Review: Doctor Who – The Thirteenth Doctor

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“It’s About Time” proclaimed the tagline for the new season of Doctor Who. It is of course a play on words as the Doctor travels throughout time and space but is also for the first time to be portrayed by a woman. The new season would also herald the departure of long time showrunner, Stephen Moffat and usher in a new showrunner and writers. They also made a conscious and public decision to use original stories without old villains returning such as the Daleks, or Cybermen. In a way, all those changes stacked the deck against them. Anytime there is a new Doctor there is some kind of resistance and with the decision to finally cast a woman in the role, the internet being what it is unleashed its army of trolls.

So is this the best that the Doctor has ever been? No, not really. But it has potential. Hopefully that potential gets realized in later seasons. Is it so bad that it killed your dog and you have to go John Wick on the producers? No, far from it. But it has had some freshman problems mostly in consistent writing. Rather than totally recap all episodes I’m going to go over some of the highs and lows of the season and my overall impressions of the new season and Doctor.

The season started off well enough with the introduction of the new Doctor and an ensemble cast of companions in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” There’s some regeneration confusion and head wonkiness on the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) part. Graham (Bradley Walsh) is a bus driver, married to Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandmother. There is a bit of distance between them as they are not really related. And Yasmin (Mandip Gill) is a young police officer who once went to school with Ryan. So not only are we introduced to a group of companions who are relatively ordinary people, there is no hint of them being anything other than that. None of the three seem to be a universe altering objects. Yes, I’m looking at you Bad Wolf, and Clara. They could be any of us just plucked from our mundane world into adventures through time and space.

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The second episode, “The Ghost Monument,” was still trying to find it’s legs for it’s ensemble and is not particularly remarkable as a Who episode. It’s just there. We do, however finally get to see the newly redesigned interior of the Tardis.

I’ve already heaped my praise in a specific episode review of “Rosa.” It still stands as the highlight episode of the season. Looking back on it it, I think it will be considered one of the best episodes of the modern era. It is a shame, however, that they followed such a well-rounded episode with “Arachnids in the UK.”  Slightly above mediocre only because of the guest appearance of Chris Noth or Law and Order fame. The episode after, “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” was more or less a bottle episode where the Doctor and team must avert disaster on a hospital ship. Some interesting moments and here and there, plus one incredibly cute monster that eats everything. But it’s still not as cute as an Adipose. It’s a straight forward Doctor Who episode with some decent science fiction elements.

Going again into the past, “Demons of the Punjab” feels almost like a spiritual successor to the excellent Rose-centric “Father’s Day” episode. Yaz not only explores her family’s past but along with the rest of the Tardis gang explores the very bloody day of Partition Day, when India and Pakistan split into two nations. There  was a little bit of hand holding for “Rosa,” for European audiences, but Partition Day seems very much a part of British history and its repercussions are still felt today. Like Rosa, it presents a set moment in time which can not be interfered with by the Doctor and her companions. And for Yaz, making sure history plays out as it is supposed to is personal. Like “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab” also has them be a part of that history as well. It addresses the often paradoxical appearance of time travelers as not just participants but as part of the history itself. In the end, it is implied that they were always there as part of history. After “Rosa” this is my favorite episode because it deals with drama that is grounded and relatable. It also has some nice interactions with Yaz’s family.

I think that after “Demons of the Punjab,” the series starts to gain its full legs. The writing is sharper. After a rather amusing episode called “Kerblam,” a little lark taking a few stabs at Amazon shipping and their warehouses, we get “The Witchfinders.” It’s a well done monster episode, also taking place in the past, this time where the Tardis team gets to actually change a few things. They are in a period where suspected witches are persecuted and even King James I makes an appearance for good measure. It is also the first time that sexism actually becomes an issue since King James does not believe in the Doctor’s authority with her usual magic ID papers. Graham, as the older white male, ends up playing the role of Witchfinder General, a sort of bigshot inquisitor who hunts witches.

The character interactions evolve more especially between Ryan and Graham in the surreal “It Takes You Away.” Ryan has father issues from his father not being around especially after the death of his mother. He is also a bit resentful of Graham marrying his grandmother not because of race, but because he is trying to be a father figure to Ryan. Graham, himself has had trouble coming to grips with the death of his wife, Grace who we last saw in the first episode of the season. It is ultimately an episode about loss of those whom we love and how we so often wish they were back with us. It’s deals with those last vestiges of grief, the final goodbyes that many of us wish we had.

The season closes out with “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” a mouthful of words for a fairly decent episode where we come full circle and are confronted with the return of the villain from the first episode., Tzim-Sha. The Doctor just calls him Tim Shaw. Tim Shaw makes for menacing enough monster though a bit generic. The science fiction elements of it are rather interesting with the incredibly powerful and religious Ux. Graham seems to complete his character arc of the season as he starts out by saying that he intends to kill Tim Shaw the first chance he gets. He eventually is the one that makes a choice in what sort of justice must be served.

Now it has become a bit of a tradition in modern Who to have a Christmas Special. So not surprisingly many fans were upset that they did a New Year Special instead. Give me a break, people. Find something else to complain about. The special, “Resolution,” brings in a new year and an old villain. No surprise it’s a Dalek. Apparently a scout Dalek that was defeated in the 9th Century resurrects and is trying to communicate to the fleet. The Doctor and team try to stop it. It works really well as a Dalek episode. For half the episode, it is in its flesh gob form and is controlling a human’s mind and body which is something new and unnerving at the same time. It’s mechanical body is a bit more imposing, not as sleek as modern ones, as it is cobbled together from whatever it can get. The special also features an appearance by Ryan’s father in which we get some closure on the character arc of Ryan.

Right up front, Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor and her new companions have a great dynamic together and chemistry. Also instead of waiting around always parroting,”Don’t worry, the Doctor will save us,” they work as a team or “fam” as the Doctor sometimes calls them. There is a deliberate emphasis on character development for the season which allows us to get to know them not only as empty cups to be filled by whatever the showrunners feel like making them from week to week. The companions, as I’ve said, up until meeting the Doctor have led fairly mundane lives, but the call to adventure and to make some sort of difference in the universe is very convincing.

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Jodie Whittaker brings delight to the show and a sense of wonderment as well. That is something that has been lacking lately.  As we go on this journey with her, we experience that joy as well. Sure there is danger but there is good in what she does, and it looks like she is having fun doing it. For the most part, anyway. Exception given for Daleks.

The episodic nature of the season does away with seasonal story arcs of the past and for the most part it works. But it’s a double-edged sword. Episodes are wrapped up neatly at the end and sometimes the writing shows that a nice tidy conclusion must happen, and it must happen quickly. It is very opposite of the Moffat era of convoluted season arcs and breadcrumbs of plot clues. Ultimately a few episodes have plot threads that were introduced into an episode dangling or uncluded by the end of that episode.

The shortened 10 episode season did not help the new Doctor much either. Any new regeneration will need a few episodes to get its legs. By the time the season becomes comfortable it is almost half over. And I can see why some see so many shortcomings of the show.

And I must say that as much as I appreciated Murray Gold’s music for the last 10 seasons of Doctor Who, I am quite impressed with the music from the new composer Segun Akenola. His title theme is a bit more evocative of the classic theme than the last few seasons. And although it is probably not the choice of the composer, for years I’ve disliked the sound mix of overly dramatic music drowning out dialogue.

The bottom line is Jodie Whittaker makes a fine Doctor and her companions are very down to earth and relatable. I have high hopes for some improvements next season and I’m looking forward to a few more seasons of her and her fam.

Trivia

I believe Yasmin Khan is the Doctor’s first Asian companion. While checking that, I came upon another Yasmin Khan:

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coincidencealiensguy

 

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