DOCTOR WHO 2018
BY JOHN A. SHORT
Elephant in the room… Let’s deal with this right up front. How do I feel about the gender change for the main character? When this concept was first floated I was pretty horrified… But that was in 1981 when Tom Baker was leaving and wished his replacement luck ‘Whoever he or she might be.’ Over thirty-five years later I’m a little less shocked by the idea. But it has to be said even four or five years ago you could call my attitude (to the suggestion that Time Lords might simply change sex as a natural result of regeneration) ...resistant. But since that time the programme makers have done the due diligence of preparing the way (within the fiction of the show) for the Doctor to switch from male to female. Not only have they had the Master changing gender, but also a Time Lord general (who makes it clear that you might go many regenerations without gender-reassignment, but it doesn’t mean it will never happen to you.)
A friend of mine asked me why this kind of pre-set-up was important to me. The answer is simple – foreshadowing. If the Doctor’s sex-change had been the first that we had heard of such a thing within the continuity of the series, it would have seemed unreal. Foreshadowing is a basic tool in a writer’s arsenal that helps sell stories, ideas and left-field events to the audience. Like Chekhov’s gun, we needed to see it lying there ready before our main character used it.
But like I say… job done… path readied… So I’m fine with the gender-reassignment. And Jodie Whittaker is a good choice. Her childlike take on the Doctor is charming. Her accent and general northern-vibe are refreshing. I totally buy that she’s the same character that we are used to. And I’m glad that we haven’t had too many mentions from the Doctor that she’s a woman now (afterall he didn’t used to go on about being a man did he?)
What was always going to be more interesting to me about this season were the changes behind the camera instead of those in front of it. Headed by new lead-writer, Chris Chibnall, the new team seemed likely to make some revisions to the fifty-five year-old property.
Chibnall is a Doctor Who fan of long standing. He appeared on the BBC programme Open Air in 1986 berating the then current Doctor Who producer, John Nathan Turner about the direction of the show at that time. You can watch the clip on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkCe3owO7wY It’s an extraordinary moment. JNT couldn’t have imagined the ginger-headed teen would go on to take his post. One wonders if Chibnall thinks back to that exchange when he reads some spotty nerd’s criticisms of his own take on the programme and considers that they might be doing his job thirty years time?
Since that time Chibnall has overseen the day-to-day running on two seasons of Torchwood, written a few episodes of modern Doctor Who under Russell T Davies and Steven Moffatt and went on to create the ITV smash-hit whodunnit – Broadchurch.
So what has he done to his childhood object of affection now that he’s got total control of it?
Most obviously he has applied a ‘back-to-basics’ approach. By outlawing any appearances by any old foes or friends he has made the show accessible to a large potential audience who may have been driven away by more recent plot-lines. This is important to the continual survival of the programme. I (for one) do not want to live through another fallow fifteen year period where the show is off the air (as with the 1989 – 2005 gap) and I want to see it remain popular with a general audience so this doesn’t happen. No returning Master Actors from seven years ago… No returning Cyberman designs from fifty-one years ago (from a partly missing story – never repeated on British TV.)
Along with this it seems to me that he has simplified the plots and slowed the pace of each story. There is a far greater effort to emotionally engage the audience (perhaps) at the expense of the complexity of the storytelling. He seems more interested in the personalities of his main characters than the mechanics of the plots they find themselves in.
Together with the change of pace and the focus on characters over plot-nuts-and-bolts… the biggest change to the series for me has been the incidental music. After thirteen years of writing every scrap of music used in the programme Murray Gold has been replaced by new composer, Segun Akinola. The difference was obvious to me from the first episode. Although I (mostly) didn’t dislike Gold it has been refreshing to hear noises on the soundtrack that surprise. Has every choice Akinola made pleased me? No… But mostly he has done a fine job and has subtly retuned the series.
His new version of the theme music is great. Taking many samples from the Delia Derbyshire original it has a lovely, old-school, electronica feel. These work well with the new opening titles. I have to say that this credits sequence isn’t as good as the amazing Capaldi-titles, but they are far from the worst (even out of the modern programme.)
Of course, along with a new showrunner (it seems) we always have to have the programme visually redesigned.
The new sonic screwdriver is okay. I don’t dislike it. Although I have to say that my mantra about design is ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ I would still be totally happy with the sonic if it still looked as it did in the seventies!
The TARDIS console room? Hmmm… I’m less happy with this. To be honest, it looks cheap. It looks smaller than it’s ever been in the modern series and less impressive for it. I’m not keen on the Police Box shell in the doorway (it might make some viewers think that the inside of the TARDIS is just meant to be invisibly out the back of the box instead of in another dimension.) I guess they were going for rough-hewn and cave-like, but that doesn’t say ‘high-tech’ to me.
I saw some wonderful fan-designs for the TARDIS interior that were easily better than this one. Not just one, but several, putting the professionals to shame.
I’m surprised that since we have a much larger crew now, so little time has been spent inside the TARDIS. I guess that’s deliberate on Chibnall’s part? And perhaps the low amount of time spent inside the machine is the reason that so little money and effort was (seemingly) spent on it’s interior? Which I guess makes sense?
Finally (on the design side of things) the creatures? This has been a real disappointment this season. The aliens have ranged from unmemorable down to rubbish.
The visuals to the series’ monsters and villains has always been a big factor in the success of any creature. I would argue that the Daleks would never have returned if they had looked like the Krotons (for example.)
A good demonstration of how the current design team doesn’t really understand their job would be the aliens from The Demons of the Punjab. When I first saw the Manish, I assumed their heads were helmets… Why? Because their multiple eyes were just prop-eyes, stuck to their masks. No animatronics to make them move. No CGI to make them blink. This is the kind of thing we might expect from Power Rangers or a seventies Toho movie… But not Doctor Who. This is a mistake the show hasn’t made since the Nimon in 1979.
Obviously the Pting in The Tsuranga Conundrum was meant to look cartoony. I would argue that it was an experiment that didn’t work… But the younger audience might have enjoyed it?
The robot gunmen and the Stenza? Cliched, bog-standard alien designs. I would be hard pressed to pick out any distinguish features. These are no Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, Sontarans, Ood, Ice Warriors or Yeti. I find it hard to believe any of these creations will continue to be used in the programme for the next fifty years.
Another thing that has given the series a new feel is the increase in the number of series regulars. It’s a long time since there were this many characters that recur in every episode of a season of Doctor Who. The advantages of this are obvious. Having more people along for the ride helps writers with such things as varying the interpersonal interplay and threading soap-opera-sub-plots through the season. With Chibnall’s interest in personality and emotion this is a huge asset.
I would argue that Chibnall hasn’t taken this opportunity to its fullest potential. I would have liked to have seen more romance, conflict and growth between all of the regulars.
The biggest disappointment in the main cast has been how Yasim has been written. Being a police officer is a massive career choice… arguably as large as entering medicine. Whereas an episode barely passed where Martha Jones didn’t mention that she was training to be a doctor, Yasim hardly makes reference to her career. In fact, halfway through The Woman Who Fell To Earth she stops acting like a copper when she abandons the scene of the crime where the train driver was killed to swan around with the Doctor and friends. If that isn’t a sack-able offence in the police, then it would certainly be a disciplining offence. She has the cheek to complain about never being sent to anything interesting after this, which just beggars belief. These complaints aside… she is a fuller, more rounded character than Nardole ever managed.
I have no complains about Graham. In fact, I’m surprised at how well he works within the set-up of the drama. It could well have been that having an older male character (especially one played by a charismatic, well-established star) might have over-shadowed the Doctor, but this didn’t happen. Chibnall and his fellow writers allowed actor Bradley Walsh to have some humour and charm without every eclipsing Jodie Whittaker’s title character.
Ryan worked well enough. I’m surprised that Chibnall gave him so many handicaps, as this might have been seen as racistly writing down to a black character. But perhaps we have crossed so many bridges now that Chibnall wasn’t concerned about making the black character the least intelligent and able of the regulars? I’m particularly surprised that out of all the main characters he is the one who doesn’t know the history of Rosa Parks! A brave move on the writers’ part – having a black character be the one who is the most clueless on black history (even if it is American black history.) Tosin Cole has a subtle warmth and lightly plays his relationship with Graham and his crush on Yasim.
And what about the Rosa Parks episode? I have to admit to being very nervous about this episode as it became clear (from location photos) that there would be a story that featured events surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott. Handling so tricky a subject could easily go badly. There was the potential to be heavy-handed. There was the potential to make light of it.
I have seen other TV programmes come a cropper when touching on such difficult subject matter. An episode of Upstart Crow this year that attempted to discuss Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jews in The Merchant Of Venice turned into an embarrassing mess. I love Upstart Crow… but that episode was preachy and misjudged.
But Rosa didn’t disgrace itself. I felt it was handled better than anyone had the right to expect. No-one needed to preach because it didn’t need explaining why the injustice was an injustice. They were careful not to have any of the fictional characters take agency away from Parks herself. The villain was kept deliberately in the background so as not to overpower the real narrative. And there was a good use of humour which didn’t diminish the seriousness of the subject matter.
But it wasn’t perfect. There are a number of sloppy plot holes (something it shares with nearly every story this season.) And the modern pop music used at the end was intrusive, jarring, distracting, out-of-era and lyrically inappropriate (a song called ‘Rise up’ about someone who must remain seated?!)
This was a powerful episode and the best that this season had to offer.
What of the writing in general? As I indicated above, Chibnall has sidestepped some of the recent pitfalls of the series. Doctor Who is a huge programme in the UK and doesn’t just expect a fan audience to tune in. You (reading this) may view Who in America or some other country where it has a mainly young, mainly fan viewership… But here in Britain in airs on the biggest TV channel in the country in prime-time and it can’t just expect only an audience of devoted followers who never miss an episode to be watching (it couldn’t survive on just the fan viewers.) Sometimes I have thought that in the last four years the show’s writing hasn’t really been taking those more casual watchers into account.
In those terms Chibnall and the writing team should be seen as a success. This is a completely fresh take on the show. No foreknowledge is expected (although I think an explanation about the psychic paper may have slipped through the cracks?)
But Chibnall’s writing has never set me alight in the past and it didn’t here either. There are obvious rookie writing mistakes… Telling not showing – The Pting has skin that’s toxic to the touch? The water (in The Ghost Monument) is full of flesh-eating microbes? If you’re working in a visual medium like television you should show us these things not just tell us. Introduce some cannon fodder and have them show us that Pting’s skin is poisonous… have them eaten by the water. A professional writer shouldn’t be making mistakes that obvious.
And it’s all very well not using any past enemies if you have some new ones that will be as good… As memorable… As clever… As original? But Chibnall and crew just haven’t managed that. Just as the design of the creatures was bland… so was the writing of them. In this regard, the writing does need a jolly big kick up the backside.
While I’m on the subject of the writing, let’s run through all the other episodes this year (leaving stand-out episode Rosa aside.)
The Woman Who Fell to Earth – Not the best post-regenerations story ever, but certainly not the worst. I liked it’s focus on the new companions and Doctor getting to know one another. I might have liked it if it had been even more simple that this… (If Tim Shaw had been hunting the Doctor rather than a random crane operator how much more sense would it have made?) Great bit where the Doctor makes a new sonic screwdriver.
The Ghost Monument – A good episode. Would have been better with more memorable enemies (CGI rags? Seriously?)
Arachnids in the UK – A messy episode. Basically a remake of The Green Death with spiders instead of Fly lava. Good CGI on the spiders.
The Tsuranga Conundrum – Another good episode, but it could have been a great episode with a more scary monster.
Demons of the Punjab – The monsters completely ruined this episode for me. Their motivation was too similar to the glass people out of Twice Upon a Time. Their design was terrible and they were completely out-of-place in a serious story about religious hatred.
Kerblam! - A fine whodunnit. I would have liked to have seen another run through the script to close those logic-gaps and plot-holes. (Kerblam! Have the tech to materialise things inside a TARDIS? The Daleks could have won the Time War with tech like that? Why did the computer only write ‘HELP ME’ instead of something more informative? If puncturing the bubble wrap caused it to explode, it would be happening all the time in the packing area of Kerblam!)
The Witchfinders – Didn’t really work for me. It didn’t really capture the time period and how powerful (and evil) James was.
It Takes You Away – Another mess, padded out in the middle with the pointless ‘zone’ sequence and then rushed at the end. The frog was laugh-out-loud stupid.
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos – A good episode, but the most unimpressive season finale of the modern series.
The decision to air in the autumn might well have been brought on by when Chibnall was able to start work on the series. The choice to air the series on a Sunday is obviously mould-shattering. It’s not hard to work out why the BBC might have done this. Saturday night has become a bear-pit with both the Beeb and her competition airing huge talent-vote-shows in prime time. Because those programmes expect the audience to watch live and vote in real-time on them, anything going up against them will suffer in the overnight ratings. Sunday nights are much more friendly to an old-fashioned-style drama show.
It is difficult to tell what (out of all these changes) has had an impact on the audience. Certainly there was an up-tick in the run-up to the season in the level of publicity about the series due to the debut of the first female to take on the Doctor role. Whatever the cause, the ratings took a big shot in the arm. With over ten million tuning in for the season launch and over seven million joining the programme on a regular basis. These are the best viewing figure that the show has had in roughly ten years (since Tennant and Tate were in the TARDIS.)
What do those ratings mean in context? It makes it one of the biggest dramas on British telly at the moment. It’s up there with the two most successful soap operas and not much else is coming even close. Seven of the ten episodes of the 2018 season were in the UK top ten of all TV for the week. Eight of the episodes got over seven million viewers. All episodes out rated the 2017 season of Doctor Who.
Not that you would know this if you read certain British newspapers or listened to a sub-section of fandom. Some commentators seem determined to misinform the public to support their own opinions of the series. I have my own issues with this season, but I don’t need to try to use the ratings in an attempt to validate my tastes. I’m happy that the show is a hit at the moment. It means more Doctor Who. It means not returning to the dark days of the nineties when the show was off the air.
Some newspapers have been trying to tell us that the ratings have been on the slide for years now. And like the rest of broadcast television they have been (since at least 2010.) However, against the broader trend, the show has had a major reversal this year. Perhaps it’s simply the switch to autumn? Or the move to Sunday nights? Maybe it’s the switch of focus from plot to character? Maybe its just the increase in publicity? Most likely its partly all these things.
This year the disinformation about the programmes viewing figures has gone into over-drive. It’s one thing to report that ratings are on a downward trend when (technically) they are. But to try this story when they are the best they have been in a decade smacks of some deliberate attack. To anyone who has been watching the wider world of politics this shouldn’t come as a surprise. However it is strange to find the new trend for claiming black-is-white, up-is-down, right-is-wrong intrude into the coverage of a sci-fi show.
Some of the fans making these smears may well just have been misinformed by bad sources. To them I say, do your own research. It’s only a google away. BARB Doctor Who official figures.
A FEW others seem to have a political axe to grind. This type of commentator seems to think that Doctor Who has suddenly taken a political turn to the left and hates it. The so-called ‘Liberal Agenda’.
This is a little odd, because as far as I remember, the show has always been pretty obviously left-leaning, even going back to the seventies. I won’t both to name every instance, as there are just too many to go into here. In fact, in the whole history of the show I can only think of two stories that featured right-leaning agendas (The Dominators – pro-Vietnam-War and Kill The Moon - anti-abortion.)
There has however been an increase in the level at which the stories have stepped away from using metaphor to get across its real-world messages. In the past the programme was more likely to use Zygons (or other creatures) to talk about disenfranchised groups… now the show just tells a real story about how black people were made to go and sit at the back of the bus. But even this isn’t completely new… Ace told us all about her Asian friend and the white kids who firebombed her flat back in 1989… I’m just saying there has been an increase in the explicitness of the messaging.
Maybe this is what’s upsetting some people? Or the fact that for the first time one of the companions is South Asian? And one is black? And the Doctor is female? If you’re the type of person who gets upset by seeing Asian, black or female people on your TV, you need to go check your mirror...because that’s where you’ll find the problem. None of that should be remotely controversial. And clearly it shouldn’t be at all surprising in a programme that had an openly bisexual regular character in 2005 (not to mention a lesbian couple as major heroes in recent years.)
I even saw someone claiming that the pregnant male alien in The Tsuranga Incident was evidence of a left-wing agenda (perhaps they think the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Junior was also lefty?)
None of this should be seen as political. And I would argue that only ten years ago (or so) it wouldn’t have been. Since when has condemning racism been seen as a party political stand rather than a moral one? I feel as if something has changed in British (and probably American) culture that some people are now trying to claim that opposing sexism and other bigotry is somehow taking a radical political stand.
Anyway, whatever these people’s problems with the show two things are sure… The ratings show that the general audience are not at all put off by the show’s messaging. And if these people were too thick to understand Doctor Who’s moral messages in the past, Chibnall has done them a service by demystifying it for them. Welcome to the wrong side of history… You can join the rest of us in the twenty-first century anytime you want to.
I’m sure that the BBC itself looks at the real viewing figures and doesn’t let screaming fans or newspapers with nineteen-fifties views sway it’s judgement on whether or not to renew their shows.
I’m sorry for fans who have fallen out of love with the series. I’m sorry that it’s a relatively big hit at the moment and that doesn’t back-up your feelings of aggrievement. You need to stop acting like big babies whilst throwing your toys out of the pram. So the general British public don’t agree with your opinions of the series? So what. You could always stop watching Doctor Who and start talking about something else.
John A. Short