Season 11 of Doctor Who has delighted the majority of its viewers, although the show has not been a flawless run of episodes. The newly revamped sci-fi show has drawn high ratings and acclaim from critics and fans alike. From Alan Cumming’s outrageous King James I, to the destructive cuteness of the Pting, online discussions about the show have been praised many of the show’s newest adventures. In short, it seems that the show’s most drastic changes have been met with approval.
Since his appointment as show-runner in 2016, Chris Chibnall’s tenure has already been marked by a new theme tune, a new TARDIS interior and – most significantly of all – the first-ever female Doctor. Some quarters still disapprove of Jodie Whittaker’s casting, along with what has been deemed its “politically correct” ideology. It is true that Chibnall has made the show’s commentary on social issues a priority, since the show has repeatedly explored how sexism and racism affect its core cast of characters. However, the show had confirmed that Time Lords can change their gender years earlier, and Doctor Who has always been very socially conscious escapism.
Yet that isn’t to say that season 11 has been faultless. There has been plenty of things for Whovians to enjoy, such as the upgraded production value and the calibre of its new performers. Yet there are concerns that Doctor Who‘s new writing team has forgotten what routines and hallmarks made the show as successful as it was – to detrimental effect.
- This Page: Season 11’s Lack of Direction and Classic Episodes
- Page 2: The Thirteenth Doctor and the New Companions
Doctor Who Season 11 Was Consistent – But Didn’t Have Many Classic Episodes
Doctor Who’s greatest strengths are, undeniably, its adaptive premise and protagonist. As demonstrated by Jodie Whitaker’s incarnation, it’s clear that the Doctor can be a Time Lord of any gender, race and personality. Similarly, the fact that the TARDIS can go to any place or time within existence means that there are immense storytelling possibilities for every successive show-runner. In short, the show can reinvent itself every few years – and be markedly different from week to week as well.
In the space of two episodes, Doctor Who can shift from a bombastic space opera to a psychological horror, as it did with “Forest of the Dead” and “Midnight” during David Tennant’s tenure back in 2008. But whilst this variance of genres and approaches have contributed to Doctor Who’s longevity, it can make a singular series feel very uneven and inconsistent.
Thankfully, season 11 doesn’t fall victim to this age-old problem as much as it has done in the past. Sure, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” proves that Doctor Who can still produce weaker episodes, yet season 11 doesn’t have the kind of maligned instalments that fans will recoil from in years to come, as they do for “Love and Monsters” and “In the Forest of the Night.” But on the other hand, there were not that many instant classics either. Aside from “Rosa,” most of the episodes declined to take many narrative risks.
This is all the more noticeable when we consider that every modern Doctor has enjoyed multiple acclaimed stories within their first batch of episodes. For example, the Ninth Doctor’s “Dalek” is widely recognised as one of the show’s all-time best, especially for its treatments of Doctor Who’s most famous villains. Writer Steven Moffat also thrilled viewers with his “Empty Child” two-parter later in that season. Additionally, when Moffat took over as show-runner in 2010, “The Eleventh Hour” and Richard Curtis’s “Vincent and the Doctor” swiftly joined Doctor Who’s resplendent hall of fame. These two episodes are from Eleventh Doctor’s first series alone, which also contains those revered finale episodes: “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang.”
In the short time since its airing, it’s clear that “Rosa” will be a Doctor Who tale for the ages, but its doubtful that many of season 11’s other episodes will be as well. That isn’t to say that elements within “The Witchfinders” and “It Takes You Away” are not strong or endearing. But its hard to envision these episodes being mentioned in the same breath as other inaugural classics in the future.
Doctor Who Season 11’s Lack Of Arc Removed A Sense of Direction
Season 11 has foregrounded the universal themes of compassion and family, perhaps more than any other series of Doctor Who thus far. We can see this in many forms, from the bigger TARDIS team, to the Doctor’s poignant befriending of the previously hostile entity, the Solitract. But aside from this, Season 11 is notable because it has eschewed long-running arcs over its ten episodes.
Much of Doctor Who’s modern era has been segmented by season-specific stories and mysteries. What is the significance of Bad Wolf? Who is that mysterious, Mary Poppins-esque lady? And who or what will knock four times? From these questions, most Whovians can instantly identify which Doctor and season they pertain to. Each respective show-runner teased and developed these narrative threads across the Doctor’s adventures, until they were eventually resolved in the season finale. Narrative arcs like these are not limited to a pervading threat or mystery either. Doctor Who often features an arc for the Doctor and their companions as well, from Doctor number Ten realising how bad of an influence he can be, to Martha Jones struggling with her unrequited love for the titular Time Lord.
Admittedly, season 11 has charted the growing bond between Graham and Ryan in the wake of Grace’s death. Plus, it has teased more information about the Doctor’s family and the enigmatic Timeless Child. But outside this, the lack of overarching plots has really harmed the show as its unfolded.
Though there are occasionally references, Chris Chibnall has clearly sidestepped many meaningful links Doctor Who’s past to open it up to new and casual viewers. It’s an admirable approach, especially since Steven Moffat’s heavily interwoven series began to dissuade many fans from tuning in to watch. However, by removing episodic links from Season 11, the show has lost its thorough line. A central threat or puzzle gives the series a sense of purpose and instils a compulsive feeling in viewers. For example, viewers wondered what Harold Saxon’s significance was back in Season 3. As such, audiences tuned in to watch each instalment in order, and as soon as possible, to find out what happens. When the final plot was revealed, it rewarded viewers’ investment with escalated stakes for the characters, in an impactful adventure that felt earned.
Again, this is not to say that Series 11 has not had some stellar instalments. “Rosa” and “It Takes You Away” stand as evidence to the contrary. But with no recurring plot points, Season 11 lacks the immediacy – and that series-specific story – that once defined Doctor Who beforehand.
Doctor Who Season 11 Didn’t Fully Balance Its Companions
Overall, it seems that Doctor Who fans have embraced new companions Yaz, Ryan and Graham, but this season has struggled to give each member of the team the attention that they deserve. Bradley Walsh’s Graham and Tosin Cole’s Ryan are already popular with fans. Their respective struggles with grief and dyspraxia ensure that they are accessible and relatable presences aboard the TARDIS. But their quirks and histories remain mostly inaccessible or disjointed, because each episode is working hard to juggle their fellow travellers, the plot and the show’s action sequences. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” establishes the issue of Ryan’s dyspraxia, but outside of him learning to ride his bike, it has been referenced very little since that first episode.
Even when these designated character moments are attempted, it doesn’t always pay off. During “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” Ryan discusses his father issues with Mandip Gill’s Yaz, in a scene that oddly takes place during the central, escalating threat. Rather than serving as an emotive heart-to-heart, the episode’s pacing shudders to a halt because the moment feels unnatural and shoehorned in. And regrettably, Yaz suffers the most out of the new characters.
“Arachnids in the UK” and “Demons of the Punjab” are the first points at which audiences can glean a greater sense of Yaz’s personal life outside her police work. Yet these episodes occur around the series midpoint, well after her initial introduction. As a central character, there’s too much of a gap between her first appearance and these explorations of her life. Furthermore, after these episodes establish Yaz’s family situation, they have no bearing on what follows. As such, she continues to be the least fleshed-out member of the TARDIS crew. On another note, its strange that this is even occurring. Thanks to a change in the show’s format and runt-time, Doctor Who‘s writers have even more time to get to grips with their characters and stories, but they are clearly not doing so.
Doctor Who is no stranger to ensembles, since the First Doctor travelled with his granddaughter Susan and her teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. Even so, the newer series have shied away from bigger core casts, only maintaining two or three companions for several episodes at most. Now that the first series has established the group’s quirks and dynamics, Doctor Who’s writers may now be able to evolve and test this group of travellers more than they have already done so. Yet as it stands, the case of Ryan, Graham and Yaz might exemplify why the show rarely operates with a larger TARDIS team.
Jodie Whittaker Is A Great Doctor, She Hasn’t Had Great Stories (Yet)
Though Jodie Whitaker’s casting still provokes anger in some quarters, it’s safe to say that few (if any) of season 11’s failings are her fault. From the get-go, she has truly captured the fierce intelligence, the eccentricity and the empathy that defines the show’s lead character. Certainly, while she’s embodied the enduring core of this British icon, Whitaker’s Doctor has also opened the door for new storytelling possibilities. The way in which the Doctor was initially treated as a servant by King James I during “The Witchfinders” could hardly have occurred if the Doctor had retained a male form. Plus, the cheeky implication that the Doctor has been a woman before her twelve male iterations has added a new twist to a canon that’s almost fifty years old.
However, despite all of this, season 11 hasn’t served Whitaker’s Doctor as well as it should have. In the same way that her companions are unevenly handled, the Doctor is frequently left sidelined within her own stories. Because of this reduced focus, audiences have not had the same amount of time to become acquainted with every one of this particular Doctor’s quirks.
This is further emphasised by the fact that few episodes have attempted to directly interrogate the Doctor’s psyche through their stories. In previous years, ‘Dalek’ and ‘Heaven Sent’ tested what it was that drove the Doctor and made them the person they are, but there’s little of that on display in the Thirteenth Doctor’s inaugural series. Moreover, Chris Chibnall has avoided many references to the Doctor’s conflicted past, including the Time War. Though this conflict had become somewhat overused during the Twelfth Doctor’s run, the trauma that each incarnation carried undeniably lent the Doctor a sense of hard-earned experience, age and mystery. The Doctor should not be an angst-ridden alien, but by downplaying these fictional tragedies – and leaving her emotional state relatively untested – the character loses part of what made the Doctor’s many iconic forms so compelling in the first place.
Nevertheless, there is still plenty to enjoy as Doctor Who progresses. From its thoughtful treatise on humanity, to its quirky humour, Doctor Who still has a lot to offer to viewers of all demographics. And though there’s little to indicate how Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whitaker’s Doctor – whose return has been confirmed – will develop throughout the coming years, season 12 has a lot of potential to deliver it’s a compelling and thrilling exploration of time and space.