Before the premiere of Doctor Who Series 11, I wrote a blog post that was essentially a fond goodbye to the show I'd loved for years, even though I still planned to tune in for the Thirteenth Doctor's first episode. That article dealt with my concern that, in short, the Thirteenth Doctor would no longer be “The Doctor.” Based on how the series was being marketed by the BBC, I expected Thirteen to put the emphasis on gender politics from the very beginning and make the entire ten-episode run about girl power, unfairly dissing her prior male incarnations in the process.
Because this did not turn out to be the case in “The Woman Who Lived,” my next Doctor Who post was a glowing review of the premiere. I still stand by most of the praise I gave the episode. Unfortunately, the series as a whole turned out to be the worst one since the revival in 2005, and the most unsuccessful with fans. (To those who object, I'll say this–stop focusing on the media outlets who are never going to criticize a politically-correct year of Who, and take a look at the dismal 35% audience appreciation score on Rotten Tomatoes, down from 72% in Series 10. It's just one of the many indicators that Series 11 has been a flop.)
Series 11 got off to a good start in the premiere, despite a weak villain and a bloated cast. Jodie Whittaker, at least, made an excellent first impression. The music was great, the cinematography was impressive, and the tonal changes from the Steven Moffat era were not unwelcome. They seemed to portend a different, slightly darker, but still good season.
The opinions I've expressed in some of my individual episode reviews have changed slightly over time. I still liked “Arachnids in the UK” and “The Tsuranga Conundrum” better than a lot of other people did, but given that the season as a whole contained very few real stand-out episodes, I'm less forgiving at this point of the fair-to-middling stories. I would have been willing to excuse them had better things come along later, but that never happened. They were fun in spots, but they needed to be better.
The historical episodes were by far the worst installments of Series 11. They weren't objectively horrible, but they didn't feel like Doctor Who. It felt as if somebody had slipped some scripts from “Timeless” or “Legends of Tomorrow” into the writers' room. Clever sci-fi was repeatedly cast aside in favor of a more “educational” bent, which made these stories dry and preachy. Doctor Who has always used history as effective set-dressing for good storytelling. Series 11 used history as a crutch, expecting it to do all the work of telling the story instead of contributing something original to the mix.
One of the biggest flaws of Series 11 was the lack of ties to the past. Peter Capaldi's debut in “Deep Breath” may not have been universally successful with fans, but Steven Moffat did cleverly weave the Twelfth Doctor into the existing fabric of the show by including both the robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace” and a beautiful, unexpected cameo from the Eleventh Doctor. Chris Chibnall opted to represent the show's rich past with nothing beyond the odd throwaway line or awkward reference. And the new material he and his fellow writers contributed pales in comparison with what we're accustomed to. The Stenza, the Ux, the Remnants, the Thijarians, etc., are all nothing more than pathetic imitations of far more effective races and creatures in the Whoniverse.
As I have mentioned before, so many great stories have already been told in Doctor Who continuity that it's better to find clever twists on old favorites than to insist on telling nothing but wholly original stories. The latter approach inevitably leads to unintentional mimicry of something that already exists in canon. And really, what would have been the harm of including the Daleks or the Weeping Angels, or some familiar character from years gone by? It wouldn't have scared off new viewers, and it would have helped to win over long-time fans. The total lack of references to Gallifrey and the Time Lords was deplorable, given that the return of the Doctor's home planet is one of the most significant plot threads in the
show's recent history and needs to be given the development it deserves.
With regard to the show's political emphasis this year, I'm about to share some thoughts that will be controversial, but please bear with me as I unpack them. The only two really stellar episodes of Series 11 were “Kerblam!” and “It Takes You Away.” (“The Woman Who Lived” has dropped in my estimation due to its broken storytelling promises, so I can't call it a stand-out episode anymore.) These two stories were penned by the only two white male writers on staff this year other than showrunner Chris Chibnall.
I won't rush to assure you that these comments do not stem from racism or sexism, as I'm not in the habit of pre-emptively apologizing in case someone decides to make a ridiculous and groundless accusation. If somebody wants to call me racist and sexist, the burden of proof is on them. I'm making this point because despite the media's enthusiastic praise for Series 11, I question whether or not this year really represents a step forward for racial and gender equality in the Whoniverse.
When I first heard that Malorie Blackman was writing the episode “Rosa,” I looked up her work and read a few chapters of her famous young-adult novel, Noughts and Crosses. The story is an intriguing one, set in an alternate reality where whites are an oppressed minority and blacks hold all the power and influence. I haven't read the entire book yet, but if the reviews of it are to be believed, it rises above specific issues between black and white people in the real world to address the issue of racism in general, as a basic human tendency that can manifest in anyone regardless of their skin color. Many Doctor Who stories, particularly those featuring the Daleks, have tackled racism in a similar fashion. A Dalek is essentially a creature that has abandoned all reason and individuality to become nothing more than a screaming, raging vehicle for a hate-filled groupthink ideology. This is a timely message for a world where a person is declared the winner of a debate if they shout “Nazi!” with sufficient volume.
But Blackman's Doctor Who episode is not a clever examination of racism. It's a by-the-numbers stop-the-bad-future-racist-man-from-changing-history tale. Doctor Who is better than that–or at least, it's supposed to be. “Rosa” doesn't make you think. It unfolds exactly how you expect it to. The characters are just along for the ride, contributing next to nothing. The other episodes written by diverse writers are similarly flawed. Vinay Patel includes aliens in “Demons of the Punjab” for absolutely no reason, except to check off the “monster” box so that his offering still counts as a Doctor Who episode. “The Witchfinders,” by noted feminist writer Joy Wilkinson, puts tiresome feminist diatribes in the Doctor's mouth while telling a meandering story that's light on sci-fi and heavy on angst-filled drama. On the other hand, Pete McTighe's “Kerblam!” and Ed Hime's “It Takes You Away” feel like actual Doctor Who stories. But these gems are buried amongst political-correctness parables from other guest writers and sloppy, boring work from Chris Chibnall.
Basically, the writers who were hired for reasons of diversity proceeded to tell stories based on the topic of diversity, which were of low quality. But I wonder…would a diverse writer have been considered who didn't want to tell a story about diversity? Malorie Blackman is the first black writer to ever work on Doctor Who, but she has a prior reputation for writing about racial issues. Would Chris Chibnall have hired a black writer who was simply known for their skills in sci-fi, or would such a candidate have been passed over for Blackman, whose talents lie more in the realm of social issues? Why is there cheering and shouts of “It's about time!” when a feminist commentator like Joy Wilkinson is hired to tell a story about archaic sexism, while there was little fuss over the four more standard Doctor Who episodes written by Helen Raynor in past seasons? Plus, let's not overlook the fact that the very first producer of Doctor Who was a brilliant woman named Verity Lambert.
My central question is this: if diverse writers are only commissioned to tell stories about diversity, is that really a triumph for equality on Doctor Who? Or is it a whole new form of segregation? Perhaps the writers' room has skewed mostly white and male in the past, but I can't help but think of prior seasons when female characters, characters of color, and LGBT characters were included on the show with little fanfare. Why are Chris Chibnall's diversity initiatives more noteworthy than those of Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies? Is it because, unlike Chibnall, they didn't consider the core message of the show to be about political agendas?
One of the things that makes Doctor Who unique is that it has always enjoyed a surprisingly large conservative fanbase despite the fact that it adheres to a liberal and progressive philosophy. This is because there has always been more to Doctor Who than liberal talking points, even when such messages were present. The openly gay Russell T. Davies frequently included LGBT themes and characters on the show during his tenure, but at the same time, he gave us one of the most significant and popular heterosexual relationships in Doctor Who history between the Tenth Doctor and Rose. Steven Moffat understood the need to bridge the gap between conservative and liberal fans, and addressed the topic more than once in interviews. Though many criticized him for injecting politics and even anti-male sexism into the show from time to time, it must be remembered that he still had an admirable respect for the entire Doctor Who fanbase, not just the portion that agreed with his own views. And he continued to respect them despite the harsh, sometimes unfair criticism which both Who fans and the media heaped on him every single year. Chibnall, by comparison, has had an easy time as the media's darling, shielded from the fans' displeasure by gushing weekly reviews from reporters who may not be genuine, long-time Who fans themselves.
Which brings us to the worst failing of Series 11–the poorly-handled debut of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. This ties in with the issue of equality yet again. Why couldn't the first female Doctor have battled the Daleks in her first series? Reunited with the Paternoster Gang? Joined forces with Kate Stewart's UNIT team? Sorted out the circle of Weeping Angels left behind from “Blink?” Returned to Gallifrey to deal with the repercussions of her previous incarnation's escape? Found her granddaughter again?
No, this was not to be. The Thirteenth Doctor got an inaugural series full of lackluster episodes characterized by ham-fisted political messages. “The Woman Who Lived” actually succeeded in winning many fans over to the idea of a female Doctor; myself included. But then the rest of the season ran this potential into the ground. The first female Doctor will forever be associated in fans' minds with some of the shoddiest Doctor Who episodes of all time. Jodie Whittaker, in my opinion, has the acting skills to handle the full range of the Doctor's character, both the lighter and darker elements. More often than not, she was held back from the latter in Series 11 by the limitations of the scripts she was given, reducing her portrayal to a tamer, less exciting rendition of the Time Lord. Why didn't Whittaker get to actually be the Doctor more this year? Does she have to be reduced to a vaguely Gallifreyan Ms. Frizzle just because she's a woman? How is this a win for equality?
I don't know where Doctor Who will go from here. Despite claims to the contrary, I presume the BBC will opt for some kind of shift in tone for the show when it returns for Series 12 in 2020. A drop in viewers following a premiere is normal, but the audience decrease by the finale of Series 11 was worrying by anyone's standards. The show is far from the verge of cancellation thus far, but that won't last forever if it continues to bleed viewers. I expect more callbacks to the past will be used to lure fans back in. Time will tell whether they'll be handled properly, and whether they will be successful in restoring some semblance of the show's former glory. Based on rumors I've heard, I won't be surprised if both Chibnall and Whittaker depart the show sometime in 2020 (after Series 12). I'll be sorry to see Whittaker leave, but not Chibnall. Regardless of the Fourteenth Doctor's gender, I sincerely hope that she has a better showrunner and team of writers backing her up.
In my post before the Series 11 premiere, I said I was ready to let Doctor Who go. Based on the stellar performance of Jodie Whittaker, I actually don't feel that way anymore. I've seen enough glimmers of potential in the current era of Who to believe that it can be better than this. So I'll be back for the New Year's special, and probably for the premiere of Series 12 as well. But if things continue the way they have this year, I and many other fans will run out of patience. Doctor Who's brilliant premise gives it the unique ability to be a truly limitless franchise. It will be a great shame if modern political correctness and tokenism masquerading as diversity finally put an end to what remarkable people like Verity Lambert started all those years ago.