The 13th Doctor

The Doctor is in!

I’ve written before (twice) about how much I love Doctor Who (even more than Star Trek, and that’s saying something). I’ll tell you right now: nothing’s changed; it’s still my favorite TV science fiction show, hands down. I am enjoying the big changes this season: a new The Doctor and a new show runner, Chris Chibnall.

The big change to The Doctor, of course, is the first ever female incarnation, played by Jodie Whittaker. For some this is a bit like a female James Bond, but the idea that Time Lords (slash Ladies) are gender-fluid is canonical. (Statistically speaking, it’s past time The Doctor was female. As the season promos put it: It’s about time!)

In many ways, I find the fan reactions to these changes as interesting as the show itself!

For one thing, I’m struck by how differently fans see things. For every review that slams an aspect of the show, another review praises that same aspect.

Some of them have even opened my eyes to seeing episodes in a new light. (Almost always positively, which might just reveal my own bias favoring the show.)

Ironically, that didn’t happen with the New Year’s Day special, which I was a bit disappointed in, but which nearly all reviewers gushed over. Because Daleks. Or, rather, a Dalek. With new, never-seen-before abilities.

Weeping Angel!

I wasn’t whelmed, let alone overly, and reviewer-gasms screaming “Dalek,” didn’t change that. I’ve never shared the deep fascination most fans have for them. (My favorite monster in Doctor Who is the Weeping Angels!)

Incidentally, thank you no one for spoiling that it was a Dalek in various headlines I couldn’t avoid in my newsfeed.

I deliberately avoided the trailers or reading articles, but that wasn’t good enough for the fan community I guess (you’ll never know the adjectives I considered putting in front of “fan community”).

What is this need to know beforehand? Studios have discovered that people do want trailers that give away secrets and reveal the general plot.

That is just so different from how I approach it. My attitude is, “Alright, let’s see what ya got! Take me somewhere!” I want to sit back and let the story unfold for me. I want to be enraptured by the telling.

Which, by the way, is why I’ll probably never watch the Netflix program, Bandersnatch, even though I’m a huge fan of Black Mirror. If I wanted to play a video game, I’d play a video game. (And I never want to play a video game.)

§

I will give the fans in general props for adhering to, what might be called, “The spirit of Doctor Who” — so beautifully voiced by Peter Capaldi as his Doctor gives way to Jodie Whittaker’s:

Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish… and love, is always wise.

Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind.

[…] Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

As a life-long hard-core alienated pissed-off misanthrope, very hard words for me to live by. But I try. (I do laugh hard and often.)

In an earlier episode, Capaldi’s Doctor says this:

Run like hell, because you always need to. Laugh at everything, because it’s always funny… Never be cruel and never be cowardly, and if you ever are, always make amends.

Which I think, very much, is the heart of Doctor Who.

And, generally speaking, most of the shade the more official sources throw is artistic criticism. A common one, for example, is the lack of character development, thought due to the larger ensemble.

Which I find valid. Others include lack of screen time for Yasmin and Ryan’s disability-in-name-only. The show does have some weaknesses, but all shows do.

How you take them depends on your overall stance.

§

What I’ve become more and more aware of is how much any reviewer (including myself) brings to the table, how much is filtered through personal perception.

This becomes crystal clear when two reviewers have well-explained nearly diametrically opposed views on the exact same moment. One may see it as cliché; another may see it as brilliant.

We absolutely bring our overall stance into the picture in how we interpret what we see.

I wonder if the sense of fan ownership, and this need to know beforehand, don’t amplify the bias beyond reason. I’ve experience both extreme fan love and extreme fan hate, neither of which made a lick of common sense.

Bandersnatch (god help me), is seen as the new form of TV, which tells me that our culture has become utterly absorbed in video games. That a noticeable fraction of my newsfeed includes articles about video games and graphics cards just confirms it.

That’s a topic for the future. For now, let’s get back to The Doctor.

§

I am? I am!

The obvious big news: The Doctor is female!

Some have objected, but such objections have no foundation (and probably reflect misogyny). Female Time Lords are canonical. And sensible. And about time. It’s not a battle anyone has any business trying to fight. Nuf sed.

Another complaint involves the show being too much a SJW (Social Justice Warrior, usually used as a pejorative term, as if justice was a bad thing).

But, again, the complaint has no foundation and probably reflects covert misogyny. Doctor Who has been about social justice from the beginning, and it’s certainly pervaded the rebooted version.

Yet another objection is to the lack of spectacle. The new show is smaller with generally less universe-threatening stakes. It harkens back to Classic Who, but it is a noticeable change from Modern Who.

For fans who only know Modern Who, it’s legitimate to miss the bigger stories told in the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat Eras.

The Doctor is no longer the white male god-like figure of traditional heroic storytelling. Some may simply prefer that style, which is legit (if a bit shallow).

§

I’ve mentioned character development issues, but I keep in mind that this is the first season for a new show runner, a new star, a new cast, and a new approach (with new viewers explicitly in mind).

I’m willing to give them a season to get up to speed. (And there have only been ten episodes.)

That said, my favor is somewhat contingent on a stronger second season.

Chris Chibnall

Some have compared this first Chibnall season to the first seasons of Davies (2005) or Moffat (2010).

The latter had a head start in writing for the series from the beginning, but Chibnall had a similar head start writing for Torchwood as early as 2006 and for Doctor Who in 2007.

Certainly the first season (“series” as the Brits put it) has some memorable stories.

Of thirteen episodes, Davies wrote eight of them, Moffat wrote two, but neither of them wrote what may be the two most highly regarded episodes: Dalek and Father’s Day.

Make of that what you will.

The Moffat era introduces Matt Smith’s Doctor along with Amy Pond and Rory Williams. This season has one of my favorite episodes, Vincent and the Doctor. Moffat wrote six of the thirteen episodes. (Chris Chibnall wrote two!)

In this first Chibnall season, Rosa was a very strong episode, and there were other very good ones, some historical, some fantastical.

Does Chibnall’s first season stand up to the other first seasons?

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure there’s an objective measure right now. In the future, how well the best episodes here stand up to other bests remains to be seen. I think some might be regarded.

I think I do agree with the overall point, though. I just re-watched Moffat’s first Who story, the season one two-part The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, and… it’s a really good story. That first year was definitely a knock-out!

That said, the first season of any show is often a knock-out. All that unplowed ground. It has to be a lot harder on the eleventh.

§

Seasons of Doctor Who have an over-arching thread or theme.

This season a prominent theme has been family. There is the relationship between Graham and Ryan (and the lingering ghost of Grace). There is also Yasmin’s family, featured in two episodes.

There is also the TARDIS team, which The Doctor now calls her “fam,” and what a family it is: there is grandpa (the one old white guy); there is (single) mom (who runs the show, of course); and there are the kids, a boy and a girl.

The more subtle theme this season has been in terms of the monsters.

Doctor Who has always been a show about monsters.

(As Terry Pratchett points out, the thing about monster stories isn’t that they tell us monsters are real. We know that. It’s that they tell us monsters can be killed.)

This season the show has pointed out, again and again, that the real monsters are us.

(Remember Pogo’s classic line? “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”)

This season has offered us racism and religious conflict, corporate greed and blindness, witch hunts, human terrorism, and a father seriously deceiving (and terrorizing) his blind daughter. To name a few.

And repeatedly, the apparent monsters, the spiders, the Pting, the robots, turn out to be quite innocent.

§

In closing, some notes from two episodes I re-watched recently. In both cases, I enjoyed the story even more than the first time

Arachnids in the UK

Many slammed this episode as weak. It isn’t, although it does leave some dangling threads.

  • Whittaker very “Doctory” — seems to channel Matt Smith’s Doctor.
  • The story unfolds nicely. Glimpses of spider webs early seem sinister, and we quickly learn that something is up with the spiders.
  • Pretty good spider CGI, so WTF was up with that frog?
  • Running!
  • Some good hooks for future eps. I bet we see Chris Noth again.

Watching this, I think I realized why they added a vestibule to the TARDIS.

Without it, they always needed a blue screen inside the box so they could insert the TARDIS interior that we see through the open door. The vestibule allows camera angles that can’t see inside, so no blue screen needed.

Clever!

Kerblam!

Definitely worth re-watching because there is a lot to notice when you know what’s really going on.

It’s a neat exercise in how ambiguity in the performances of both the robots and the management humans reads as sinister the first time through, but innocent the second. Especially the robots!

  • The system put The Doctor where she needed to be, but she switched with Graham and made it harder on herself.
  • The Doctor still isn’t herself, but some steel is beginning to show.
  • A bit of Doctor Darkness is peaking through, too. Yay!
  • Twirly sounds a lot like K-9!
  • Why was the system so powerless against Charlie?
  • The big speech sounds… pretty speechy.

§

All-in-all I found it a very good season. Not one of the greats, perhaps, but very good. There were stronger and weaker episodes, and just maybe, despite all the newness, The Doctor is fairly well-plowed ground.

It’s still, hands down, head and shoulders above any TV SF I can think of, past or present.

I just wish I had become a fan back in the day. I had no idea what I was missing!

Stay Whovian, my friends.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “The 13th Doctor

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    My main appreciation for the season was that the stories mostly made sense, or at least they weren’t as brazenly non-sensical as they had become under Moffat.

    I do sort of miss the bigger more epic stories (yeah I’m shallow 🙂 ), so I do hope they eventually get back to them.

    I actually did like the special. Not because it had a Dalek, but because it found a way to handle the Dalek where it actually felt menacing, as opposed to the cartoonish aspect they’ve developed since the new show started.

    It’s a major bummer we have to wait until 2020 for more Doctor Who. I wish I understood how those decisions get made.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “My main appreciation for the season was that the stories mostly made sense,”

      Yeah, they were more grounded, weren’t they. I wonder if some of that comes automatically from telling smaller stories. Maybe it’s easier to keep your ducks aligned.

      “I actually did like the special. […] because it found a way to handle the Dalek where it actually felt menacing,”

      That’s a very good point. It was definitely fearsome. And I have to admit, it might not have worked as well if it were some other creature.

      I do need to watch it over again. It was the earlier part of the show that didn’t grab me, and that may have colored everything after.

      “It’s a major bummer we have to wait until 2020 for more Doctor Who.”

      Yeah, same with Westworld. Which went from 2016 to 2018, and now will be 2020 for season three. (Which had better be a hell of a lot better than season two.)

      I don’t know why it takes so long. Is it the writing, the design, the planning, the production, or the post-production, that goes on so long? With Westworld I’ve gotten a sense that a lot of it is in the writing, which concerns me in terms of how well planned the entire story is.

      Season two seemed to suffer from some enormous writing problems, largely along the lines of world-building. Some great stories, but major world design issues. Seems like taking a year to write it should have resulted in something much more coherent.

      I’m starting to wonder about how modern culture and technology has affected storytelling… I’ll be posting about that down the road.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The UK folks have always felt comfortable skipping an occasional year. But it’s a relatively new thing for American shows. I suspect part of it is the upscaling of production values to movie levels, and the associated migration of movie production people to TV. They seem more inclined to work in a serialized manner rather than having the concurrent overlapping phases historically typical of TV productions.

        That, and the decoupling of shows from advertising and its associated pressure to have content ready on schedule to keep eyeballs glued. In a world where we’re directly paying for the content, the incentive seems to shift to the content being done a certain way rather than being done on time. (Although you don’t seem to see the second season of WW as particularly high quality.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Although you don’t seem to see the second season of WW as particularly high quality.”

        My opinion gets worse each time I re-visit the season. Too many unanswered questions and too many “yeah, but” moments.

        Some outstanding individual episodes, but it doesn’t stand up to any analysis.

        I’m having a really weird problem with The Orville this season. My view of Seth MacFarlane’s comedy has always been dim, so I’ve been iffy on the show from the beginning, but found a lot to enjoy and appreciate.

        I re-watched all of season one recently before starting with season two. And realized season one had some very enjoyable episodes (despite all the idiot clownery). So I was really looking forward to getting into season two…

        Which, so far, I’ve found mostly excruciatingly awful. Episode four had some parts I didn’t hate, but so far I’m not digging the new season at all. A big part of the problem (all along) is that Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki are genuinely bad actors, so scenes with them are painful to watch. And there is zero on-screen chemistry; the whole back story about their relationship is a sore thumb. The scripts come off as though written by high school kids and nearly everyone behaves like juveniles.

        No doubt I’ll be blogging about this… Filing it under Rant… 😮

        “That, and the decoupling of shows from advertising and its associated pressure to have content ready on schedule to keep eyeballs glued.”

        There is still some pressure if a show announces “drop” dates, but that’s a very good point. We’re a long way from 24-episode seasons cranked out for a weekly TV schedule.

        (Speaking of “drop” used to mean “release” I was very confused by a headline in my newsfeed this morning that read that Netflix was “dropping” their coming price increase, and I though, “Hooray!” until I read the article.)

        I’m just waiting for one more bill from Comcast so I can see their price increase before I cut them out of my life forever. Between Netflix, Hulu, and Prime, I’m getting close to commercial-free content. (I have a deep and abiding loathing for advertising.)

        I’m trying YouTube TV for my one daily hour of MSNBC (I have a crush on Nicole Wallace), baseball and the MLB channel, and a few shows still not available commercial-free. If I can find a way to watch NCIS, Madam Secretary, and The Blacklist commercial-free, that’d be great. (Nothing I can do about breaks during a baseball game.)

        Assuming I’m not alone in wanting commercials out of my life, that is a huge social pressure on this shift. To the extent TV is becoming the new movies, who wants commercial breaks in their movies?

        I never watch movies aired on commercial stations. It’s why I still haven’t seen Interstellar. The choices I’m aware of involve paying Prime for it (which, given what I do know about the movie, I won’t do) or watching it on FX with commercials and who knows what editing “for time and content.”

        It’s going to be interesting to see what Disney+ amounts to and what changes the next few years brings. The shift ain’t over yet!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I haven’t been able to get into The Orville. I found the pilot episode barely tolerable, and couldn’t make it through the second. The whole thing just felt like some combination of a satire of Star Trek and cheesy rip off of it.

        I know a lot of people who like it, so I went back and attempted to finish the second episode but couldn’t. I’ve thought about just trying the second season to see if just jumping over the sticking point would help, but your description isn’t encouraging.

        On MSNBC, my crush is on Katy Tur, not that I watch her much since I rarely watch cable news.

        I didn’t know about Youtube TV. Looks like Sling with a DVR. I’ll be interested to know how well it works for you. If it works well, that might finally bring me to the point of throwing my cable TV out.

        Yeah, all the cool kids are starting or planning their own streaming services. You have to wonder how many will survive.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The whole thing just felt like some combination of a satire of Star Trek and cheesy rip off of it.”

        Yeah, I think one problem is the show can’t decide what it is. Slapstick comedy? Intelligent SF comedy? Serious Trek-like drama (with moments of humor)? Changes within episodes, let alone from episode to episode.

        Plus there’s that whole “homage” or “rip off” question — those often look the same. I’ve heard MacFarlane is a long-time Trek fan and has always wanted to be a part of Trek. Some parts do seem loving homage, but this season especially, some of it seems retreads.

        Remember how Roddenberry characterized Trek as “Wagon Train in Space”? I think I might characterize The Orville as “McHale’s Navy in Space.” Goof-balls on a supposed military ship. Hi-jinks and antics.

        And then suddenly a home invader guest star is forcing at gunpoint the guest star father of regular character to stick his hand in a pot of boiling sauce. That one really gave me whiplash.

        Cute element though: the invader guest star was John Billingsley, the doctor from ST:ENT, and the guest star father was Robert Picardo, the doctor from ST:VOY.

        MacFarlane’s popularity (personal and professional), plus maybe the Trek cachet, has resulted in some neat guest stars: Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, Jason Alexander, and more. That part, and the production design, has been a reason to watch.

        The scripts, the acting, the directing, sadly much less so.

        “On MSNBC, my crush is on Katy Tur, not that I watch her much since I rarely watch cable news.”

        Yeah, I can see it, I like her, too. She was dating Keith Olbermann for a while, which I think shows good taste on both their parts. (I’m an Olbermann fan going back to when he was on MSNBC, but I especially like him as a baseball expert and historian.)

        “I didn’t know about Youtube TV.”

        Back in December they were offering a free month trial, and I’ve been planning to cut the cable, so I thought why not. It’s $40 a month and, as you say, has live feeds (of many channels, all the ones I care about) plus the whole DVR thing.

        I’m not entirely thrilled with the DVR aspect; it’s not much better than the live feed. Play and pause are responsive, but it can be hard to jump around, even go back to something you missed. Seems like sometimes it lets me, sometimes it doesn’t.

        And you can’t skip commercials. Even starting a show then jumping to the end forces a commercial break. It’s a little like YouTube itself, but with just slightly less control.

        For me it’s mainly for baseball (and those few shows I mentioned). I need MLB, FSN, FSN2, during the season, and also Fox, ESPN, FS1, TBS, or whomever, during post-season.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On The Orville, those are some pretty good guest stars. I’ll say this for Seth MacFarlane, he’s got the ability to pull heavy hitters together. I was impressed when he got the new Cosmos funded and convinced Fox to air it, despite some of the content being guaranteed to anger social conservatives.

        Thanks for the Youtube TV info. Ugh, I thought the DVR aspect sounded too good to be true. Still, crashing my cable TV bill down to $40/month might be worth it. I might try it out, just to see.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, MacFarlane sounds like a guy I’d like personally. I just don’t care for his sense of comedy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You probably know this already; I just read that Amazon picked up The Expanse and will do season four themselves. Season three will be available Feb. 8, I think it said. I did add it to my watchlist on Prime, although there’s a lot of stuff in front of it (Mr. Robot, for one, also on Prime; never watched it, always wanted to).

        I mentioned the grim tone of The Expanse isn’t really my cup of tea. It’s one reason I don’t find Game of Thrones attractive. Another is the Medieval time period.

        The article mentioned many see The Expanse as a kind of Game of Thrones in space, which does seem apt to me and targets why I wasn’t grabbed by the former. But it’s in space, and the tech details are very well done (love the attention to orbital mechanics, for example), so it’s very possible I’ll watch it eventually. (The novels are in my back pocket as something to explore some day if my existing list ever runs out.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I was seriously fed up with SyFy when they cancelled The Expanse, but was thrilled when Amazon picked it up. It’s a good fit for them. Most of The Expanse viewers have apparently been online, which was why SyFy axed it, not enough eyeballs for the ads.

        The science in The Expanse is unusually good for a TV show. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much. I was prepared for the show to cut all kinds of corners and was delighted when they mostly stuck to the way the ships work in the books.

        (They do make some compromises, such as the ever present magnetic boots to avoid having actors swinging around on cables. I do have a beef that the directors seem prone to forget when the characters are supposed to be in zero gravity, showing them leaning on things, or carrying packages as though they’re heaving. But compared to most space shows…)

        Although it’s more or less following the story lines, the show is actually darker than the books (or at least darker than my perception of them). I’ve often wondered if that was the right move. You’re not the only one I know who struggles with it. The authors of the books are actually producers on the show, so presumably they’re on board with it.

        One thing I do like about the authors. They reliably put out a new book a year in the series, unlike George R. R. Martin whose deliveries have been…unreliable. There no danger of the show overtaking the books as Game of Thrones did.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        (I did watch season two, so I’m at least a little read-in on it.)

        “But compared to most space shows…”

        Cough – The Orville – Cough.

        As I’ve said often, our culture has shifted a bit in the last decades. People seem to crave the dark stuff more.

  • Lander7

    I love this new doctor, I look forward to more of her. I’ve been watching since the fourth Doctor: Tom Baker (The greatest doctor)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I only wish I had discovered the show back then. I’ve very much enjoyed the Tom Baker episodes, and seeing him in The Day of the Doctor was awesome — my favorite scene.

      “Gallifrey falls no more.” Gives me chills every time.

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