closer to becoming prestige television. But the word 'prestige' always makes me think of that movie where the term referred to the final part of a magic trick, the third act where you get the surprising and satisfying pay off that gets the audience applauding. The season has a lot going for it, but Chris Chibnall isn't great with endings.


That's the last review of Ray Hardgrit's Sci-Fi Adventures season 3! Check back in April for brand new episode reviews of old television from the 90s, guaranteed to be 100% Doctor Who free.

But if you've got any opinions about Doctor Who's 11th series you can write them below right now!

9 comments:

  1. I would love to see the Doctor in Three Kingdoms China, but I fear it would end up a bit like "The Blind Banker" in Sherlock and be a bit embarrassing.

    I can't argue much with what you've written here; I wanted to like this series more than I did, but I didn't dislike it, so I'm left with a vague, shruggy, 7-out-of-10 opinion of it. It always looked amazing -- except for "Kerblam!" which looked like a lost Tennant-era episode -- and it sounded great. Some of the writing was excellent.

    My favourite episode was probably The One With the Frog. It had some good scifi ideas, a fun, weird feel, with a nice, subtle approach to the menace, and I didn't even mind the psychic frog at the end. It fit in well with the weird tone, I thought. I also thought "The Witchfinders" was great, and I liked "Rosa" and "The Ghost Monument" a lot too.

    I do feel that the Doctor herself got a bit lost this series; she was oddly passive, which I put down to post-regeneration confusion in the first episode, but it carried on throughout. She felt more like a scarred veteran of the Time War here than she did when she was Ecclestone! I think it's a writing problem -- they seem to be approaching it less as a programme about the Doctor, and more as a programme in which the Doctor sometimes appears -- and I hope they balance it a bit better next time, because I think Whittaker is good in the role and hasn't had much of a chance to show it yet.

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    1. There's two types of Doctor Who fans right now: people yelling that Chris Chibnall has ruined Doctor Who forever, and people yelling for him to give Yaz (and the Doctor) more to do, and I hope he hasn't let the first group put him off listening to the second group.

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  2. how does this one always struggle so much when there's four characters?

    My guess is, other shows can manage their large cast of characters because they're free to focus on a few at a time.

    I think Doctor Who's problem is that there's nothing else for the characters to do. If we don't see Delenn, G'Kar, and Talia on today's episode of Babylon 5, there's no need to explain it or point it out. We just assume they're doing their own things off-camera. On DW, the cast has nothing to do except participate in the adventure. If they're not participating, then the show feels the need to explain it, like Nyssa sleeping through a whole serial.

    Also, maybe trying to cram a new Doctor and several companions and their story arcs into your unusually short series wasn't the best idea.

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    1. Those are both good points, but I think the real answer has to be that Yaz is secretly the Rani and they're deliberately keeping her low key so that we don't suspect or even notice her.

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  3. new episode reviews of old television from the 90s

    I'll look forward to your in-depth review of Super Force!

    Or maybe Babylon 5 or some other obscure show.

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    1. I checked the history on the Wiki page and it claims it was created in 2006, so you couldn't possibly have written it all just to troll me, but I can't think of any other explanation for how this series has apparently been around for 20 years without me ever hearing about it. Surely it would've ended up on a half-dozen "Top 20 Obscure 90s Genre Shows That Seem Like a Parody Invented for a Sitcom Joke But Actually Ran Two Seasons" listicles by now, usually somewhere between Night Man and Cleopatra 2525.

      "During Season Two, Zach added limited psychic powers to his crime-fighting repertoire, the result of his near-death experience in the final episode of Season One." Man, I almost wish I WAS writing about this series now. Almost.

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    2. I meant 30 years, obviously... bloody passage of time.

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    3. "30 years ago" translates into "the mid 70s" in my head.

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