New Doctor, new direction

After watching the finale of Doctor Who Season 11, I contemplate how theme and social issues have replaced story-arcs as the show's driving narrative force and what that means for the franchise.

I watched the finale of Doctor Who on Monday night in a hotel room in Sydney. I was surprised to learn it was the last episode of the season — because I was waiting for…something that never came.

Season 11 carried with it considerable weight, promise and a considerable degree of risk. A new Doctor — the first woman to play the role (not counting a BBC comedy skit featuring Joanne Lumley) — a new showrunner and an entirely new writing team. Taken together it's inevitable that the series undertook a significant reboot — the biggest since Russell T. Davies and Christopher Eccleston brought it back from permanent hiatus in 2005.

Chibnall's Doctor Who is decidedly different from the stewardship of Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat. Yes, we have a female Doctor; yes we have a series that's put diversity and political correctness at the forefront.

Yet, neither of these changes bother me, in fact, I enjoyed this new aspect of the show. I love the new Doctor and her companions, there's some great chemistry between them, and I think the showrunners are to be commended on creating an ensemble that reflects diversity in modern Britain.

What I didn't like was the series' overarching story-arc — or rather, the lack thereof. This change flies in stark contrast to the rest of the modern reboot of Doctor Who, all of which, had strong and consistent stories that tied episodes together and, often tied the whole series together.

In any reboot, one expects change...but as a long-time fan who's watched since reruns of Tom Baker aired during my childhood in the 1980s, I hoped that something would remain of the tropes established by preceding series.

Although Doctor Who has always had serials, this pattern of season-long story arcs was established by Russell T. Davies, who was heavily influenced by Joss Whedon. This format continued under Moffat and his two Doctors. The format meant each series barrelled headlong to a big climax and resolution. Characters like Rose, Captain Jack, River Song, Clara Oswald, The Master, could make reappearances as stories collided, creating a sense of a rich, complex and interconnected setting.

There was none of that in Season 11. It's a complete break from the Davies and Moffat era — and it's downright jarring. I kept waiting for something to start, and in ten short episodes, it's already over. If I didn't like the characters as much as I did, I would have stopped watching — something which over 4 million people in the UK did as the series played out.

In Chibnall's Doctor Who, there are no overarching threads of storyline that's consistently carried through — no Bad Wolf, no Crack in the Universe. The bookended first and last episodes, with the massively underwhelming Tzim-Sha, failed miserably thanks to eight unconnected monster-of-the-week episodes that separated them. Not to say I didn't like the standalone episodes, but their siloed construction made the series as a whole the weakest of the modern era — at least concerning narrative.

What surprises me, is Chris Chibnall. He is indeed capable of writing serial narratives, having helmed Broadchurch. So, I can only conclude he's chosen this format deliberately to break from the past and take the show in a new direction — or there's some heavy-handedness from the BBC's upper echelons we are not aware of.

Without a strong plot that takes advantage of decades of world-building, Chibnall instead has chosen to use the Doctor's companions as the driving narrative force — their goals, losses, failings, identities, prejudices and so on — thrown about time and space in freshly baked, uncontrollable TARDIS helmed by a Doctor with a rather strong case of moral posturing.

Thinly veiled here is Britain battling social issues of gender, diversity, sexuality, post-colonialism, immoral capitalists, political belonging, misdirected faith and the threat of automation. Britain today must redefine its identity and place in a Post-Brexit world, where it no longer carries the political and economic power it once held. With Britain's place in the world diminishing, it's looking inward and Doctor Who is doing the same.

Of course, all of these are valid themes to explore — and I must add, they've been explored by Davies and Moffat during their tenures. But where themes in Doctor Who used to be subtle or playfully handled, Chibnall's eschewed subtly for a brick through the window or a fist down the throat. In Season 11, theme and modern social issues are now driving a franchise that has been hitherto known for strong, interconnected narrative arcs.

As a writer, I've always found theme a very loose peg on which to hang a story. Theme adds flavour, sure, but flavour alone is not the reason we eat. So instead of externalities forcing change, what we saw in Season 11 was a new Doctor seemingly without direction or even much agency. I’ve already noted the TARDIS dropped the characters into one standalone scenario after the next — a sandbox created to convey whatever moral message the writers wanted to explore that week.

Maybe that's more approachable for newcomers to the series. Season 11 is very approachable, and critics lauded it for its many positives. The diverse cast is welcome and refreshing (though hardly new). The production is exquisite, wonderfully filmed with great special effects. I even liked the music, itself another change as Segun Akinola replaces Murray Gold as the composer.

Yet, Season 11 left me wanting. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I believe that Doctor Who peaked with David Tennant, and while there were some excellent episodes starring Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, the franchise is faced with the reality its finest moments are in the past. Maybe this reboot will help re-energise the franchise, perhaps the format I'd grown to love was tired and played out under Moffat. Could Jodie Whittaker ever supplant David Tennant as the finest Doctor? She could...perhaps...but not with the material she's working with.

Yet, there is promise here. Davies' first season wasn't as good as his next, but he did establish the groundwork for better to come. Maybe that's what's at play here, though I haven't seen it yet and it bothers me.

Yes, Season 11 could have been done better. Doctor Who has been done better. Yet, I enjoyed it enough that I'll give another go next year. Here's hoping Season 12 will be great.

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