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Doctor Who: Series Eleven (or Thirty-Seven) (Review/Retrospective)

And so the Chris Chibnall era begins.

Any discussion of the Chris Chibnall era must begin with an acknowledgement that it is, by any measure, a commercial success. Even allowing for erosion over the course of the season, the overnight ratings are appreciably up on where they were during the Moffat era. This is particularly true in the United States, where the show is thriving on BBC America. More than that, these new viewers are younger and female, indicating that the efforts to revitalise the show have been largely successful in attracting a new audience to a series that has been on the air for ten seasons (over one hundred and forty episodes) over thirteen years.

More than that, the series has survived an incredible transition. In theory, the casting of a female lead in a major long-running science-fiction property really shouldn’t be that big a deal. (After all, the advertising neatly summarised it as “about time.”) However, one need only look at the controversy around things like increasing the diversity in mainstream comic books or even the backlash over Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in order to see how easy it is to start a culture war. Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and her widespread acceptance speaks well to Whittaker and Chibnall, and to fans as a whole.

There is a catch, however. As much as the eleventh season has been a commercial success by any measure, it has also been a massive creative disappointment. The eleventh season of Doctor Who is very stylishly produced. There is a credible argument to be made that these ten episodes are the best that the show has ever looked. However, it is also the most generic that the series has ever been. From its earliest days, the series has been defined by a hint of madness and insanity, wonder and awe. The eleventh season of Doctor Who strips all of that out, looking like any other successful science-fiction series. That’s disappointing.

It is worth conceding the strengths of the eleventh season of Doctor Who, because these also illuminate the weaknesses. Most obviously, the production value on the eleventh season is impressive. The creative team invested in a set of anamorphic lenses before production began, and this paid off. The eleventh season is visually striking. Not just in terms of alien worlds. Even the shots of the British countryside in The Woman Who Fell to Earth are appreciably more majestic than anything in The Hungry Earth or Cold Blood or In the Forest of the Night.

The cinematography on the eleventh season is astounding. The series looks much better than it ever has. This is not to diminish the huge leaps forward in production value during the Davies or Moffat eras, both of which represented huge strides forward from what had come before. However, the gap in production value between The Pilot and The Woman Who Fell to Earth is appreciably further than the gap between Rose and The Eleventh Hour. This is a sound investment for 2018. This is Doctor Who for “peak TV.”

The increase in production value can be seen in a number of other ways. A lot of the eleventh season was shot on location, particularly using shooting in South Africa and Spain. The series had done location work before, notably in episodes like City of Death, Planet of Fire, The Two Doctors, Planet of the Dead, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, The Angels Take Manhattan, Kill the Moon and Smile. However, very few seasons had capitalised on location shooting as effectively as the eleventh.

South Africa provided a suitably alien landscape for The Ghost Monument, ensuring that “Desolation” felt like more than just a convenient rock quarry. The country’s towns also provided a more convincing stand-in for fifties Alabama than anything in the United Kingdom might, ensuring that even Rosa felt relatively exotic. While the production team did not fly to India or Pakistan for Demons of the Punjab, Spain was able to provide a suitably exotic backdrop for that story. It is revealing that the series had to wait until The Witchfinders to get to a bread-and-butter “theme park Britain” historical that had been a fixture of the series.

Even in terms of more mundane creative choices, Chibnall pushed the series to modernise. The aspect ratio was changed to 2:1, which is televisual shorthand for “cinematic.” The ratio is employed by a number of modern prestige television shows including Fargo, House of Cards, The Crown and even Star Trek: Discovery. The aspect ratio is effectively “widescreen for widescreen televisions”, ensuring that the black bars at the top and bottom are visible even on modern televisions. The effect is to create an impression that the image is so wide that even top-of-the-line modern televisions cannot fully contain it.

Similarly, the decision to completely scrap teasers reflects a move towards more a more modern style of television. After all, teasers might be seen as a relic of a bygone era of television consumption. Traditionally, teasers hoped to ensnare either those viewers who were idly flicking through from other channels after the show they had been watching had come to an end or those viewers who hadn’t changed station quickly enough after the end of the previous show on the same channel. The hope was that a casual audience member might catch the opening few moments of a series, become quickly invested, and stick around.

As such, there is some debate about whether the teaser has any real utility in the modern era, given changes in how audiences watch television. There are too many channels to hope on catching random channel hoppers. A lot of television is consumed through means other than turning on the television at a given time and seeing what happens to be on; it can be recorded and watched later, downloaded via the app or website, streamed from Netflix, consumed on home media. Doctor Who is a series that appreciates these shifts in viewing habits. The series does rather well for itself in terms of time-shifted viewing.

Central to the idea of time-shifted viewing is the removal of randomness from the consumption of television programming. The audience watching Doctor Who are most likely to be watching Doctor Who because they want to watch Doctor Who, whether because they are pre-existing fans or because they received a recommendation or because the series caught their eye. All of which is to say that the teaser as a structural element is arguably surplus to requirement. The vast majority of audience members watching Doctor Who are doing it because they chose to do so; they do not need a tease.

The irony is that despite removing the teaser as a structural element of the series, a lot of the eleventh season is still structured around that familiar template. Episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum or even Kerblam! or The Witchfinders could all easily be restructured to provide a high-stakes cut to the opening credits in the first couple of minutes; the ship careening towards the planet, the mine exploding, the Doctor deciding to visit Kerblam, the Doctor and her companions being seized by Becca Savage. The removal of the teaser is largely cosmetic, rather than reflecting a fundamental shift in the show.

Similarly, the title sequence has received a significant revamp, completely stripping out the TARDIS and the Doctor. This is a firm reversal of the more cartoonish impulses of the Moffat era and pushing the design back towards the classic opening sequences of the sixties and seventies. The abstract shapes formed from dark clouds, along with the pulsing bass, create a more sombre opening sequence than even the “time vortex” as featured during the early Davies era. As with a lot of these changes, there is a strong sense that Chibnall is attempting to position Doctor Who as a more “credible” piece of television in the prestige age.

This is reflected in the changes to the show’s soundtrack. Murray Gold was responsible for scoring the first ten seasons of the revived Doctor Who, and did a remarkable job. Gold had a very old-fashioned orchestral aesthetic, his score frequently pushing the series towards the “epic” and the “bombastic.” Gold’s work was frequently criticised for its perceived lack of subtlety, not so much underscoring emotional beats as overwhelming them. However, Gold produced any number of memorable and distinctive musical cues; All the Strange, Strange Creatures, I am the Doctor, The Majestic Tale, A Good Man, The Shepherd’s Boy.

Chibnall replaced Murray Gold with Segun Akinola. This is an interesting shift. Before Gold worked on Doctor Who, he was primarily known for his work on dramatic television series, especially with Russell T. Davies on Queer as Folk, Second Coming and Casanova. In contrast, Akinola’s experience is primarily in documentaries; Nova, Wonders of the Moon, Expedition Volcano, The Human Body. This difference is reflected in their scores. Gold tends towards bombast and scale, while Akinola’s compositions are less intrusive. The audience cannot help but be aware of Murray, while Akinola’s scores are more ambient in nature.

This is not to suggest that one approach is superior to the other. Akinola has a fantastic ear, as demonstrated by his reorchestration of the title theme both in the opening credits and at the end of Demons of the Punjab. However, there is a sense in which Akinola’s stylistic sensibilities are consciously toning down some of the rougher and more outrageous aspects of Doctor Who. As with a lot of the changes in the eleventh season, the toned down musical score feels like an approximation of modern prestige television. Akinola’s compositions are of a piece with the work of artists like Bear McCreary or Ramin Djawadi.

To be clear, the new arrangement of the opening title sequence is particularly impressive. Again, there is a sense that Chibnall was consciously trying to pull the series into the present. The Woman Who Fell to Earth did not open with the new theme song and title sequence, holding these new elements back for the start of The Ghost Monument. In that sense, it could be argued that The Woman Who Fell to Earth might best be treated as a teaser for the entire season, if not the Chibnall era as a whole. Instead of ten five-minute teasers, the eleventh season has one fifty-minute teaser.

Again, this reflects the realities and norms of modern television production. Netflix has been known to treat an entire season as “an extended pilot.” There is a conscious emphasis in modern television production on “long-term planning”, perhaps as a direct response to the internet’s reaction to Lost. The writers on Game of Thrones famously had George R.R. Martin tell them the end of the books in order to ensure a satisfactory conclusion. Along those lines, Chibnall has boasted of a five year plan for Doctor Who.

Interestingly, Chibnall consciously eschewed some of the more modern trends in television storytelling, largely avoiding a season-long arc. It would be entirely possible to jump from The Woman Who Fell to Earth straight to The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, without missing anything. There is some mention of the Stenza in The Ghost Monument, and there is a missing planet in the back story to Demons of the Punjab, but those are largely incidental. If anything, Chibnall’s first full season is appreciably less serialised than any overseen by Russell T. Davies, built largely of standalone episodes.

This might be seen as a strong reaction against the intricate plotting of the early Moffat era, where the sixth season suffered from competing demands of a long-form narrative arc and of self-contained episodes. Even Moffat’s consciously “blockbuster” fiftieth anniversary season was still turned over to two separate plot arcs, the Doctor’s evolving relationship with the Pond family and the mystery around Clara Oswald as “the Impossible Girl.” In contrast, the eleventh season is comprised entirely of standalone stories, offering a new adventure each and every week.

This leads to a very strange situation. The eleventh season has fewer episodes than any season of the show since it returned, down from the thirteen episodes expected during the Davies era and the twelve produced towards the tail end of the Moffat era. However, the lack of any two-parters means that the season actually contains as many stories as the average Davies season – which would contain seven standalone stories and three two-parters. Despite losing two episodes, the eleventh season actually has one more story than the previous season.

A season-long arc would be more in keeping with the norms of modern television. After all, “binging” is an increasingly common mode of television consumption, and there is a strong sense that something like Doctor Who should be designed with an eye to posterity. It should be noted that Doctor Who has attempted this at least twice before, with both The Key to Time and The Trial of a Time-Lord. In both cases, the result was very mixed, which might explain why Moffat opted for a mix-and-match approach in his second season.

In some ways, this adherence to the episodic format suggests the limit of Chibnall’s willingness to renovate or reinvent Doctor Who. Much like the changes to the structure of the opening, there is a sense that Chibnall is trying to affect cosmetic rather than fundamental change. Much like most episodes of the eleventh season still have what could easily function as a teaser just inside the opening credits, the eleventh season has just enough of the texture of modern prestige television without embracing any of the substance.

This is the most obvious issue with the eleventh season, if not the most fundamental one. The eleventh season looks and feels a lot more like contemporary prestige television than any previous season of Doctor Who. However, these changes all come with a cost. It assumes that Doctor Who not looking like prestige television was a serious defect that needed to be rectified, and assumes that conforming to the expectations of prestige television is worth stripping out a lot of what makes Doctor Who unique and eccentric.

At its core, a large part of what makes Doctor Who so special is the quaintness of it. That is not to suggest the tackiness of it or the cheapness of it or the goofiness of it, although those are certainly not to be mistaken for weaknesses. Doctor Who is a show that is utterly unlike any other show on television in terms of how it actually works. Not necessarily in the two-line starting premise; there are dozens of series out there about people travelling through time or exploring the cosmos. However, there is something that distinguishes Doctor Who from shows like Legends of Tomorrow or Star Trek: The Next Generation.

That something is a certain roughness at the edges, a certain playfulness, a cheeky self-awareness. It might be described as a surreal or abstract quality, a gonzo sensibility that is most likely rooted in the fact that the series was initially produced on a shoestring budget and forced to represent alien planets in “silly” ways in stories like The Web Planet. There was always a sense that the production team working on Doctor Who understood the restrictions under which they were working and accepted the absurdity of trying to present the entirety of time and space with a budget that barely stretched to bubble wrap.

This cheekiness stuck with Doctor Who even as its budget increased and technology improved. None of this impeded real drama or sombre moments, instead creating a strange genre hybrid. This was a huge appeal of the Davies era, wherein Rose was able to demonstrate that the series could compete with genre shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or Angel, while still providing the audience with a scene wherein a character wrestled with a wheelie bin. In the Davies era, whimsy and gravitas went hand-in-hand; betrayal and genocide juxtaposed with segways and pockets that were bigger on the inside in The Runaway Bride.

That willingness to embrace the absurd remained a fixture of the Moffat era, even in its darkest moments. A Good Man Goes to War was an episode in which the Doctor organised a military campaign to avenge violence committed against his companion, but still had room for jokes about relationships and potato-shaped aliens. Extremis was a meditation on the importance of doing the right thing even when it did not actually accomplish anything, but it still found room for an extended gag in which the Pope crashed Bill’s date.

That goofiness was part of the appeal, down to the ninth season’s introduction of the Doctor playing an electric guitar while riding on a tank making jokes about ordering online in The Magician’s Apprentice. This was a show that was acutely aware of the absurdity of nonsense like the plot-obstruction-removing “sonic screwdriver”, to the point of having characters acknowledge it in dialogue. None of this diminished Doctor Who. If anything, it gave the series a unique flavour against the backdrop of big science-fiction franchises that took themselves very seriously indeed.

This is not to suggest that Doctor Who is inherently better or worse because of that self-awareness, but instead that this self-awareness is a part of its identity. In trying to make the series look and feel more like prestige television, the eleventh season of Doctor Who has retreated from that self-awareness. There is a seriousness and a sternness to the eleventh season that is very disconcerting, a strange insistence that everything should be taken very seriously indeed. It runs largely counter to what Doctor Who has been for most of its life-time.

To be fair, there are moments when the eleventh season has embraced some of the delightful absurdity that defines the show. The Doctor’s interactions with Twirly in Kerblam! are delightfully weird, as the delivery reboot works itself through an existential crisis. Alan Cumming offers a wonderfully camp performance in The Witchfinders, playing a pantomime version of King James I, seeming like his salary was paid in scenery that he might chew. The talking frog at the climax of It Takes You Away is perhaps the best example, the kind of strange and otherworldly image that would never work in something like The Expanse.

However, these examples seem quite few and far between from a series that routinely created monsters like the Judoon in Smith and Jones or the Ood in The Impossible Planet and The Beast Below or the Adipose in Partners in Crime or the Weeping Angels in Blink or the Silence in The Impossible Astronauts and Day of the Moon. The sort of aliens that were transparently actors in ridiculous suits, or cost-effective weaponisation of everyday items. This is anything as simple as the lack of “monsters”, it is a more fundamental aesthetic shift.

For the eleventh season, Chibnall made a conscious effort to avoid bringing back old monsters. This marked a clear departure from the like-clockwork reappearances of familiar aliens like the Daleks and the Cybermen, even gratuitous returns like the Silurians or the Master or the Sontarans or the Ice Warriors. This was probably a good call. These sorts of aliens are appealing precisely because their appearances are events. There is something to be said for putting the toys in the cupboard and making the audience wait, as Russell T. Davies did, gradually reintroducing classic aliens over the course of his tenure.

Of course, this was inevitably revealed to be an elaborate feint. As much as The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was officially the season finale, the entire first season was building up to the introduction of a Dalek in the New Year’s Day Special Resolution. There is some small irony in using a New Year’s Day Special as a de facto season finale, given that the holiday exists to mark new beginnings rather than to offer conclusions. However, this approach was arguably carried over from the only other such special in the revived series; The End of Time, Part II was very much Russell T. Davies capping off his era of the show.

The decision to hold off on the Dalek to the end of the season was a good, if cynical, choice. The decision to avoid old monsters in the season leading up to Resolution meant that there was an appetite for the return of the genocidal pepper pots. More than that, Chibnall was borrowing a page from the Davies playbook. The idea to have the Daleks lurking as the monster at the end of the season was a trick that Davies employed in three of his first four season finales; Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. The return of the Dalek in Resolution only works because of the lack of older monsters in the stories leading into it.

However, these aliens have to be replaced with something. The eleventh season of Doctor Who portrays a more mundane sort of cosmos, populated by aliens that are largely indistinguishable from humans; Angstrom, Epzo and Ilin from The Ghost Monument, the entire supporting cast of The Tsuranga Conundrum, the Ux from The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It is unclear whether Krazlo is a human in Rosa, and it is possible that the characters in Kerblam! might have originated as human colonists of Kandoka. The show has always used suspiciously human aliens for budget reasons, but rarely with such frequency and commitment.

Perhaps this reflects the season’s increased emphasis on stunt casting. The teaser following The Woman Who Fell to Earth ran through a list of guest-stars for the coming season, some big and some less so; Art Malik, Chris Noth, Lee Mack, Alan Cumming, Mark Addy. These guest stars most likely took a significant chunk out of the season’s budget, but front loading them all in the post-premiere teaser was also a clear statement of intent. As with a lot of the other production changes, this was clearly an effort to position Doctor Who as “serious” television by association. Those are big names, after all.

Indeed, Whittaker herself is arguably a part of this. Whittaker is a phenomenal performer. She is a highly respected actor with a long and varied career. In terms of actors to have played the lead role, Whittaker is arguably closer to Christopher Eccleston or Peter Capaldi (or Peter Davison) than David Tennant or Matt Smith (or Tom Baker). Whittaker is an actor who will be recognisable to a not-insignificant portion of the audience based on her past experience in a wide variety of roles on stage and on screen in everything from Broadchurch to Attack the Block to Journeyman.

However, what is interesting about how Whittaker approaches the central role is the manner in which it leans less away from the more nuanced and esoteric interpretations preferred by the more established actors in the role; Eccleston’s delightful alien pathos, Capaldi’s understated melancholy, Davison’s quiet introversion. Instead, Whittaker pitches her performance more in the mode of the larger-than-life performers who inhabited the role, the broad crowd-pleasing sensibility of actors like Tennant or Smith. Whittaker’s Doctor is largely defined by bright-eyed enthusiasm (“aw, brilliant!”) and breathless exposition.

This isn’t a bad approach, to be fair. There is a reason that Tom Baker is consistently voted fandom’s favourite iteration of the character, and a reason why David Tennant is one of the only two iterations to depose him in Doctor Who Magazine‘s annual polls. More than that, in a season that is consciously and aggressively geared towards new audience members, it makes sense for Whittaker to pitch her performance towards the two most beloved of her immediate predecessors. (It seems fair to suggest that a fondness for Tennant and Smith might explain the broader popularity of their eras.)

There is also a sense in which Whittaker is working with what she has been given. Eccleston and Capaldi offered more nuanced takes on the title character, but their opening seasons were largely shaped by clearly defined character arcs; the Ninth and Twelfth Doctors were recognisably different characters at the end of their debut seasons than they had been upon their first appearance. The eleventh season of Doctor Who is not especially interested in long-form storytelling, and especially in the context of the Doctor as a character.

This causes some minor issues. Whittaker’s performance is very traditional, but the series has largely avoided giving her traditional beats. Given the budget constraints under which the show has traditionally operated, Doctor Who has generally worked quite well at throwing talented British actors together and watching them bounce off one another. David Tennant was very good at conveying moral and righteous indignation when confronted with atrocity, and the Davies era played to that. The Whittaker era has been quite light on this.

The eleventh season has repeatedly allowed the Doctor to react with anger and outrage, but rarely provides her with a strong scene partner. Her contempt for Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a good starting point, but the character is too thin to serve as proper opponent. Her dismissal of Erik in It Takes You Away is very strong, but Erik barely registers as an antagonist. The only conversational sequence in which Whittaker real pops is in her confrontation with King James I in The Witchfinders, when the show gives Whittaker a worthy scene partner in Alan Cumming.

This tendency towards human-looking aliens is also in keeping more “serious” science-fiction series like Star Trek. Indeed, even many of the featured “alien” creatures like the Stenza or the Thijarians feel of a piece with the Berman era Star Trek series. The Stenza especially evoke the Hirogen from Star Trek: Voyager. Even allowing for details like the teeth embedded in their face, they do not appear as surreal or strange as aliens like the Silence or the Weeping Angels. Episodes like The End of the World or The Rings of Akhaten were designed to showcase the production team’s imagination. There is nothing like that here.

There is a palpable anxiety in the eleventh season, a fear that some audience members might laugh at Doctor Who should the series become just a little bit too ridiculous. There is a insecurity that runs through the season, a deeply set worry that Doctor Who might be subject to mockery or cruelty if it does not conform to what is expected of other successful science-fiction television series. While Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat both took their responsibilities as showrunner very seriously, they also embraced the absurdity of Doctor Who rather than hiding from it.

There is a marked interest in pseudo-hard science-fiction in the eleventh season, in contrast to the whimsy that defined the writing of Davies and Moffat. During Davies’ tenure, the Doctor spoke of the Time War in evocative and abstract terms. In The End of Time, Part II, the Doctor spoke of “the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-have-been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres.” This is not the language of science-fiction. It is the language of high fantasy.

Moffat was even more playful, often spoofing exposition dialogue. “Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside,” the Doctor’s attempts to explain the pocket universe in The Doctor’s Wife to Rory. He then clarifies, “Well, it’s nothing like that.” Similarly, in Time, the Doctor warns Amy, “We’re just entering conceptual space. Imagine a banana, or anything curved. Actually, don’t. It’s not curved or like a banana. Forget the banana.” It’s a clever subversion of the kind of nonsense techno-babble in which shows like Star Trek regularly indulge.

In contrast, the eleventh season plays these sorts of sequences painfully and horrifically straight. This is most obvious in The Tsuranga Conundrum, when the Doctor is in awe of the antimatter drive. “The particle accelerator smashes the atoms together, like a little anti-matter factory, to produce positrons, which are then stored very carefully inside electric and magnetic fields,” she explains. “The positrons interact with the fuel materials to produce heat, which produces thrust.” She continues, “It’s beautiful. Anti-matter powering the movement of matter. Bringing positrons into existence to move other forms of life across space.”

That’s a lot of big pseudo-scientific words to describe a technology that doesn’t actually exist and may never actually exist. It adds nothing to the plot or the narrative of the episode, except to give Jodie Whittaker a mouth full of techno-babble to emote through. It makes no difference to the plot whether the engine is powered by anti-matter or nuclear power or a black hole or any other fantastical technology. There is something heartening in the Doctor’s proclamation that, “I love it. Conceptually, and actually.” However, that could be expressed without the fantastical info-dump.

Even in It Takes You Away, there is an awkward and unnecessarily over-detailed explanation of the soletract, which draws in Time Lord folklore to explain the monster of the week. This is always a risky gambit, given how Time Lord mytholgoy quickly became an albatross around the show’s neck in episodes like The Arc of Infinity. The Doctor explains to Yaz, “In the beginning – pre-time, pre-everything – all the laws and elements and nuts and bolts of the universe were there. Light, matter, maths, and so on. But they couldn’t fit together properly, because the soletract was there.”

She elaborates that the soletract is “a consciousness, an energy. Our reality cannot work with soletract energy present. The most basic ideas of the universe just get ruined. Think of it like a kid with chicken pox – nuclear chicken pox – who wants to join in but always ends up infecting everyone else. Our universe cannot work with the soletract in it.” She continues, “So, what did our universe do? It managed to exile the soletract to a separate, unreachable existence. The soletract plane. And suddenly, everything makes sense. The universe could finally work because the soletract had been removed.”

There’s a wealth of big ideas nestled in that exposition. If the universe banished the soletract, does that imply that the universe has a consciousness? How are even the Time Lords aware of things that existed “pre-time, pre-everything”? These are questions that are suggested by the dialogue, and trampled swiftly under foot. Davies would approach the idea with poetry. Moffat would draw attention to the pretentiousness of such myths. In contrast, the eleventh season just plays the idea painfully and awkwardly straight.

The eleventh season takes itself very seriously, stripping out a lot of the whimsy and charm associated with Doctor Who. In a strange and unlikely way, it harks back to the late eighties era of the show, when script editor Eric Saward seemed keen to stress the maturity of the series through grim and borderline nihilistic stories like Earthshock, Resurrection of the Daleks, Attack of the Cybermen and Revelation of the Daleks. During Saward’s tenure, there was an awkward sense of embarrassment about the idea that Doctor Who might be seen as childish or ridiculous, reflecting contemporaneous anxieties around comic books.

The eleventh season of Doctor Who is much bleaker in tone and style than the ten seasons leading into it. The entire season has a largely grey and brown colour scheme, populated by dead worlds and wastelands. There is very little majesty on display in the eleventh season; the Sheffield industrial works in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the planet-turned-graveyard in The Ghost Monument, the garbage dump that opens The Tsuranga Conundrum, the vast warehouse in Kerblam! with its ironic use of colour for contrast, the bleak quarry and abandoned factory at the centre of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

More than that, the tone of the season is largely sombre. The death of Grace haunts the season, most obviously when the characters return home in Arachnids in the U.K. or when Graham meets the soletract in It Takes You Away or as Graham plots his revenge in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. Several of the episodes end with funerals and memorials; Grace’s funeral in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the prayer for Eve Cicero in The Tsuranga Conundrum, the witnessing of Prem’s death in Demons of the Punjab, even Ranskoor Av Kolos itself in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

There is nothing wrong with Doctor Who being sombre. Amy Pond endured an extended trauma during the sixth season, culminating in the abduction of her child in A Good Man Goes to War. Clara spent the ninth season locked in a self-destructive cycle following the death of Danny Pink in Death in Heaven. The Doctor subjected himself to an eternity of torture and torment in Heaven Sent. This is without getting into the series’ more ostentatious displays of cruelty, such as the Master’s mass murder and torture of the Doctor in The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords or the Doctor’s despair in The Parting of the Ways.

There is, however, something disconcerting in the manner in which the eleventh season of Doctor Who uses that dark and grim aesthetic as a marker of depth of itself. It suggests a show very much invested in looking like a very serious and sombre drama. As with all the trappings of prestige television that inform the eleventh season, there is a sense that this is an effort to appear more mature and respectable than earlier seasons, to make Doctor Who that fits more comfortably with the consensus of what “good television” looks like in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

What is particularly interesting about the eleventh season as a whole is the sense in which all of these changes are cosmetic rather than fundamental. Under Chibnall, the production design of Doctor Who looks and sounds a lot more like contemporary television than it did under Moffat or even Davies. However, the engine driving the eleventh season is a lot more traditional in nature. Underneath the surface, there is something very old-fashioned at play. Despite its shiny new exterior, Chibnall’s Doctor Who is the more conservative than it has been in decades, since the tenure of script editor Eric Saward.

There is no small irony in this. Chibnall’s first brush with Doctor Who fame was a televised discussion of The Trial of a Time Lord which he attended as a member of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. He mused, “It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.” The young critic also remarked that, “It would be nice to have something different to the norm.” It is, of course, unfair to judge a writer for observations made as a teenager. More than that, Chibnall was not wrong about The Trial of the Time Lord. It is just striking how these criticisms could be applied to his own debut season.

Chibnall’s version of the show is infused with a lot of the strange anxieties that defined the mid-eighties, particularly a strange sense of nostalgia. This is most obvious with the TARDIS crew itself. The Woman Who Fell to Earth introduces three prospective new companions for the Doctor: Ryan, Graham, Yaz. These three characters are accidentally abducted by the Doctor in The Ghost Monument and decide to travel with her permanently in Arachnids in the U.K. Despite the threat to kick Graham out of the TARDIS in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, all four leads will return for the next season.

On the surface, a permanent cast of four lead characters marks a major departure for the new series, where Davies and Moffat would tend to bounce between two and three people in the TARDIS at a given moment. Moffat tended to cluster characters in groups of four, such as the Doctor and the Paternoster Gang or the Doctor and the three members of the Pond family, but rarely in the TARDIS together for an extended stretch. However, as has been pointed out by Chibnall himself, the four leads structure actually harks back to the original crew of the TARDIS; the Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Susan.

Of course, there is a reason that Davies and Moffat avoided having three full-time companions, and why they tended to introduce groups of new characters incrementally rather than simultaneously. The format of the show has changed a great deal since the early sixties, most notably in the shift away from a serialised approach to a more episodic mode of storytelling. In an average forty- or fifty-minute story, there is only so much narrative real estate. A lot of that has to be allocated to guest stars and world building, leaving only so much room for the regulars.

In fact, this was arguably even an issue during the original run of the series. The Peter Davison era marked the last time that the Doctor consistently traveled with more than two companions. Even then, Nyssa and Tegan served as the constants with a pool rotating in and out; Adric, Turlough, Kamelion. Even accounting for the accelerated pace of eighties television compared to sixties television, the writers struggled to properly flesh out and develop the supporting cast. Both Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding were massively underserved as a result of this overcrowding.

As such, doing “more than two companions” is self-evidently a challenge for Doctor Who, especially in its modern format. Mickey Smith was a guest star in the first season before properly joining the crew for a handful of episodes in the second season. Jack Harkness tagged along as a companion for three stories (including one where he was a guest star) at the end of the first season, before being jettisoned to allow for the show to focus on the transition from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant. Arthur Darvill spent his first season as a recurring guest star before properly joining the cast in his second season.

The eleventh season struggles to introduce three companions at the same time. A lot of this is purely structural, as the series grapples with the challenge of coming up with something for all of the characters to do in a given episode. This is most notable in episodes like The Ghost Monument, where the script makes the strange decision to keep the four leads together rather than splitting them up into smalle groups to follow Epzo and Angstrom. It is also evident in The Tsuranga Conundrum, where Ryan and Graham spend most of the episode tied up in a subplot that doesn’t tie into the themes of the story as a whole.

There are exceptions, of course. Kerblam! actually uses each of its three leads rather well. Even Arachnids in the U.K. splits them up rather effectively, mainly by shrinking the guest cast so there is more for the characters to do. At the same time, there is often a sense that various character plot threads are stuck in holding patterns so that the larger story moves at the proper pace; this is most obvious in The Witchfinders, which requires the Doctor to be separated from her companions long enough to be put on trial (and sentenced) as a witch.

Even when the stories find effective plot functions for each of the four leads to perform, there is not always enough room to develop them. Yaz is perhaps the least developed of the three companions, introduced as a police officer in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and then largely treated as “generic companion to whom the Doctor delivers exposition” in episodes like The Tsuranga Conundrum and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. This is a shame, as Yaz is perhaps the most conceptually interesting of the new companions; a police woman inside a police box with a version of the Doctor defined by her adherence to rules and norms.

Ryan gets nominally more development than Yaz, particularly with the threads focusing on his absentee father in stories like The Woman Who Fell to EarthArachnids in the U.K., The Tsuranga Conundrum and It Takes You Away. However, none of the story threads involving Ryan actually pay off. His character development is framed largely in terms of his relationship to Graham, validating the older man by calling him “granddad” in It Takes You Away and returning his fist bump in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. His trouble riding a bike in The Woman Who Fell to Earth is never paid off, his anger at his father never confronted.

Graham O’Brien is by far the most developed of the companions, however this may largely be down to the fact that Bradley Walsh is by far the most charismatic of the three actors playing the companions. This is not to say that Walsh is the strongest actor of the three, but simply that he projects the most warmth and has the strongest sense of personality. Walsh is affable and engaging, and this carries over to Graham’s general attitude. Graham seems like a genuinely good sort, a well-intentioned and well-meaning wanderer who takes life as he finds it.

Even allowing for the sense of character with which Walsh infuses Graham, the eleventh season invests considerably more time with Graham than it does with either Ryan or Yaz. While Ryan never gets to confront his absent father, Graham is allowed to both reconnect with Grace through the soletract in It Takes You Away and given a final confrontation with Tim Shaw in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. In fact, the closest thing that The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has to an emotional arc runs through Graham, which very heavily weights the season towards him as the focal companion.

Not all of this development is entirely logical. There is something deeply moving in Graham’s grief over Grace, as demonstrated in episodes like Arachnids in the U.K. and It Takes You Away. However, the contours of that grief are not always organic. Walsh plays Graham with a deep sense of melancholy, as best articulated in short conversations about how people lie to protect the ones that they love in both The Tsuranga Conundrum and Demons of the Punjab. However, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos pivots on the idea that Graham might suddenly become a cold-blooded murderer. (He does not.)

There is something mildly frustrating in the fact that the most developed regular character in the eleventh season is the middle aged white guy. This is particularly irksome given the broad push towards diversity in within the Chibnall era. Chibnall deserves a great deal of credit for ensuring diversity both in front and beyond the camera on the eleventh season of Doctor Who. While Davies and Moffat both contributed greatly to the show’s diversity, Chibnall pushed the series further than it has gone at any point in the past.

Russell T. Davies provided Doctor Who with its first minority companions; Mickey Smith and Martha Jones. Moffat was responsible for the series’ first explicitly queer companions, regardless of any subtext involving Turlough; Captain Jack Harkness, Clara Oswald, Bill Potts. Similarly, Moffat spent five of his six full seasons seeded the idea that Time Lords could regenerated across gender from the introduction of the Corsair in The Doctor’s Wife to the proper introduction of a female version of the Master in Dark Water. It is important not to overlook these steps forward.

At the same time, Chibnall deserves the credit for actually pulling the trigger; for actively choosing to cast a female lead, for casting two of the three supporting roles as minorities reflecting a diverse and changing version of Great Britain. That is important and meaningful, and it is telling that a significant number of the new viewers watching the eleventh season are younger and female. Doctor Who needed this sort of change, but Chibnall still committed to it. That is laudable of itself, and it’s easy for that to get lost in the surrounding discussions.

However, this diversity distracts from an underlying conservatism. This conservatism is reflected not only in the fact that the middle-aged white man is the companion who gets the most development, but also in the characterisation of the Doctor. The portrayal of the Doctor has varied greatly over the fifty-year history of the series, but the character has generally been portrayed as a wanderer and an anarchist. The First and Second Doctors has a mischievous impish quality to them. The Fourth Doctor was a galactic bohemian. The Sixth Doctor wanted to become a hermit. The Seventh toppled corrupt regimes.

There has always been some measure of debate about the extent to which the Doctor can or should interfere. Russell T. Davies repeatedly took the Doctor to task for failing to clean up his own messes, such as toppling the new satellite in The Long Game or deposing Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion. Steven Moffat repeatedly returned to the idea that the Doctor was not a soldier or a warrior, not a god or a monster, but just “an idiot with a box.” This was the thrust of everything from A Good Man Goes to War to The Girl Who Died.

At the same time, Davies and Moffat both consistently characterised the Doctor as somebody who could help whenever he could. Even when Davies introduced the concept of “fixed points in time” to avoid many of the obvious questions that come packaged with a time travel series, the Doctor still found a way to help those who needed it. The Tenth Doctor’s rescue of a single Roman family in The Fires of Pompeii became a cornerstone of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure. While the Doctor may not proactively look for injustice to fight, he never turned his back on it when he found it.

There was a simplicity in this morality, whether punching racists in Thin Ice or toppling capitalism in Oxygen, or simply sticking around for the people who need him in The Time of the Doctor, The Husbands of River Song, World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. The Doctor was a hero, and that generally involved using his position of relative power and authority (and privilege) in order to stand up for the people who needed his help, even when (as in The Beast Below or The Rings of Akhatan) these people were just scared children.

The Chibnall era adopts a much more cynical and a much less engaging morality. Throughout the eleventh season, there is no real emphasis on the idea of the Doctor as a hero, as somebody who wanders into a situation and fights injustice. Instead, the Doctor often seems to leave situations just as muddled as she found them, if not more so. Over the course of the eleventh season, the Doctor is repeatedly confronted with injustice and atrocity, and then stands idly by as those forces continue unchecked.

To be fair, at least part of this is down to the emphasis on a different type of historical than that featured in the series during the Davies and Moffat eras, the “celebrity historical” like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw or Victory of the Daleks. The eleventh season opted for a more charged sort of historical in stories like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, and even The Witchfinders. Although each of these three stories did feature a science-fiction element, they arguably reflect Chibnall’s conservative push within the series. They are much closer to historicals like The Aztecs or The Massacre than they are to The Shakespeare Code.

These were historicals rooted in very real and very tangible historical events, which left lasting impressions upon the larger world; Rosa was about systemic racism in the Civil Rights era, Demons of the Punjab was about the Partition of India and Pakistan, The Witchfinders was about the persecution of women for alleged witchcraft. This subject matter was much darker than anything that previous historical episodes had ever grappled with, outside of the metaphor that simmered at the heart of Thin Ice.

The fact that these were about real events imposed conscious restrictions on the narrative. The Thirteenth Doctor could not bring down the United States Government in Rosa as easily as the Seventh Doctor might topple Helen A in The Happiness Patrol. That would not only break any sense of verisimilitude, but it would also be extremely disrespectful to the people who had lived through these real-life events. The Doctor cannot stop slavery, because the Doctor is not real. The Doctor cannot stop Brexit, because the Doctor is not real.

This is all fairly basic stuff. Indeed, Moffat returned to the idea repeatedly during his tenure. In Let’s Kill Hitler, the Doctor openly mocked the idea of time travel stories that generated angst over stopping horrific events, chiding the Teselecta, “You got yourselves time travel, so you decided to punish dead people?” Moffat’s patience for this kind of trope was reflected in the fact that Let’s Kill Hitler opted to deal with the issue of Hitler and time travel by locking the dictator in a cupboard and getting on with the matter at hand.

This motif recurs throughout the Moffat era. Moffat repeatedly insisted that doing the right thing was a moral good, no matter what excuses might exist. The Witch’s Familiar approached the so-called “Hitler dilemma” more earnestly, with the Doctor refusing to let Davros die as a child. Extremis argued that the Doctor had an obligation to do the right thing, even as a fictional character who had no tangible impact on the real world, because the idea of doing the right thing was fundamentally of value. After harping on about not interfering in The Girl Who Died, the Doctor bends the laws of nature to save Ashildr.

In fact, the abiding moral of the Moffat era was that kindness and compassion were worthy ends of themselves. The Twelfth Doctor’s final advice to the Thirteenth Doctor was simply, “Be kind.” It is a damning indictment of the Chibnall era that the Thirteenth Doctor has failed so spectacularly at that one single piece of advice given to her by her direct predecessor. The eleventh season is a meditation in indifference and obliviousness, with the Doctor at best ignorant to the suffering of others and at worst actively complicit.

In Rosa, the Doctor is actively complicit in the systems of oppression that spur Rosa Parks to act. Ignoring the perverse idea that it is acceptable for the Doctor to meddle in history so long as the outcome is already established but not to make things better, and ignoring the manner in which this undercuts the agency of Parks’ carefully planned protest by making it seem spur-of-the-moment and dependent on outside factors, it is still an astonishingly poor decision. The Doctor is placed in a position where she can help somebody who has been subject to decades of violence and abuse, and then perpetuates that abuse.

Of course, the Doctor could don’t do much else in that situation. She could stand by and do nothing, bearing silent witness to that violence and abuse. This would be better, but not appreciably so. She could alternatively dismantle the systems of injustice that caused Rosa to suffer, but that would be tasteless and condescending. The truth is that there is no good way to write any version of Doctor Who that puts the Doctor on that bus with Rosa Parks. After all, the reason that the Doctor could not help the real Rosa Parks has little to do with the laws of time, and more to do with the fact that the Doctor is a fictional character and doesn’t exist.

This is true of the other historicals, to a lesser degree. The Witchfinders implicates King James I in the mass murder of women as part of the witch trials, but the Doctor cannot topple him because he is a real historical figure and so is reduced to the plucky comic relief. There is something clever in casting Alan Cumming to play a deliciously camp version of King James I as a playful mockery of the “celebrity historical”, but this is ultimately an extension of the treatment of Richard Nixon in The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon and builds to an… ill-judged sequence in which King James I is tied down and menaced by tentacles.

Demons of the Punjab comes closest to making it work, by having the Doctor point out that any change to history would erase Yaz from existence. Of course, there is a debate to be had about whether Prem and Yaz has a stronger right to exist, and how such things can be quantified. However, it provides a slightly firmer justification for the Doctor’s inaction than “that’s just the way things worked out.” More than that, the Thijarians provide a suitable mirror to the Doctor, suggesting the importance of “witnessing” the suffering of others, of recording and acknowledging injustice.

There is, of course, something commendable in acknowledging the injustice that other people face every day; there is value in believing women when they talk about their experiences of sexual assault, there is something worthwhile in simply listening to the experiences of oppressed people. Empathy is important, and a large part of empathy comes through the act of simply observing and listening. After all, that is one of the benefits of media in general and social media. It allows the user instant access to seemingly remote events like the Ferguson protests or the Arab Spring. The Thirteenth Doctor’s TARDIS is Twitter on steroids.

Of course, while there is value in observing, there is also value in actually doing. The world is in a horrific place at the moment. Authoritarianism is on the rise around the globe. Children are being locked in cages. Racism and xenophobia are increasing. While being aware of these things is important, so is actually doing things to stop them. It is important to vote. It is important to protest. It is important to call out these abuses whenever they occur. Engagement is as important as empathy. Sometimes it is not enough to acknowledge injustice, it is important to do something about it. Whatever a person can. (Even voting.)

The Doctor is an alien with over a thousand years of experience. The Doctor is a member of an ancient species who pilots one of the most powerful devices in the cosmos. Past incarnations have toppled governments with a single word, tricked entire armies into destructive traps, improvised victory from the jaws of defeat. The Doctor has both the power and the moral authority to act, so rendering her powerless feels like a conscious betrayal of the character and the series. To have her stand by and witness (and even participate) in injustice is unconscionable at this moment in time.

To be fair, the Doctor is somewhat constrained by narrative logic in terms of the historical episodes. Chibnall still chose to put the Doctor in those situations, which is a questionable decision at best, but the outcome of those stories is inevitable simply by virtue of the premise. Rosa Parks was a victim of racism, India and Pakistan were torn apart by partition, hundreds of women were murdered with the blessing of the crown. A fictional television show cannot change these things, and so the ending of Rosa, Demons of the Punjab and The Witchfinders were always pre-determined.

This does not explain the Doctor’s inaction in those episodes that are not confined by the historical record. The Doctor’s impotence is not a symptom of the choice to put the Doctor in those situations, instead serving as the defining character trait of this iteration of the character. The Doctor can do nothing to stop Ilin in The Ghost Monument or Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the Thirteenth Doctor is that it’s actually a surprise when she cannot let an innocent woman drown at the start of The Witchfinders.

Indeed, the episode Kerblam! does not end with the Thirteenth Doctor tearing down space!Amazon with the same contempt that the Tenth Doctor showed in Planet of the Ood, it instead features the Thirteenth Doctor saving the company. It should be noted that Kerblam! does not present an idealised version of space!Amazon. The episode is quite explicit about the organisation being a terrible place to work even beyond the murderous artificial intelligence at its core. The episode’s happy ending has the company giving the employees four weeks off, but only paying them for two of those four weeks.

Kerblam! argues that a minimum wage job that only allows a father to spend two weeks of every year with his child is an ideal, and that more people should perform back-breaking and menial work that could easily be automated. The eleventh season of Doctor Who is so wedded to the idea that things cannot be different from how they are that it cannot even conceive of a solution as simple as taxation or “universal basic income.” The Doctor boldly declares, “The systems aren’t the problem. How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” This is after the system itself has literally murdered an innocent woman.

This characterisation is established quite early in the run. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Doctor seems less horrified that Tim Shaw is participating in the ritualised hunt and murder of an innocent person than that Tim Shaw is cheating during the ritualised hunt and murder of an innocent person. The Doctor defines herself as “sorting out fair play throughout the universe.” Whereas Moffat focused on the name “Doctor”, emphasising the character’s role as a healer and an emergency response, Chibnall seems much more invested in the idea of the TARDIS as a “Police Box.”

At the start of The Girl Who Died, Clara chides the Doctor for not doing more to protect the Velosians. He explains, “It’s the best I could do, Clara. I’m not actually the police, that’s just what it says on the box.” However, the eleventh season is very invested in the idea of the Doctor as universal police woman, whose primary role is the maintenance of the status quo rather than trying to reduce harm. This perhaps explains the season’s approach to Yaz. As a trainee police officer, it makes sense that Yaz would be the regular who is most often cast in the traditional companion role as the Doctor’s apprentice.

It seems safe to say that this subtext is not accidental. The Woman Who Fell to Earth featured the Doctor’s most proactive confrontation with a primary villain, when she rewired Tim Shaw’s DNA bombs so that they would affect him instead of his intended victims. This is a classic ploy, recalling the Seventh Doctor’s manipulation of Davros in Remembrance of the Daleks. The Thirteenth Doctor goads Tim Shaw into activating the bombs and then teleports him away. His account of events in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos suggests that this would most likely have killed him.

However, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos aggressively chides the Doctor for presuming to intervene. The Doctor’s attempt to punish Tim Shaw backfires spectacularly, throwing him into the arms of the Ux and giving him the power to destroy five whole planets. Of course, this is only indirectly the Doctor’s fault. She had no way of knowing that Tim Shaw would encounter the Ux, let alone that they would welcome him as a deity. More than that, as Boom Town pointed out, the responsibility for these sorts of genocidal actions falls on the people who commit these sorts of genocidal actions.

Nevertheless, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos asks the audience to take Tim Shaw seriously. Graham argues that this whole situation is the responsibility of the TARDIS crew, while Tim Shaw repeatedly goads the Doctor that this is her responsibility. All of that said, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos never really posits an alternative to what the Doctor did in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The obvious answer would be to properly kill Tim Shaw, but the Doctor’s conversation with Graham discounts that alternative.

The obvious implication is that the Doctor should simply have done nothing in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. By the internal logic of the season, the Doctor should have stood back and allowed Tim Shaw to murder Carl. If he did that, he would be elected leader of the Stenza, and so would never encounter the Ux, and would never murder five whole planets. This is an incredibly bleak moral argument. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos suggests that the worst thing that the Doctor has done all season was to stop Tim Shaw from murdering an innocent human being. That’s a pretty bleak conclusion.

(In this context, it is worth ignoring the ending of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, which finds Graham and Ryan locking Tim Shaw inside a stasis chamber for all eternity. It is never explained how this is any different from teleporting him randomly through space, and what is to stop some random explorer from accidentally freeing him decades (or even centuries) later. After all, Tim Shaw is sitting atop one of the most power weapons in the cosmos, even without the Ux to power it. It seems inevitable that somebody would go poking around at some point.)

To a certain extent, it feels like Chibnall might be over-compensating. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was one of the last scripts that Chibnall wrote for Doctor Who before taking over as showrunner. He was largely absent from the Capaldi seasons because he was busy working on Broadchurch. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a surprisingly controversial episode for a couple of reasons. Ignoring allegations of antisemitism in the portrayal of “Solomon the Trader”, Chibnall was criticised for a particularly bloodthirsty characterisation of the Eleventh Doctor. The Thirteenth Doctor may be a response to this.

There is an extent to which this characterisation of the Thirteenth Doctor does line up with at least one earlier incarnation. Along with the crowded TARDIS, the protagonist’s general ineffectiveness evokes the characterisation of the Fifth Doctor. As portrayed by Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor was repeatedly portrayed as ineffective and impotent, a man who was much nicer than the universe needed him to be. The Fifth Doctor was often quite powerless, notably witnessing the deaths of Adric in Earthshock and of Kamelion in Planet of Fire. This uselessness prompted Tegan to leave him in Resurrection of the Daleks.

Of course, there is a difference between the Fifth and Thirteenth Doctors. As ineffective as the Fifth Doctor might have been, he was still presented as a tragic figure. To be fair, that tragedy was often unearned, but it was there. At the end of Warriors of the Deep, the Doctor laments, “There should have been another way.” Even when the Doctor fails, there is a sense that he is genuinely trying. Davison infuses the Fifth Doctor with a sense of melancholy that plays well of his enthusiasm and wonder, a recurring sense of disappointment with just how grim and violent his adventures have become.

The Thirteenth Doctor lacks any of this self-awareness. In Rosa, the character responds to the sight of Rosa Parks being arrested for asserting her civil rights by visiting an asteroid named in her honour. It is a bizarre moment; surely it might have made more sense to explore how Parks’ legacy endures in current Civil Rights protests such as Black Lives Matter? Similarly, the Doctor seems completely unfazed by the murder of Kira in Kerblam!, insisting that the system that murdered her “has a conscience.” Naturally, she also doesn’t seem too bothered at plans to dismantle the system at the end of the episode.

Even allowing for this, there is something decidedly unfortunate in the decision to characterise the first female iteration of the Doctor as so passive and so powerless. This is a worryingly gender essentialist approach to the character, one compounded by strange choices such as to end The Witchfinders with the character giving King James I what might be described as “the silent treatment.” (It is an awkward and ill-judged moment, the King lamenting, “She still does not speak to me, Ryan. Can you get through to her?”)

This is a shame, as there are interesting things that might be done with the Doctor. The Doctor’s transition from male to female might serve as a compelling vehicle to examine various social prejudices and biases. The Witchfinders is the only episodes of the season that actively acknowledges this, the Doctor complaining, “Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself.” However, most of the season chooses to actively ignore this. It certainly a defensible choice, but it creates issues when the first female Doctor’s defining characteristic is “apathetic powerlessness.”

There is an interesting contrast between how the eleventh season of Doctor Who looks and what it actually is. On a superficial and cosmetic level, Doctor Who is as forward-looking as it has ever been. It has borrowed the visual production language of modern television and has the most diverse ensemble in its fifty-year history, headed by the first female performer to play the lead role. On a more fundamental level, this is the most conservative that Doctor Who has been since the mid-eighties or the early seventies, its politics at best bluntly apathetic and at worst full-on nihilistic.

What is fascinating is how the appearance of progressivism seems to be largely defining and shaping the response to the season. Much has been made of how the season is “too PC!”, a rallying crew for those fans unsettled by the idea of a female lead character. That accusation has informed a lot of the press coverage, to the point that the cast are actively engaging with it in interviews. However, this outward appearance of progressivism is enough to avoid any real scrutiny of the central themes of the era. In its own weird way, the eleventh season is just as conservative as those who deride it as “P.C. propaganda.”

Indeed, the eleventh season has been largely politically disengaged. It is possible to read (somewhat stretched) Donald Trump metaphors into characters like Tim Shaw in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Ilin in The Ghost Monument, and the most overt political commentary came with the obvious stand-in for Trump in Arachnids in the U.K. The show touched on issues like racial discrimination in that conversation between Yaz and Ryan in Rosa, but through the safety and comfort of a story set in the past. The past is a different country, much like the United States is to Doctor Who.

However, it is extremely revealing that the eleventh season of Doctor Who felt much more comfortable dealing with various Trump stand-ins and race in America than it has grappling with the elephant in the room. The United Kingdom is currently being torn apart by Brexit. That is not an exaggeration; Scotland is considering another independence referendum and Northern Ireland is a constant logistical nightmare. The British government is threatening to starve Ireland, evoking the Great Famine. Hate crimes are on the increase. A Member of Parliament has been assassinated.

As such, it is strange that the eleventh season more or less completely ignores Brexit. The tenth season had tackled the subject obliquely, whether meditating upon the folly of democratic decisions rooted in fear in The Pyramid at the End of the World or throwing the Ice Warriors into conflict with the British Empire in Empress of Mars, but at least it engaged with some of the same ideas. The closest that the eleventh season has come to touching on Brexit thematically is through the nature of Tim Shaw’s cheating; the harvesting of personal data in order to win a political challenge reflecting a controversy around the vote.

To a certain extent, this is down to the decision to focus on international historicals. Both Rosa and Demons of the Punjab unfold outside the United Kingdom, and so are perhaps awkwardly placed to engage with the country’s contemporary politics. Indeed, despite some palpable anxiety from conservative critics before the episode was broadcast, Demons of the Punjab largely avoids implicating the British Empire in the atrocities that unfold. This is most likely to avoid over-complicating the story, but the Doctor’s reference to a previous adventure with Lord Mountbatten does land a little awkwardly in context.

This is not to suggest that Doctor Who must explore Brexit, but the complete lack of political or social engagement on a topic with of such national import and with such colossal implications speaks to how carefully the eleventh season seems to tread to avoid causing potential offense. If the eleventh season of Doctor Who can be accused of being “too PC!”, it is only politically correct in a way that seems determined to avoid offending certain socially conservative viewpoints. The eleventh season of Doctor Who seems particularly and uncomfortably deferential to the kind of sensibilities that are instinctively hostile to Whittaker.

To be fair to the eleventh season, there is something vaguely interesting in its portrayal of masculinity. Masculinity was a recurring theme of the Moffat era, and a recurring preoccupation of Moffat’s writing in general; even Sherlock hinged on the difference between men who were “great” and men who were “good.” As one might expect given the gender swap, it is also a recurring fixation of the eleventh season as a whole. It is telling that so many of the villains in the eleventh season are angry and violent men lashing out at the world.

Tim Shaw is the member of a proud hunter race, but has to cheat to win in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Ilin is a corrupt and decadent authority figure who enjoys watching those less fortunate than him suffer for his amusement in The Ghost Monument. Krazlo is a former convict who came out of prison as an avowed racist, but who cannot actually hurt anybody and so instead tries to alter history to validate his world view in Rosa. Jack Robertson is a corrupt businessman who asserts his masculinity by shooting a suffocating monster in Arachnids in the U.K.

The most overt examples of this trope come later in the season. In Demons of the Punjab, Mannish is radicalised like so many angry young men, and turns to violence in order to find a place and purpose in the world. In Kerblam!, Charlie is a lonely young man who is socially awkward about women and plots to harm the society that he feels has let him down. In The Witchfinders, King James I is so impotent that he often finds himself following the loudest voice in the room, buts whose whims have desperate consequences. Erik in It Takes You Away abandons and terrorises his blind daughter so he can live out a fantasy.

Indeed, this recurring fascination with conflicted and confused masculinity arguably comes to a head with Graham in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. Of course, the subplot in which Graham plots to murder Tim Shaw comes out of nowhere, and in no way fits with anything established about Graham to this point. However, it allows Graham to reject the idea of violent retribution. “You’re no warrior,” Tim Shaw chides Graham. Graham admits as much, conceding, “I’m the better man.” It is heavy-handed, and arguably a reiteration of Graham’s more successful arc in It Takes You Away, but it does deliver on the theme.

Chibnall deserves some credit for this, for exploring the issue of modern masculine insecurity through the lens of Doctor Who. However, there is a sense in which Chibnall is really just reiterating and repeating a lot of what Moffat already covered, the larger character arcs that the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors explored during the previous six seasons. It is arguably more timely and more relevant than it was when the Doctor grappled with toxic masculinity in episodes like A Good Man Goes to War, but it is ground that the series has already explored.

More than that, the eleventh season is very firmly rooted in the question of how these men feel over any of the consequences of their actions. This is most obvious in Graham’s arc, which is largely about the older man seeking the validation of his grandson as granted in It Takes You Away and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. However, it’s also seen in how easily Erik is allowed to reconcile with the daughter that he abandoned in It Takes You Away and how readily Aaron is forgiven by the son that he abandoned in Resolution, without either failed character having to actually demonstrate that they have changed in a meaningful way.

The Thirteenth Doctor glosses over the harm caused by these men repeatedly over the course of the season, treating acknowledgement as equivalent to atonement. Erik doesn’t have to actually put in the hard work of being a better person in It Takes You Away, but the episode treats his reunion with Hanna as a triumphant moment. Aaron doesn’t actually do anything to help Ryan in Resolution, instead providing Ryan with an opportunity to prove himself by overcoming his dyspraxia to pull his father from the doors of the TARDIS. The eleventh season of Doctor Who believes in reconciliation, but without any need for redemption.

Even allowing for these strengths, the eleventh season of Doctor Who is disappointing and underwhelming. It feels like a conscious step backwards following an aggressively ambitious and adventurous stretch for the series. Indeed, there is a recurring sense that Chibnall is largely ignoring the work of his direct predecessor; Arachnids in the U.K. is very consciously an episode based on the template of the Davies era, Demons of the Punjab evokes Father’s Day, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos lifts directly from The Stolen Earth, and the two adventures that the Doctor references in the finale are Boom Town and Journey’s End.

These decisions make a certain amount of sense in terms of trying to consolidate Doctor Who. Chibnall is consciously designing a more mainstream and accessible version of Doctor Who, in contrast to the more provocative and challenging Moffat era. The Davies era is a great template, because it was a great era. It makes sense for Chibnall to draw from it. The issue is not that Chibnall is drawing from Davies, it is that he does little to improve or elaborate upon it. Again, there is a strange conservatism at the heart of an era that is cosmetically more progressive than the show has even been.

The eleventh season of Doctor Who is easily the weakest season of the series since it returned to television. In fact, there is a solid argument to be made that the eleventh season of Doctor Who is the weakest season of the show since 1987. Even then, while these ten episodes (and a New Year’s special that is functionally a season finale) contain nothing as bad as Time and the Rani, they include nothing as ambitious as Paradise Towers. They just are.

You might be interested in our other reviews from Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who:

39 Responses

  1. Hey, looks like my request from “The Witchfinders” was granted (not that I have any say over what you do, but still)!

    I think you hit this one squarely as usual. I’ve never had to force myself through Doctor Who before, but I did with this season. What a chore. It appears we have similar taste in television and Doctor Who. I’m more than okay with this.

    Obligatory Season Rankings:
    10. “The Tsuranga Conundrum”
    9. “Arachnids in the U.K.”
    8. “The Ghost Monument”
    7. “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”
    6. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”
    5. “Kerblam!”
    4. “Rosa”
    3. “The Witchfinders”
    2. “Demons of the Punjab”
    1. “It Takes You Away”

    • You seem to have misplaced Rosa on the wrong side of a gap, or two. 😉

      (also, Monument above Arachnids? The scene with the TARDIS, sure, but then there’s all of the other scenes…)

      • Monument was one of those where I could at lease see what Chibnall was attempting. “Oh, we’re doing Terry Nation! Which is a strange choice in 2018.”

      • I just wasn’t a big fan, and I think Darren will concur. I thought it had its heart in the right place, but was really clunky (Oh, hello Martin Luhter King Jr.!).

      • Oh, I really dislike Rosa. I think it meant well, but if you’re writing a show about a time travelling hero who stage-manages systems of oppression because it’s the “only way” to make the world better in the long term, you’ve done something very wrong.

    • Yep. I’m glad that there are people enjoying this, but it’s not for me.

      I guess I should share my obligatory rankings from twitter. There is a surprisingly large overlap, actually:

      10.) “Kerblam!”
      09.) “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”
      08.) “The Tsuranga Conundrum”
      07.) “Rosa”
      —- GAP —
      06.) “The Ghost Monument”
      05.) “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”
      04.) “The Witchfinders”
      —- GAP —
      03.) “Arachnids in the U.K.”
      02.) “It Takes You Away”
      01.) “Demons of the Punjab”

      That is… not a good season.

      • No, it certainly isn’t. I re-watched “The Doctor’s Wife” yesterday, and even the top two episodes aren’t really close to that. But a season with “Demons of the Punjab” as the baseline level of quality would have been a very good one. But as the top? … Even my #4, “Rosa”, I didn’t really enjoy watching that much.

        Yeah, maybe I’m being too nice to “Kerblam!”. I can’t really write the message off as misguided, because it was a pretty damn good episode of the show, so the writer clearly knew exactly what he was doing.Still, I’d rather watch that than any in my bottom five….life’s too short for that.

      • I just realized….a couple weeks ago you said you “really dislike” “Rosa”, and it’s still better than 3 other episodes in this season. Ouch.

      • Yep, this is not a good season.

  2. chinball destroyed a perfectly good series, i dont care that the doctor is a girl.. but this horrible cbbc kids style writing/scripting the show has employed gets on my nerves, This Season was trash.

    • I wouldn’t go quite that far myself. The series survived Colin Baker and Eric Saward.

      • The show is guaranteed to get to Season 15, at least. The BBC signed a deal with China. The series will survive, at least until then. The question is, will the audience?

        (Hopefully he improves).

      • Ha. To be fair, I think there is an audience for this, and there are people who enjoy it. And more power to them. I’m glad for them.

        I just wish it was better. A lot better.

      • Ok, ok, enough grousing Chibnall. I sincerely wish him the best in turning things around. I’m still going to watch, anyways. But the series could have easily been so much better…..I don’t want the Chibnall era to turn into the Voyager of Doctor Who, a show with incredible potential that squandered it.

      • It definitely could (and should) have been so much more. The production is a lot more polished than the show has been, despite my fondness for the brighter and weirder (and less conventional) aesthetic of the Moffat era.

      • about the comment about China, I wouldn’t see it as a particularly positive thing that they signed a deal with China, since seriously trying to pursue the Chinese market would a) mean toning down everything the series stands for and b) i think the series can survive anything in the long run, even without high commercial success

        I’d even go so far that doctor who can really survive on a commercial minimum to continue

  3. Oh, you’re just being nostalgic for the Moffat era… 😂 In all seriousness, I’m sorry you’re not a fan of the season. It’s always a shame when a show you love disappoints you. I feel like you finally understand how I and many others feel about about Star Trek Discovery. A lot of what you said about Doctor Who feeling more generic and losing what made it special in order to come across as prestige TV really hit home for me. I’ve enjoyed this season of Doctor Who, but largely because it got my girlfriend to try the show, but I’d be lying if I said I expect to remember any of these episodes in a year or two.

    • I can barely remember most of them already.

    • “I feel like you finally understand how I and many others feel about about Star Trek Discovery.”

      Ha. This is mostly fair.

      That said, I readily concede that the eleventh season of Doctor Who is successful by any measure, professionally produced, and that it does push the franchise forward in a number of ways in terms of production and in terms of demographics. I’ve also been very clear that I am legitimately happy for those who do enjoy it. (To the point that I feel bad when I’ve seen this review shared online on message boards and social media with comments like “I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but reading this review kinda made me hate it.” I don’t want to be the guy who killed Christmas.) I don’t think that people who enjoy it are wrong to enjoy it, and I’m cognisant of the fact that I am in a minority in my opinion of it. (The American media seem to love it; the British media are more on the fence. Both are more positive than I am.) And I also don’t doubt that this is Doctor Who, contextualising it in the sense of the Pertwee/Letts era of the early seventies and Baker/Saward era in the mid-eighties. (One of those is beloved by certain fans and has a fair claim to being iconic Doctor Who.)

      An interesting thing about being on this side of the debate, though, is that I don’t feel like I’ve been labelled or branded a bigot for having opinions on the quality of the show that align with those of bigots. There are a large and vocal minority of commenters – including professional journalists in the British tabloids – who have criticised the season for being “too PC!” I have engaged with fans of the eleventh season online who do think that all criticism of the Thirteenth Doctor is inherently misogynistic, but I don’t feel tarred by that brush or insulted by that insinuation. I feel I speak well enough for myself to make it clear that I’m not a misogynist or a racist, and I also make it clear that those criticisms from the red-tops are nonsense. (If anything, the show is “less PC!” than it was when the Doctor was toppling capitalism and punching racists just last year.)

      I know that was something that a lot of people who disliked The Last Jedi and Discovery felt when engaging with people (apparently including me, despite being far from unequivocal in my praise of either) who felt more positively about the series. My experiences talking about the eleventh season of Doctor Who over the past three months suggest that it should be possible to simultaneously distance yourself from those bigotted commentators while still having the freedom to articulate a negative opinion.

      • I get the feeling about “not wanting to be the guy who killed Christmas.” I’ve felt like that when saying I wish Rey had a stronger arc in the Star Wars films. I know a lot of female fans love Rey, including my girlfriend. For years, my girlfriend just could not understand why her friends at work criticized Rey. Then, we were watching the Star Wars Rebels animated show, and the main (male) character was in a Jedi temple training and she suddenly said, “I finally get it. Why couldn’t Rey have had this type of training and character growth?” – or something along those lines. She still loves Rey, but I can also tell she’s disappointed Rey wasn’t a Skywalker in The Last Jedi and really hopes the next film does something different with her.

        As for being labeled sexist/racist, etc, I think it’s partly driven by the consensus of reviewers. Most professional reviewers seemed to love The Last Jedi, so they then seemed to struggle to understand why so many fans didn’t. I think that’s why so many reached for those labels to describe fans. When 93% of reviewers like a movie, it’s easier to believe that those who don’t are somehow wrong or problematic than to admit some legitimate room for disagreement. Also, there absolutely are actual toxic fans who are particularly loud on the internet, and a coordinated campaign by the alt-right, which doesn’t help. Lucasfilm in turn put a spotlight on criticism that was motivated by race or gender by calling them out, which again made it seem to people who don’t follow Star Wars closely that that was the main point of contention. I teach a class on Ethnic politics and I see the same dynamic going on. A debate being driven by the extremes, forcing people to view politics almost exclusively along ethnic lines, etc.

        By contrast, reviewers seem to be much more divided about the quality of Discovery and Doctor Who right now (and I don’t see nearly as many “Discovery haters” get labeled as toxic). Plenty of reviewers, fans, fan sites, etc don’t love the show, so it’s harder to pigeonhole those who don’t like those shows into a box. The issues with the shows are acknowledged enough by reviewers that they’re not just dismissed out of hand. Even the positive reviews of Doctor Who will talk about the episodic nature, not getting to know the companions well enough, etc. It definitely helps that the BBC and Chibnall aren’t tweeting every day that anyone who says anything negative about this season is sexist.

        I definitely agree this first season has been a success commercially, and it’s great that having a female Doctor paid off. Truth be told, I’m always wary of judging a new or rebooted show too much on the success of the first season though, especially when there’s been a big marketing push. A lot of people will try a new show out of curiosity. I know a lot of female fans, including my girlfriend, were intrigued just by the fact that there was a female Doctor. The question I always ask is how many stick around for Season 2? How many like the show so much that they’ll go out of their way to continue, versus those who watch Season 2, maybe liked it, then forget about it? What’s the drop-off from Season 1 to 2? With Battlestar Galactica, Ronald Moore said he knew he had a hit when the numbers for the second night of the show went up, not down – almost unheard of. I know I’ll come back, but until we see numbers for Season 2 I’m going to hold off on final judgment.

  4. Fantastic review. I don’t really have much to say in addition, because you summed it up. It’s a dull, conservative series with no interest in saying something new, dressed up in the trappings of something fresh and radical. It’s a supposedly character-driven series with no arc or solid characterisation for 50% of the cast (the female half I might add), and the arcs for the other two are competent at best. On that note, being 50% competent and 50% worthless is a pretty apt summation of Chibnall’s Who scripts.

    Davies and Moffat had their flaws and excesses, and could often be the worst part of their own seasons – but they were also the best. Chibnall is special in that he seems to be an active drain on the season. Not just with his own dry, plain scripts that seem to take a perverse pleasure in exposition for exposition’s sake and playing tired tropes competely straight. But with his lack of development for his own characters, his aggressive conservatism, and his refusal to allow the Doctor any depth or history, his presence actually brings down otherwise great stories.

    The non-Chibnall half of the season was a pretty standard season. Not perfect, not the best, but pretty good on average. And Chibnall’s ideas by themselves are not bad – most people would agree that a smaller, less complex, warmer season was in order. The problem is not with the cast or the music or the guest writers. The problem lies clearly and evidently between Chibnall’s brain and his typewriter.

    Here are my obligatory rankings for the season:

    1. Demons of the Punjab (9/10)
    2. It Takes You Away (8/10)
    3. Rosa (7/10)
    4. The Witchfinders (7/10)
    5. The Woman Who Fell To Earth (6/10)
    6. Arachnids in the UK (5/10)
    7. The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (4/10)
    8. The Tsuranga Conundrum (3/10)
    9. Kerblam! (3/10)
    10. The Ghost Monument (2/10)

    • Nice list. I like that there is (Kerblam! aside) a “non-Chibnall division” and a “Chibnall division.” As you said, there is a clear quality divide there.

  5. “Russell T. Davies provided Doctor Who with its first minority companions; Mickey Smith and Martha Jones. Moffat was responsible for the series’ first explicitly queer companions, regardless of any subtext involving Turlough; Captain Jack Harkness, Clara Oswald, Bill Potts.”

    Jack Harkness is from the Davies era.
    How is Clara Oswald queer?

    Otherwise, great article, agree with alot of your points! =)

    • Ah, you mean he wrote the episode that introduced him.. Gotcha..
      Still, Clara? =)

    • Jack Harkness was introduced by Moffat in The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. During the Davies era, and the concept of the character was Davies and Barrowman, but Davies has also stressed that Moffat was the only writer that he didn’t heavily have to rewrite, so it’s fair to give Moffat some credit there.

      Clara is bi. She references an affair with Jane Austin a few times in the ninth season.

      • Ok I see, well if that counts then River could also be bi. (Even more so hehe)

        Thanks for the answer.

      • Yep! And Vastra and Jenny! The definition of companion can be quite… contentious among fans. So I stuck to the ones I thought I could make the strongest case for as companions. (River is definitely a companion to me, but I suspect you’d get a “… but she never travelled consistently in the TARDIS!” objection.)

      • She’s had at least two wives and was always intended to be bi, so, yes…

  6. You’re much kinder to many parts of this season than I am. The show may LOOK better but to compete with all of the smart TV out there today, the scripts need to be good. That’s not the case for 80% of the season. Chibnall’s episodes especially are dire. It’s like someone heard the minority of complaints about Moffat’s era being too “complicated” and went the complete opposite way, dumbing it down and then spoonfeeding every single element of the dumbed-down script to make sure not even a houseplant could be confused.

    • To be fair to Chibnall, he is trying to apply his own narrative logic to the show in the same way that Moffat did. Moffat’s “complicated-ness” was a result of his desire to speed up pacing and to assume televisual literacy on the part of his audience, two things that aged very well and riled a generation raised on Cinema Sins and Everything Wrong With…

      In contrast, Chibnall seems to be trying to pull the show towards a template that tries to update classic Doctor Who storytelling for the modern format. Watching the past season, you’d assume that Terry frickin’ Nation was Chibnall’s biggest influence as a writer. (In contrast to Davies and Moffat, who are influenced most obviously by Holmes and maybe Cartmel.) You see the Nation influence in the weird fixation on technobabble, the overly-detailed world-building exposition, the structuring of the stories as effectively episodic sequences stitched together. (The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Ghost Monument and The Battle of… are the best examples; scripts dripping with nonsense detail full of things that happen for no reason but to drag the episode out.)

      There are just two problems with this approach. Most obviously, Nation was much better with ideas than with actual scripting, and his pacing was glacial by the time that the show hit the seventies, let alone the twenty-first century. (I have a soft spot for Planet of the Daleks, but goodness does it drag.) More than that, though, Chibnall simply isn’t a good enough writer to pull that off.

  7. Bloody hell, I died of old age reading all that!

  8. Is it just me or has Series 11 been to Doctor Who, what Voyager was to Star Trek.

    Also my rankings (even if it’s a bit late):
    1. Rosa
    2. The Woman Who Fell To Earth/Resolution
    3. The Tsuranga Conundrum
    4. The Witchfinders
    5. Demons of The Punjab
    6. It Takes You Away
    7. The Ghost Monument/The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos
    8. Kerblam!
    9. Arachnids in the UK

  9. Excellent, grown up review. Well done and thanks. (There’s some bs out there about s11…)

    • Thanks Maurice. I try to give the show a fair shake. And there are things that it does well, and its heart is in the right place. There’s no small irony in it being the least radical that the show has been in thirty-odd years, despite being targetted by all these reactionary right-wing YouTube critics.

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