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Doctor Who Series 11: How Did the 13th Doctor Perform?

Oh, brilliant! With the airing of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor came to a spectacular close. Throughout its ten-episode run, Series 11 attempted and (largely) succeeded at bringing a “back to basics” approach for the 55-year-old series. Series 11 confidently stands out as the strongest first season from any Doctor since the reboot in 2005.

It’s been just under a year since we were first introduced to Whittaker’s 13th Doctor in Peter Capaldi’s swansong “Twice Upon a Time.” The 2017 Christmas special featured the return of the First Doctor (portrayed by David Bradley) as he helped the Twelfth Doctor come to terms with his own impending regeneration. Whittaker’s Doctor appeared but for a moment at the end of the episode. With very little time to process what had just happened, the newly minted Doctor was cast out of the exploding Tardis into… Sheffield. Eh? Every adventure has to start some place.

Obviously, there are major spoilers ahead for Series 11. Don’t read any further if you haven’t watched the entire season. Speaking of which, what’s up with that? You haven’t watched it yet? Bah! Stop what you’re doing and go watch Series 11! It stands out as one of the best seasons of the rebooted Who era.

Getting it Right from the Start

The Doctor’s new adventures started off in spectacular fashion with Series 11. It would be difficult to beat Matt Smith’s introduction as the Eleventh Doctor in “The Eleventh Hour,” but Jodie Whittaker nearly pulled it off in her first full adventure, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” The episode has everything a fan of the show could hope for and it also provides a fresh introduction for those new fans who are just joining the Whovian masses.

  • New companions? Check.
  • New sonic screwdriver? Check.
  • New outfit? Check.
  • A huge problem that only the Doctor can solve? Check.

What else do you really need to pull this off? A kickass actor or actress!

Fortunately, fans get that in spades with Jodie Whittaker. From word one, Whittaker’s take on the Doctor radiated tenacity, earnestness, and heart. Whittaker has also shown throughout these ten episodes that she can give just enough of that exotic, alien otherness needed to pull off playing the Doctor. The Doctor’s journey throughout the first episode shows us the typical readjustment to the new regeneration she has experienced. She’s confused about she is, and yet confident in her abilities to solve the problem throughout the episode. By the time she’s put it all (or at least enough of it) together in her “final” confrontation with tooth-stealing, death-dealing Stenza warrior Tzim-Sha (aka, the hilariously nicknamed misappropriation “Tim Shaw”), Jodie Whittaker leaves little doubt that she has taken full command of the character.

Companions

This first episode set up team Tardis (aka, The Fam) for series 11 (and possibly series 12, more on that later). Graham, Yaz, and Ryan provide the Doctor with a family that are more than screaming sentients in distress or breathlessly fawning over the Doctor’s brilliance in an, “Oh, my. What does that button do, Doctor?” manner. In an unusual fashion, but not unheard of, the Doctor ended up with three companions. Not since the Fifth Doctor back in the early 1980s have we had such a packed Tardis!

As with Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, gone are the trappings of a budding, yet unspoken love affair between the Doctor and their companion. The trio grounds the Doctor in the best way, as any great companion does, each bringing something unique to the table. Graham brings a lifetime of experience and is resourceful in spades. He’s the voice of reason and doubt in the Tardis Fam, but it serves him well. The final moments of the finale showed Graham ultimately giving up on revenge when he decides not to kill Tim Shaw, even though he killed his wife Grace, who also happens to be Ryan’s grandmother.

Both Yaz and Ryan bring a youthful awe to experiencing the space and time in such in an usual way. Yaz wants to be a police officer. The Doctor grants her the experience to investigate the world around her. Yaz has a true “lawful good” streak that may seem to teeter on naivety at first, but she has a solid moral compass and sense of justice. Yaz just wants to help.

Ryan’s arc with his grandfather is probably the most touching part of the entire series. He was never quite sure about Graham, but after his grandmother’s death, slowly but surely Ryan warms up to Graham. The biggest victory of the season happens in the finale when Ryan admits his love for Graham. He even gives Graham the fist-bump he’s so desperately wanted from the first episode. No victory in Doctor Who history has felt so earned!

I’m absolutely smitten with each of the Fam members. They are perfectly cast. My greatest hope is that these kind souls continue to safely adventure with the Doctor. Companions often meet with tragedy by the end of their travels with the Doctor. These three companions did as much as Whittaker did to make this series feel grounded and welcoming.

Historical Episodes Return!

Originally, Doctor Who was envisioned as an educational show meant to feature the time traveling adventures of an alien throughout our own history. That idea got shuttered fairly quickly in favor of the sci-fi angle, but some of the best Doctor Who episodes throughout its long history have been “historical” (and I’m using that term loosely) fiction stories. It’s never even been close to being a strict focus of the show.

Series 11 had two major historical episodes, “Rosa” and “Demons of Punjab.” Both episodes tackled some hefty issues from the 20th Century: racial segregation in the South and the violence surrounding the partition of India and Pakistan. “Rosa” focused on the story of Rosa Parks and how a racist time traveler from the future attempted to thwart the crucial Civil Rights event of 1955, the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There were several points in the episode where the Doctor’s Fam struggled with the vile racism of the era. It was an excellent episode, but it did miss a couple of opportunities to drive its point home (more on that below).

Of the two historical episodes, “Demons of Punjab” was the better. An adventure to the past to see Yaz’s grandmother get married leads to heartbreak for her, as secrets from Yaz’s family are exposed and torn apart, much as India and Pakistan figuratively were at the time. It’s a story of love, persistence, and hatred that pulled no punches. The death of her grandmother’s first love Prem hit harder than almost any death viewers have seen in Doctor Who’s history. The story, like the pain, is raw. The real enemy doesn’t turn out to be the aliens, it turns out to be our human capacity for hatred towards our fellow man. This episode is easily the best since “Breathe” from Capaldi’s first season. I hope Series 12 doesn’t forget its historical drama roots because these two episodes provided fertile, if painful, ground for character development.

But There’s Still PLENTY of Room for Bonkers Sci-Fi

Series 11 brought all the wonky science fiction too. The other eight episodes had a proverbial beggars banquet of Doctor Who and science fiction goodness. Series 11 avoided having an overarching story in favor of present standalone stories. This focus on new aliens and adversaries served the new series well, giving Whittaker’s Doctor the time she needed to breathe without having to wrestle with the baggage of the usual suspects like the Daleks or Cybermen. There were certainly many fans disappointed by the absence of familiar alien faces. However, Series 11 provided more than enough baddies like witches, big spiders, and racist time travelers to keep the Doctor and her companions busy.

Tzim-Sha acted as the only true series-wide villain, and only tangentially, with the Stenza getting a couple of nods throughout the episodes as being pretty nasty characters. The first and last episodes featured the aforementioned murderous Stenza warrior Tzim-Sha, who first traveled to Earth on a hunt, and then later sought to destroy the world by using an ancient race of planetary architects to exact his revenge.

Probably my favorite science fiction episode of the season has to go to the awesomely named “Kerblam!” The episode featured a rather murderous commentary on a futuristic Amazon-like business, delivering packages and death across the galaxy. “Kerblam!” ended up being a humorous and deadly “Who done it?” (see what I did there?) that balanced both laughs and murder quite well. The episode also featured Broadchurch alumnus Julie Hesmondhalgh playing the mid level bureaucrat we all loathe. The future still has room for corporate bureaucracy!

“The Witchfinders” also gave viewers a nice, alien-witchy ride through the early 17th Century, mixing horror and comedy in the face of religious persecution. Alan Cumming easily wins the guest star of series with his over the top turn as King James I. Cumming chewed up scenery in the episode, delighting in mixing a little Van Helsing in with his portrayal of the famous monarch. Of course, the witches weren’t witches at all, they were aliens trying to free their imprisoned leader (naturally). Some things never change for Doctor Who!

Things Left Forgotten and Unresolved

I have virtually no complaints about Series 11. It was a succinct, enjoyable, and entertaining introduction to the Thirteenth Doctor. However, there are a couple of small things that I hope to see worked on in the future.

My biggest issue with Series 11 was the fact that the episode “Rosa” did not go far enough in its social commentary on racism. Science fiction is at its best when it is tackling problems of the now by exploring issue of the past and supposed future. With the pernicious and peculiar rise of White Nationalism in the 21st Century, Doctor Who is in the perfect position to comment on the fallacy of such a movement. “Rosa” was a missed opportunity to explore the issue further. The reformed murderer and time traveler Krasko obviously has a racial beef. The episode doesn’t really dig too deeply into Krasko’s motivations beyond his thinking that Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was, “Where it all started.” Krasko is disposed of in a way that is unfulfilling and ambiguous. It does set up the potential for further exploration down the road, but it’s really a missed opportunity to callout racism for what it is.  “Rosa” was an inspiring and wonderful episode that could have gone much farther than it did with its social commentary.

The second issue I want to address isn’t really a disappointment, but more of a home for the future. While not featuring a previous villain or alien species was a strength of the season, I hope the next series will give the fans a look at a couple of baddies from the past. Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor has more than established her own claim to be the Doctor. It’s now time for her to face off with one of her old foes. This will provide the kind of red meat fans crave while giving her an honest go at one of the classics. I think that we can all agree that the Daleks, the Master, and the Cybermen were leaned on perhaps too heavily during Davies and Moffat years. That doesn’t mean they have to be completely shuttered. Bringing them back after a break of a couple of years in real-time will be a welcome return for most fans!

What the Future Holds

The Doctor has one more episode left for us in the form of the New Who traditional Christmas New Year’s episode. Watch the trailer below:

As the teaser alludes to, something really, really bad is coming. What this is…well, who knows? The teaser doesn’t offer up many details, but it does look rather tense. I’m hoping that perhaps we’ll get our first look at a baddie from the show’s past. I somehow feel like that may be a vain hope. Fingers crossed!

And…that’s all for 2019. Heartbreakingly enough, the BBC announced after the Series 11 finale that we fans won’t see Series 12 until 2020. While there will almost certainly be a Christmas New Year’s special for 2020, the likelihood of seeing Series 12 before spring 2020 is dim.

That doesn’t mean fans can’t get their Thirteenth Doctor fix! Titan comics has recently started a Thirteenth Doctor comic book. Fans hungry for of Whittaker’s Doctor can find their local comic book shop and read away! I’m sure novels and perhaps audio books will be forthcoming.

Thanks for reading my review of Series 11. The future looks bright for Doctor Who. Until 2020, be brilliant!