*LOTS of spoilers follow, don’t even think about reading this if you’re at all worried about them*
The latest season (or “series”) of Doctor Who has been defined by two high profile changes: in front of the cameras, the Doctor regenerated into a thirteenth (canonical) form, played by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever officially take on the role in a non-expanded universe or spoof production. Behind the scenes, Steven Moffat regenerated into Chris Chibnall, creator of Broadchurch and a semi-regular contributor to both Who and Torchwood. If you were someone who, like me, was deeply sick of Moffat and overjoyed to see the first female Doctor take the spotlight, then the months between Peter Capaldi’s farewell special and the Series 11 premiere must have felt long indeed.
Both of these changes were much heralded in the press and marketing, yet you could argue that, if anything, the BBC actually undersold the shift in its latest batch of episodes. The show that returned to screens in October was filled with newness, including new companions (Mandip Gill as Yaz, Tosin Cole as Ryan, and Bradley Walsh as Graham), more of which traveled regularly with the Doctor than ever before, and a new score courtesy of Segun Akinola, who I instantly liked 1,000 times more than Murray Gold (sorry, Murray). And it has also been a season defined by its lack of things as well: no Daleks, no Cybermen, no returning characters of any kind from previous series, no season-spanning mystery word, nary a mention of Gallifrey (unless I’m mistaken, the Doctor never even calls herself a Time Lord, though thankfully they appear to have dropped the outdated, arguably sexist 70’s term “Time Lady”). This wasn’t just the biggest revamp since the 2005 revival. It might vary well be the most radical reimagining since Jon Pertwee’s first season in 1970 (which, if you go back and watch it, shares some weird similarities with the most recent season).
Before we get to the ranking, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to praise Whittaker’s performance. It’s exactly what the show needed, a revitalized take on the character that makes thematic sense. She may still have the intellect and quirk that always defines the Doctor, but she’s also a bit of a cosmic holy fool, as suggested by her instantly iconic outfit, which is more than a little reminiscent of Mork from Ork or the goofy hippie/clown Jesus from Godspell. This Doctor is relishing the chance to reinvent herself and reaches for new experiences like a curious child. I appreciated Peter Capaldi’s “wandering aged rock star” vibe (despite the material he was saddled with), but to me this new take has been a consistent joy to watch.
I’ll go ahead and bait the trolls even more by saying I personally enjoyed this season as a whole more than any of Peter Capaldi’s individual seasons (yes, even Series 10). Moffat’s tendency for overcomplicated zaniness and big setpieces is gone, replaced by a steadier, more meat-and-potatoes approach to storytelling. There’s less frenetic action, less levity, more of a sense that the show is taking itself seriously.
The eleventh season as a whole had plenty of problems, to be sure, not the least of which were some rushed moments of exposition and a tendency towards anticlimax. But it also undid a lot of the issues with the Moffat era and took several steps in the right direction. And no matter what the eldritch manbabies of YouTube tell you, the show has not paid some sort of price in ratings or cultural standing for being socially conscious: on the contrary, it’s more relevant and popular than it’s been in years.
Enough blabbering (or as the Brits say “faffing about”). Here is my ranking of Jodie’s first ten outings as The Doctor. May there be many more to come.
11. “Arachnids in the UK”
I don’t think I’ll get much argument here. In a season full of new and interesting ideas, this was mostly a derivative slog with some questionable CGI (but, come on, you’re not watching this show for the special effects, are you?) and an even more questionable Trump parody played by Chris “Yes, Really” Noth. If the show was going to make us sit through a bunch of unfunny references to the man currently attempting to be U. S. president and not even have the decency to feed him to the spiders at the end, then what was the point? He didn’t even get that much of a scolding. Please don’t let him be a recurring character.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I honestly wish this episode had brought back the Eight Legs, the psychic spiders from Metebelis III responsible for the Third Doctor’s demise. Or they could have leaned into the Sex Pistols reference and made Tanya Fear’s character a punk instead of a more worried version of the standard B-movie scientist. Either of those choices might have made this more fun.
As it stands, this episode had some pleasures, though. I loved Jodie’s opening interactions with the “fam” as they return to Sheffield: she really does seem sad at the prospect of being alone, and overjoyed to be invited to meet Yaz’s family. And while said family was mostly pretty forgettable, we did get some good scenes of banter between the episode’s cast (“You can’t be president if you fire Yaz’s mum!” being one of my favorite lines) and some genuinely interesting spider facts. If this episode inspires kids to become arachnologists, it may have been worth it.
Topanga Tsuranga Conudrum”
Tortuous title aside, this episode is pretty forgettable. In a paradoxical way, the fact that it’s better than “Arachnids” kind of makes it worse, since it’s not really interesting enough to talk about. The subplot about a pregnant man from a planet where each parent gives birth to children of their biological sex mostly managed to mostly be respectful, with the joke being on Ryan and Graham’s awkwardness, and I wasn’t as bothered by the Pting as much as a lot of people seem to have been. But yeah, it was a Big Blank Spaceship episode. Go drop a bunch of action figures around an Apple store and you’ll basically recreate the same effect.
One moment does deserve singling out, though: the Doctor’s monologue about the ship’s particle accelerator. The one thing every actor portraying the Doctor has to be is convincingly fascinated by the universe, and Whittaker nails it in this lovely little moment, getting genuinely excited about the power of human ingenuity. I was onboard with the Thirteenth Doctor before this but this sealed it and in a just world it would have ended all arguments about her suitability in the role, full stop.
9. “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”
For the first 30 minutes or so, this is a great, promising episode. The TARDIS follows nine (not nine million, not nine billion, just NINE) distress signals to desolate planet and mount a rescue mission as fractures begin to form in the group. Once Tim Shaw, the baddie of the season premiere, revealed himself, there was excellent tension in the ranks: Graham became certain he’d disobey the Doctor’s stance against guns, and Ryan started to question her contradictory “rules”. This would have been a great path to develop, especially against the backdrop of the symbiotic Ux, a pair of telepathic humanoids who are also forced to question someone they’re used to seeing as infallible.
This finale was far, far better than the overstuffed messes we usually get…until it wasn’t. The idea of planets being compressed into crystals, killing all life on them was one thing, but seeing them spring back into space, apparently totally fine, smacked of the kind of lazy happy endings the show has generally avoided this season. And what should have been Yaz’s big moment of self-sacrifice got glossed over and lost amid all of the rest of the episode’s business. But it was still a mostly enjoyable conclusion to the show that reaffirmed the mission statement of the new Doctor. And Ryan and Graham reconciled in the name of Grace, ensuring that when they eventually leave the TARDIS, a Big Finish buddy comedy series will almost certainly await them.
Unlike an irritatingly vocal part of the fanbase, the lack of returning villains in Series 11 proper didn’t bother me that much this season: it was part of the table-resetting the show desperately needed to do. This episode almost aired without confirmation that it would feature Daleks, and I kind of wished it had, even though it was already pretty clear that they’d be the ominous threat hinted at in the promos. But I was undeniably excited, actually looking forward to the Daleks coming back in a way I haven’t in years. I mean, when was the last genuinely great Dalek story we got? You might have to go all the way back to “The Stolen Earth” to find one that’s even halfway good.
The story we got for New Years is no all-time great, to be sure, but it’s pretty good. It suffers from terrible jokes, uber-cheesy narration, and a feeling that it’s just ticking off some boxes. So what did work? The Recon Dalek’s ability to “pilot” other creatures was genuinely new and scary, and the idea of it as a mirror image of the Doctor (another resourceful alien cut off from her native kind on an unfamiliar planet that knows how to work a forge) was genius. Jodie Whittaker got to do a badass “I’m the Doctor” scene, which is practically required for every actor to take on the role, and one of her “best ever skids”. And even though it was predictable and overheated, Ryan got the titular “resolution” with his estranged father, Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega), with an almost certain chance of his return. Unlike other “domestics” on Doctor Who, he’s a flawed character who will be interesting to explore in the future.
7. “The Ghost Monument”
If Moffat is a better writer than he is a showrunner, than Chibnall may well prove himself to be a better showrunner than he is a writer. Under his reign, Doctor Who has made several bold and exciting choices, but the episodes credited to him alone tend to be on the meh side.
This one, which was technically the second part of an unofficial two-parter, feels like a giant excuse to delay showing us the newly reconstructed TARDIS, which is, admittedly, pretty awesome. But the story, as telegraphed as it is, has some interesting themes of collectivism vs. isolationism, with the Doctor teaching the burly Epzo the benefits of cooperation. It’s a lesson even she has to learn, as she momentarily falls victim to despair at the thought of losing the TARDIS forever (this is a big deal for Time Lords and the Doctor specifically: go listen to the Eighth Doctor’s Divergent Universe arc if you don’t believe me. Except don’t, because a lot of it is really bad).
Aside from that, and a pretty badass scene where the Doctor stops the Remnants with a Thanos-like well-timed snap of her fingers, this episode is most notable for the massive red herring that is the mention of the “Timeless Child”. Years of fandom abuse under Moffat has conditioned us to think this HAS to mean something, but it probably doesn’t and it hasn’t been mentioned since. Time to let it go, everybody.
6. “It Takes You Away”
The last third of the season is where some of modern Who’s greatest, most original stories have lived: “Blink,” “Vincent and the Doctor,” “The God Complex”, “Flatline”, and “Face the Raven” were all just a few episodes away from their respective finales.”It Takes You Away”, a sad meditation on living with grief that somehow involves flesh-eating moths and a talking frog in a chair (presumably next door to a room with a moose), feels like a combination of that type of episode and the weird, artsy stories of 80’s Who, especially “Warrior’s Gate” and “Survival”.
I’m torn on this one. There are a lot of things in it I flat-out love, especially the final scene with the Solitract, where the Doctor has to essentially break up with a sentient universe and does so in the kindest way possible. The idea of an alien being desperate for companionship reminded me of Theodore Sturgeon’s classic “A Saucer of Loneliness” or the work of Big Finish Who writer Rob Shearman, who was often interested in sentient locations and darker themes. The details of this story, being set in Norway and featuring a blind character played by an actual blind actor (Eleanor Wallwork) but not being dependent on either of those things, feel very distinctive and are a welcome break from the norm.
So it’s a shame that much of the plot is so predictable. How many countless sci-fi stories have we seen in which a hero has to choose between a beautiful dream or a harsh reality? Once the nature of the Solitract was explained, I could tell what Graham was going to do almost beat for beat (including the “You’re not Grace!” scene) and that lessened the impact, despite excellent performances from Bradley Walsh and Sharon D. Clark. I wish I could bring myself to rate this higher.
Still, it’s been genuinely great to see so many fans come out in support of this episode. Scroll through the comments or blogs and you’ll find a lot of people got it and appreciated what writer Ed Hime was trying to say about the trauma of living with loss. After a season that brought a bunch of douchebag trolls out of the woodwork, it was wonderful to know that the current show was indeed resonating with people. No matter what I think of it, that is a very good sign for Doctor Who.
5. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”
Chibnall kicked off the season with the best episode solely credited to him, a bracing and oddly dark race against a ruthless alien killer in industrial Sheffield. It’s basically Predator filtered through Chibnall’s Doctor Who, except this was a point when all of us were just starting to see what that actually meant. I can’t hope to speak to the experience of being a new fan and starting with this show, but I can tell you it was, for the most part, a big relief to see the show tell a simple, straightforward story that cared about its characters and didn’t go for a maudlin reset button (as of this writing, Grace is still dead and the ramifications of that are still playing out).
Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), who will forever be known as Tim Shaw, was written off by many as a forgettable villain, but in hindsight I’m not so sure: he may not be especially deep, but the sight of his sub-zero skin covered with the teeth of his victims is not one you’re going to forget anytime soon. Plus, he is, despite his appearance, an underachiever, or, as the Doctor put it, “a big blue cheat” suffering feelings of inadequacy, who can’t even win by his culture’s own brutally simple hunting rules.
This episode had to do a lot in just an hour, and while it’s forgivable delaying the reveal of the TARDIS for a second episode (it almost could have been the throughline for the season, honestly), I still don’t understand why we didn’t get the theme music until the following week. All that being said, this was an engaging take on a familiar regeneration story, and gave Whittaker plenty of standout moments, including her dramatic confrontation on a crane and the deeply satisfying montage where she crafts her own sonic screwdriver. There were so many moments that made me want to cheer, including the reveal of the “proper” costume for this Doctor (though frankly Whittaker also pulled off running around in Capaldi’s old duds quite well).
But come on, we all know the real reason this episode will be remembered, and it’s due to four magical words only Chibnall could have conjured: “Eat my salad, Halloween”. I might be the only one who still finds it funny but I will never get tired of all the jokes imagining Salad Guy as the series big bad.
No episode with lines like “It’s not killing! It’s filling!” is ever going to rank super-high. It’s worth giving this one a chance, though, because it’s full to the brim with atmosphere and slots in neatly with typical Who pseudohistorical stories while also being completely unlike anything the show’s ever done. How is that possible? Because this time, the Doctor’s gender is on trial, and it forces her to contend with the invisible privilege she always had in her other male-presenting bodies.
A horror story about mud monsters from outer space, an examination of gender power dynamics in 17th century England, and a character piece for King James I all rolled up in one, “The Witchfinders” has a lot to recommend it. And given that James is played by Alan Cumming, you might expect it to be nothing but a cheeky pantomime, which it is, but there’s more depth in his performance. James is sexist and ruthlessly devoted to spiritual purity but he’s also in deep denial over his own abandonment issues, and one of the best scenes of the entire season comes when he and the Doctor confront each other while she’s bound to a stake. I look forward to Whittaker’s speech about “the mysteries of the heart” being added to the list of monologues fans bring other former Doctors to read at conventions: it’s a great bit, pure and simple. Among all of the guest stars trotted out in the show’s trailer, Cumming was the season’s biggest name (at least to Americans, I think) and he definitely worked it.
It’s at this spot on the list because, for all of its good points, the ending is definitely rushed and some of the “ha ha, King James is hitting on Ryan” jokes are cringey. But kudos to the writers for having Ryan be more bemused than creeped out, and it’s great that he takes yet another opportunity to bond with someone in a strange circumstance over their shitty parents. And one more word of praise for the music, which in this episode captured the era and tone perfectly. I hope Graham kept that hat.
It was pretty bold of the show to make this the first time travel story of the season and only the third episode overall, a declaration of purpose for the show and the series that was sorely needed. By the end of his tenure, Moffat seemed to have lost interest in doing episodes about particular historical figures, and I hope “Rosa” is a sign that the show will continue to tell stories it hasn’t before. Although the American accents vary and the plot hits some pretty obvious beats, this episode is one of the most significant the show has ever done. It even forces the Doctor to confront her own white privilege when she and Graham are forced to see Ryan and Yaz suffer insults without saying anything.
I’d be really interested to know how much of this episode, which was credited to both Chibnall and Malorie Blackman, is down to Chibnall. Because a lot of it fits straight into Blackman’s wheelhouse. She’s a successful sci-fi and YA author who often examines racism through speculative fiction, and her entry into the 12 Doctors, 12 Stories series, “The Ripple Effect,” was one of the best of the bunch.
Here we basically get Back to the Future but with Rosa Parks’ famous bus seat protest, and there’s an effective amount of tension wrung out of simply making sure an important moment happens as it should (all of the dialogue between Rosa and the bus driver James Blake is reportedly taken from historical accounts). Vinette Robinson has a daunting task but does a good job making Rosa feel like an actual person instead of an unknowable figure. I’m glad the episode also mentioned her involvement with activist groups by having Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay) and Fred Gray (Aki Omoshaybi).
This episode seems to have shocked lots of viewers with the climax having the Doctor refrain from helping Rosa, with some saying it made the Doctor seem passive. I interpreted it as the Doctor choosing to let Rosa make her stand on her own terms, which is different from not having a choice at all.
The only reason it’s ranking this low is honestly down to Krasko. Having a villain that is physically incapable of harming the heroes may be intellectually interesting but kind of sucks some of the air out of the plot, and he’s dispensed with absurdly quickly. It kind of bothered me that after all that talk about how bad the destabilizer is Ryan gets a free pass for using it, though maybe this was a bit of manipulation on the Doctor’s part (you’ve got to imagine that no regeneration can completely shake the Seventh Doctor tendencies). That being said, Joshua Bowman is a convincingly menacing and soft spoken presence, and the idea of a white supremacist greaser war criminal from the future with implants repressing his desire to kill is a way more interesting villain than Not Donald Trump.
With a title like that, how could you not be intrigued? As a dark comedy/mystery takedown of Amazon, this was a delight with some well-executed twists and turns and an annoyingly chirpy robot right out of Red Dwarf. After getting a package from herself sent two regenerations ago, the Doctor follows a trail of clues to the headquarters of the intergalactic big box company Kerblam, where she and her “fam” go undercover and people start turning into goo.
The world of Kerblam! is one where humans (or “organics”) are begrudgingly tolerated in only allowed because the law requires they be there, leading to understandable tensions. And while it is a little weird to see Doctor Who side with the bosses over the workers, it’s a nice reversal of the usual “big twist” that the computer is evil. Judy (Julie Hesmondhalgh) wants to advocate for workers but lacks the direct knowledge to do so. Charlie (Leo Flanagan) has good intentions but sees his plans spiral out of control. In the middle of it all is the unseen “system”, and someone has to use it for good if any progress is to be made. It’s kind of the same moral as the ending of Metropolis and while it might not be the most forward-thinking message in 2018 (I can think of a few dozen Facebook friends of mine who would be less than thrilled about this episode), it’s still satisfying. It helps that I’m not sure we’re supposed to completely buy the “happy ending”, either, which adds a little bit of ambiguity to things.
Plus this was without a doubt the most fun episode of the whole season, with some great quotable dialogue and an energy that kept things moving. I never thought an ad for blood pressure medication would get as big a laugh from me as it did. Chalk it up to an episode that was full of surprises.
1. “Demons of the Punjab”
I will admit that there are plenty of flaws to be found in “Demons of the Punjab” that might keep others from embracing it as much as I did. It’s not subtle. The tone is often heavy to the point of being nearly unbearable. There’s literally a moment here Yaz asks the Doctor what something is and the Doctor responds “Science”.
But I’ve revisited it since first broadcast and, yup, “Demons” is getting the top spot for me, and it all comes down to the theme of paying witness to history. I’ll try to justify why.
Disappointed fans have complained that this season features an ineffective Doctor facing unimpressive villains. While I can see why people think that I don’t agree at all. Like Charlie from Kerblam!, Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) is a deeply tragic character who kills because it’s the only way he thinks he can restore order. He just happens to be a human instead of a monster-looking alien (and why should the villain have to look like a monster to be one, anyway?). And his split with his brother Prem (Shane Zaza) is a heartbreaking microcosm for the horrors of Partition which, as the episode ends, are still to come for the people in 1947 Lahore.
The reason this worked so well for me, though, was the way it redefined the role of what the Doctor and her friends actually do. On first viewing, the fact that the Doctor simply lets the Thijarians do their thing might seem like a let down, and I think that might be somewhat intentional. Because it’s actually hard to honor the dead and carry them with you, especially when faced with violence on such a grand scale. The idea that the Thijarians have renounced killing to instead catalog and commemorate the dead throughout the universe is both optimistic and sad, in fitting with the tone of many of this season’s other great stories.
The Doctor tends to get involved in things, it’s true, but she’s also fulfilling a vital role of actually seeing time and space. It’s what makes her different from most of her fellow Time Lords. And even when she can’t save someone, she can at least be there to share their experiences. What a revelation to have that be the message of a Doctor Who episode, rather than the oversimplistic cheat endings we’ve been getting for so long.
And I haven’t even mentioned how good an episode this is for Yaz. Yes, she remains underdeveloped compared to Ryan and Graham, but this is all about her actually learning more about her family’s past and understanding the things her grandmother will never be able to tell her.
This was moving, thought provoking, and everything the show should be doing. The beautifully reinterpreted version of the theme that played over the credits was just a bonus. I don’t know if it beats the glam rock version, but it’s still great.
*[of the Daleks?]