Reviewed: Doctor Who Series 11 – (Un)Lucky Thirteen?

Where to start? Perhaps with a warning. If you love Series 11, this probably isn’t the best thing you could be reading. We suggest The Target Storybook instead. If you’re easily offended by criticism, again, maybe check elsewhere? We’ve talked about all previous seasons of Doctor Who; explore those. And remember that reviews are the sole opinions of those writing them, not of the whole site. We’re a varied bunch and we all love and hate different things. With that in mind…

It is more than a little ironic that some of us welcomed the exciting idea of the Doctor’s change of gender and thought that Jodie Whittaker was a great choice. She was wonderful in Venus and very funny in the St Trinian’s movies. She is an excellent actor. The closing moments of Twice Upon A Time were encouraging: the new Doctor stands bewildered and open mouthed on the TARDIS flight deck, before the effects of her regeneration once again cause the ship to disintegrate. (Given the appalling damage caused by regeneration energy, I imagine insurance premiums on Gallifrey are sky high.) The trailer announcing Jodie’s casting was well shot and exciting.

And then…

Just to reiterate: please look away now if you liked Series 11 – or Season 37 as I think of it. I think – and this is just my view, and what do I know? – that it was the worst season in Doctor Who’s history and that, if that’s the best the BBC can do, they would be better off cancelling the show than making this piffle.

My family looked forward to Doctor Who every week. We were delighted that family event television, once deemed dead by sniffy media critics, was back. My son bounced up and down on the sofa in delight at the sight of the Daleks in Bad Wolf: ‘There’s millions of them!’ All of us laughed our heads off at Strax’s excesses in The Crimson Horror. This was a programme we could all watch together, when it was broadcast – an experience we shared with millions of others, at the same time.

Come Series 11, and we were starting to look at the clock to see how much more of each episode we had to endure. Come Series 11, my youngest son, who loves Doctor Who, walked out half way through an episode and never watched another frame in 2018.

What went wrong?

Well, the season was torpedoed by Chris Chibnall’s fundamentally misguided and misconceived approach. He wanted to wipe the slate clean and start again. Chibs mused that Doctor Who was a show that must be unfamiliar to the 100,000,000 people who watched it every week. It was time, he opined, to reintroduce Doctor Who to a new audience, to people who perhaps didn’t understand the concepts. Out went Bill, the best companion to have graced the show since Sarah Jane Smith: in came cardboard characters with whom, Chibs assured us, we were going to fall in love. Out went terror, excitement, horror, tension, pace, humour, hilarious lines, a roller coaster ride through all of time and space. In came Chibworld: a sort of Doctor Who Lite. Sans teeth, sans sense, sans viewer engagement, sans everything. 

In previous seasons, we had epic story arcs. The Key to Time! –  the need to rebalance the forces of good and evil in the universe! The dark Doctor of Sylvester McCoy’s era! The Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords! Chris Chibnall’s idea of a story arc is, will Ryan ever learn to ride his bicycle? Will Ryan ever call Graham, ‘Grandad’? Will Tosin Cole ever add a third expression to his repertoire? (He has two expressions: the first is, scowl – mouth open; the second is, scowl – mouth closed.)

Chibnall earnestly informed us that this would be an inclusive season. The theme was inclusivity. The watchword was inclusivity. Inclusivity would itself be inclusive. It would be so inclusive,  it would go up its own inclusive backside – inclusivity within inclusivity! Chibs informed us gravely that, unlike previous seasons, which had featured Mickey Smith, Martha Jones, and Bill Potts, there would be black and Asian characters. Chibs informed us that the series would be about gender and friendship. It would be radical. It is very, very radical indeed to cast a beautiful, blonde white woman as the lead in a fantasy series. Sarah Michelle Who, did you say? Chibs went on and on and on about how radical this new series was. Chibs beamed. We can’t wait to show you these new characters and new adventures for the Thirteenth Doctor! You will fall in love with these characters! (Whenever an artist tells you how good their work is, you suspect that they lack faith in it themselves.)

And the characters? Well, Jodie Whittaker is a fine actor who captures the Doctor’s eccentricity, but not her gravitas, arrogance, danger, or elemental rage at wickedness and injustice. Tom Baker’s Doctor raged and screamed at the Captain in The Pirate Planet: ‘You commit mass murder and destruction on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it! Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy! Out of the mummified remains of planets! What’s it doing? What’s it for? What can possibly be worth all this?’ The Doctor has always been a champion of good, calling out evil for what it is and refusing to compromise with it. Doctor Thirteen tells us that it’s all a matter of point of view, and heads dangerously close to moral relativism, where there is no such things as good and evil; it just depends on where you stand. She is like an anaemic galactic version of Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. If you want to understand an alien, Graham, put on his shoes and walk around in them. Doctor Thirteen would probably tell Davros that she really, really understands why he would want to release the Armageddon virus to set himself up above the gods. She would nod sympathetically at Sutekh’s saying, ‘Your evil is my good… where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and ashes – I find that good’. 

We live in a world where evil flourishes. In the United Kingdom, 1.5 million people rely on Foodbanks as poverty increases and the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day. We have an incompetent and ludicrous government which seeks to ignore Parliament and takes steps over the line between hard right and far right. The planet is heating up and hurtling towards catastrophe. We cannot look to our ludicrous leaders for moral inspiration, so we need fictional heroes as role models. We badly need a Doctor who will not compromise with evil, who calls it out for the wickedness that it is. We badly need an inspirational hero, a Doctor who teaches children that you must fight evil and stand up for that which is right. We had such a Doctor for the last 55 years. Thanks to the mealy mouthed watery gruel served up by Chibnall, we have one no longer.

One reason is perhaps that conflicts between good and evil would involve drama and excitement, and Chibnall seems nervous of both. So we have that Tooth Fairy bloke from episode one ending up as the Big Bad at the end of the season, and the Doctor telling Graham that she really understands why he wants to kill Tim Shaw, what with him murdering his wife and everything, but it would be really naughty and then he couldn’t travel with her any more. (Graham should perhaps leap at the chance to murder the b*stard and get away from the Doctor, but strangely passes on this one.) We don’t have evil in the show any more. Well, we do: we have a child-abusing father in It Takes You Away, but, so great is the extent to which the series has lost its way, that the Doctor actually approves of him as trying to protect his daughter. If he had behaved like this in the real world, the guy would have been prosecuted and imprisoned for child abuse, and his daughter taken into care. It’s almost as though a critical position spouted by people who don’t like Doctor Who has been unconsciously adopted by the production team: fantasy/science fiction is nonsense, so of course its characters will behave in nonsensical ways, and it won’t have any moral values because cr*p doesn’t have moral values.

The central theme of this series is in fact incompetence and ineptitude, and it extends to almost every aspect of the production. Chibnall is a very bad writer. If you are going to sell science fiction or fantasy to an audience, you have to have believable human characters who are anchored in the real world and who behave like real people. Doctor Who usually does this very well: Jackie Tyler, Rose, Mickey, Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and Bill, to pluck a few names out of the canon, are all believable people with real relationships who react as real people would to the extra-terrestrial and extraordinary. Faced with the Doctor describing her regeneration, Sharon D Clark takes it in her stride. As a human being, she is naturally completely au fait with regeneration as a concept and sympathises with poor Jodie: ‘Sounds painful, love’. The dialogue is often toe-curlingly embarrassing: ‘She’s in charge, bro,’ says Ryan, who has had his lines copied and pasted from The Middle Aged Man’s Dictionary of Well Wicked Street Slang, Innit. The Doctor loves her fam. This is Team TARDIS! (O, spare us…) 

We have gone back to the Peter Davison era of having too many companions and not enough for them to do. This just about works with Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough, if not Adric (Adric has been reborn as Ryan Sinclair in point of characterisation and actor performance), because they are well enough acted and just about interesting enough characters for us to care about them. Yasmin, Graham, and Ryan seem to be defined by the initial character sketch which we assume they were given, but have never progressed beyond. So, we have:

Ryan – sulky, dyspraxic. Loves his nan but not her new partner. The end. 

Graham – tries to get Ryan to like him. Loves his new wife. Cockney. Calls the Doctor ‘Doc’, although the Third Doctor hated it when people did this, but that was in Old Who and we are going to ignore that because this is Doctor Who Lite and Old Who (1963-2017) was bad and we have nothing to learn from it. The end. 

Yasmin – pretty. Policewoman but we don’t need to remember that. Stands around a lot. Doesn’t do much. The end. 

(Handwritten note at the bottom of character sketches reads: ‘You will fall in love with these characters! That’s enough boring characterisation – let’s go make the show, team! Yo, bro!’) 

We are also back to the Davison, and wider John Nathan-Turner, years, of the Doctor wearing a costume rather than clothes. This was a central criticism of the last years of classic Who by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski, planning Babylon 5, was much influenced by Doctor Who and admired it, but decried the lack of attention given to costuming in the 1980s. Characters in Babylon 5, he decreed, would wear clothes, not costumes. The Thirteenth Doctor looks great in Capaldi’s torn coat and bovver boots. It’s a good idea to have her change in a charity shop – a nice riff on the Third, Eighth, and Eleventh Doctors raiding hospital lockers. Oh, fans think, she’s going to put together an eccentric and eclectic costume! Instead, she finds a brand, spanking new, tailored costume (in a secondhand clothes shop) which entirely suits her and which she wears in every single episode. (Presumably she has the TARDIS make duplicates, or it would be pretty ripe by the end of the season.) The charity shop also boasts an ear piercing service and a jewellers, for the Doctor is bedecked with earrings when she leaves.

Episode one could be an opportunity for Chibnall to explore the Doctor’s attitude to her new gender. We could have had quite a funny scene where, for example, the Doctor has no idea how to wear a bra and uses one as earmuffs, and Yaz has to disappear into the changing room with her to help her out – not because this would be a sexy or a puerile scene, but because it is how real people might actually behave. But Chibnall doesn’t want to make a big thing about the Doctor’s gender, he decrees, although he mentions it in every other breath in interviews, so another opportunity is lost. (At this point, you might be asking, could you do the show better yourself, pal? And the answer is yes, and so could you.)

Costuming makes one sigh. So does direction. ‘In this scene,’ says High Command, ‘well, actually in every scene, I want you to stand in a V formation with the Doctor at the front, all facing the same way and five feet apart. Then have an ordinary conversation.’ Oh yes indeed, this is how ordinary people do indeed stand in the real world, and it facilitates communication wonderfully. Why, it is always how I stand with my mates in the pub, for example, or when walking down the high street. 

And design? Angels and ministers of grace defend us. Capaldi’s TARDIS interior was a wonder of modern design with kisses to the past. Even the First Doctor immediately recognises it as a version of his TARDIS in Twice Upon A Time (although he decides it’s hideous). Come to think of it, William Hartnell had a wonderful TARDIS set back in An Unearthly Child. ‘What I want,’ chortles Chibs to his new designer, ‘is a completely new concept for the TARDIS interior. First, I want it to look as though it’s from an amateur dramatic production of The Ultimate Adventure, with lots of free standing flats. Then I want the time rotor to be replaced by a giant Crunchie bar with all the chocolate sucked off. Then I want it to be lit so dimly that you can’t shoot in it or see what’s going on when the characters are inside it.  Then I want nodding donkeys at the top of the set, which you can’t fit into a wide shot on widescreen TV and forget are there most of the time, which will be good as they look as though they’re cheap toys when we do see them. We are junking the very expensive set in the previous season because it’s old, and Old Is Bad. We’ll save the money spent on dismantling the old set by making the new one out of medium density fibreboard.’ And so we have the worst TARDIS set in the history of the show – not excluding the Peter Cushing movies.

It is said that directors hate the set because they can’t shoot in it properly: you can’t get hand-held cameras around the nodding donkey pillars. Such difficult concepts as the camera crew should be able to shoot in the set seem to be beyond this production team. It is said that the production team are unfamiliar with Doctor Who; some of them having been brought over with Chibs from Broadchurch. The seeming unfamiliarity of the crew with the show is said to extend to Jodie herself, who gave up on watching old episodes to familiarise herself with the programme because she found them hard going. It is said she preferred to let her performance develop organically: the new Doctor was learning, so Jodie should be learning herself. This is an approach which was entirely fair for Pearl Mackie, unfamiliar with Doctor Who when she was cast as Bill. Pearl reasoned that the Doctor’s world was as completely new to Bill as it was to Pearl herself: her not watching old episodes paid off in a wonderfully fresh and spontaneous performance. This approach does not, and cannot, work with the Doctor, a character who was entering her/his or his 54th year when Jodie was cast. Perhaps this anecdote of her not watching old episodes is apocryphal; it fits a little too neatly with the narrative of the rest of the production crew knowing nothing about the series, and also contrasts a little too conveniently with Matt Smith’s approach. Smith, also unfamiliar with Who, watched heaps of old DVDs. Hugely admiring Patrick Troughton’s performance in The Tomb of the Cybermen, Matt Smith used it as a basis for his own Doctor.

Okay. So: the stories. A bit about each one. I can’t bear to write more than a bit about each one because spending too long with each episode makes me too miserable. The stories pretend that old ideas are actually new (zombies, historicals, companions not being white females) and that this season is breaking radical new ground. It is indeed: it is breaking through the new ground which covers a cesspit. 

The Woman Who Fell to Earth – The Doctor falls through the roof of a train. This should kill her, but it doesn’t. Chibs doesn’t explain why it doesn’t – it would be too obvious to write that the TARDIS force field is still protecting her even as the ship reconfigures itself or that her remnant Artron energy, lingering on from her regeneration as established in The Christmas Invasion, helped her out. There is a rather dull alien called Tim Shaw who kills people and collects their teeth. This is misconceived, serial killer, Hannibal Lecter stuff, but it fits in with the new season’s tone of All Over The Place. Ryan pays tribute to most wonderful woman in the world at the start of the episode. Who would have guessed that this is not the Doctor, but his nan? We haven’t seen a companion love his grandmother so much before, not since, oooh, Mickey loved his grandmother. There is a good crane-jumping scene by the Doctor and some good Doctor moments, like when Jodie asks Yaz if she can have the siren on. Ryan throws his bike over the steep drop but – alas! – does not choose to throw himself over as well.

The Ghost Monument – Art Malik looks very fetching in a tent. There is a sort of chase and some good shots of a spaceship. No evil threat to speak of. Team TARDIS wanders around a bit. 

Rosa – the Hartnell historical is back. Pay attention, kids. You might learn something about history. No one knows about Rosa Parks so we must tell her story. It’ll be Anne Frank next week. Jodie tells us the moral because we are too stupid to work it out ourselves. And the moral is – racism is really bad, kids. 

Arachnids in the UK – this is like The Green Death for dummies, but with spiders instead of maggots. Pollution is causing mutations. We mustn’t kill the nice giant spiders, says the Doctor, even though they are killing and eating the population of Sheffield. Instead, the Doctor apparently locks them in a room where they presumably suffocate and eat each other. This is much better. The villain is a bad American businessman who is a bit like Donald Trump. Donald Trump is also bad. Remember that, children. And pollution is really bad, kids.

The Tsuranga Conundrum – A terrifying sound echoes through the gleaming corridors of a spacecraft. What can it be? Is it the sound of Robert Holmes, David Whittaker, and Malcolm Hulke turning in their graves? It has the crew and passengers spooked and terrified. Are we to be treated to a rerun of Midnight (terrifying sounds of alien infiltration as a craft is under attack) or even Alien (terrifying alien runs amok on a spacecraft, eviscerating the War Doctor on its way)? But no! This is another episode of Doctor Who Lite, where mild peril and cardboard characters are the order of the day.  

The Doctor’s FRIENDS meet a pregnant man. They really, really care about him and really, really are there for him and really (you get this by now) believe that he can do it, that he can give birth, bro. Graham references Call the Midwife and says he looks away at the scary gory bits. This makes the viewers wish there were some scary bits that they could turn away from in contemporary Doctor Who, you know, like there used to be. Perhaps the Call the Midwife reference is an autoreferential allusion to our living rooms, where viewers are turning away from Doctor Who to check the clock and see how much more of this rubbish we have to endure. Graham’s is certainly an ironic reference, as Call the Midwife occupied the same Sunday evening slot on BBC1 as Doctor Who and is a much better show. 

The Doctor herself swirls around and waves her sonic in an arc. She has lots to say, full of technobabble and moral babble, signifying nothing. The Doctor has to defuse a bomb. And the terrifying alien – this will have you in stitches, chortles Chibs – is revealed to be a little cute thing called the P’Ting (even the name is hilarious!) that eats bits of the spacecraft and eats the bomb. It is expelled into space and the bomb goes off inside it and it is in ecstasy. How we laughed.

Demons of the Punjab – the Partition of India and Pakistan is the stuff of great drama. Pity we have to shoehorn in the Doctor and Team GORMLESS (sorry, Team TARDIS) and a couple of token science fiction aliens, who are recording history rather than being evil, because Doctor Who Lite doesn’t do evil. It’s another episode of The Ladybird Doctor Who History of Important Historical Events. 

Kerblam! – ‘Let’s do a satirical story about Amazon and ordering stuff on the internet and deliveries!’ says Chibs. Unfortunately, it isn’t developed beyond this point. There are some smiley robot postmen. Interest is temporarily awakened when the Doctor receives a fez in the post, and we are reminded of happier times when the Doctor was played by Matt Smith. There is a funny scene on a conveyor belt. The effects are good but there is no drama, characterisation, peril, evil, or much interest. Whisper who dares – Doctor Who Lite episodes are actually boring. 

The Witchfinders – ‘We’ve found a witch! May we burn her?’ ‘How do you know she is a witch?’ ‘Well, she turned me into a newt!’ ‘A newt?’ ‘…I got better.’ Sorry, that’s a more serious and intelligent drama there. This new, retooled Doctor Who has a positive LGBT agenda. Did you know that? Well you should. It is therefore so very unlike the rest of the series since 2005. James I fancies Ryan. Chibs’ claim that this new season is LGBT positive is given a good kicking by Alan Cumming as James I, who presents a series of stereotypes about gay men, licking his lips in lust at Ryan’s gorgeousness. Shame Kenneth Williams wasn’t around to play the part. There are some zombies. Bloody hell, that’s original! It’s just another example of those bold, original concepts which we have come to expect. 

It Takes You Away – A frankly disgraceful episode about child abuse, where scripting and execution has gone so awry that the Doctor and the production team applaud the abuser. But they have cast a blind actress as a blind character, so that’s all right because the show is so inclusive now and is pro-gay, pro-inclusivity, anti-disability, pro-promotion of writers who can’t write and actors who can’t act…

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos – The most interesting thing about this episode is its title, and it is interesting because it is hard to pronounce and hard to remember. Graham wants to kill Tim Shaw but the Doctor says he can’t because that would be really naughty. Ryan calls Graham, ‘Grandad’ and we burst into tears of gratitude, joy, and relief that this exciting plot strand, into which we have invested so much of our emotional energy over the 10 episodes of this most exciting of seasons, has at last been resolved.

Resolution – There wasn’t a Christmas special this year because, it is said, Chibs didn’t want to do one as he had run out of Christmas Who ideas. What’s that you say? He never had any Who ideas anyway, Christmas or otherwise? That is not kind. We have a New Year Special instead. It is actually quite clever to call is Resolution as it plays on the idea of Resurrection/Remembrance/Revelation of the Daleks and the idea of a New Year’s Resolution! What was your New Year’s Resolution this year, kids? The BBC’s was not to do a series of Doctor Who in 2019. Following on from Graham’s Call the Midwife references in ‘The Tsuranga Condominium’, Midwife actor Charlotte Ritchie starred as a lady who is taken over by a Dalek out of its casing. Another bold idea from Chibs, as we haven’t had Daleks running around out of their casings for a whole year. The Dalek builds itself a casing. It blows things up. Team ARSEDIS have never heard of the Daleks, although they have invaded the Earth about 15 times since the series returned in 2005. But wait! Perhaps we are in an alternative timeline, where nothing from other Doctor Who stories can leak through! Perhaps Team ARSEDIS are themselves alternative universe counterparts to the real Doctor and companions – team ARSEDIS doesn’t really exist and are in an alternative bubble universe! They will be winked out of existence when the bubble pops! How’s about it, Chibs? This was part of your master plan all along, wasn’t it? Resolution is quite a good story, and Jodie sort of gets to meet the Daleks. Actually, it’s just one Dalek, because Chibs doesn’t do epic, which would constitute more than one Dalek, and Chibs is frightened of epic, or exciting, or drama, or major threats, or, let’s face it, Doctor Who itself. 

So. 

The viewing figures went down from 10.6 million to 6.3 million by the end of the season. Resolution, on New Year’s Day, was hardly a resounding viewing success: it got 7.1 million. 

Rumour has it that the BBC has told Chibs to up his game and make better episodes. Rumour has it that they are disappointed with Series 11 and concerned about the declining viewing figures and the lack of excitement among fans and viewers. Rumour has it that BBC America doesn’t like what the parent company is selling it.

I myself cannot wait to watch the exciting adventures of Team ARSEDIS in 2020. Will Ryan learn to ride a bike? Will the production team give Yaz something to do and remember that she is supposed to be a policewoman? Will we get some more Ladybird historical primers of major historical events? The Judoon are back and Chibs Can’t Wait to show us the exciting adventures of Jodie and the Judoon, since the Judoon are major monsters. The Cybermen are back and will perhaps demonstrate a wider range of believable human emotions than Ryan or the rest of Team ARSEDIS.  

Season 37 is the first new Who season I haven’t bothered to buy on Blu-ray and haven’t wanted to rewatch (except I had to in order to write this review). I suppose I’ll watch Series 12, out of hope that things will get better.

And they couldn’t even get the number of hemispheres right on the Dalek’s skirt in Resolution. It’s four on each panel, not three, you clowns!

Written by Frank Danes, who has stumped off to have a large drink because he bloody well needs one after having to think about season 37 again.

NEXT: Because every Christmas is Last Christmas.