Sabastian Astley reviews the newest series of the timey wimey sci-fi show so far.
The 11th series of the iconic BBC show Doctor Who is unique from that of its decennial predecessors, from the change of showrunner from Steven Moffatt to Chris Chibnall to the passing of the torch from composer Murray Gold to Segun Akinola . However, the most revolutionary change comes with the hiring of actress Jodie Whittaker, the 13th incarnation and also the first-ever female Doctor. These changes alone are enough to redefine the show completely. However, with the experimental three-companion structure that adds Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill as series regulars, as well as the upgrade in production design with Academy Award-winning VFX house DNEG, this new series can easily be seen as a “soft reboot” of the show.
Now halfway through the season, have these changes revitalized the show?
The Woman Who Fell To Earth (Written by Chris Chibnall)
This series opener sees the Doctor crash-land into Sheffield. She meets Yaz (Gill), Ryan (Cole), and Graham (Walsh), all of whom become entangled in the monstrous warrior Tzim-Sha’s hunt. The episode culminates in Tzim-Sha’s defeat, but at the cost of the life of Ryan’s nan and Graham’s wife, Grace.
The episode’s structure itself cleverly envelops us into the Doctor’s companions’ world, and it feels as though we follow them meeting the Doctor, rather than the Doctor meeting them. This is a welcome change to the Moffatt era, where companions felt more defined to a singular idea. These companions feel real, in large part due to Chibnall’s well-structured character development featuring Ryan’s dyspraxia and Graham’s struggle in playing the role of surrogate grandfather to Ryan. During the closing sequence, Walsh’s Graham creates a powerful resonance in portraying heartbreaking grief at the loss of Grace. In addition to the improvement in writing, the improvement of the production design is clear with Tzim-Sha, from his Predator-esque body armor to his teeth-covered face. The VFX during his hatching from a strange, onion-like egg proves the brilliance DNEG has to offer the show. A small but appreciated detail was the creative rebirth of the Sonic Screwdriver, which, in turn, provides us with some character development for a more hands-on Doctor and allows for a refreshing display of intelligence that follows the screenwriting rule of “show, don’t tell.”
Because the episode focuses more on the companions, however, Whittaker’s Doctor doesn’t shine through as much as she could; rather, we see flashes of 10, 11 and 12 throughout the episode without any further definitive characteristics of 13. The defeat of Tzim-Sha through the redirection of the DNA bombs seems more in line with the actions of Capaldi’s darker Doctor rather than with the exuberant and joyful Doctor Whittaker plays throughout the rest of the episode.
Ending on an incredibly unexpected cliffhanger leaving the four suddenly trapped in outer space with moments of life left, Chibnall crafts an incredibly human series opener. This refreshes the typical Moffatt “I Am The Doctor” approach, instead adopting a “We Are The Companions” style.
The Ghost Monument (Written by Chris Chibnall)
After being rescued, the Doctor and companions must assist Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley), the finalists of the universe’s riskiest race, and reach the Ghost Monument on the planet Desolation. Their own survival is at risk and they must succeed in order to potentially make it home.
We finally witness the new intro sequence with this episode, and it is both incredibly creative and visually striking – easily the show’s best introduction sequence since its 2005 revival. With Segun Akinola’s composition, a combination of strings and bass draws the viewer into this unknown world, and it’s clear that the show has strengthened in some ways from this reshuffle. The cinematography of the episode is astounding, a strong example being the Cerebros one-shots, a cleverly-executed sequence design that would’ve otherwise felt forgettable. The landscape shots, filmed in South Africa, truly help the planet Desolation live up to its name, with barren deserts stretching beyond the scope of the frame to make survival seem hopeless. The writing of the main cast remains consistent, with Chibnall throwing in a few classic Doctor name-drops – “You never saw him [Pythagoras] with a hangover” – and mournful moments between Graham and Ryan which hit the appropriate emotional beats. Developing the sensitive issue of grief in the middle of an epic sci-fi adventure is no easy feat, but Chibnall manages it well. In contrast to the ‘Doctor lite’ criticism of the series opener, Whittaker now truly shines with her return to the TARDIS, packing a variety of emotions that emphasise the strong Doctor/TARDIS bond that Capaldi’s Doctor seemed to lack. The production design continues its streak of magnificence, especially with the new TARDIS; there are clear influences drawn from 10’s TARDIS and a more Classic Who console at the heart.
However, Chibnall falters in his writing as Ryan’s character seems flatter than in the series opener. He asks obvious questions, and his Call of Duty scene is an incredibly over-the-top and unnecessary comedic addition that feels like a step back for the character. Epzo, Angstrom, and the main villain of this episode, Ilin (Art Malik), all seem far too one-dimensional. Ilin is a rich overlord, and Epzo and Angstorm are hardened mercenary types driven by tragedy. All three are tropes often seen in sci-fi; Chibnall puts no original spin to these roles and the story plays out exactly how we expect it to. Additionally, all three individuals are supposedly “alien”; however, judging by their outfits alone, they wouldn’t be out of place on a high street in London. These three are a disappointment following the creative approach to otherworldly beings we saw with Tzim-Sha. Because of these one-dimensional characters, the Doctor and the trio therefore seem out of place due to their depth and development. Ultimately, it feels as though we are following two completely different stories with little connection to the other.
While continuing to develop many of the themes presented in the prior episode, Chibnall falters in his followup with a simplistic story that feels shallow. However, for the most part, this episode continues to show impressive production value and further develops the main cast of characters well.
Rosa (Written by Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall)
The crew accidentally lands in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama – the home of Rosa Parks and her iconic protest. After readings of artron energy appear, the Doctor begins an investigation. The crew uncovers a plot to prevent Rosa’s protest from occurring and must protect history itself.
“Rosa” is easily the juggernaut of this half of the series, and potentially the best episode of the entire run. The writing is incredible, and pulls no punches whatsoever. It’s likely co-writer Malorie Blackman was the driving force for this episode, building the world of the show while Chibnall maintains the main cast’s development. It feels as though the Doctor and her companions touch history rather than make it; Rosa acts fully of her own volition, with an immeasurable performance by Vinette Robinson. It’s difficult to put into words how true-to-life Robinson plays the figure, down to the smallest of gestures. She easily gives one of the best performances of a historical figure in Doctor Who history, rivaling Van Gogh to say the least. In terms of story, the narrative involves the Doctor and the trio much more and it feels as though they are a key element in driving the plot forward; this differs from the prior episode, in which they felt tacked on. The reintroduction of Time Agents through the villainous Krasko (Josh Bowman) was a terrific callback, showing Chibnall can confidently recall old characters other than the Dalek or Cyberman. Whittaker’s moments with Krasko allow for her confrontational and aggressive edge to show, displaying a brilliant mix of 10’s anger and 11’s restraint and channeling it into something entirely of her own incarnation.
Of course, the episode is not without its flaws. Krasko is very underdeveloped, a concurrent theme with Chibnall villains. “I’m a bad guy” is all we ever truly understand about him, save for a throwaway line about “you people” to Ryan about the origins for his villainous plot; this could imply anything from racially-motivated hatred to a general hatred of humanity in the Whoniverse. Additionally, Krasko’s disposal felt incredibly out of left field; Ryan’s shooting Krasko, propelling him into an unknown time while not outright killing him, is still an indirect (seemingly) murder by a companion. Yet, when Ryan tells the Doctor of this, she seems to just shrug it off. It feels incredibly out of line for a companion and a complete misunderstanding of the Doctor for her simple acceptance of the event. In relation to the companions, the episode seems to highlight the main problem of having a trio: a distinct lack of breathing room for the Doctor, undermining her character to solitary scenes between her and Krasko. Finally, the use of the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day was incredibly irritating, as it overwhelmed the ending and sucked all nuanced emotion out of the scene. (This recalls complaints about former composer Murray Gold’s music driving the emotion of the scene rather than the acting itself).
Easily the best episode of the season thus far, with an incredible approach to a sensitive topic through Vinette Robinson’s stunning portrayal, Doctor Who truly celebrates Rosa Parks as an individual.
Arachnids in the UK (Written by Chris Chibnall)
After finally returning to Sheffield, the Doctor and the trio find themselves investigating a mutant spider crisis, which seems to originate from the hotel Yaz’s mum, Najia (Shobna Gulati), works at, under the corporate capitalist Jack Robertson (Chris Noth).
This is a bad episode. Chibnall’s writing hits an incredible low point, as seen from the very opening. The awkwardly written encounter between Robertson and Frankie (Jaleh Alp) is another example of Chibnall’s plot-blocking. A far better sequence would have followed Najia’s perspective leading to the conversation in media res. Moving back to the gang momentarily, this is a clearly Yaz-centric episode, as we are introduced to her family. Her father, Hakim (Ravin J. Ganatra), is defined by one phrase: “conspiracy-obsessed.” A strong emphasis on familial development with Yaz would’ve been appreciated, but the “terrible pakora” banter is at least a nice touch, however fleeting it may be. The writing for almost everyone seems to have degraded, especially Ryan; without Graham at the character’s side, Chibnall seems unable to develop Ryan individually. His refusal to open his father’s letter until off-screen not only plot-blocks yet again, but also throws away a chance of a truly touching Ryan-centric moment showing the troublesome relationship between him and his father. Even the title “Arachnids in the UK” is a misstep in writing; the episode would’ve been better suited to “Spiders in Specific Locations,” if anything, as there are only three appearances by the titular creatures in the entire episode.
The episode’s pace is nearly nonexistent through the exposition-laden dialogue; Chibnall inverts the “show, don’t tell” idea he executed so well in the series opener. However, all of these issues are insignificant compared to one: Chris Noth’s Robertson. Possibly one of the worst Doctor Who villains ever, a cringe-inducing metaphoric depiction of Donald Trump beats you over the head with every single word of dialogue, from the gun-loving mania to the literal Fire and Fury name drop. Depictions of Trump became oversaturated two years ago, and to call this beating a dead horse would be a charitable understatement. Chibnall somehow manages to heighten the Trump metaphor to new levels of mediocre screenwriting through the blindingly obvious female empowerment sequence over the Trump-esque figure that seemed unnecessary and horribly clunky, especially with its position in the episode’s denouement. Because of this car crash of a political metaphor, the secondary villain, Jade McIntyre (Tanya Fear), seemingly gets off completely without condemnation or judgement. Her character is painfully undeveloped, a recurring theme with Chibnall’s writing by this point outside of the main cast. From ordering a pointless spider specimen to analyse its size despite having already had contact with one, to her role in the spider mutations as the negligent scientist who discarded this toxic waste along with the actual spider corpses themselves which she openly admits to, she is, if anything, more involved than Robertson and yet carries none of the guilt or blame.
There are a few, and I mean a few, positive points to say about this episode. The opening shot replicating the perspective of a spider is an appreciated cinematic touch, as is the truly spectacular and jaw-dropping time vortex sequence, which would’ve been impossible if not for the assistance of the brilliant DNEG. An honorable mention must also be made to the truly skin-crawling moment when Graham asks whether Ryan has checked the ceiling, at which point we are greeted by a monstrously large mother spider guaranteed to get hearts racing. Once more, Whittaker exceptionally channels one of the core elements of the Doctor: the loneliness that she carries with her. With every episode, her Doctor portrayal grows stronger and stronger. Another standout performance is of course Bradley Walsh’s Graham, who continues to devastate with his heartbreaking, grief-stricken portrayal, pushed even further with his all-too-brief ghostly visions of Grace.
This is easily the worst episode of the series thus far, and possibly one of the dullest of the entire revival. A horribly-structured and terribly-written attempt at a romp across Sheffield leaves little for praise other than in the performances of Whittaker and Walsh.
The Tsuranga Conundrum (Written by Chris Chibnall)
After being injured by a sonic mine, the Doctor and the trio awaken in a hospital ship, stranded four days from the TARDIS. When the ship suddenly comes under attack by an immortal creature hellbent on their destruction, they must work quickly to save themselves and the bizarre patients aboard.
Although a definite improvement in quality from the previous episode, Chibnall’s writing continues to be confusing from the outset. For example, why is the group unable to move if the mine is counting down? A simple explanation from the Doctor of the reason for their immobility would’ve sufficed. This confounding writing continues with the Doctor’s injured state upon their awakening on the Tsuranga, despite her regenerative abilities which should make it more likely for her heal faster than the others. What is the narrative purpose of her weakened physical state? Chibnall once more disappoints with his “alien” races; if the most alien thing Chibnall can conceive other than an alien warrior á la Predator is a male pregnancy, we need more individual writers. Both Astos (Brett Goldstein) and Mabli (Lois Chimimba) are “Chibnall Throwaways” – one-dimensional, simplistic characters simply designed to push the plot forward.
The introduction of General Cicero (Suzanne Packer) distracts from an already divided narrative between the Pting and the pregnant man. We cannot possibly get enough screen time to develop this triptych sufficiently, and as a result, the episode suffers greatly. The sinister and threatening tone of the episode is quickly eliminated with the team’s interaction with the Pting a mere 15 or 20 minutes into the episode. The episode could’ve benefited greatly from stronger tension-building followed by a confrontational meeting, juxtaposing the cutesy appearance of the Pting for a greater payoff. Furthermore, we don’t need to see the Pting fact file. The more we know, the less fearful we are of the creature, with the mention of a purely non-organic diet immediately placing the crew out of direct danger. Moving back to the pregnancy plot line, this is a clear shoehorn by Chibnall for some individual Ryan development, but it’s poorly executed. It would work if Ryan was scared of fatherhood himself, but in terms of a distanced father-son relationship, it misses the mark greatly.
However, it must be said that there is fantastic cinematography from the opening; the monolithic alien junkyard shows the production design has no intention of dipping in quality. Whittaker likewise shows this, bringing a vulnerability to her Doctor not often seen by other incarnations. A selfish side comes with this vulnerability, creating a surprising subversion of roles in which Astos the medical doctor becomes the voice of reason over the Doctor herself, however briefly. Her mini-monologues dedicated to imagination are a nice addition by Chibnall, giving us that unique Doctor flair without pausing the episode entirely like Moffatt’s writing often demanded. As well as this, the Pting plot line shows that Chibnall is clearly influenced by Alien, and Segun Akinola’s soundscape creates a cold and sinister atmosphere that brilliantly unsettles the viewer, furthering that Alien-esque approach. The Pting plot line rounds off with a surprisingly logical and intelligent ending through the Doctor’s removal of the Pting via an explosive snack from the ship’s system, an uncharacteristically well-written resolution from Chibnall.
‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ is a masterclass in how to overcomplicate your episode, with Chibnall throwing too many balls in the air, which land at different moments to create a chaotic and confusing mess. There is clear potential in the simplistic Alien-influenced narrative, but it is sadly neglected. However, Whittaker’s Doctor explores emotional territory only seen in glimpses of previous incarnations.
In conclusion, Series 11 is tricky to navigate. With some serious highs and some dramatic lows, it seems difficult to predict how the series will ultimately be regarded once it has finished its run. There are some elements that have definitely benefited massively from this “soft reboot,” with the truly marvelous production design and the subtleties of Segun Akinola’s composition heightening the episodes greatly. Some elements still appear to be in a chaotic state of flux, though this may be due to the Chibnall-heavy writing this first half of the season has encountered. I fully believe Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, and I grow excited to see what new elements she brings to her portrayal in the latter half of the season. I believe that her make-or-break would be in response to the loss of one or more of the companions – the Doctor is, after all, built on grief and loss. I’m certainly looking forward to fresh writers and seeing how the main cast is handled without Chibnall’s direct influence. However, I remain very optimistic about the second half of the series, which promises a bold portrayal of the Partition of India, depictions of gigantic companies like Amazon through “Kerblam,” and a final historical episode in the Jacobean era with James I.
Only time (and space) will tell, but I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the ride.
Doctor Who airs every Sunday on BBC One at 6:30pm. Check out its trailer below: