Dr Who – Not squandering an opportunity.

I’ve been pretty harsh on recent seasons of Dr Who for having over-plotted season arcs, a poor understanding of time travel, and a lack of conviction that just wore me down.1   This season could have just given us a female Doctor, told some bog standard, standalone Dr Who adventures and I would have been happy as a woodchuck.  Instead, they not only fixed almost all of my problems, but Dr Who feels like it has come back with a purpose – it has things to say and it’s not afraid to say them.

Sensibly it starts with ripples and not waves.  The Doctor arrives, makes her own sonic, accumulates a group of companions, and then immediately fails to protect one of them.  We’ve seen all of these things before,2 but each of them is important in the construction of the season.  Obviously firing traditional gender roles in a forge is a statement, though one would think in 2018 not a bold one, but it also makes a break with her immediate predecessor; she builds and plans, rather than posing and looking cool, the ultimate substance over style.

More important however, is the Doctor’s relationship with her companions.  Completely bypassing the irritating sublimated romantic relationship, or riffs on Pygmalion, the Doctor builds a Scooby gang with a cop, her friend, and his step father.  The arc of the season is then anchored not in plot but emotions, with each of the Doctors companions growing as people from their proximity to her.  Indeed, for most of the season, it is actually the relationship between the male companions, built off of the tragedy of the pilot that dominates the show.

However I missed these things in the first episode.  It wasn’t until Rosa that this season nailed its colours to the mast.3  Given the finesse shown in recent seasons, I really expected the worst out of Doctor visits historic civil rights event – at best some maudlin triumphalism about how we are better, at worst, having a white hero start the civil rights movement.  Instead we got the Doctor squaring off with a human time traveler who wants to disrupt Rosa on the bus to tip history.  The event is given its due, and the gang is just there to keep the wheels on.  The key to the episode however is that at the end when he’s defeated, the mask slips and we find that it is about race, and even in the future, there will be racists,and they will need to be put in their place.

Much of the rest of the season wrestles with the present.  We have Arachnids in the UK, a fun romp with Giant Spiders about an evil property developer with political aspirations ruining an estate with waste, Kerblam, a look at working conditions in an intergalactic online retailer, and The Witchfinder, another entry into the perennial witch trials as a metaphor for societal purges.  Even the New Years special, in between making a certain foe scary again, has time for a hilarious swipe at Brexit.  None of it is subtle, but all of them are good stories that are enhanced by the metaphor, rather than being dragged down by it.

The peak of the season however is Demons of the Punjab.  Here everything that is great about this season coalesces: the story is grounded in a personal relationship between Yaz (our copper) and her Grandmother, and it fuses it to a historical incident (the Partition of India) that is unquestionably relevant to England today.  I was genuinely moved by this episode, as it took something that sounds magical – the first woman married in Pakistan, and shows how politics made the reality anything but.  Even the villains of the episode are more tragic than evil, and rather than relying on a lazy contrivance like fixed points to hamstring the protagonists, we instead have an event so connected to a companion that to change it would change them.

Of course it’s not all social commentary, though even that matters.  The most enjoyable episode of the season was The Tsuranga Conundrum, a story about an adorable alien space monster menacing a hospital ship.4  In contrast, It takes you away was the climax of Ryan and Graham’s emotional journey, a moody story of hidden spaces and parental choices.

None of this would work without a strong performance in the central role.  Jodie Whittaker is very identifiably the Doctor, with a driving need to interfere and help people, and a strong sense of justice.  However the melancholy that has been the hall mark of modern Dr Who, even Matt Smith’s, seems to have been completely excised, without making the Doctor any less of a threat.  Instead we have an enthusiastic awkwardness coupled to a sense of optimistic enthusiasm.  Her companions are equally good, with Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh carrying the emotional weight of the season, and Mandip Gil anchoring the best episode.

There were of course, still minor teething troubles.  With the penultimate episode of the season being the end of the emotional arc, we would typically expect the finale to be a denouement or a light romp.  Instead the show felt the need to pay off the plot of the first episode, leaving the final episode feeling unfulfilling and unnecessary.  Indeed, the first and last episode of the seasons both struggled a bit tonally, and the primary antagonist was a big whiff.  Finally, while the start of the New Years special was great, the ending was conventional, and seemed out of character with the way the Doctor had dealt with problems through the rest of the season.

I’m really impressed that Chris Chibnall took the opportunity to make Dr Who not just a better show, but an important one.  The last time I can remember an SF show making this shift was Battlestar Galactica’s New Caprica arc, where a mainstream, post 9/11 show took a serious look at what would drive it’s heroes into insurgency and suicide bombing. While Battlestar never really knew what to do with itself afterwards, I am extremely confident that Dr Who will build upon it. Season 11 might not be the best season of New Who, but it might be the most essential.

  1.  Hugo awards, 2018.
  2. Well the making of the sonic on screen is new, but Peter Capaldi clearly made sonic glasses (which was terrible).
  3. Episode 3.
  4. Weirdly, this episode was a lightning rod for a throwaway gag about a pregnant man, in a classic case of missing the forest for the trees.

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