Here follows a very personal Doctor Who season recap. Be warned. I might as well be chatting to my therapist.
Feeling warned? Okay, cool.
I Am Not a Doctor Who Expert
I watched a lot of Doctor Who as a child, and I’ve watched a little less as an adult.
Yes, I tuned in enthusiastically for ‘New Who’ back in 2005, when I was just 18. And I’ve dipped in every time a new Doctor is cast.
Last year, partly in anticipation of the showrunner switch (a regeneration of its own, from Steven Moffat to Chris Chibnell) and out of a The Thick of It-shaped fondness for Peter Capalidi, I watched all of his Doctor’s seasons back to back.
But I’ve never been that turned on by ‘new Who’. I am not the first to suggest this, of course, but its casting of the Doctor as a sort of super hero god never felt right, and while I have no problem with a love interest (do you really think Ive never fantasized about the Doctor?), it seemed to be on his terms.
Like this string of women (never a man, as far as I saw) were trying to hook up with a celebrity who was a bit too good for them.
Capaldi, both in his treatment of the character and the way he was written, rowed a lot of that back. And so I was excited, tremendously excited in fact, to see how Chibnell – creator of the excellent Broadchurch – would handle the Doctor mythology. I was especially excited when he cast Jodie Whittaker, both because she had been so incredible in Broadchurch and because she is a woman.
(Yep, I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t have been excited by any woman).
And Cor, isn’t it Excellent?
From the off, Chibnall’s Doctor Who felt totally different from the seasons before it.
There has been much criticism that series 11’s ensemble cast — the Doctor travels with three companions, none of whom seem sexually interested in her, nor worship her, though she and Yaz seem to flirt in a casual way — draws attention away from the brilliance of the Doctor but this is exactly what I liked.
The Doctor is barely the focus. A wonderful character, certainly. The leader of the group, for sure. But not a super hero.
From Caper to Caper
When I have watched New Who, I’ve found that the season-long story arcs really tire me out. With the exception of David Tennant’s second series, and its gradual teasing into the narrative of the Doctor’s arch nemesis The Master, they each felt labored to the point of overshadowing individual stories.
While the latest series has an arc of a sort (certainly, it has a call back; a conceit that suggests a continuity that is not really there), it is primarily made up of standalone adventures and it is also largely very lighthearted.
This allowed the series to pause for breath far more astutely than in previous years, without the need for prologues or codas. Some of the best Doctor Who episodes since its return have been strong, standalone stories, each of which could have been written without connections to larger story arcs.
Under Chibnall, there has been a clear focus on these strong, contained narratives. From ‘Kerblam!’, the superb critique of modern conveniences like Amazon, to the slightly comedic ‘Witchfinders’ with Alan Cummings’ excellent portrayal of King James I, the series has remained light, somewhat wry, and highly effective.
“Caper” is the only word for a lot of these self-contained stories this season. A decidedly old-style word, now, for a supposedly super modern (why must a woman be, by definition, ”too modern”?) iteration of a beloved character, show, and formula.
It is Also Absurd
For my money, the best episode by far ended with the Doctor talking to a whole anti-universe that manifested itself as a frog with the voice of a pensioner from Sheffield.
Many people were outraged by this, since it appeared to lack gravitas and poked fun at the seriousness of protecting the universe during intergalactic time travel.
To my mind, it was perfect: Chibnell, it seems, has decided to take Doctor Who in as many new directions as he possibly could — perhaps aware that, after casting a woman as the Doctor, certain people were going to hate whatever he made, so why the hell not change everything?
And so he moved to an ensemble cast, he made heavy-handed allusions to the stupidity of Brexit, he turned the show back into something that works for kids, and made certain political points about civil rights via stories about the partition of India and Rosa Parks.
And, he put a universe inside a frog. Because let’s all remember that some SF/Fantasy is very serious indeed, and is all the better for it, and some is whimsical (cf. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) and is all the better for that as well.
Doctor Who has been running, on and off, since 1963. It’s had plenty of time to try plenty of things (which it has) and it will have plenty of time to try plenty more.
I, for one, am grateful for all that this latest series brought: from its occasional absurdity, to its occasional gravity, to its occasional political commentary.
I feel like the kid who fell in love with Tom Baker’s Doctor, all over again. And that is a very nice feeling indeed.