It feels like only yesterday that we were all waiting for Jodie Whittaker’s first series as the Doctor to air. Now, a week after the series ended, it’s time to take a look back at the ten episodes we just saw. What worked? What didn’t work? What needs improvement? Just how good was the series, now that all the hype has died down? Let’s take a look! (There will be full spoilers for the 10 episodes of Series 11 of Doctor Who!)
Meet the new Doctor. The universe just got more exciting. The dazzling Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, Broadchurch, Wired) falls out of the sky just in time to thwart an alien huntsman who is stalking human prey. With little time to spare and the population of Sheffield (and Earth!) at risk, the Doctor recruits three new friends – gentle Ryan, no-nonsense Yasmin and Ryan’s step-grandfather, Graham – who soon feel more like family than companions. Join the foursome in ten fresh and enormously thrilling roller-coaster adventures across time and the universe.
The Good: The Characters
Perhaps the best element of this series of Doctor Who was how fully fleshed out the characters (and their arcs) were. The previous era of Doctor Who was more interested in fleshing out the Doctor (which is a valid approach to take), while Chibnall seemed far more interested in grounding the show with realistic and believable companions. The first episode opened with Ryan (Tosin Cole), Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and it’s their story that forms the emotional heart of the series. Grace is killed off at the end of episode 1, forcing Ryan and Graham to deal with their grief regarding her death and their feelings for each other. Nearly every episode of the series dealt with one of these elements and, by the end of the series, the two had come to some kind of understanding relating to her death and had begun to accept each other as family. While Yasmin (Mandip Gill) didn’t get the same kind of intensive series-long character arc, her characterization still felt three dimensional. We knew who she was, what she wanted, and why she was traveling with the Doctor. We knew about (and met) her family and we got to see how they impacted her. A lot of groundwork was laid for the show to explore her character more in the next series, now that the ongoing story between Graham and Ryan has been wrapped up. The Doctor, understandably, got the least amount of character development out of the four leads. The attention was placed on the companions, as they were the audience conduits for the show, and since this series focused so little on the previous 55 years of Doctor Who, it makes sense why not much of the Doctor’s past was discussed. One can only hope that future series will delve deeper into this Doctor and explore her more. On the whole, though, this series of Doctor Who featured some superb character work for our main cast.
The Bad: The Villains
On the flip side, nearly all the villains were underdeveloped (or weren’t actually villains). There were no returning monsters this series, so it came down to Chibnall and his team of guest writers to come up with nine new aliens/monsters for the Doctor to face off against (one alien, T’zim Sha – a Stenza warrior – was used in multiple episodes). With the exception of T’zim Sha, the monsters this series ranged from forgettable to bad. Those who were actually evil – The Stenza, Krasko, and the Morax – were usually massively underdeveloped and disposed of way too easily. The rest ended up not actually being the villains of their stories but were either created by a different villain (The Stenza created the villains in The Ghost Monument, pollution and unethical scientific experiments created the spiders in Arachnids in the U.K., and the robots in Kerblam! were being commanded by a janitor with an ax to grind) or were misunderstood creatures (the Pting in The Tsuranga Conundrum, the Thijarians in Demons of the Punjab, and the sentient universe in It Takes You Away) while some other external force of humanity was the actual villain. This idea is fine for an episode or two, but when the majority of monsters in a series are either massively underdeveloped or not the actual villains of the story, it begins to feel like there are no stakes to the story. If the monsters aren’t threatening, are the Doctor and her friends actually in any danger? And are they particularly smart when they defeat the villain? Series 12 needs better monsters.
The Good: The Guest Writers’ Episodes
Without fail, every episode written by one of the guest writers (Malorie Blackman, Vinay Patel, Pete McTighe, Joy Wilkinson, and Ed Hime) ranged from very good to superb. Each author brought their own voice and sensibility to the show and each one pushed the series into different, interesting adventures. Both Blackman and Patel wrote stories that addressed historical problems that are still being felt in the present day. Both McTighe and Wilkinson wrote classic Doctor Who adventures that harken back to the feel of older sci-fi and historical episodes while still putting their own spin on it. And Hime wrote an episode that was truly mindbending and deeply emotional. Sure, some of their episodes had similar problems to those written by Chibnall (Blackman’s episode was co-written by Chibnall and featured a very weak villain, Krasko; Wilkinson’s episode featured an alien menace that wasn’t introduced until 3/4 into the episode and was then dealt with minutes later; Patel’s episode featured monsters that weren’t the actual villains), but all of the episodes still soared higher than most of those written by Chibnall sheerly on the talent of the writers and the ambition they brought to their episodes.
The Bad: Chris Chibnall’s Episodes
On the flip side, Chibnall’s episodes ranged from pretty good to bad. His best episode is probably The Woman Who Fell to Earth, followed closely behind by The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. Both episodes feature the only good monster Chibnall has created for this series: The Stenza. Both episodes largely focus on the character arcs of Graham and Ryan. And both episodes feature stakes that feel personal for the characters. It’s also no coincidence that these two episodes are the premiere and the finale. It’s clear that Chibnall knew what he wanted to do with the show from a characterization point, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do with the show from a sci-fi plot side. His other episodes, The Ghost Monument, Arachnids in the U.K. and The Tsuranga Conundrum, are a noticeable decrease in quality when compared to those two. The ideas were half-baked, at best, and the villains were even less developed. It’s as though he just didn’t know what he wanted to do and tried to tread water without actually writing interesting episodes. His episodes would often start out pretty well, but then they wouldn’t stick the landing, whether due to an underdeveloped villain or a story that just didn’t have a resolution. His episodes were consistently the weakest of the series and in the next series, he should consider writing fewer of them as his gift seems to be character arcs and overseeing the show.
Great: The Directing/Music
Thankfully, even if the writing of an episode wasn’t stellar, the visuals and music always were. All of the directors for this series – Jamie Childs, Mark Tonderai, Sallie Aprahamian, and Jennifer Perrott – were all first-time directors for the show and all brought their A-game. Every episode consistently looked amazing. It’s clear that BBC still doesn’t spend much on the show, but these directors were all able to do truly incredible things with very little means. Many of them had innovative camera moves or got to film in various locations or just knew how to pace an episode well, but all of them were superb. Along the same lines is Segun Akinola’s score for the series. Replacing a composer who’s been on a show for 10 series is hard work, but Akinola slides in perfectly. His approach is different to that of previous composer, Murray Gold, but effective nonetheless. Akinola focused more on building an audio atmosphere for each episode than on creating themes that would be repeated for different characters. His music was moody and subtle, always serving the episode without trying to draw attention to itself, but still genuinely amazing. His music was a constant thrill in every episode.
Needs Improvement: Plots/Ongoing Plot Arcs
As I mentioned in the section about Chibnall’s writing, the plots (and overall plot arc) of the series needs some work. Some of the stand-alone episodes had plots that weren’t particularly well thought out or executed and, as a result, the episodes didn’t really work as well as they should have. Similarly, there was no real plot arc for the series. Yes, there were character arcs that we followed the characters through, but previous series of Doctor Who have featured some kind of plotline that’s laced through the episodes and builds up to a finale that ties that plotline (and all the episodes of the series) together. This was not the case in this series and, as a result, the finale felt a bit flat. It did have a returning monster in T’zim Sha, but it didn’t really feel like the culmination of the nine stories that preceded it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think that in today’s age of streaming TV, shows like Doctor Who should be more of a mixture of stand-alone episodes and serialized episodes and I don’t think this series quite nailed that balance. Hopefully, Chibnall will tweak it some for the next season.
Overall, series 11 of Doctor Who was a bit of a mixed bag. It hit some pretty great highs (with episodes like Rosa and It Takes You Away) but it also hit some pretty bad lows (with episodes like The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum). The guest writers all wrote episodes that were interesting, enjoyable, and often envelope-pushing while the showrunner wrote episodes that were safe and decidedly mediocre and risk-averse. The character work for most of our main characters was superb but the development of most of the monsters was weak. The directing and score were great but the plots and scripts often left something to be desired. The acting was superb but many guest actors had little to do of any real importance. There was a lot of promise in this series and I do love Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. I like a lot of what Chibnall seems to be doing with his era of the show, I just think it needs some fine-tuning. I enjoyed this series, with a few exceptions, and I definitely am excited to see where Chibnall and Whittaker take the show next, but I’d be lying if I said the quality of this series was truly a home run. I liked it, but it needs some work to truly be as amazing as it could be.
Doctor Who: Series 11: 3.5 out of 5 wands.