Thanks to my friend Zalia, I have at last gotten to start watching season 11 of Doctor Who. This is the first time in YEARS I’ve been excited about watching new Doctor Who, and it’s entirely because of Jodie Whittaker. I had so many hopes that the Doctor being a woman would signal a pivot away from the god complex with a not-like-the-other-girls companion wish fulfillment that has basically rendered everything since The Waters of Mars nearly unwatchable for me.
My hopes were not dashed. From the first four episodes at least, I left feeling Doctor Who has redirected, and very much to the better, I think. I grew up watching stitched-together episodes of old Who on PBS, and in a way, this new Who makes me think more of what I loved about those, combined with the production values of the newer series. The Doctor has returned to her roots as a deeply humane, compassionate, anti-violence person, and the stories feel like the more episodic, simpler kind of plots that are intended for all ages. (And it gets downright educational and aspirational in the episode Rosa.)
But honestly, I think it’s better than the Who I grew up with, and not just because the monsters are not obviously people who have been wrapped in green-painted bubble wrap. The set of companions are absolutely delightful, and feel the most like equals to the Doctor than in any other series. They’re there because the Doctor plainly wants friends–and you can’t truly be friends without there being equality between people. The Doctor seems so much more concerned with what they’re going through emotionally as well as physically–her concern for Yaz and Ryan and the situation they’re placed in because of their races in Rosa is a huge contrast to the position Martha is in during The Family of Blood, as one example. And watching the companions all get along with each other and be concerned for each other and just be very supportive is a pleasure as well. I also wasn’t expecting Graham to be the sort of character he’s turned out to be, a delightful man in the running for Grandfather of the Year.
I am still trying to get used to the sort of production style of this new season. It’s not utterly campy like in previous years, or twee. The episodes I’ve watched so far have felt more Fringe-y than anything else, with light-heartedness provided by the characters and the dialog rather than practical effects visual gags. That’s also a bit different, visually, but I think I’m digging it. Honestly, I’d be happy with anything as long as I get to keep this cast and their dynamic.
Also, I fucking LOVE Whittaker’s Doctor, even if her sartorial choices still make me a little sad inside. She’s so solidly written as The Doctor, not as Ooh Look A Lady Doctor. She acknowledges her different gender when it’s funny and relevant, and otherwise I could just as easily imagine David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston saying the same lines and doing the same things, and that makes me So Fucking Happy.
Mini opinions on the episodes I’ve seen:
The Woman Who Fell to Earth – Pretty solid as a first episode for a Doctor goes, I think, since it hits the regular “who am I?” beats. Though I do like that in discovering who she is, the Doctor emphasizes her creativity and compassion. I also love that this first episode is relatively low stakes. There’s the lives of a few people at risk, but it’s pretty low key, all things considered, and gives the Doctor a chance to once again re-emphasize a point that’s been lost in the past: individuals matter. I did get a bit lost in the different sorts of aliens and MacGuffins and the like, thought.
The Ghost Monument – Solid, got the job done, didn’t really stand out that much to me. I would have liked a little more development for the end conclusion, but I’m glad of the time we got to spend with the Doctor and her companions for unraveling the mystery of the planet.
Rosa – Holy shit, this episode. The entire plot revolves around the Doctor and her companions making being part of Rosa Parks’s story, but not in charge of it, so to speak. They’re there to support her, and it was so different in that way. Like the Doctor has to help by not doing things for once. Ryan finds his inner activist and Yaz plans and hopes and really runs the show. And Graham, trying to be the best grandad he can be, and trying to protect Ryan while being so plainly disturbed by his own position in the system… It was good stuff, basically.
Arachnids in the UK – I might have liked this one more than I should have because the American billionaire villain guy was just so utterly awful and hilarious… with the horrible punchline being that as terrible as he was, he’d still be a better president than the one we currently have (who he’s planning to fictionally run against, fueled by antipathy). Also, watching Yaz deal with her family was kind of great. Like sure, an environmentalist message involving giant spiders. I’m on board.
Looking at these four episodes, the thing that strikes me the most is that they’re all comparatively low stakes. Even Rosa, which threatens to alter the course of history, doesn’t pretend that it’ll destroy all life if the Doctor et al don’t fix things. In episode 2, the stakes are incredibly important to the two characters involved–they both have a reason for wanting to win the big race they’re involved in–but again, the world isn’t going to blow up either way. I think getting back to these relatively smaller stories is incredibly important, because it does highlight the thesis of the show that the lives of individual people are important. And also, honestly, it’s a lot harder to write lower-stakes stories because you have to convey to the audience why it’s so important to the characters and get them to buy in. I’ve been impressed so far.
Ultimately, I’m looking forward to Doctor Who again. I can’t wait to watch more. I’m sure it’ll have its ups and downs, but I’m starting to have faith that I’ll enjoy the journey through this whole season without mentally checking out like I have in recent years. It feels like as the Doctor truly likes and respects her companions, so does the show like and respect its audience again. I can’t wait to watch more.