by Ann Worrall
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 491
Just before the Doctor Who special on New Year’s Day was broadcast, I discovered a teaser trailer for it online, of Jodie and her companions telling us just why we were going to love the new episode.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m perverse enough to want to make up my own mind and to resent what I felt was a manipulation: nice people (and the Doctor and her companions are certainly nice) inviting me into a cosy conspiracy to give the episode a good rating.
That’s a problem for me. Indeed, so relentlessly positive was the promotion of the idea of a female Doctor, that any expressed doubts about her performance ran the risk of being labelled misogynist. Now, I’m shallow enough to admit that I enjoy the programme more if I fancy the Doctor, and in my case that means he has to be male. However, I don’t think that’s the main issue, as far as I’m concerned.
I had hopes for Jodie’s Doctor. I envisaged her as a young Miriam Margolyes, fearlessly telling things like they are. She would be driven to explore and change things, make the difficult decisions, and be ferociously condemning when faced with social injustice. Shocking, unapologetic, I wouldn’t always like her, or find it comfortable to share the Tardis with her, but the journey would be worth it because she’d make me question my beliefs and inspire my curiosity, all the while prodding me to consider how I should behave when faced with the ills of the world.
This Doctor would have much to say to me as a role model. Faced with a crisis she might be ruthless, dismissive, even rude and sometimes violent, but she would always call out evil when she came across it.
Well that didn’t happen. Regrettably, writers seem to have been briefed to make this Doctor relentlessly positive and charming, if a bit daffy: more Su Pollard than Miriam. Her desire to send the Tardis “everywhere”, speaks to me more of indecision than passion, especially when the statement is delivered in soft focus with dewy eyes. The Doctor I envisaged would never have given up hope, as she did in "The Ghost Monument", or broken off from tackling a crisis to return for a companion who had demanded to be pickup! ("Resolution").
The way she has been costumed hasn’t helped either. In another key scene in "Resolution", where she was actually given some action, she appeared in silhouette against the dark walls of the workshop creeping up on the Dalek. The culottes, boots and swing coat made her look like an illustration from a child’s picture book or cartoon, and I found it impossible to take the danger to her seriously.
She’s also prone to cliched aphorisms. “Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have”, springs to mind; and it’s particularly na´ve given it is one of those forms — love for tradition, national identity and religion — that results in the episode’s tragic denouement ("Demons of the Punjab"). A powerful weapon Doc, but not necessarily for good as you implied.
Her new companions are all very watchable, but, oh my word, they’re so nice too. They never snap at each other under pressure and there is no tension between them. Okay, there is some between Ryan and Graham, but it’s rather a sullen, obstinate refusal to reciprocate affection and it’s pretty polite. Most other tensions have involved external family members, and been resolved within a single episode.
When I recall Susan, Ian and Barbara, I remember believable companions who didn’t take things in their stride, who got irritated and protested, and struggled with what to do for the best. They learned gradually to trust and like each other and the Doctor. This lot have gelled from day one. They are uncomplaining super heroes.
My issues with the Doctor and her companions aside, there has been a tendency throughout this series to feature style over substance. Take the new Tardis interior. Yes, it looks impressive, but who in their right minds would want to spend much time in a dimly lit, crystalline cavern? We don’t get a sense from it that anyone actually lives in this Tardis; custard cream dispenser notwithstanding.
The brilliant design throughout "The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos" was the only thing brilliant in an episode offering little action and so many scenes of exposition. And while the Pting in "The Tsuranga Conundrum" was cute and marketable, the story was all over the place, the pregnant man thread seemingly shoehorned in to give Ryan and Graham something to do, and a character foregrounded during the opening 15 minutes of the episode, suddenly killed off and forgotten.
I do think it’s been a good move on the part of showrunner Chris Chibnall to avoid tales that involve a lot of myth-making around the Doctor, but the narratives haven’t always been very original. "It Takes You Away" owes much to M Night Shyamalan’s The Village and "The Tsuranga Conundrum" to Gremlins; and these are just two examples. There has been over-reliance on the sonic screwdriver as a deus ex machina too. If she points and reads the bloody thing like that again… I’ve thought….
The writing also, for the most part, hasn’t been that great, with Chibnall’s scripts, in particular, lacking thematic cohesion. For example, with "The Tsuranga Conundrum", the Chief Medic, his self-doubting assistant, the terminally ill pilot and the reluctantly pregnant man all compete separately for our sympathy, have their moment in the spotlight and then disappear, without any resonance between their respective threads. Without that cohesion our attention is pulled in different directions, and we end up not really caring about any of them.
Writers have tended to blatantly recycle ideas from previous eras as well. I was concerned to discover that there will be two alien races, the Thijarians ("Demons of the Punjab") and the Testimony ("Twice upon a Time"), hanging about my deathbed to record my last moments, and that my green and pleasant country hides so many buried aliens. The dialogue, furthermore, has too often recalled the heady days of Crossroads, reaching its nadir in the interminably long, soap opera scenes in "Resolution".
I can see the point of the ensemble approach Chibnall has taken. But while it may possibly have widened the appeal of the show, it has unfortunately resulted in plot threads designed, not to further the adventure, but to deepen our commitment to the companions, or to give them an active role. This has often left the Doctor with little to do but explain things to them, especially Yaz, whose main function is to ask the questions that unleash those torrents of exposition. I’ve found it ironic in a reboot that has trumpeted having a female lead, that despite Graham’s cancer and Ryan’s dyspraxia, they still seem to get more of the arse-kicking action than Yaz and the Doctor, although it’s the latter that have the experience in handling dangerous situations.
Does all this matter? I haven’t loved every Doctor or every companion. No fan does. In fact I disliked David Tennant’s depiction and the determination of the series to present him as a lonely god, much more than I do Jodie’s. I have no problem accepting her as the Doctor, even if she’s one I don’t admire. Every series serves up a few turkey episodes and I’ve had a reasonable amount of undemanding enjoyment from watching the bulk of this one. So why am I unhappy?
Well, it’s partly because the episodes have involved the team in a lot of running through corridors, underground chambers, streets, factories, deserts, woods and battlefields, seeking or avoiding alien menaces without, apart from "Rosa", exploring any big agendas or attempting very much trail blazing. The moments in which the narratives have misdirected us, such as the reveal in "Demons" that the Thijarians are not the eponymous demons after all, have been welcome, but few. And the stories have tended to prioritise spectacle over logic; never more so than in "Resolution" where, fun though the DIY Dalek might have been, it took some suspension of disbelief to accept it as a thing!
However, these faults could easily be corrected by the appointment of a good script editor.
For me the real failing is that there’s been a hollow core to the series that has left me wondering what the point of it all is.
This Doctor is no activist, and the series has done her no favours by having her accept situations which anyone with a firm moral compass would find deeply concerning, yet react strongly to trendy, easy and popular moral "no nos": soft side swipes at violence in Ryan’s attempt to mow down non-sentient robots in "The Ghost Monument"; a shallow exchange with a half-examined caricature of Donald Trump in "Arachnids in the UK".
What attempts there have been to give her some moral heft appear misguided. Warning Graham that he could not travel in the Tardis again if he killed "Tim Shaw" in revenge was such a daft situation to get worked up about, and the conclusion failed to explain how wounding and imprisoning an alien for eternity was morally more defensible than killing it outright. We found ourselves in "the Doctor knows best", territory here, and a garbled "my rules, but I retain the right to change them for unspecified reasons", isn’t enough for me, especially when "Kerblam!" saw her accepting, even applauding, an economic system that made wage slaves of the desperately poor to satisfy the whims of the rich. Or her passivity in the face of Erik’s disturbing abuse of his daughter, Hanne, during the episode "It Takes You Away".
I’ve read many attempts to rationalise these lapses of moral judgement on the Doctor’s part, but none of them hold.
Some, for instance, have argued that the conditions for the workers in "Kerblam!" have improved and so the happy ending is justified, ignoring that a young, female, ankle-tagged “organic worker” was murdered by the very System the Doctor leaves intact.
Others justify Erik’s actions on the grounds that he was overcome with grief at the death of his wife, which doesn’t make them right or any the less disturbing. Imprisoning his blind daughter by means of a trick and leaving her frantic with fear and worry, is shocking, as is his failure to reject his ‘wife’ after she forcibly sent Hanne back through the mirror, where the "flesh moths" would find her easy prey. It speaks volumes for his dodgy mental state, especially when compared to Graham’s immediate rejection of "Grace" when she fails to show concern for the safety of his step grandson. Yet the Doctor never questions Erik’s competence to care for his daughter, and the story ends with a comfortable, "and they will both move back to Oslo and live happily ever after" scene — a far too convenient resolution of such traumatic events.
When the protagonist of a series fails to tackle properly something as serious as worker exploitation, or child abuse, especially in one originally designed to educate children and now re-invented to appeal to a family audience, something has gone very wrong.
What are children supposed to learn from "Kerblam!"? That they should keep their heads down, shut up and be grateful for what the economic system gives them?
And what about those experiencing abuse in real life? Victims often believe that such events are their fault, and adults can find it easier to deny that abuse is occurring at all. What are they to make of the fact that the Doctor regards abuse as no big deal?
Much of the contention surrounding this Doctor has been about her change of gender, but for me the real controversy lies with the fact she is no longer there to challenge authority and champion justice, but rather to police the status quo, no matter what form it may take.