Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Reviewing Doctor Who Series 12

“Why couldn’t we have had this last season?”

This was my repeated refrain throughout Doctor Who Series 12. Why wasn’t Series 11 like this? Because Series 11 really was the season that really needed to convince the faithful and the casual viewers that Doctor Who under the thirteenth Doctor and Chris Chibnall was going to be just as spectacular as ever. And… it wasn’t. In spite of a charming new lead and an engaging cast, Series 11 was underwhelming, changing Doctor Who into a weekly space procedural that eschewed story arcs, character development and the show’s past.

And to be fair, Series 11 was in many ways a bold gamble. It’s a shame the execution was so weak. The new Doctor was winning, radically kind but so often wrong that she wasn’t given much opportunity to be heroic. Bradley Walsh’s Graham was lovable and amazing from the start, but Ryan and especially Yaz struggled to have their moments in the sun. Stories had amazing moments (like the ending of “Rosa”) but often had the flimsiest of plots (the rest of “Rosa” honestly should have ended 20 minutes in when the Doctor and gang bustled a villain incapable of retaliation into the TARDIS). Avoiding any kind of arc just left everything driftless and aimless.

Imagine my surprise when we came to Series 12 and we basically had everything that we should have had in Series 11: stronger episodes, an engaging story arc, companions that were more on point, a genuine WTF moment or five, strong villains (especially Ashad), some great returning monsters and villains (particularly the Master), and a willingness to try to be actually bold.

“Spyfall”, for me, was the moment when I felt that Doctor Who was back, in more ways than one. It was fun, exciting, confusing, intriguing (I loved the Kasavin!), with great characters and great performances and a stunning one-two punch of Sacha Dwahan’s boyfriend-able, surely-he-must-be-playing-an-almost-companion-who-gets-killed-off turning out to be the Master. That reveal was one of the single most amazing scenes in Doctor Who in ages. And it was such a fun story, with similar misdirection being given to Stephen Fry’s character (you think he’s going to be pivotal but he’s dead in the first 15 minutes!) some brilliant action sequences, the Doctor being properly heroic and each member of Team TARDIS getting a great moment. And it changes things up in the second part, giving us a time travel chase alongside Lenny Henry’s delicious villainy. It sticks the landing beautifully… and then hits the viewer with the coda where it’s revealed Gallifrey has been destroyed.

So much of this season delighted me similarly: “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is similar thrill ride with a great monster and an amazing performance by Goran Visnic. “Praxeus” is easily the most underrated story of the season: it gives Yaz and Ryan strong roles, the environmental message is pointed but not too preachy and it is brilliantly structured.

Even the clear failure of the season—”Orphan 55”—is boldly trying to do something different: it doesn’t play things safe. It swings for the fences. It misses, but what’s important is the bravery of trying and failing.  I adore the climax, where the Doctor talks the Dreg into going into the cage – a solution rooted in the Doctor’s brains, empathy and gift of the gab that cemented my love the Whittaker Doctor and my conviction she’s great when she gets something proactive to do.

The season feels like the safeties are off and they want Doctor Who to be a buzzworthy show again. And as if to prove that we had “Fugitive of the Judoon”, which starts out looking like it will be a charming little romp. And then Captain Jack shows up and you think. “Holy cow!” And twenty minutes later it turns out that’s not even slightly the biggest surprise of the episode. Suddenly all the secrecy about making Doctor Who for 2020 pays off (a little) as a vital character from the past, details about the season’s arc and a massive revelation about the Doctor all happen in what one thought was a Sarah Jane Adventures type story about the Judoon looking for incognito aliens. It’s a genius gambit. It’s only a shame it wasn’t capitalized on more.

I know that my co-author Robert Smith? thinks “Fugitive” is the best story of the season. For my money, it’s “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”, which takes all these ongoing story arc developments and balances them off against a charming historical setting, which is frankly a whole lot harder to do. (And honestly, the Doctor’s repeated rebuffs of Byron is worth its weight in gold) And Ashad the Lone Cybermen proves to be a brilliant recurring villain: A Cyberman who’s not really but who is fanatical nonetheless for the idea of being one. With one stroke, they’ve made the Cybermen legitimately scary.

The great thing about “Haunting” is it gives us a great moment of spikiness with the Doctor, where she puts down the cheery flat-team-structure atmosphere of the past season or so. The Doctor’s sudden moodiness has been a development this past season I haven’t always been signed onto. On the one hand, I’m happy to see the Doctor have some edge just because she tries to be radically kind doesn’t mean the Doctor should be unremittingly likeable. The problem is they get heavy-handed with the execution. The Doctor’s snarkiness to Ryan that none of her fam really knows her seemed unnecessarily cruel, and I found myself cheering for Ryan when he talked back to her.

All that said, I liked it more often than not, particularly the ending to “Can You Hear Me?” where the Doctor flatly admits that she doesn’t know what to do with Graham’s admission he sometimes is overwhelmed. That moment got complaints to the BBC which seemed gendered to me – would Peter Capaldi saying that get similar complaints? It’s good to see this incarnation of the Doctor getting more to her than just being nice and garrulous.

The character development with the Doctor is kind of emblematic for the season itself, where developments happen that please me… but then come back less pleasingly. I stand behind everything I said praising Spyfall but the Noor Inayat Khan material seems wrong for a bit part in a romp through time. And everything really goes off the rails badly the second they put the Master in a Nazi uniform. It’s 2020. This isn’t a 1976 episode of Wonder Woman. You can’t really use Nazis without adding layers and layers of problems to a situation. Furthermore, putting a cartoonish villain in the uniform of a real-life example of racist evil is just a really terrible idea. (Why do you think the film version of Wonder Woman decided to use World War One as its setting instead?) It’s not like Chris Chibnall didn’t realize this – the actual word “Nazi” is used only twice in the episode in favour of “Germans” or “fascists”… as though he knows how iffy the proposition was.

And that’s a big problem with this season. Every episode, even the great ones, have a moment of questionable taste or bad judgment similar to this. The two-part finale is another brilliant example, which gives us one episode showing us the riddle of the Timeless Child through these oblique flashbacks to Brendan in Ireland… only to have the following episode tell us everything as the Master decides to become Richard Attenborough narrating his documentary on indigenous Gallifreyan explorers. How cool could it have been for the Doctor to wind up actually exploring Brendan’s reality and finding the answer for herself, rather than the Master – who had been telling the Doctor she could find out things for herself –deciding to do the universe’s most boring TED talk. What is frustrating for me is all these lapses wouldn’t take much to fix in scripting and I don’t get why they weren’t.

But then the Master is a big problem with this year’s story arc. Why would discovering the Doctor’s secret cause him to murder everyone on Gallifrey? Why does he keep saying he’s not revealing anything to the Doctor—even attempting to murder her before she finds out – only to reveal everything to her anyway?

I’d say this hasn’t been thought through except… nothing has been thought through with the Timeless Child. It’s predicated on the idea that what makes Time Lords special is that they can regenerate. As opposed to, you know, them being creatures of vast power who can travel freely through space and time. The Master seems impressed that his Cyber Masters can regenerate (though he neglects to mention for only 12 times!) He never mentions that it would be even more impressive that they can operate a TARDIS. It’s as though the Master (and showrunner) has opted for the public’s perception of Doctor Who, that what makes the character of the Doctor special is just that she or he can change form. Which is missing several points actually.

And now the Doctor is super-special because the Doctor has some secret past we didn’t know. To what end? I love the Ruth Doctor – Jo Martin’s Capaldi-esque gruffness is a gift – but how does this new past add to our understanding of the character? Except, as critic Lacy Baugher suggested, giving us retroactively some new Funkos of Doctors we never met. Like everything else that isn’t quite working for me this season, it feels like this needed to be thought through just a little bit more.

On the whole, though, I loved Series 12. While there is a lot that frustrates or confounds me there is so much more that excited me and delighted me. For every ham-fisted moment like the Master revealing who the Doctor is, there’s also a moment of genuine excitement like when the Doctor digs up the TARDIS in the graveyard. On the whole, I think the show advances more than it retreats this season. The cast is mostly better utilized (it’s a shame Yaz’s great moment is revealing a mental illness they never have her talk about again; but she does get some great proactive moments all the same) and the Doctor feels much more on form. The trajectory is mostly going upward.

On the whole, this was a great season. But the thing is, with a little more work, it could have been an excellent one. Even so, what a shame none of this happened one season earlier.

Article by Graeme Burk