The holiday season is a busy one! So I’m a little late on my blog post(s). Before I do anything else I want to address something truly important…
On December 9th, we were treated to the Series 11 finale of Doctor Who, the Thirteenth Doctor’s first, but certainly not last, series in the role. This series is critical not only as the first with a female Doctor, but because it is the first with a new showrunner (and with the first new composer since the show was revived in 2015). Months ago, I reviewed the first episode and speculated on what we could see next from Chris Chibnall and crew. Today, I’m following up on that.
In my earlier review, I noted the gritty, industrial quality to the set and lighting in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, which is set in Sheffield and features characters native to that region. I mentioned in my earlier that this is significant for two reasons: 1. because it also reflects Chibnall’s background, 2. because it eliminated any questions about Jodie Whittaker’s natural accent, which she uses in the role. I speculated that Chibnall’s Who would reflect the episodes he wrote under Russel T. Davies and Steven Moffat, which included working class characters, often in an industrial setting, and also referenced familial ties. I also wondered if we would continue to see the kind of lighting and colors that reflected Chibnall’s experience with crime dramas. Doctor Who is a show that allows for many different genres and tones, so it would be easy for Chibnall to take the episodes in whichever direction he wanted.
However, he didn’t. While it could always be argued that Doctor Who is its own sort of crime show, I would say that this series was just as procedural (or not) as those prior. The episodes did continue focusing on the working class and familiar relationships, though:
- In “The Ghost Monument” we open with the same gritty, industrial setting that we saw in Sheffield, but it quickly shifts into something a little more foreign. Two of the characters we meet are clearly struggling members of the working class and both make references to their families and what that means to each of them.
- “Rosa” features working class seamstress Rosa Parks and the start of the American Civil Rights Movement. We also get scenes in Rosa Park’s home while Ryan considers what this would mean to his Nan. The Doctor also confronts this week’s villain multiple times in a very Stand By Me-esque junkyard (with a couple small shout-outs to previous series).
- In “Arachnids in the UK”, we meet Yaz’s family, including her mother, who works at a hotel. Yaz’s mother is a member of the service industry while we are treated to Chris Noth’s (Sex & the City, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) portrayal of a Donald Trump-like figure (with a similar eye on the Presidency).
- In “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, two key characters are essentially interstellar EMTs, another working class job. While Ryan struggles with feelings about his father, the other patients include someone pregnant, but unsure if they want to keep the child, and a brother and sister at odds. Familial relationships come into play for not only the patients, but for Ryan as well (something that happens throughout this series).
- “Demons of the Punjab” takes place during the partition of India. One of the central characters is Yaz’s grandmother, who is about to get married. In the past we’ve had Who episodes that focus on the start of big historic events, or from the point of view of those who do the decision making. In many ways this reminded me of New Earth in “Gridlock” (series 3, episode 3). In “New Earth” (series 2, episode 1) we are taken to New Earth and interact with the upper class, while in “Gridlock” we see New Earth from a more working class perspective. Here, we see the effect of partition at the most basic level. “Demons” also features a misunderstood villain (possibly with connections to the finale– something I only realized as I was writing this) and conflict between family members throughout.
- “Kerblam” was one of my favorites this season. In it, the Doctor and her companions investigate Kerblam, Who‘s version of Amazon. It requires them to go work in the warehouse with the rest of the working class, where we meet characters that are estranged from their families in some way. The main reason why these characters are estranged relates directly to the fact that they are working class/working at an Amazon-like warehouse.
- “The Witchfinders” depicts a small village in 1612 that is currently experiencing a literal witch hunt. These small, not even working class, but farmers, are visited by King James I. A key component of the conflict is family members turning on each other.
- “It Takes You Away” is an episode that focuses solely on a family. We don’t know much about their background, but the family we meet live alone in rural Norway. The aesthetics toggle between a cottage in the woods and a spooky, dark cave with lighting not unlike what we saw in the first episode. Here, Graham’s loss takes the forefront among the Doctor’s companions.
- “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” brings back that industrial feel from the first episode in full force. It draws a lot on the politics and societal structure introduced in “The Ghost Monument”. One could argue that this is the only episode that does not feature family in someway, or that it’s about the family you make.
I think it’s fair to expect that future episodes will continue to examine the working class, as well as explore family ties.
This series was also quieter than previous ones. From the music to the marketing to the overarching plot, Chibnall’s Who is just more understated than Moffat’s, or even Davies’. Although not as subtle as ‘Bad Wolf’, little hints are dropped throughout the series, with the destruction or movement of planets and continued references to the Stenza, the race of the villain, Tzim-Sha in episode 1. But, while the Doctor faced yet another possible universe-ending catastrophe, it did not feel as grandiose as previous series finales have.
The universe has almost been destroyed in a number of episodes, beyond just series finales. Even this series features an episode where the universe will be destroyed if the Doctor doesn’t do something. “The Battle of Ranskoor” feels a lot like that. It summarizes the series, and gives us a better idea of the aftermath of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, but does not feature the magical deus ex machina we’ve seen so many times before. Composer Segun Akinola, who took over for Murray Gold, does not give us big violin heavy choruses, but something that matches the rest of his work for the series, which is simply a lot more subtle.
Overall, I am still incredibly torn about this new Who. I love Jodie Whittaker– for someone who never watched the show, she manages to evoke many previous Doctors in her portrayal– and feel that she was the perfect fit for our first female Doctor. Chibnall’s work as showrunner, while evocative of Torchwood, is still very much Doctor Who. The ups and downs aren’t as dramatic, but it’s still a family show featuring a character who travels semi-randomly through time and space. I really enjoyed the new composer, and while the visuals take a little getting used to, I LOVE the new opening, which draws heavily on Classic Doctor Who, but with a modern spin.
That is I think what best summarizes this series: a little bit of the old and the new. (Not unlike his predecessors, but with different priorities.) The Doctor only spent a couple episodes trying to get her companions home, then interacted with their regular lives again, before they all decided to continue traveling with her. I am very much looking forward to what happens next…
On New Years Day! This episode’s preview strongly hints at the return of the Daleks and while I loved having a break from Daleks and Cybermen, I’m really hoping we get to see how Chibnall handles them. If he doesn’t use them, I do hope he uses another Classic Who villain/race. The original ran for so long and had so many interesting characters, I’d love to see some more of that brought in.