We have now seen the entirety of Jodie Whittaker’s first season since she took the reins of Doctor Who, so I thought it would be good to look back over Season 11 and see how it has all fared so far.
I think there has been a lot to like so far in Jodie’s first season as The Doctor. And we started off strong with ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’. It is always hard to judge a Doctor in their first episode because the character is finding out who they are along with the audience. But I thought Jodie played it brilliantly, and by the ending of that episode she had fully become the Doctor. We also got to see how new showrunner Chris Chibnall would change the show, and one of the most noticeable was in the way it was shot, and the quality of the cameras. The show looks so much more cinematic now, and that is a big step forward. The direction to is a bit more flashy, but it has not lost the core of the show, it is still very charmingly British.
In episodes such as ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ and ‘The Witchfinders’ what we got was just a good solid fun adventure. ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ through us forward in time onto a doomed spaceship, with one of the most adorable and beloved aliens to come out of the series in a good while, whilst ‘The Witchfinders’ sent us back into Stewart era England and gave us a fun period adventure mostly propelled by Alan Cumming’s wonderful over the top, scenery chewing, turn as King James I (and VI). neither of these bring the depth and power of the series highest points, but they are the nice and fun adventures that the season needed.
Finally we have the season final, ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’. This was a really good episode, it brought back Tzim-Sha (or Tim Shaw) the strongest villain of the season, it gave him a much higher level of threat, it brought Graham into contact with the person who killed his wife, and it forced The Doctor to face up to a problem of her own making. The only real problem was that despite all of this it just didn’t feel epic enough for a season finale. It was a really solid episode, and if it hadn’t been the finale it may have been viewed with even more love. And who is to say it won’t be if the New Year’s Day special gives us the epic send off that Season 11 needed.
But it has not been all sunshine and roses for Doctor Who, there are always weaker episodes, but thankfully there have not been many, and even then they have all had very strong redeeming qualities. Two that have had strong ideas, but never really lived up to them were ‘The Ghost Monument’ and ‘Kerblam’. In ‘The Ghost Monument’ the idea of this intergalactic scavenger hunt being controlled by some rich figure just looking to amuse himself could have been a great idea. However the actual final leg that we got just felt very underwhelming. The pacing too felt off, like it never really got into its stride. However once that storyline finished and we finally got to see The Doctor reunited with the TARDIS it was a pretty special moment in an unremarkable episode. ‘Kerblam’ however set up a great idea. It portrayed itself as an episode as a very real future that could be facing us with large swathes of the workforce being replaced by robots. In the end however they just didn’t do anything or say anything about the issue, more content to just bring it up.
The only truly awful episode though has been ‘Arachnids In The UK’, and that is despite the brilliant work of the visual effects team creating some incredibly realistic and terrifying giant spiders. In fact the episode started strong as we got to meet Yaz’s family, although this is something I will come back to later, and the sequences in the flat was tense and brilliantly done. However once we got to the hotel the episode fizzled out completely. The spiders got less scary as they became a CGI horde, and in the end it was an episode that just meandered out into nothingness. Even the attempt to have a character clearly designed as a send up to US President Donald Trump fell a bit flat as his great crime in the episode was a mixture of negligence and shooting a big spider that had killed his bodyguard. This was truly a ‘Love and Monsters’ or ‘Robot of Sherwood’ level of bad episode.
One of the greatest strengths of this season of Doctor Who has been some of the historical episodes, which have allowed the show to tackle some incredibly important and powerful issues. The two episodes that particularly stood out are ‘Rosa’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab’. ‘Rosa’ tackles the incredibly well know story of Rosa Parks, and was wonderfully written by Noughts and Crosses author Malorie Blackman. It succeeded in balancing the social commentary and Doctor Who adventure impressively, and managed to take away none of Rosa’s agency in making the decision herself, when it would have been very easy to have The Doctor inspire her to do so.
‘Demons of the Punjab’ however takes on a much less widely known event for many in the Western world, the Partition of India. It was an episode that managed to take this huge historial that led to so many deaths, and focuses it down on a smaller scale, more intimate story revolving around Yaz’s grandmother, and her first husband. It was an incredibly timely story to tell, a story against the blind hatred of others, with Umbreen and Prem looking past their differences, coming from Muslim and Hindu families respectively, and finding love. The tragic ending is absolutely heart wrenching and I am sure I wasn’t the only who shed some tears whilst watching. This was also the episode where Segun Akinola really came into his own as the new composer for the show, and proved himself worthy of filling the big shoes that Murray Gold had left after his ten seasons on the show.
The final episode to talk about may be the most divisive of the season, and very possibly my favourite, ‘It Takes You Away’. This was properly out there science fiction, but anchored by this incredibly relatable heart to it. I know many people were put off by the Solitract finally taking the form of a talking frog, but it was suitably strange that it fit the insane nature of the episode for me. It gave us some of Graham’s strongest moments as the Solitract takes on the form of Grace to keep him there. The finale as the Solitract Universe begins to collapse around them is incredibly emotional, and Whittaker and Walsh were fantastic.
It has been a while since we have seen the TARDIS this full. Three companions used to a staple of the show back in the day, in fact that is how we started off. But we haven’t really had more than two since the show’s revival. Now in Ryan, Yaz, and Graham we are getting three very different characters, all bringing different perspectives.
I think it would be hard to argue that Bradley Walsh’s Graham has been the stand out of the companions in this season. He has had the richest material to dive into, particularly in the loss of his wife, and having to face up to that particularly in the final two episodes of the season. Walsh has, when episodes allowed him, displayed a brilliant level of acting talent that I did not realise he had, I mean it will be hard to forget how much it hurt him to have to stay on the bus during the climax of ‘Rosa’ and be complicit in and witness to the events surround Rosa’s decision not to give up her seat on the bus.
Graham has also had a lot of screen time devoted to his relationship with Ryan. It is clear from the start of the series that Ryan doesn’t want to see Graham as a grandfather figure, despite the fact that Graham marries his Grandma, Grace. We slowly see this relationship evolve over the course of the series, with Ryan finally calling him Grandad in ‘It Takes You Away’ and admitting that he loves him in ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’. This development is one of the highlights of the series and has been bolstered by Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole’s chemistry. As well as the stand out relationship from the series Ryan has also been warmly received for a great acclaim as a character for being a positive and realistic depiction of someone with Dyspraxia, something you don’t often see in mainstream media, and brilliantly handled by the writers.
And then we come to Yaz. I feel a little sorry for Mandip Gill and Yaz because her character has just got the short end of the stick a little. Even with two episodes with a large focus around Yaz’s family, ‘Arachnid in the UK’ and ‘Demons of the Punjab’, she still hasn’t been allowed to be the focus of these stories, getting pushed to the side. It feels like we’ve had as much time with Yaz’s mother and grandmother, as we have with Yaz. And that is not to say that Gill has been bad, she has good chemistry with the other three leads, and always performs well, but it has been the sad reality of having four new characters in the TARDIS, with you count Whittaker’s Doctor as one, that Yaz has all too often been resigned to being a supporting player. I do hope that this is something the writers rectify in season 12, and allow Gill some meatier material to play with.
And now we come to Jodie herself, and she has been magnificent. I don’t believe the huge pressure on her, just because she is the first woman to play the role, is justified, but Whittaker has more than stepped up to it. As The Doctor she falls somewhere in between the manic energy of a Matt Smith and the incredibly human feeling heart of a David Tennant. And it ends up being a great mix. And when the show get really dramatic or moving that’s where Jodie shines the brightest. Her performances at the end of ‘Demons of the Punjab’ and ‘It Takes You Away’ are for the ages.
One thing that has been noted is her tendency for name dropping, and whilst mentioning that she met Pythagoras, Albert Einstein, and Audrey Hepburn. But this is also one of the ways that Chibnall managed to pay tribute to Doctor Who past. There had been criticisms that Chibnall was ignoring what came before, as he wasn’t using any past villains, but by referencing episodes like ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ and ‘Boomtown’ shows Chibnall’s reverence for the show’s history.
The majority of the season has been very good, with some truly exceptional spots. But it is easy to see, especially after several season of Moffat as showrunner, that people may have been expecting more overarching story rather than the stand alone episodes we got. Outside of Ryan and Graham’s relationship we didn’t really a through line until Tim Shaw returned in the season finale.
But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Doctor Who has often been episodic rather than built on big season long arcs, and that was something Russell T Davies often did as well. And given that the majority of the episodes were good, it really didn’t bother me that there wasn’t much tying the episodes together. This was one of the strongest seasons of Doctor Who in a long time.