Written by Ryan Morris
Doctor Who underwent its most notable change yet in 2018 as Jodie Whittaker became the Doctor. What was apparent almost immediately was that Jodie Whittaker became the Doctor, making the role her own instantly and effortlessly. Like a bolt from the blue (box), Whittaker’s charm and energy revitalised a show that many would argue needed revitalising – I’m not sure I join that crowd personally, but I appreciated Whittaker’s entry and the show’s change in format nonetheless. But, as fans of this show know quite firmly, a good Doctor is only one component of a good Doctor Who, and never before has this been so apparent than in Series 11.
Of course, Whittaker wasn’t the only big change to Doctor Who this year: we also gained a new showrunner. Chris Chibnall, of Torchwood and Broadchurch fame, took over the writers’ reins after Steven Moffat stepped down following Series 10. It was hard not to feel a slight degree of uncertainty when Chibnall’s name was announced, most notably because his former Doctor Who track record was worryingly uneven, to say the least. Where Moffat had “The Empty Child”, “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “Blink” and “Silence in the Library” under his belt before he joined – all the most acclaimed stories of their respective seasons, bear in mind – Chibnall was coming off a run of episodes like “42”, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Power of Three”. It didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, but due to the strengths of his other projects, I was willing to give Chibnall the benefit of the doubt.
Alas, maybe my worries weren’t so misguided after all. Doctor Who’s eleventh series was a frustrating one for a number of reasons, but the uneven nature of its episodes is perhaps the one that strikes me the most. Across the 10 episode run – the shortest for any series of this iteration of the show – Chibnall is listed as a writer on six of them, which would lead you to expect a kind of synergy across the series. We were made aware well before the new run started that a long-term story arc was out of the question this year, a perfectly welcome alteration, but it has inadvertently resulted in a series of television that could, bar a few episodes, be watched in any order and fail to develop as it moves forward.
We’ll begin both at the end and the start. Series 11’s finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, was a style over substance extravaganza that tied directly back into the series premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. In both episodes, Whittaker’s Doctor makes it very clear that she will not kill the tooth-faced baddie at the helm of the wrong goings-on, and yet her approach to this in the finale doesn’t feel all that different from her approach in the premiere. If you played these episodes back to back, it would be hard to tell a full series had passed in between. Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor demonstrates in both episodes that she helps people not because it’s expected of her or because she’s being asked, but because it’s the right thing to do. These are noble foundations on which to build her character, and Whittaker nails the emotion to it beautifully, but it’s tough to feel as if they’re more than that right now. Foundations. That’s perfectly fine for a series premiere, but less so for a finale.
Increasing the companion roster to three was also a frustrating move, as poor Yaz (played with gusto and heart by Mandip Gill) frequently felt sidelined in favour of the grandfather/grandson bond of Graham and Ryan (Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole, respectively). Graham and Ryan’s relationship has been a highlight of the series, a predictable yet undeniably affecting story of two men brought together by a woman they lost (wife and grandmother Grace, we still miss you). While their arc again seemed to disappear in the middle chunk of the series, it managed to resolve nicely, with the last two episodes, in particular, shining a light on them at first individually in the penultimate episode and then collectively come the finale. There wasn’t a viewer in the country who didn’t know where their emotional journey was headed, but that didn’t make it any less touching, mostly due to how strong Walsh has been this series. A performance of heart and humour, watching him has been a delight.
And this leaves us with Yaz. Poor, under-utilised Yaz. Besides series highlight “Demons of the Punjab”, Yaz really wasn’t given all that much to do. While I, and I think everyone watching the show, appreciated the decision not to connect Yaz and Ryan romantically, it was hard not to feel as if Yaz didn’t quite click with the rest of the TARDIS Team this year. She remains easily watchable – again, Gill plays the role very well – but pinpointing a specific area of her personality or purpose within any given story is a difficult task. I could probably count a good four or five episodes this series in which Yaz doesn’t really contribute a whole lot, as Chibnall expanded the character roster but never really served up the stories to justify such a decision.
Which brings us to the episodes themselves. While I’m not sure anything here ranks with the show’s very worst offerings, there’s still an annoyingly high number of instalments that just didn’t register in ways we would’ve wanted them to. “The Ghost Monument” was a fun diversion but didn’t have the energy to sustain itself, “Arachnids in the U.K.” was an engaging little mystery ultimately riddled with so many plot holes and flat characters that it will unquestionably flatline on a revisit, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” served up a frantic first half and capped it off with a laughably misjudged alien monster and a scattershot resolution, while series low point “The Witchfinders” never coalesced its ideas into anything engaging, meaningful or even entertaining. There’s a notable lack of consequence to all of these episodes, with far too many stories this series landing on a moment that revealed the terrifying threat to be little more than misunderstood or barely even a threat at all. That’s fine on occasion – the entirely monster-less “Listen” is my favourite episode of the show, after all – but building a full series on this kind of narrative risks straying too far away from what makes Doctor Who so enjoyable.
At the risk of sounding too negative, Series 11 still served up some good, occasionally great stuff. “Kerblam!” was messy and scattershot but so committed to its cause it was impossible not to get swept up in, “Rosa” tackled a delicate true story with deep emotion and real suspense, and “Demons of the Punjab” turned the series’ reliance on misunderstood monsters into something wholly unique and genuinely moving. “It Takes You Away”, the series’ strongest episode by a wide margin, twisted a conventional cabin in the woods story into something brilliantly bizarre. An inter-dimensional saga of grief and loss tied together by a void between universes and television’s most heartbreaking frog. It was perhaps the only episode this series that felt surprising, even risky. Doctor Who took a huge gamble with its first female Doctor, and it’s a shame most of her scripts couldn’t quite reflect that.
Waiting for this series of Doctor Who felt agonising, and was it worth the wait? I’m not sure right now. A trio of great episodes certainly help matters – “Rosa”, “Demons of the Punjab” and “It Takes You Away” are stories I can’t wait to dive back into again – but the swarm of middling instalments surrounding them makes a revisit to the series seem off-putting. Whittaker herself has been a joy to watch, she’s captured the spirit of the show impeccably, but I still feel as if I’m waiting for stories that allow her to fully flex her acting muscles. Perhaps when Doctor Who returns in early 2020, Chibnall will be of a renewed confidence and a willingness to give his core cast a little bit more to do. This cast and these have characters have all the potential in the world – in the universe, even – and all we can do is hope that when Doctor Who comes back, it’s ready to utilise that.