Doctor Who series 12 leaves behind some big questions – and we’ve been pondering the direction the show has taken over the past ten episodes.
Huge spoilers for Doctor Who series 12 lie ahead.
Sometimes, Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall may be feeling that you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. With the twelfth series of the show since it was revived coming to an end and leaving a multitude of threads, it feels like it’s attracting pretty much the opposite criticism that were being aimed at it when series 11 concluded.
Before I get too deep into that, a few overall thoughts. I’ve enjoyed this series of Doctor Who. I’ve found it an improvement on the last, I think there have been some really strong episodes, and I continue to enjoy watching Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. She continues to feel very much a piece of standout casting. I like the desire to tackle topics such as mental health, and the clear responsibility those behind the show feel in talking to its audience about things that matter.
Furthermore, I’ve been watching this show for a long time now. I fully understand that part of its mission is to attract, engage and entertain a younger audience. I read through the same ratings clickbait headlines as everyone else, that happily seem to overlook that the younger audience is rarely watching things screened live, and I see a show in decent health. Not least worldwide. It remains, for good reason, one of the BBC’s biggest exports.
Still, I think it’s worth a chat about where it’s found itself at the end of series 12, because I confess, I wasn’t utterly enamoured with the way it was rounded off. It all got me thinking as to whether the current run of Who has found itself caught without much middle ground, as a by-product of the risks it’s taking.
Beyond this point, and Alf the Spoiler Ferret, we’re in spoiler territory. Scroll below Alf at your peril.
Series 11, then.
The recurring criticism of it was that by ignoring many of the core ingredients and classic monsters of the show – Chris Chibnall boldly made this something of a statement of intent – that the older fans were being left behind. I never fully bought this myself, and thought it was risky and adventurous to not rely on existing props and costumes from the cupboard. Had the series itself been a little better, I wonder if the complaints about that would have been so loud. I do think it’s easy to overlook too that a jumping-aboard point for new fans was offered, and taken.
But still: when it came to series 12, it felt as though the internet had been read, digested and responded to. As a consequence, the metaphorical pendulum has swung way, way back the other way.
Now, we’ve had Gallifrey, the return of The Master, a few moments with Captain Jack (not enough minutes with Captain Jack, I’d argue), the Cybermen returning, the Judoon coming back, another sort-of Doctor, explorations of Time Lord lore and the Time Lords themselves. It was getting to the point where if the Candy Man from The Happiness Patrol had popped up, I’m not sure I’d have batted an eyelid.
I like these classic Who ingredients, to be clear, and some of them were used in interesting ways. The Master and the new/old Doctor had me gripped earlier in the series, and there’s something of an idea in turning one of the show’s most defeatable foes – the Cybermen – into a force that regenerates and can genuinely never be beaten. Where it goes with that, I’m interested to see.
But still, these many ingredients felt haphazard to me. They never shook off the feeling that lots of things the fans love were being woven in, almost as an olive branch to those who weren’t so keen on the last run. It’s not for me to determine what newcomers to the show made of it all, of course. As an older Who fan, though, I must confess I was struggling a little to wrap my head around it all. Perhaps tellingly there was the response of myself and those around me to the reveal of what the next episode would be. Once upon a time, when the return of the Daleks was teased, that would have been a big thing. When the name of the next episode popped up at the end of The Timeless Children, my only surprise was that they hadn’t popped their head around the door earlier and popped in for a cuppa.
I’m still not quite sure how well the Doctor and her TARDIS team knit together either.
The most interesting dynamic for me has been between the Doctor and Bradley Walsh’s Graham for two series running. I really think that’s been excellent. But I do wonder if Yaz and Ryan are being a little shortchanged.
A bit of Yaz’s backstory, for instance, was introduced, discussed and resolved in the back end of Can You Hear Me?, as opposed to being carefully woven in. Ryan’s dyspraxia, whilst never something I’d suggest should be the beating heart of his character, has been sidelined, and his relationship with Graham is now smooth. But what do they all want? Outside of their loyalty to the Doctor, why are they still travelling? I’m not really sure I know.
Are there too many companions here for deeper character relationships to develop? Feasibly, but I’m no writer. I just watch and love the show, and after two series of watching them all travel, I’m still left a little puzzled.
On the flip side of that, Whittaker’s Doctor remains a welcome mystery. There are flashes of something darker there too, and her reaction at the end of Can You Hear Me? – that I discussed here – still plays in my head. She now finds herself in the midst of a Who end of series cliffhanger – captured by the Judoon, after spending most of the latest episode tied up by The Master – that raises lots of questions, but good questions.
This has to me, in spite of some of the grumbles I’ve mentioned above, been a notable improvement on the last series. I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve been looking forward to the next episode each time. Yet come the end of the finale, I do wonder – accepting there’s more still to be told – if the show has opened up a plot area that would have been wiser kept shut.
I remember, back in a previous job, reporting the breaking news of a Die Hard prequel film, McClane. This project would have taken place before the original classic movie, and explained to us how Bruce Willis’ character became a cop in the first place. It would have told us how he met his wife, Holly, and filled in lots of backstory.
My reaction to that, appreciating that the resultant film could have been brilliant, was I don’t really care.
I’m happy with things about the characters I’m watching having gaps in their lives. I don’t need a dossier, I don’t need to know lots of details as to where they ended up where they are when I met them. In fact, I’ll go further: I like they are things I don’t know. There’s an air of mystery to that, if nothing else.
Thus, seeing Doctor Who – after nearly six decades – now digging deep into not just the origins of the Doctor, but of Gallifrey and the Time Lords themselves – felt, well, unnecessary.
One of the early decisions that Russell T Davies made when he revived Doctor Who in the mid-2000s was to lock the Time Lords away. For much of his era, therefore, the Doctor was the lone Time Lord in the universe, eventually one of two. We were told there was a Time War that basically locked away the rest, and that was all we needed to know. A lonely alien traveller, trying to do good, who happens to be centuries old? Perfect. Much explanation beyond that? Well, it’s like finding out Captain Kirk’s middle name. The questions tend to be far more interesting than the answers, and the existence of the question is likewise oftentimes all that’s needed.
Granted, the Doctor Who fan in me always wanted to know a bit more than I was getting, but whilst I enjoyed subsequent explanations and explorations that came regarding the Time War and that era, I was never fully convinced the narrative was enriched by me knowing them (at least until the War Doctor turned up).
And I can’t help feeling now that via a telling of how everything began – albeit with some ambiguity and a get out clause – the show’s just trodden water at best. Basically, genetically modified Time Lords, and some of the most intense old-time fan service the show has done in a long time. And that’s proven to be the heart of the series finale.
A bit of me’s intrigued as to where Chris Chibnall and his team are going with this – can I still call Sylvester McCoy the seventh Doctor? – but alas, a large part of me doesn’t really care that much. Time Lord 101 isn’t compelling, interesting drama to me. I’d read the hell out of a good book on it, sure, but as the heart of the series itself? I think the show has just set itself a hell of a job to do something interesting with that.
I’ll be tuning back in to find out what it does, of course, and I do come back to the point that I’ve enjoyed this series.
But also, I do think that Doctor Who is at its best when it tells belting stories, irrespective of whether the monsters are old or new, or whether we’re learning new things about the Doctor herself. Furthermore, I think that Chibnall and his clearly talented team have given themselves plenty of options for series 13.
I just wonder if that can be a run that finds a better balance between serving longer-term fandom and welcoming new viewers.
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