Review: Doctor Who – The Thirteenth Doctor

p06mny1v

“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.

7941876-6538859-image-a-26_1546125194025

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.

1

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:

721931

coincidencealiensguy

 

Advertisements

Why “Rosa” is the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years

doctor-who-season-11-spoilers-1034630

December 1, 1955
Our freedom movement came alive
And because of Sister Rosa you know
We don’t ride on the back of the bus no more

— The Neville Brothers, “Sister Rosa”

This post will contain spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled watch the episode first –or, if you don’t mind, proceed.

Let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She brings incredible energy and charm to the show and provides a sense of wonder to even the most mundane aspects of the show that makes it all seem fresh again. That freshness is also helped by having a new cast of companions. I think the presence of new producers and a new composer really add to that freshness as well.

Considering how much Doctor who has traveled through time and space, it is surprising how little the Doctor has to fix a timeline. In the case of season 11’s Doctor, not only must the Doctor and her companions have to protect time, but have to battle one the most worst monster of all, racism.

I grew up watching Twilight Zone and Star Trek: science-fiction message heavy shows. Early Who episodes were time travelling history lessons, such as “The Aztecs.” And sometimes, like in “Pompeii” we are presented with fixed moments in time, where Donna and the Doctor can not interfere with the historical significance that Pompeii’s citizens must die. Martha Jones had a few brushes with racism during the David Tennant run. The Twelfth Doctor touched on racism in “Thin Ice” but it was not the core of the story.

The opening teaser is of an actual incident in 1943 where she was forced off the bus for the first time for refusing to use the back entrance for coloreds and taking a seat. In those days you paid in the front and had to get back off and enter through the back of the bus if you were Black.

The TARDIS is acting up, as it typically does. It does seem to take the Doctor and companions where they are needed, though. In this case, it brings them back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. The Doctor discovers a heavy presence of artron energy in the vicinity that should not be there so she decides to investigate.

doctor-who-season-11-episode-3-review-rosa
“I’m getting pretty sick of seeing that sign.” says companion Ryan Sinclair.

When they disembark, Ryan Sinclair passes by a White couple and the woman drops her glove, doing the polite thing he picks it up and offers it to her while tapping her shoulder. He is rebuked by a slap by her husband. Rosa Parks who is passing by intervenes and diffuses the situation. Note that it is Rosa who is able to diffuse it.

It turns out that the source of the energy is another time traveler named Krasko armed with a vortex manipulator — poor man’s TARDIS, inaccurate at best. He is a former prisoner of Stormcage prison who is embedded with a neural inhibitor that presents him from physically harming, let alone killing, anyone. But he is determined to prevent Rosa Parks from making her historic act of defiance against segregation. According to Krasko her defiance is where it all goes wrong for him.

For years, I had been screaming in frustration and annoyance at my television set because of the Moffet effect of manic running around and staccato dialogues from the Doctor that is often drowned out by Murray Gold’s score. In this episode, we slow down and let the events of history speak for itself. We let storytelling actually take place. And each of the companions are not only there along for the gee whiz ride, they each contribute something and become part of the story. In the final moments of the episode, being part of that history can hurt as it turns out that the Doctor and her companions must stay on the bus so that the bus can be full and that not enough White passengers have seats. The Doctor says here that “We must not help her.” And at this point Rosa Parks, not the Doctor, is the hero of this episode.

Much of this episode is difficult to watch. It’s not the maniacal escapism of previous Doctor Who episodes. It takes on racism head on and in a way that is surprising in its unflinching approach to the subject. The simple act of just gathering at a restaurant to plan what to do is dangerous as they get side-eyes from other people and a waitress tells them, “We don’t serve Negroes.”

We have some notable performances from the entire cast and a bit of character development too. Earlier this season, Graham (Bradley Walsh) is introduced as Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandfather, but Ryan just calls him his grandmother’s second husband. But you get the feeling that sharing this adventure together brings them closer. Ryan and Yaz (Mandip Gill) seems to be showing some affection for each other too.

The standout performance goes to Vinette Robinson’s portrayal of Rosa Parks. She is almost regal in her strong and determined performance.

doctorwho-rosa11

A character moment between Ryan and Rosa occurs after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. at Rosa Parks’ home. Afterward, she asks if he got what he wanted. “I didn’t know what I wanted, but yeah. Meeting you guys. Listening to you all talk, I can’t believe it. It will get better. Not perfect…but better. It’s worth the fight. Thank you, from me and my nan. ” She responds, “I haven’t done anything.”

Yaz has a moment where Ryan talks about being stopped more by police than his mates. Yaz, who is police herself says not by her. “Tell me, you don’t get hassle,” he says. “Of course I do. “Of course I do, especially on the job. I get called a ‘Paki’ when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. But they don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now, because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me — for us. And in 53 years they’ll have a Black president as leader. Who knows what will happen 50 years after that? That’s proper change.”

Graham has many little moments and one is when he recounts first meeting Ryan’s grandmother who said, you better not be like James Blake (the bus driver who threw Rosa Parks off the bus 1943 and called the police on her in 1955). “And I had to ask her who she was and she said she gave bus drivers a bad name. She had a t-shirt that said, ‘The Spirit of Rosa,’ I wish she were here.” Towards the end of the episode in feeling that they had accomplished their mission he gets ready to get off the bus, but to his horror he realizes he has to stay and be one of those White people to be on the bus so that there are not enough seats. “Don’t get off, Graham. If we get off there will be enough empty seats for White passengers and Rosa won’t be asked to move.” His simple look and line of “No, no. I don’t want to be part of this story,” conveys a heart about to break.

I must take a moment to really compliment the use of music in this episode. The licensed stuff like the gospel piece in the teaser and the use of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” during Rosa Park’s protest moment may be considered cliché. Yet it’s a trope that works for me. But it is also the subtle fanfare by the new series composer, Segun Akinola that stands out. His Rosa theme is evocative of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with a touch of James Horner.

The episode is not a perfect episode. Being British production, the actors portraying Southern Whites are probably British themselves as sometimes accents just seem off. Krasko seems like a plot device villain just to set up the episode, but it could also be possible that he may be something more later on in the season as his defeat does allow him to possibly return.

Science-fiction can entertain, make you think, make you uncomfortable, afraid, and sometimes it can tell a message while doing all these things. Doctor Who’s Rosa does that well. And as Ryan said to Rosa Parks, “Thank you.”