Doctor Who (series 11)

[4 stars]

Beyond the series bringing us back to the sciencey end of the spectrum, it sets a new milestone with the first female Doctor in Jodie Whittaker (Venus, St. Trinian’s). Amusingly, and fittingly, that the Doctor is a woman really has no appreciable impact, at least no more than any new Doctor would. Whittaker has a good sense of the character historically and in energy. She is fun to watch, even if the series is slow to reveal her own particularly sensibilities and approach. In fact, a lot of the season is spent dealing instead with the new companions. With their three, overlapping stories, we lost time focused on the Doctor herself till well into the sequence.

Before the series kick-off, I rewatched the bittersweet finale of series 10 and Capaldi. It is a brilliant end to the cycle and Moffat’s vision. I didn’t always like his choices, but he pulled it together for his final go-round before Chibnall (The Great Train Robbery, Broadchurch, Torchwood) stepped in. With his arrival there has been a definite shift in sensibility. The show has returned to the darker and more of a science fiction feel. I, personally, prefer that mode of Doctor Who. It was always science-fantasy, but it was never really just fantasy. Moffat, by his own admission, disagreed with that and always pushed for the pure fantasy end of the spectrum. Forgetting his struggles with building seasonal arcs, it was that aspect of the last several years that tended to drive me bonkers.

As a whole, the series is fast paced and more political than in the past. There is much social commentary, but also lots of high adventure and humor. The individual episodes feel somewhat rushed and breathless, but definitely entertaining. I expect I’ll pick up more on rewatching some of them.  And there is a complete arc holding it all together, which builds on the efforts the new Who has had in play since it rebooted in 2005.  For Chibnall first season, it isn’t a bad indication of things to come and things to build on. My hope is that he’ll learn how to let the show breathe a bit more. The 10 episodes went by extremely quickly. The focus on the companions more than the Doctor herself also needs to shift a little so we understand and root for the Doctor more. She’s a bit mercurial during this introductory series; hard to pin down and sympathize with.

And now, as has been my tradition, an ep by ep set of responses, done as they were aired, to help keep me honest and to see how the series built.

Episode by Episode (with some spoilers)

The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Jodie Whittaker comes in with all the bravado and confidence you could have hoped for. The switch in gender is certainly commented upon, but hardly an issue. Who drives forward business-as-usual, as it should. This opener is an odd episode in that it breaks from tradition for the opening and it feels less like the Doctor finding his new crew than it does just an interesting story with that aspect eventually taking over. It may also be indicative of what’s to come as this opening show’s ending, much like its Christmas tale lead-in, is a cliff-hanger rather than a resolution. Of course, Twice Upon a Time left a lot of threads to clean up, so I’m glad Chibnall didn’t try to resolve them all in a rushed initial episode.

The Ghost Monument
Really, this is part 2 of the series opening. And it is a good one. Whittaker is really coming into her own and her posse is coming together. The delightful addition of Susan Lynch (Killing Eve) and Shaun Dooley (Misfits) to carry the storyline was great fun. Now that stuff is established, I’m ready for things to start happening (though a clear series arc has begun to form) from a Who point of view. Up till now, things are occurring, but are there as backdrop for the Doctor to get her feet under her. That’s fine, but I’m ready now so, allons-y!

Rosa
A powerful and powerfully told story that resonated nicely with today. Though clearly with an agenda, it wasn’t overly preachy and with some solid impact. On a Doctor level, however, I’m ready to start to get to know the Whittaker Doctor better. She’s quick witted, but unlike previous versions, we aren’t really getting a sense of her yet, only a delightful patter and set of wins. I want to see what’s beneath the surface, not just hear about it. Still very much enjoying the season, but it’s time to get real with it since there are only 7 left to go.

Arachnids in the UK
This episode riffs on a number of classic and reboot Who. From the classic side we have the coal mine refuse causing havoc with the bug life (remember those maggots?). And from the new Who we have the turning point for the companions, who have to shift from being pulled into the circle of the Doctor to making a choice to be there. What we don’t have yet is enough of the Doctor herself. She’s active and entertaining, and clearly we’re leading to something, but I’m a bit weary of the “I’m still figuring myself out” thing that is continuing. Jump in and commit already! As a story, this one made my skin crawl nicely and did expose some emotional cores of the characters. It also got to take some very unveiled swipes at the US with Chris Noth as a reflected stand-in for Trump. I still really enjoy the sensibility of this new season, but I want to get to the meat now. I can feel it building, but not with the same sense of tension and fun that Davies managed in his first sequence of the reboot. I may yet revisit that statement when it is all said and done, but this is purposefully a running log, not a recap. I want to track how it works as it unfolds. And, so far, it is working ep to ep, but not quite coming together for me as a series.

The Tsuranga Conundrum
In some ways, this is the weakest of the series so far, despite being another Chibnall episode. It has a lot of action and some nice emotional lines for the side characters, but the monster in play isn’t realistic (and folks seem to know far too little about it despite having more than enough data to have gotten to the solution before the Doctor). Also, again, we’re not seeing a lot about the Doctor herself. It all feels very surfacey so far. Well executed. Entertaining. Just not feeling like a full meal yet. I expect that the main arc will reassert starting with the next episode. This was a hard left for the series as a whole with a new show runner, a new (and newly gendered) Doctor and crew. It needs some time to get its feet. I’m not disappointed, just not quite sated yet.

Demons of the Punjab
What has become clear this series is that the focus is very much on the companions, even more so than the Doctor. However, with this episode we’re starting to get a little more of who she is. We’ve yet to have a story the focuses explicitly on her and we’ve yet to see the main arc come back, after two early hints, but things are coming together. Another aspect that is coming clear is that Chibnall is not afraid to reflect the current world in politics or comment on what is going on. Who has always had social commentary, but Chibnall has stepped it up a notch and made it a little more pointed. Tackling Partition was certainly brave…taking it on in such a personal way was inspired.

Keblam!
A clever and fun respite as the trajectory of the series bends toward finale. It is pretty much a standalone (or appears so), but with the focus, finally, mostly on the Doctor. Ultimately enjoyable, even though I got somewhat ahead of it (in the hope that they were going to go the interesting way). It was surprisingly devoid of strong emotion, however, even with a couple of really painful moments. It tried to make up for that with the show close and the reaction of main bad guy, but still was surprising. Curious to see where the last three eps. take us.

The Witchfinders
This season continues to beat the political drum loudly, and I’m all for it as Chibnall is using history to reflect on current issues. In this case, it is more subtle than Rosa was earlier in the run. The episode itself interesting and fun, if a little forced in the clues and resolution (which is about as hand-wavy as you can get). But we are starting to see more about this Doctor and that is welcome. This had a very stand-alone feel to it, so I’m guessing this is the breath before the wind up to a finale (2 eps left, plus the New Year’s show which replaces the traditional xmas day episode).  At least I’m hoping so. There was clearly an arc being built at the top of the series, but we’ve not seen it built on much.

It Takes You Away
Some nice emotional work in this episode. And some additions to the Who canon as well. This is a fast-paced tale with some nice twists, and a few shortcuts. It isn’t brilliant Who, but it is inventive and full of some great asides by several of the characters. It also has begun to bend the arc back to the beginning of this series, which is necessary given the proximity of the finale. It’s been a good ride getting here, but it isn’t feeling like a cohesive whole yet. There is lots of character work and some big milestones, but the shape is a little amorphous and Whittaker is still a little vague as a character, ceding focus to the companions a bit too much in my opinion. However, I still feel like it is headed somewhere, so willing to have faith. Even if I end up unfulfilled on that point, it has been a fun season and a fairly smooth transition of Doctors and show-runners.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
Wow, that was a fast season, but it definitely came full-circle, as expected. I’m not sure I felt as much a sense of completion as I’d have liked. The main arc was hard to hold onto and respond to since it didn’t get echoed quite enough to keep it fresh for me, even with the previous episode refreshing our memory of it, and Grace in particular. Still, a rich and complex story with a nice part for Mark Addy (Oasis, Game of Thrones) and button for the Tardis crew. I’d have liked something that felt like it came to more of a plateau, but it isn’t without a bit of bittersweet joy and an indication of new directions for the extended family in the blue box.

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