From 2013-16 I wrote TV reviews for the website of the Metro newspaper. I also ran my own TV-related blog, the (un)imaginatively named Slouching towards TV. They say you should never revisit past glories – but here goes anyway as I start a new regular(ish) series by explaining why I’m not enjoying the latest incarnation of Doctor Who.
For many fans of Doctor Who, the anticipation for this new season was in equal parts exquisite and excruciating. 15 long months of waiting, with only Peter Capaldi’s valedictory Christmas special, Twice Upon a Time, to tide us over.
Change is always exciting and no more so than in a show like Who which is built on a foundation of constant evolution. Where else on TV can you jump on a weekly basis from ancient history to the distant future? Or from urban Sheffield to a far-flung galaxy?
More than that, though, this was a clean sweep in which everything changed. Broadchurch‘s Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner from Steven Moffat. A new Doctor (and a female one, no less), with Peter Capaldi handing over his sonic screwdriver to Jodie Whittaker. All-new companions. New TARDIS interior. New logo, titles and music.
There is no show on TV that reinvents itself as completely as Who does. It’s refreshing – but risky.
A misguided return to its roots?
Six episodes in, it’s clear Chibnall’s vision is very different to his predecessor’s and much closer to the show’s origins, right down to the new titles and music. The Doctor once again has three companions, just as William Hartnell’s Doctor did. And there is a less frenetic pace and more of a focus on historical events.
Moffat revelled in creating complex, action-packed stories around a heroic and powerful Doctor. Chibnall is more narrative-driven, his stories more organic. His Doctor is more empathetic and less sure of herself. Consequently Whittaker’s take on the character feel more human and relatable, a less shouty version of David Tennant. This is no bad thing – and the whole issue about casting a female Doctor is already long forgotten.
But here’s my first problem. The Doctor shouldn’t feel more human. She is the last surviving member (okay, other than The Master) of an ancient race of regenerating, time-travelling aliens with two hearts. She’s over 2,000 years old. Physically she presents as human, but that’s where the resemblance ends.
Here’s another problem: having three companions means there are too many characters. In the modern era, the Doctor has generally had one companion, sometimes two. It makes for more compact storytelling, particularly important for a show that resets its environment every week. It’s harder to service four main characters than two. When each of these is new to the audience, well, it’s like trying to squeeze four people inside a non-TARDIS-y police phone box. There isn’t much space for them to breathe.
A whole lot of history
Some viewers have voiced dissatisfaction at a perceived reliance on historical stories. Previous seasons typically had one. However, in six episodes to date, we’ve already visited the beginning of the American Civil Rights movement and, most recently, the partition of India.
I can see the argument that Who is primarily a sci-fi show. However, it originated (at least in part) from a desire to teach children about history. (After all, the BBC’s stated mission is to inform, educate and entertain.) Back in 1963, the show’s first season gave us the Daleks but also stories based around the prehistoric era, Marco Polo and the Aztecs.
I’m fine with Who upping its historical quota. What I’m less okay with is when it is produced as a history lesson. Rosa, penned by Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, was a sensitive yet unflinching story, and the highlight of the season to date. However, Sunday’s Demons of the Punjab showcased everything that is not quite right about the show currently.
Passive in the Punjab
This should have been a great episode. To be fair, many viewers loved it. I didn’t.
The forced partition of India provided great source material. There are themes of religious division and intervention in the affairs of other nations that resonate strongly today. So far, so good.
However, the episode soon veered off in several different directions simultaneously. We had a slightly ham-fisted allegory tying the aliens of the week into Remembrance Sunday. For the second time in three episodes (after Arachnids in the UK) Chibnall played the ‘aliens aren’t the real monsters, humans are’ card. Some of the historical talking points were hammered home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer – at one point I felt like I was in a classroom.
Worse still, yet again the Doctor and her friends don’t really have an active role to play other than to run around a bit and watch events unfold. This worked in Rosa, where it was important to let Parks retain control of her own actions. But too often this season we have seen Team TARDIS reduced to the role of passive spectators. For instance, Arachnids in the UK saw the human villain kill the helpless giant spider while the Doctor watched on impotently.
I understand the desire to reset the Doctor so that she isn’t all-powerful. But there’s little heroic about any of her actions to date. That robs the narrative of its triumphal moments, leaving this viewer’s experience flat. It feels to me as if the Doctor is the least developed character – a criminal failure on the part of a showrunner.
So here’s my verdict. I can see the individual moving parts that Chibnall is trying to assemble into a well-oiled machine. But the pieces don’t quite fit together. Jodie Whittaker is a likable, capable lead but I don’t feel like she is able to fully inhabit the role yet. We’ve seen snippets of the companions’ back-stories but they’re still under-developed. (Although the moment in Arachnids when a still mourning Graham returns to his empty home was heart-breaking.) The narrative pace is pedestrian. And the quality of the stories is hit-and-miss which, when you are relying on narrative and character rather than CGI and action, exposes the cracks more readily.
Perhaps the problem is me. Maybe I should embrace this drastic new direction more willingly and accept that change is a good thing. But, with six episodes down and only five to go, it troubles me that I still don’t have a clear sense of where this season is going.
For the first time I can remember – I started watching the show in the late-70s during the Tom Baker era – I’m not excited by the prospect of a new episode of Doctor Who this weekend. That’s a huge disappointment.
Even more disappointing is that, as much as I have tried, none of our kids find this latest version of the show remotely engaging. At least in our household, the new Doctor Who is failing to delight either adult or child viewers. That saddens me, a lot.
Are you watching Doctor Who? If so, what do you think of the show’s new direction?