What’s The Show? – Doctor Who, Series 11. The Series 11 starring Jodie Whittaker, not Jon Pertwee, to be clear.
What’s It All About, JG? – Well I’m not going to explain the concept of a time-traveller in a police box from another world having adventures, because come on. Instead, let’s talk about the most recent season, which is mostly about controversy, it seems. Controversy over the social and political content, controversy over the choice of showrunner, controversy over the Doctor being a woman… there was plenty to discuss, and regardless of where one falls on these issues one thing is sure – people have been talking about Doctor Who in a way that’s basically unparalleled since the big media blitz in 2005 when the show returned from the Wilderness Years. If the end result of all these changes was to garner more publicity for the show well – job done. Significantly, despite all the many questions raised by fans and more casual viewers, and despite the vast differences of opinion on almost every other topic, one thing seems to unite just about everyone when they talk about this season – Jodie Whittaker’s great.
And she is! Genuinely brilliant, in fact. It’s often frustrating that the writing doesn’t quite trust her to just get the hell on with it sometimes, but she is, from her first moment, simply the Doctor. Not “the first female Doctor”. Not “oh right, wasn’t she in Broadchurch or something?” Just the Doctor. As ever with a first season and a new lead, if they had to get one thing right they had to get the Doctor right, and in absolutely every regard they did. Our Jodie fizzes with energy – a vast contrast to Capaldi’s stentorian, patriarchal version of the character (my favourite Doctor of the new series, I must admit) as well she should be, but just as great all the same. She’s a triumph.
Why Did You Give It A Go? – I’ve watched all of it. Yes, all of it, from 1963 until 2019, and when I can’t watch I’ve listened – not only to the missing episodes which only exist as soundtracks, but I also co-host a podcast (available on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts etc etc) on the Big FinishDoctor Who audios of which there are now several hundred. I’ve not heard every one of them, though. Suffice to say though- big fan.
Is It Any Good? Variably. It’s an extremely inconsistent season, and often very frustrating. As mentioned, Our Jodie is simply fabulous, an absolutely terrific Doctor. But the writing often feels… timid around her, and it takes until the back half of the season for her to actually come into focus. That’s a bit worrying, because the front half of the season is all written by one person, Chris Chibnall, the new show-runner, and his episodes are without fail the weakest of the season. There’s some good ideas in there – Chibnall is definitely better at ideas or concepts than actual writing – but most of them are wasted or underdeveloped. The back half of the season gains some real momentum and the run of episodes from “The Demons of The Punjab” through to “It Takes You Away” is (the abysmal “Ker-blam!” aside, and it’s abysmal because of it’s politics – the episode is solid) an absolute knock-out. Indeed, “It Takes You Away” is a straight-up classic of the season, blending real emotional content, Scandi-horror, traditional Doctor Who trappings and genuine weirdness to blistering effect. “Demons Of The Punjab” deserves a special call-out as well, being arguably the most sophisticated and emotionally complex episode of the season, and of course it would be impossible not to mention Alan Cumming’s perfectly-pitched ludicrousness as James VI in “The Witchfinders”. All those top-flight episodes make the early failings that much more frustrating though, because though there’s clearly a lot of talent involved in the early going, most of the actual episodes are bland. “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is… Ok as as introduction (not as good as “Eleventh Hour”, better than “Deep Breath”) but the problem is the other early episodes struggle to even reach that level. The exception is “Rosa” – tellingly co-written – which struggles for real relevance and often even finds it, only to be led down by a weak-to-non-existent villain and little reason for its existence at all, beyond “let’s talk about this thing I want to talk about”. The season ends disappointingly as well with “The Battle Of Ranskoor av Kolos” (no battles featured!) which, once again, contains some extremely compelling ideas that just aren’t developed enough, though it does have its moments. The New Year’s special – “Resolution” – is a noticeably stronger season ender and though the usual “it’s the festive period so we don’t need to stretch ourselves too far” vibe is in full swing, it’s a least a solid action-adventure piece which finally allows Jodie Whittaker to embrace that side of the character (she is, obviously, great at it, with a Chibnall script that at last allows her to just get on with it already). It’s no stone-cold classic, but at least points to Chibnall having maybe learned from earlier mistakes and gives a cautious optimism about the future that would not be there had you only watched the first half of the season.
How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of them. Shock!
Would You Recommend It? That’s a difficult one. As far as Doctor Who is concerned, for me it’s a lifelong love and I’d be reticent to ever say “no”. And indeed there’s plenty of reasons to watch. The supporting cast deserve a proper shout-out here, especially Mandip Gill as the criminally-underused Yasmin, and an absolutely revelatory turn from Bradley Walsh as Graham. Honestly, who knew he had it in him? Yet in many ways he’s the emotional core of the show, and the heartbreak of “It Takes You Away” simply wouldn’t work if he wasn’t so great – but he absolutely is. The final companion, Tosin Cole as Ryan, is probably the weakest of the three co-stars, but he’s still fine. The attempt to do something different with him – having a character suffer from a disability, dyspraxia – is a nice idea, though it doesn’t really work and it’s more “points for trying” rather than “outright success”. If the answer to “would you recommend it” is to be yes, then it’s for the back half of the season, where character, performance and concept all lock together and produce some compelling, worthwhile television. In the end, the much-hyped and discussed “political” or “political correctness” material makes little difference – Doctor Who has always been progressive and political and most of the people who have complained about it either aren’t fans of the show or have no apparent working knowledge of it. The fact that things very much get better as the season wears on bodes, one hopes, well for the future and I’m optimistic that in time this season will be looked back on as “transitional” – not that great in its own right but leading us down the path to greatness in the future. Time will tell. It always does.
Scores On The Doors? 6.5/10