Lately, I've been seeing a lot of headlines, posts, and comments about fan reactions to the political and social subtexts of Doctor Who Series 11. The media sums it up as, “A few whiny, sexist, bigoted viewers don't like the new Doctor Who…but real fans love it! Pay no attention to those falling ratings behind the curtain!”
Meanwhile, the negative fan reaction is essentially, “Doctor Who has gone full PC…or, more accurately, NPC. The show we loved is dead and it's not coming back. I'm done with the new era.”
The latter view was what I subscribed to before I watched The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The premiere gave me hope. I still hold that it's an excellent new-Doctor introduction, though not a classic when weighed against the full scope of Doctor Who canon. Episode 2, The Ghost Monument, was satisfying as well. But these stories ultimately proved to be the least political entries of the season. The same trend has not held true for all episodes.
In this post, I want to expand on the comments I've made about the overall direction of the show in my weekly reviews, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Series 11, and get to the heart of what’s going awry in this new era. Warning: This won't be short, and it will be very blunt.
What is Series 11 doing right?
The majority of fans, even those who don't like anything else about the current state of the show, seem to like Jodie Whittaker. They don't necessarily enjoy her as much as they did previous Doctors, but overall, her take on the Doctor has gotten a surprisingly warm welcome from the fans. I attribute this to the fact that she channels both David Tennant and Matt Smith in her performance, veering away from the more abrasive, controversial aspects of Peter Capaldi's portrayal. (Personally, I didn't have a problem with the Twelfth Doctor in this regard, but I realize that I'm in the minority.) True, mimicking other actors isn't necessarily a great achievement for a performer, but in this case, it's good branding. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors got a positive response from fans. Hearkening back to their eras is a smart strategy.
The companions, individually, are all quite good. (The “Team TARDIS” aspect is something I'll be addressing later.) In some ways, they're more interesting than past companions due to their diverse backgrounds. Also, each one has an entertaining dynamic with the Thirteenth Doctor.
The production values this year are also a hit. They show looks and sounds amazing, thanks to gorgeous cinematography and an epic soundtrack. The visual upgrade is something Doctor Who has needed for a long time.
What is Series 11 doing wrong?
Though the main characters are excellent individually, the team dynamic does lead to a few significant issues. Doctor Who has used a multi-companion format many times before, most notably during the eras of the First and Fifth Doctors. However, there are two things to point out about that. First, the show had a very different format back then, with multi-episode arcs that gave each character something to do. Second, not much was expected of companions back then. Ask the Doctor questions, get captured, get rescued, rinse and repeat. That's how the show could get by with a companion as badly written and acted as Adric.
These days, we want more from our TV shows, and the revived series of Doctor Who has tried to do better with its non-Gallifreyan leads. Hence the intricate character arcs of Rose, Donna, Amy, and Clara. The show began to divide emphasis more or less equally between the Doctor and one or two companions.
Now we have three. And that, quite frankly, is a problem. I would love to see one of these three as the sole companion—Yaz, if I were forced to choose. Instead, we get stories that are weighted towards one of the companions while the others are shoved to the background. Even worse, this causes the Doctor herself to play second fiddle to her friends. Female leads of TV shows are all too often sidelined in favor of other characters—even other female characters. Emma Swan was pushed out of the spotlight by Regina Mills, who eventually became a footnote herself. Supergirl/Kara Danvers was all but forgotten in favor of her sister, her male love interests, and the character whom all of Tumblr wanted to be her female love interest. I'd hoped Doctor Who could avoid this unfortunate trope, but it has veered dangerously close to the edge more than once this season.
However, the most hotly debated aspect of this season, by far, is the recent political/social-justice bent. Three of the six episodes aired so far—The Woman Who Fell to Earth, The Ghost Monument, and The Tsuranga Conundrum—did not prominently feature political themes, but the rest have focused quite heavily on such elements. Rosa revolved around race relations, Arachnids in the UK boiled down to a parable of starry-eyed liberalism, and Demons of the Punjab practically abandoned sci-fi altogether in favor of analyzing the consequences of religious conflict and British imperialism. These three stories aren't completely terrible, but they're still little more than award-bait, and they don't live up to the usual Doctor Who standards in many vital respects.
Once you take away the secular sermons, the contrived teachable moments, and the adulation of liberal critics, what are we left with in Doctor Who Series 11?
Some seriously sub-par writing. It could be worse, but it could also be a great deal better. I'll go out on a limb here and state my honest opinion: while I've never done it myself, it's probably not that hard for anyone with basic storytelling skills to write a passable Doctor Who story. Even the Doctor's unique, quirky dialogue isn't that difficult to capture if you're familiar enough with the character and have a decent sense of humor. A skilled actor in the role of the Doctor makes the job even easier, as they bring their own talents and interpretation to the role. So while fans are breathing sighs of relief over the fact that the Doctor is still thoroughly Doctor-ish in all the ways that matter most, are we being conditioned to settle for less in other areas of the show? Many of us had low expectations going into this season, which were surpassed by a fairly strong premiere. But let's face it—the standard set during the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat years is definitely not being met, or even approached. There's nothing close to a new classic among the stories we've had so far. At best, it's bog-standard Who. At worst, it's weak sci-fi that doesn't feel enough like Doctor Who. There have been some great moments, but Doctor Who is supposed to be more than a hodgepodge of clever sound bites. It's the show that gave us masterpieces like Midnight, Blink, The Doctor's Wife, and Extremis, to name just a few. Series 11, thus far, has no such jewels in its crown.
All that said, is Doctor Who in decline?
The honest answer is, not yet. Six fair-to-middling episodes aren't enough to sink a show that has weathered rougher patches over its long history. However, while it may not yet be in freefall, Doctor Who is not having a good year. The viewing numbers are still far above those of the Capaldi era, but at this rate, they won't stay there.
What's the core problem with Series 11?
It's not the female Doctor. Against all odds, after relentless virtue-signaling from the media and perhaps the worst marketing campaign I've ever seen from the BBC, the Thirteenth Doctor's introduction was a success. As I mentioned before, she's even well-liked by many fans who don't care for the overall direction of Series 11.
It's not the presence of political themes. Hear me out on this one. Doctor Who has never been the most conservative of shows, dating all the way back to the Thatcher era. There's been a persistent bias in favor of third-wave feminism and LGBT agendas ever since the program first returned to our screens in 2005. Neither smug liberal commentators or angry conservative fans are right when they say that Doctor Who is only now becoming politically correct. For a very long time, it's been more on the PC end of the spectrum than many other sci-fi shows. This has not been enough to seriously harm the program's viewership. Conservative Whovians do not tune in expecting to see their views affirmed or promoted.
The core problem with Doctor Who Series 11 can be boiled down to two words: viewer expectations.
I’m an author. My readers have come to expect certain elements from my books: for example, humor and a lack of politics. If I were to suspend those elements in order to release a “very special episode”, a book which forsakes the usual hallmarks of my work for the sake of preaching, my regular readers might be willing to wade through it, but only so that they could get back to the fun stuff on the other side.
Series 11 has already had too many “very special episodes.” The Racism Is Bad Episode. The Capitalism Is Bad Episode. The Imperialism and Religious Intolerance Are Bad Episode. And we’re only a little more than halfway through the season. I don’t think I’m the only fan who’s asking, “When are we going to get back to the stuff that makes Doctor Who…you know, Doctor Who?”
Contrary to popular belief, the basic crowd-pleasing elements of popular television—like laugh-out-loud humor, genuine scares, and an old-fashioned good-versus-evil showdown—are not, by definition, lesser or unimportant. Clap for the historical lessons of Demons of the Punjab all you like, professional critics, but actually, it does matter that the viewers you consider to be shallow were left wondering why the scary bat-faced aliens just stood around and did nothing. Because if all those viewers tune out, leaving only a small crowd of navel-gazing journalists shouting “Brava!”, then there won’t be any money to make Doctor Who. You may not like capitalism, but unfortunately for you, capitalism is the reason your oh-so-relevant TV show exists in the first place.
Mock the complexity and shortcomings of the Moffat era if you will. In the end, I don’t care that the exploding TARDIS in Series 5 was never explained to universal satisfaction. I don’t care that River Song’s timeline doesn’t make perfect sense under scrutiny. I don’t care that Clara’s character arc was full of missteps and missed opportunities. Why? Because I had more fun watching all that than I did watching any other TV show on the air. That kind of Doctor Who helped me get through difficult times and inspired me to write stories of my own. Plenty of other Whovians feel the same way. Maybe we became too much of a niche for the highbrow producers at the BBC. Maybe, in their view, we spend too much time debating the intricacies of time paradoxes and not enough time trying to relate this week’s monster to yet another character flaw of Donald Trump. But we kept the show afloat for about thirteen years, give or take. So, perhaps our opinions matter after all.
Can Doctor Who survive this slump? Maybe. If the finale is strong enough to get viewers hyped for the next season, and if Series 12 corrects the failings of Series 11, then Chris Chibnall can still turn things around. However, that will require a major shift in the driving philosophy behind the program. As he observes the response to his debut season, I don’t know if Chibnall is focusing more on what fans are saying or what the media is saying. I certainly hope it’s the former. And it’s possible that the four remaining stories of Series 11 will set things on a better footing. But in the meantime, the polite dissent of long-time fans should not be ignored.
Doctor Who may be all about change…but some things, like the absolute necessity of keeping promises to fans, never change. Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, and the comic book industry learned this lesson the hard way. Let’s hope Doctor Who doesn’t become the next franchise on the list.