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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
- 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.
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.