By Teresa Ugarte
The 12th season of the BBC time-travel drama “Doctor Who” kicked off in October of last year. With a new composer, screenwriters, showrunner, and most notably, a new Doctor, the season was all but guaranteed to be distinctly different from the last 11. The biggest change of all was the fact that the Doctor, a time-traveling body-shifting alien, was cast as a woman for the first time in the show’s 55 year history. Jodie Whittaker (“Broadchurch,” “Journeyman”) portrayed the 13th iteration of the iconic role in the new season.
Whittaker’s casting was a breath of fresh air for a show that had been stagnated for the past two seasons. Unfortunately, her talents alone were not enough to pull the show out of its funk.
The season opener, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” introduces Yaz, a Pakistani-British police officer; Ryan, a black factory worker with dyspraxia; and Graham, Ryan’s white step-grandfather. By the third episode, they’re regulars on the TARDIS.
The group is an unusual one for the show. There has never been a companion with a visible disability, nor one as old as Graham (not counting immortals), nor one of Southeast Asian descent.
The best episodes are the ones that utilize the companions: “Demons of Punjab” explores Yaz’s family history in a way that is both educational and entertaining, and “It Takes You Away” focuses on Ryan and Graham’s unique relationship. The worst are just plain old boring.
Unfortunately, bad episodes far outnumber the good. For the most part, the season is deeply uninteresting.
The biggest problem is the Doctor herself. While Whittaker does the best possible job portraying the central character, the writing around her is far too weak. Her personality for the first eight or so episodes can be boiled down to “quirky.” Everything constant about the Doctor — their unbound knowledge, their unbridled confidence, their intuitive authority — seems to have been dampened, if not completely erased, in Whittaker’s iteration.
In every other iteration of the Doctor, they’re in charge. They’re smarter than everyone in the room put together. They’re ten steps ahead of the game, and they unravel their enemy’s plan before their enemy even knows what their plan is.
Whittaker’s Doctor is one step ahead, at best. Instead of completely obliterating her enemy with her ingenious plans and superior intellect, she barely outsmarts them. She’s in charge, yes, but only because the companions (sorry, “friends”) say she is, not because she’s proven herself to be a leader.
At the end of the second episode,“The Ghost Monument,” for example, when it looks like the TARDIS has disappeared forever and they won’t be able to get back home, she gives up. She tells the companions that she’s sorry, but they’re all going to die, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
The Doctor does not give up. The Doctor doesn’t rely on their companions for solutions to big problems — that happens the other way around. The Doctor is not on equal footing with the humans they choose to whiz around in their box. The Doctor is, by definition, a thousand levels above them. They’re a genius within their species of geniuses. They’re an alien with the ability to and knowledge of time travel. I understand that it’s tempting as a writer to have everyone on the team carry the same amount of weight, but the show isn’t called “Doctor and Friends” for a reason. The Doctor is supposed to be superior to their companions, period.
Even if we looked past all that somehow — nevermind the implications of this watering-down of the Doctor during their first female iteration — the show still has problems. The writing is hit or miss. The stakes are either so high you know they’ll inevitably be resolved or so low that you don’t care. Tension is poorly built. The companions rarely find themselves in danger, or really in any interesting situations at all. Episodes hit emotional beats without earning them. And after all this time, I know more about Graham and Ryan separately than Yaz and the Doctor put together.
Other aspects of the show feel off as well. After over a decade writing the score for “Doctor Who,” composer Murray Gold stepped down from the job. His music gave the rest of the show a continuity that is lost in the new season, which has a much subtler and much less emotional score. The cinematography has changed dramatically as well, shifting from a campy but practical style to a much more artistic one. And the content of the episodes, which previously were rarely serious, now carry a lot of weight.
To add to the lack of continuity, Chris Chibnall, the new showrunner, made the decision to not use any classic monsters for the whole of his first season, opting instead to create original villains. This, in my opinion, was a mistake. I don’t need Daleks every other episode, but combined with the rest of the changes, I’m having a hard time seeing “Doctor Who” anywhere in this season. A lot of the Doctor’s core elements rely on their past interactions with their old enemies, and excluding them also cut out a lot of sorely needed depth to her character.
It’s hard for me to rank this season with all the other seasons of rebooted “Doctor Who,” because for all intents and purposes, it’s not the same show anymore. But to be quite honest, this is probably my least favorite season to date. Even with other seasons that I found to be less than good, I at least recognized the show I was watching.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Doctor Who’s Facebook page.
Teresa Ugarte is a freshman journalism and English major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.