With the Jodie Whittaker era of Doctor Who coming to a close this fall with the still-untitled “Centenary Special,” I thought this might be a good time to binge Whittaker’s first two seasons in the role. (Jason and I already covered series 13, the “Flux” season, on From Inner Time: A Doctor Who Podcast.) This month I’ll be writing about series 11, along with the New Years special “Resolution”.
In addition to Jodie Whittaker, series 11 starred Mandip Gill as Yasmin “Yaz” Khan, Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair, and Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien. Behind the camera, Chris Chibnall served as showrunner and executive producer.
The individual episodes:
Episode 1: “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and starts the era with a bang, or maybe a crash is more appropriate as the Doctor literally falls into the lives of her new companions. The stakes are a bit low here, the plot is a bit thin, and I got the feeling that even Chibnall understands how “meh” Tzim-Sha is as a villain. But the main point is to introduce the new characters and it works just fine on that basis.
Episode 2: “The Ghost Monument” sends the newly-formed gang off to space to find the TARDIS. Again, the emphasis is on character development at the expense of plot and story, and while the script delivers a couple of nice emotional beats, the episode overall isn’t one that sticks out in my mind.
Episode 3: “Rosa” takes the fam to Alabama in 1955 to meet Rosa Parks and make sure her act of defiance goes off without a hitch. While I appreciated a return to Doctor Who‘s educational roots, I felt this episode was a bit heavy-handed and preachy (even if I do agree with its politics). In particular, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the villain or the actor playing him (Revenge‘s Josh Bowman, for the record).
Episode 4: “Arachnids in the U.K.” may feature giant spiders, but the real villain is a politically ambitious American businessman played by Law and Order and Sex and the City stalwart Chris Noth. I felt it was the weakest episode of the season, although more “okay” than outright bad. Noth is appropriately slimy, but the moral of the story (that some humans are more insectile than actual insects) is pretty obvious to anyone who’s lived in the real world over the last few years. Also, the ending is a bit of an anticlimax.
Episode 5: “The Tsuranga Conundrum” has a great monster—the ravenous yet massively adorable Pting—and an endearing cast of supporting characters. This makes up for a story that’s largely thematically shallow even when it’s entertaining.
Episode 6: “Demons of the Punjab” is the season’s highlight, a fantastic installment that has everything I want from a historical episode. Give me an engaging setting with well-developed characters and a strong plot and I’m in my happy place. The script delivers its message without getting too preachy, and I even learned a couple things about Partition.
Episode 7: “Kerblam!” is an odd duck. It’s a story about an all-encompassing galactic retailer—not even remotely like Amazon, then—that goes wrong. It’s well executed, but the script’s politics are skewed in favor of the massive megacorp. The villain is the one guy who’s trying to call attention to the flaws in the system—kind of what like the classic “Macra Terror” might have been like if the titular monsters were an okay bunch of crabs and Medok was the villain all along. Weird.
Episode 8: “The Witchfinders” drops the fam into 17th century England and pits them against a zealous local noblewoman hell-bent on rooting out witchcraft. The tone veers wildly between seriousness and camp with guest star Alan Cumming (paying King James) operating in the former mode and stealing every scene he’s in. It’s not exactly The Crucible or even Witchfinder General but it’s plenty of fun.
Episode 9: “It Takes You Away” is an episode I really wish I could have liked more, a creepy and atmospheric piece which still manages to feature a talking frog. But I just couldn’t get past how the episode doesn’t really interrogate Erik’s neglect of his daughter Hanne. As much as I love talking frogs, they can only do so much for an episode.
Episode 10: “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” is a largely forgettable romp that sees the return of
Tim Shaw Tzim-Sha. This is definitely the weakest episode of the season for me, and I struggle to come up with anything constructive to say about it.
New Year’s Special: “Resolution” brings us the return of the Daleks, or at least a Dalek. The “possession” of guest character Lin by a Dalek mutant generating a fair amount of tension (and Charlotte Ritchie puts in an amazing performance in the role). Unfortunately, the B-plot—which involves Ryan’s dad suddenly materializing and trying to be a part of his life—isn’t particularly interesting.
As for the season as a whole…
I love Whittaker’s lower-key take on the Doctor. I think a lot of criticism of her approach to the role is similar to the bashing Peter Davison took in the ’80s for being “bland.” She doesn’t have the ostentatious flamboyance of David Tennant, Matt Smith, or Peter Capaldi, and she doesn’t really need it. Similarly, the rest of the regular cast is great and they all have great chemistry with each other; even when the episodes are mediocre (and a lot of them are), I enjoyed watching them play off each other.
It’s too bad that the scripts themselves are a bit on the lackluster side. They’re largely shallow affairs that entertain well enough but don’t have a lot of staying power. A couple of weeks after watching “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos,” I barely remembered anything about it other than Tim Shaw.
- Demons of the Punjab
- The Witchfinders
- It Takes You Away
- The Tsuranga Conundrum
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth
- The Ghost Monument
- Arachnids in the U.K.
- The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos
Of course, to many people Doctor Who is only as good as its monsters. Here’s how they stack up in my eyes.
- Pting (“The Tsuranga Conundrum”): Smol, hangry and full of personality. Clearly the best monster of the season.
- Talking frog (“It Takes You Away”): It’s a frog. It talks. What more could you want?
- The Kerblam! Man (“Kerblam!”): As Moffat proved several times, a robot with a subtly creepy design can make up for any number of flaws.
- Thijarians (“Demons of the Punjab”): The design is gorgeous, and I enjoyed the twist.
- Collective denizens of the Anti-Zone (“It Takes You Away”): I loved the fleshmoth design, and Kevin Eldon (who played Ribbons) is a welcome addition to any cast.
- Dalek (“Resolution”): The episode doesn’t quite sell the threat of the caseless Dalek, but I liked the bashed-together shell.
- Remnants (“The Ghost Monument”): Creepy sheets with creepy voices. Simple but effective.
- Tzim-Sha (“The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos”): Even the credits refer to him as “Tim Shaw” which should tell you how seriously the show takes him.
- The Morax (“The Witchfinders”): As much as I liked Siobhan Finneran’s performance as the possessed Becka, the truth is “evil mud” is never going to rank very high.
- Giant spiders (“Arachnids in the U.K.”): They’re there and they’re big, but I didn’t find them particularly scary.
- Ux (“The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos”): Largely forgettable.
- Various non-Kerblam! robots (“The Ghost Monument” and “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos”): They mainly exist to get shot at.
- Shitty fathers (“It Takes You Away,” “Resolution”): Ryan and Hanne could start a support group.
- American real-estate moguls with political ambitions (“Arachnids in the U.K.”): Jack Robertson may hate Trump but that doesn’t make him a good guy, y’know?
- (tie) Capitalism (“Kerblam!”) and racism (“Rosa”): Two of the worst monsters in real life, as it happens.
Next month: Lackey continues the Jodie Whittaker binge with series 12.