❉ Robert Fairclough takes stock of a major year of change for Doctor Who.
From my perspective here at the back end of 2018, it’s hard to tell where Doctor Who is. If you read social media, the series is teetering on the brink of collapse in a morass of emaciated storylines, lack of drama, perfunctory characterisation and bleeding heart populism.
Looking at the Christmas editions of the TV listings magazines, though, and you’ll see that Doctor Who is a cover feature on nearly all of them, strongly suggesting that, outside fandom – or rather, outside an online minority of grumpy, middle aged, mostly male hardcore fans – the show has made a positive impact on the viewing public. The show won Best Returning Drama at the I Talk Telly awards, where Yazmin Khan actress Mandip Gill also secured the award for Best Newcomer. (That’s good going, considering Yaz really only made an impact in Demons of the Punjab.)
The morning after transmission of the last episode, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, BBC local radio in East Anglia canvassed what turned out to be mixed opinions from the public on Jodie Whitakker’s first series; consequently, the announcer considered that Doctor Who Series 11 hadn’t been “the runaway success the BBC had hoped for.” The week before that, the satirical website The Daily Mash had carried an amusing item on the “politically correct” content of Whittaker’s first series, which would apparently climax with her assassinating Margaret Thatcher before the palsied harridan – it says here – could get a grip on Britain in the 1980s. Instead of Daleks and Cybermen, the Doctor would then tackle the real enemy, capitalism (“obviously”).
I don’t think my view of the series has ever been as disorientated as it is right now. Maybe we’re just too close to what’s been a major year of change for Doctor Who – perhaps the most important year of change ever – to get a proper perspective on it. What I do have a clear perspective on, though, is that thin scripts (The Ghost Monument, Arachnids in the UK, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos) and sledgehammer subtle exposition and contrived situations (It Takes You Away and The Witchfinders) have hobbled a promising new direction.
‘Political correctness gone mad’
The change of gender wasn’t as issue for most viewers, with an average of two million added to the audience, but it has been seen as the summit of a “PC agenda”. This is cobblers: The dictionary definition of ‘politically correct’ translates as ‘adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving… ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology’, and Doctor Who has always cleaved to that principle; correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there was ever a story where Jon Pertwee and his UNIT fascist boot boys smashed up a gay bar. It can’t be a coincidence, though, that the Doctor has become a pacifist the first time the character’s regenerated into a woman. If you think about that, it’s arguably a bit sexist.
There’ve been TV fantasy heroines in the past who’ve been physically aggressive – Mrs Peel, Agent Scully, Buffy Summers, Jessica Jones – but who also had civilised values. In all cases, their violence was defensive. That was pretty much the case with the male Doctors, too; violence was always a last resort, and the moral conflicts around it were often some of the series’ highlights.
Removing this aspect of Doctor Who altogether really dilutes the drama. In tandem with the new tendency for the Doctor to spell out what’s going on for the hard of thinking – perhaps there was a BBC executive issuing directives in the writers’ room? – what we now have is ‘A Holiday in Space and Time’ rather than ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’. Throughout the ten episodes, even in the better stories, you never really felt that the Doctor and her friends were in any real danger. You can’t say that about Father’s Day (2005), The Sound of Drums (2007), The Pandorica Opens (2010) or Heaven Sent (2015), to name just four stories.
Before Series 11 started, showrunner Chris Chibnall stated that the story arc this year would be the developing dynamic between the Doctor and her new friends. The focus of the 2005 series was exactly the same; as Rose’s relationship with the Ninth Doctor and later Captain Jack developed, they learned from each other and changed as people. Generally speaking, the writing was so good, and the actors’ performances so detailed, that you could see that happening from story to story.
This time around, you didn’t feel as if you’ve been on such an emotionally involving journey. Despite what the dialogue might say, you don’t feel that the relationships between the leads have significantly altered since the beginning of the series. This theme has been far more perfunctory than in it was in 2005 (or even a year ago with the Doctor/Bill Potts/Nardole dynamic, which offered plenty of dramatic light and shade). In light of this underwriting, you can certainly read the comments by ‘Doctor’s friend’ actors Tozin Cole (Ryan) and Mandip Gill (Yaz) in the Radio Times, that they can go out and still not be recognised, in two ways…
So if the overall tone of the series was mediocre, what did I like? Sorry, but not the new TARDIS control room, which just doesn’t seem like the kind of space where the Doctor would ever want to live (and once you’ve heard the cantilevered crystal formations above the TARDIS console described as ‘nodding willies’, you can’t take that set seriously).
The woman herself? She’s agreeable enough. In interviews throughout the year, and particularly on the Children in Need feature In November where she met a young disabled fan, Jodie has been consistently funny, smart, intelligent and charming, showing rather more personality than her Doctor. There’s some truth in the assertion – if you look back from now over the past thirteen years of 21st century Doctor Who – that what the BBC want from the character is a wacky, thirtysomething geek (i.e. David Tennant). So far, that’s pretty much what Jodie’s given us. We’ll see.
All things considered, my favourite story was Kerblam! It was the only script that really had fifty minutes’ worth of story, some unexpected narrative turns and kept you guessing until the end. Lee Mack’s hilarious line as Kerblam! employee Dan Cooper, in reference to one of the Teamster robots – “He used to be a pole dancer until his hips gave out” – was one of the few, inventive pieces of character dialogue this year that didn’t just serve the plot.
Not far below Kerblam! for me are Rosa and Demons of the Punjab. Essentially both the same story, they’re commendable because they didn’t shy away from the ugliness in 20th century world events, something both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat tended to do. If this triggers an interest in the young audience to learn more about history, then all the better. I’m sure that Sydney Newman, Doctor Who’s formative godfather, would have been delighted.
So there you have it. Bluntly, this series has been the slightest of the eleven Doctor Who seasons we’ve had since 2005, which is a shame as the change in the title character has been so momentous. I’ll watch the New Year’s special, and I’ll watch Series 11 again when the Blu-rays materialise in January, but – honestly – I do wonder if I would if this wasn’t Doctor Who.
See you in 2019…
❉ ‘Doctor Who Series 11’ available for pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon and HMV. All the episodes from Series 11 and selected VAM is available to buy now on digital download from iTunes, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Virgin Media, BT TV Store and Sky.
❉ BBC iPlayer Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Composer Segun Akinola’s soundtrack for Doctor Who Series 11 is to be released on 11th January 2019 on CD and as a digital download. Pre-order here: http://radi.al/DoctorWhoSeries11
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.