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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.

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Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (Review)

It Takes You Away is a strong contender, along with Demons of the Punjab, for the strongest story of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away plays as an allegory. It is something of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has come to feeling like a fairy tale, particularly given the conscious choice to root The Woman Who Fell to Earth in a more gritty and grounded universe. It Takes You Away seems like it could have been commissioned during the Moffat era, a lyrical meditation on the idea of loss and mourning. It Takes You Away is a story about needing to let go of trauma, rather than holding on it or carrying it inside.

Reflections and symbols.

To be fair, It Takes You Away is not perfect. There are still some minor pacing issues, particularly with how long the episode takes to get to the meat of the story; there is a sense in which It Takes You Away is three stories stitched together, with the middle segment particularly inessential. There is also the same over-reliance on weirdly specific and overly detailed nonsense techno-babble and mythology that stood out in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Still, It Takes You Away has some big ideas, a clever execution, and a strong central theme upon which both might be placed.

Mind the gap.

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Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum (Review)

The Tsuranga Conundrum is a very strange episode, in large part because it is perhaps the first episode of the revived Doctor Who that feels like the product of a writers’ room.

In that, The Tsuranga Conundrum feels very much like an episode assembled to fulfill a checklist of requirements that were due before the end of the season. The primary plot is a stylish futuristic science-fiction adventure with a monster that serves as a solid mid-level threat for the primary cast. At the same time, the secondary plot exists to further the arc of one (arguably two) of the show’s credited leads in a way that is clearly positioning the character for a satisfactory resolution at the end of the year.

Pilot error.

The two threads in The Tsuranga Conundrum don’t necessarily gel with one another in the way that the plots of best episodes do, where several story threads all develop from the same unified idea and move in parallel, as would be more likely if a single writer had pitched and developed the episode from scratch. Instead, the various elements of The Tsuranga Conundrum seem to exist because there has to be a story like this among the ten episodes in the season order, and there wasn’t room to split the two elements into separate stories or there weren’t any other stories in which these elements might be integrated.

The Tsuranga Conundrum feels like a script that went through several passes inside a writers’ room, with each writer working on each draft emphasising a different aspect of the story to the point that whatever had originally been the central focus of the episode has been lost in the process. This would be worrying enough of itself, but The Tsuranga Conundrum is very pointedly not the product of a writers’ room. It is a script credited to a single writer, the head writer on the series. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a Chris Chibnall script that feels like it has passed through several different hands before hitting the screen.

Seeing red.

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Doctor Who: Arachnids in the U.K. (Review)

I’ve heard you’re only running because you’ve hated Trump for decades.

Please don’t mention that name.

Arachnids in the U.K. is perhaps the best episode of the eleventh season of Doctor Who to date.

Arachnids in the U.K. feels like a nostalgic throwback to the Russell T. Davies era, which makes it feel of a piece with the first three episodes of the season. Executive producer Chris Chibnall has executed his spin on the traditional “present-past-future” triptych that was a hallmark of the early seasons of the revival, and so it is time to return to the contemporary United Kingdom in order to better develop the supporting cast and make some very broad political commentary about the modern world.

Finding its (eight) legs.

It is interesting to reflect on how far Doctor Who has come since its resurrection that this idea seems almost quaint, a nostalgic “back-to-basics” approach that seems lifted from thirteen years earlier. It is a valid and worthy approach to Doctor Who, and reflects Chibnall’s desire to make the show more populist and mainstream than it was during the more esoteric tenure of Steven Moffat. There is a reason that Davies was able to transform Doctor Who from a failed cult curiosity into one of the biggest things on British television using this template, after all.

At the same time, there’s something just a little worrying when the stand-out episode of the eleventh season feels like a perfectly serviceable mid-tier episode from the first four.

“Who is this Harriet Jones? I feel like we could make a deal with her. A tremendous deal.”

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Doctor Who: Rosa (Review)

“We don’t serve negroes.”

“Well, that’s good. Because I don’t eat them.”

Rosa is undoubtedly well-intentioned and timely.

It is hard to imagine a more relevant or important episode of Doctor Who at this moment in time than one which acknowledges the history of racism within the United States, and the horrors inflicted upon its minority populations within living memory. (A “Brexit” episode might be closer to home, though.) This is, after all, a point in history where the President of the United States has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, described nations with black populations as “sh!thole countries” and argued that Mexico is exporting rapists and murderers to the United States.

Park it here.

Of course, this isn’t just an American issue. The Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom was driven by racial anxiety, to the point that the “Leave” campaign unveiled billboards that evoked Nazi propaganda. In countries like Hungary, a resurgent ethno-nationalism is on the rise. Even on the day that Rosa was broadcast, there was a prominent news story about a white man on a Ryanair flight who insisted that a woman of Jamaican descent could not sit next to him. Rosa is certainly very timely and very relevant. It is important for children (and adults, frankly) to hear this.

There are problems, however. Rosa is a very worthy episode of television with a lot of very important things to say. In particular, its handling of Ryan and Yaz’s experiences in both the fifties and the present are very illuminating and insightful. That said, the episode runs into the same problems that haunt most of the series’ big “fixed point in history” narratives, in that it adopts a fundamentally conservative approach to history and predetermination, arguing that things can only be as they ever were. This may not be the best approach to a story about Rosa Parks.

Suitcase of the week.

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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (Review)

“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

“Really?”

“Well, I will have by the time I reach the top.”

– the more things change

The Woman Who Fell to Earth has a lot of pressure working upon it as Doctor Who season premieres go.

This is the first time that the Doctor has changed gender during regeneration, and is the first time that the title role will be played by a female actor. This is only the second time that the series has changed showrunner and rebuilt itself from the ground up since it returned more than a decade ago. There is a lot riding on The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and a lot of expectations that need to be satisfied.

Doctor who?

The Woman Who Fell to Earth is efficient, if not excellent. As a showrunner and scriptwriter, Chris Chibnall immediately and effectively establishes himself as a safe pair of hands. On some level, this is disappointing. After all, both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were showrunners who immediately and aggressively asserted bold visions of what Doctor Who could be, announcing their arrival on the series with a confident statement of purpose that left the series scrambling to keep up. Instead, The Woman Who Fell to Earth seems to promise business as usual.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, to be fair. There is some argument that Doctor Who might even need a safe and reliable pair of hands at this point. Chibnall is a writer who is much less adventurous than Davies or Moffat, but The Woman Who Fell to Earth is infused with a back-to-basics meat-and-potatoes approach. A lot of the episode is spent trying to avoid potential pitfalls that would emphasise Chibnall’s relative weaknesses, and instead play to a very broad “big tent” ideal of what Doctor Who can be.

Breaking out.

Indeed, The Woman Who Fell to Earth works best in its relatively straightforward nuts-and-bolts elements, when judged on the individual elements of the episode rather than how they all fit together. Jodie Whittaker throws herself into the lead role and understands that she’s effectively propelling the narrative forward. The new regular ensemble has a breezy and easy chemistry that feels suitably distinct from more recent inhabitants of the TARDIS. The actual plotting of the episode is fairly boilerplate Doctor Who, almost as if the series is showing that it can still do that.

That said, there’s a worrying lack of ambition evident in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and its business-as-usual approach to Doctor Who. This is a season premiere that feels more of a piece with episodes like Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime or Deep Breath, episodes that are less concerned with bold questions of vision than they are with the mechanics of simply introducing a new lead. It’s disappointing, because the stock comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth should be something as wonderful as Rose or The Eleventh Hour.

Jodie’s Wits-About-Her.

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