(This post has been sitting in my drafts since at least 12.28.18 and I have made no content changes, so it is in fact not definitive if we take the New Year’s special as a part of the season.)
I wanted to take my time before writing anything extensive about season 11 cause I wanted to be a bit removed from my initial gut reaction to the finale. I also find that reading other people’s opinions helps me to hone in on my own, so I wanted time to see what others were saying. Having something distinct to agree or disagree with is easier for me than trying to make my thoughts make sense outside my own head.
So where do I stand? Overall, I really like season 11. I have some issues, which I will talk about, but none of those issues hindered my enjoyment of the season.
The Woman Who Fell to Earth was a fantastic episode, near-perfect save for one glaring issue. We were introduced to Grace — a brilliant older, Black woman who displayed all the qualities we love in companions — only to immediately watch her die. It was classic fridging, and in this case, a Black woman was killed to serve the plot of a white man. (It can be said her death serves Ryan’s arc too, but honestly, it doesn’t.) It was made worse by the fact that many of us, Black women and other WOC specifically, could see it coming a mile away.
Even if I didn’t care about that Extremely Problematic Writing Choice, the fact is, Grace was more enjoyable than Graham. Losing her was a slap in the face. I’d probably still have preferred her not being introduced at all rather than being taken away.
Which leads me to my next issue…
There were three companions aboard the TARDIS, but the season mostly centered Graham. Though Graham and Ryan BOTH lost someone precious to them, the show gave much more severity and focus to Graham’s grief over Grace’s death. While Ryan was given small moments to reflect on his Nan, he was never given an opportunity to really examine his feelings about her death or process them; not in anger, sadness, or in any way that felt real. And although I know we all grieve differently, it feels more to me like the writers just didn’t know how to balance the kind of character they wanted him to be with the kind of darkness and brooding that often comes with grieving a loss.
And poor Yaz was almost completely left out of the equation. She had solid moments in most episodes, but she was never given much to do, even in the episode that focused on her own family. She was sidelined so that Ryan’s and Graham’s relationship could flourish. Even though I love her, she never got to be more than a supporting character. Coming out of this season, we still have a lot to learn about her and hopefully season 12 will put her more to the forefront.
The show also left little room for other relationships to be expanded on. It felt like Yaz and Ryan were getting comfortable with one another and were starting to go — idk — somewhere? But that relationship seemed to trail off in favor of examining Ryan’s relationship with his step-grandad. The majority of the season was spent with Ryan refusing to call Graham “grandad” and Graham trying to make it a thing. And when it does finally happen, it’s not really a surprise because there was so much build up to it. (Thats said, it was a cute moment and I like the way that Ryan played it.)
Juggling a new Doctor and three companions is a lot, so I understand that not everyone can be highlighted all the time, but Graham was given a lot of attention. I want to believe those choices were made objectively to service the story they wanted to tell, but the cynic in me feels like it was meant to keep a white man at the forefront of the show for fans who have a problem with a female Doctor or companions of color.
Speaking of… I don’t like diversity when it’s treated like a quota that has to be met instead of a genuine desire to see the world reflected more accurately. That said, I feel like the casting choices were deliberate and meaningful. Casting Tosin and Mandip alongside Jodie was brilliant!
Having a woman Doctor and two POC characters on the TARDIS at the same time is amazing. But you do not get to congratulate yourself for doing something that was long overdue. The show has been running for 50+ years. Thirteen white men have played the Doctor over that time. And even more white men and women have played companions. Women, Black people and South Asians have been here. We were not just invented. So you don’t get pats on the back for catching up.
And look, I love that we’re very cavalier about secondary characters mentioning their unseen same-sex partners, but that is not representation. That is not enough. Especially when you made a point to talk about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters.
It is very easy to read Yaz as Not Straight. Her mom didn’t seem phased by the prospect of her dating the Doctor. Ryan was nonplussed by King James’ come-ons. Thirteen radiates Extreme Queer Energy! Either of them COULD be queer. But alluding to something or leaving it open to interpretation is not enough. It does not count.
It was amazing to see a blind actress playing a blind character, but again, you do not get brownies for doing what should have been done anyway.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this season was how abrupt every episode felt. There was so much story packed into each episode, and almost all of them would have been better served as multi-parters.
It’s understandable to want to veer very far away from the convoluted mess that was Steven Moffat’s season-long arcs. But Chibnall went too far in the other direction, making the season feel fragmented. There is a way to keep stories brief and only loosely connected to an overarching theme without making them feel like capsule episodes that have very little impact on the story or the characters as a whole.
We did come full circle from the premier to finale, but the in-between had very little influence on that story. I don’t mind that so much as I don’t like what was left behind in favor of confining stories to one episode. There was a feeling that there were even better stories lurking in the background, if only we had time to tell them. The strict choice of self-contained single episodes harmed more than help.
Jodie Whittaker is fantastic! I am in awe of her. She is the Doctor! She has a very expressive face and voice and is just a joy to watch. Thirteen is empathetic and attuned to her friends and the people they meet along the way. She understands people better than many of her former selves. She also understands and knows herself and seems more self-aware. Thirteen feels like a sum of all of their experience. She feels like a Doctor who has made a conscious choice to be how she is.
She reminds me of Ten in some ways and Eleven in others, and seems to possess the better qualities of all the NuWho Doctors with very few of their less pleasant quirks. And some people find her lack of psychopathy upsetting, but Twelve was well on his way to becoming this person, especially with Bill. Thirteen feels like the fully realized version of who the 12th Doctor was trying to be.
Also, frankly, Moffat’s overuse of the worse “psychopath” was gross and incorrect.
Despite my misgivings about the inequitable treatment of the companions by the writers, I really enjoyed the group dynamic. Graham was a tough pill to swallow after losing Grace, but he grew on me. He was often the person who said the thing that I would say. He and Ryan had a cute semi-antagonistic relationship. As much I didn’t need Grahampa to be a thing, it was inevitable but it felt earned by the time it happened.
I loved how Yaz and Ryan played off each other as well, though we got less of that about a third of the way into the season, which is a shame. Ryan and Yaz were my original “will they or won’t they” but Yaz and the Doctor though! They’re a fun — flirty? — duo and I for one am fully on board with them as a romantic pairing; though I am perfectly fine if they’re platonic BFFs. I really just enjoy how much Thirteen wants to make Yasmin happy. And Yaz’s utmost confidence and trust in Thirteen just… look? I know Yaz is underdeveloped, but the way she and Thirteen ride for each other is everything!
‘Rosa’ was beautiful, brutal, and affecting and is probably one of the best episode of Doctor Who. There is so much they could have gotten wrong but they were so much closer to getting it right. They did good. Being confined to 47 minutes and having to make it make sense for your characters to be there obviously means making concessions, but they did so thoughtfully. The episode not only touched people, but it made them curious. Now, Rosa Parks incredible story is being rediscovered and taught anew.
‘Demons of the Punjab’ was another stellar best-of episode. Taking place on the eve of India’s Partition, it gave us a micro view of the impact of colonialism, war and radicalization through the eyes of two families — Yaz’s Nani Umbreen, a Muslim and her betrothed Prem, a Hindu. It told a story about family and betrayal, but also one of love transcending. It was beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure. It was also, I think, the episode that solidified Thirteen as the Doctor.
What’s more, these episodes aren’t tied up in neat little bows. They don’t end racism and intolerance. They don’t “fix” the problem or “beat” the villains. And the Doctor isn’t the hero. She’s not significant to these events. She is an observer and a participant, but not the catalyst or the cure.
Although I do wish some of this season’s stories had taken up more space than a single episode, I actually appreciate that there wasn’t a definitive arc. I like being able to watch the episodes independently of one another. I like being able to show someone an episode without having to give them a ten minutes primer so they can follow it. I like that this season is accessible, but that it still has so much of what I love about Doctor Who.
I also liked that there weren’t many straightforward villains. What’s scarier than genocidal war aliens are ideologies and belief systems that you can’t combat with fists or guns. You can shoot a bigot, but you can’t kill bigotry. I don’t always need an alien, monster, or other physical manifestation of fear. I am fine with existential threats. I am okay with “sometimes things are just fucked up and you can’t win, you can only survive.”
I don’t miss any of the classic villains and wouldn’t mind not seeing any of them for a while. The Daleks and Cybermen are played out. The Zygons were a flop. The Silurians make points, but I think we can leave them underground for a few more years. If the show is going to pull from Classic Who, I’d prefer them to revisit villains who haven’t been seen much or at all in the revived series. But whatever they do, I hope they let the Daleks and Cybermen — oh, and the Weeping Angels — die a quiet death.
Also, I have thoughts about The Stenza
A reason I feel less critical about this seasons’ lack of Big Bads is that I feel we may have been introduced to a threat as great or greater than the Daleks or Cybermen. The Stenza have been established as an advanced civilization capable of creating massively destructive weapons. Their impact on the universe has been noted, and we already know that they are powerful and malevolent.
This season was not without its flaws but I still find myself enamored with it. I love Thirteen so much. I love Yaz and Ryan
and yeah, Graham too, I guess. I am genuinely happy with the show and excited about the next seasons.