We’re just under a week away from the start of a new season of Doctor Who, this one produced under the difficult conditions of the pandemic lockdown. As we now know, this will represent the final full season for both actor Jodie Whittaker and the current production team headed up by Chris Chibnall. After which, there’ll be a trio of specials to wrap up the tenures of Whittaker and Chibnall before the 2023 production reins are handed over to returning showrunner Russell T. Davies. That latter bit of news has really overshadowed everything else in terms of the news cycle concerning the return of the show, and I can understand that to some degree. The past couple of years have held promise, but I’d by lying if I said that they were as captivating as seasons past. It’s somewhat ironic that many of the same people who were sick of Davies’ approach to the series a decade ago are now falling all over themselves to welcome him back as the savior of the show; you don’t always know what you’ve got until it’s gone (or these things are sometimes better in memory–whichever happens to apply in this instance.)
Anyway, since there’s a new season on the cusp and I had some time today, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts and impressions, so that we can all see in real time how well the coming six weeks pan out.
The shorter season is a bit of a mixed blessing. I’m all in favor of giving the series as many at-bats as possible, and a mere half-dozen installments doesn’t seem like an adequate enough payoff after having to wait so long. That said, I certainly understand the difficulties of filming and producing under lockdown conditions, and any new Who is welcome regardless. And I am interested in the decision to treat this season as a single six-part storyline. That at least is something that we haven’t seen before in the history of the new show, though it was the default setting for the old. My hope here is that the plotting and writing is a bit tighter and leaner than we got in the old days. Looking back, practically any six-part story from the classic years is remarkably padded with a lot of running in place/running in circle that, while it could be fun, especially from a characterization point of view, gave those storylines less velocity. It’s not a storytelling style that I think will work for a 21st century audience. But the serialization approach is definitely in line with what an audience of today is looking for, so as long as each episode is tight and filled with incident and forward motion, this could be a real plus. I will say, though, that I never felt in any of the prior two seasons that any of the stories were cramped for space, so hopefully the plot will be something designed to be this length and not again something that needs to be padded out to fill the runtime. (Given that modern episodes are more than twice as long as classic ones, this story length represents what would have been a 12-parter in the old days, making it vie for the honor of being the longest DOCTOR WHO story ever produced, matching or exceeding “The Dalek Master Plan” from 1965.)
I’m also positive about decreasing the number of characters in the Tardis. One of my biggest complaints over the last two seasons is that there were so many regulars every episode that there wasn’t enough time to give everybody in a given episode something meaty to do, and consequently, the personalities of Ryan, Graham and Yaz were often sketchy and inconsistent. My hope is that with fewer players on the board, we’ll have a bit more time to drill down on who exactly Yaz is; what she wants, what motivates her, why she travels in the Tardis. She in particular is a character who never quite came into focus in the past, despite there being a large collection of details about her life along the way. Hopefully, this will be the season that pulls those threads all together into a cohesive whole.
I also understand why the show isn’t sticking with just the two-hander of the Doctor and Yaz, much as I would have welcomed that. But for what has traditionally been seen as largely a boys’ show, having neither a male Doctor nor a male companion does seem like something that people at the BBC would be worried about. I don’t really have an opinion on newcomer Dan yet, apart from liking the general blue collar vibe that I get from him. His inclusion does allow for Yaz to graduate to the senior position of experienced time traveler, which may be beneficial in developing her further. Plus, it’s always good to have a novice pair of eyes around, both to reinforce the wonder of things so that the fantastic doesn’t begin to come across as pedestrian, and so the Doctor has somebody to explain crucial plot details to.
The big thing I’m looking for here, the aspect of the past two series that I’ve harped on the most, is for the Doctor to be a bit more of a driver of the story, an active participant who changes the trajectory of the tale through her presence and actions. That’s been a consistent aspect of the character going all the way back to the start. But somehow, in recent years, Chibnall has had a difficult time remembering to make the Doctor the hero. Things tend to happen around her, and she often seems stymied or stumped by the most basic of problems. I don’t need the Doctor to suddenly be solving everything effortlessly or anything, but I do need to get the sense that she’s on top of things, that she’s making choices and having an impact on where the story is going.
I know a lot of people are hoping for a greater exploration of the Timeless Child revelations from the last season, and I’m sure that we’ll get a bit of that simply out of necessity. But honestly, I’d be just as happy to table all of that divisive backstory and simply get the Doctor and her new Fam swept up in an exciting new adventure. There are three specials remaining, any one of which would be an effective platform for digging into that more continuity-laden (continuity-changing?) revelation. I’m not against any of it per se, but I am a bit concerned that as an element, it’s going to unbalance any narrative that it’s a part of, and so I’d rather deal with it in a story that’s singularly about that, rather than as a secondary plotline where there’s other stuff going on.
Apart from all of that, I just want the writing to be sharper; I think that’s where the disconnect has really been. The cast is all fine, and the production values being showcased are the best it’s ever looked. The place things are being let down is in the area of the scripts. For this serial, Chibnall himself is credited with writing all six episodes, only one in conjunction with another writer. So for better or worse, even more so than in the past, the enterprise is going to rest on his shoulders. Which is maybe concerning. While he’s written strong dramas in the past, I cannot say that his solo-helmed episodes under previous showrunners were ever standouts in their respective seasons. And the story-work on TORCHWOOD can best be described as dodgy.
Still, we’ll see. I remain cautiously optimistic. And there’s something I like about making the premiere a worldwide simulcast–if nothing else, this will prevent worry about spoilers leaking over to the States ahead of time, as is always a risk-factor when the UK broadcast is 5-6 hours ahead of BBC America.