Doctor Who’s game-changing S12 finale: a good idea badly executed?
Liking the message but not so much the messenger
Okay, a few weeks on after the season 12 finale of Doctor Who melted the internet, here’s my take in a nutshell – I love what Chibnall did, but I didn’t like the way he did it.
Let me expand on that. Oh please, go on… let me! What else are blogs for?
The whole new mythology, I think, is a clever idea that puts the who? back in Doctor Who. The Doctor is once again an enigma, and there’s a whole universe of opportunities for future writers on the series to explore.
For proof that this new level of mystery is what the show needs you need to look back at the “Name of the Doctor” arc from a few years ago. That was an attempt by Moffat to eke some mystery out of a mythos that had been so fully explored there that were increasingly few, and ever more esoteric, dark corners to exploit. We knew so much much about the Doctor and the Time Lords by that point that the showrunner was trying desperately to create some drama around his name. After a few episodes, and various false reveals (I recall at one point during “The Name Of The Doctor” when my Twitter feed lit up with Tweets along the line of, “Hang on – his name is PLEASE?”) even the most hardcore fans had given up caring.
Also, despite what many of those who loathed the new twist are claiming, what Chibnall has created mostly doesn’t contradict or rewrite existing Doctor Who lore; it merely expands it. I say mostly, because, ironically, the biggest plot hole it’s created contradicts something from Chibnall’s own era – why would Doctor Ruth have a Police Box-shaped TARDIS? Although presumably there’s a way he can write himself out of that cul-de-sac, but it may be convoluted.
So, I’m full behind this new prehistory of the Doctor. It’s great, ballsy stuff, packed with the potential to tell new stories and to create some real meaty dilemmas for the current Doctor.
BUT… and it’s a big but as you can tell from the sudden lapse into social media-style upper case letters.
I’m none too keen on the way this jawdropper was delivered or even prepared for.
Let’s take the episode itself first. There was much to enjoy here (the Master, especially) but Doctor 13 spent most of the running time out of action, with the Master in the driving seat, reading bedtime nightmares to her. Some have called it mansplaining, but I think that’s a little unfair – he wasn’t telling her something she already knew – but it still left the Doctor as a reactive character rather than a pro-active one, with little to do other than gawp.
Even after she escapes the Matrix, she isn’t allowed a proper heroic Doctor moment. Another (male character) sacrifices himself in her place, and there are no great speeches for her or punch-the-air triumphs. She’s just kinda carried along by the plot. It doesn’t do much to convince the audience that the first female Doctor is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, it reinforces clichés about female characters being more passive.
The path to the big twist through the course of the season was a squandered opportunity, too. Instead of creating a growing mystery that infused each episode and built to a climax, Chibnall’s preference is to lob revelation bombs into the proceedings every so often, seemingly at random and with little immediate fallout.
Yeah, the Doctor Ruth reveal was great. But then she vanished for five episodes while the audience was gagging for more.
That, in itself, is not a problem. The fact that she wasn’t even mentioned in-between times was. The excitement of her appearance seriously cooled because not even the Doctor seemed too worried about her existence following her shock appearance. Why wasn’t the second half of the season powered the Doctor’s search for her? Thirteen didn’t have to find Doctor Ruth straight away, but an ongoing search for her could kept the the Ruth mystery feeling vital.
Similarly, after “Spyfall” why isn’t more made of the Doctor’s search for the Master and Thirteen’s reaction to the revelation that he’d burnt down Gallifrey? Gallifrey’s fate and Doctor’s best enemy are mentioned in one conversation between the opening and closing two parters, when they should have been a fundamental driving force for the season. Instead, the Doctor and her companions largely seem to lose interest, so is it any surprise the audience does to. I’m not usually one to quote “show not tell” (Line Of Duty being a great example of how telling – in the right way – can be as powerful as showing, sometimes) but in this case, one rather forgettable chat between Thirteen and the Fam about what the Doctor’s been up to as regards the Master really doesn’t keep the arc plot alive. Some onscreen evidence that she doing something would have helped a lot.
That doesn’t mean we needed the Master in every story, but the Doctor’s search for answers about him and Gallifrey, could, like her search for Doctor Ruth, have landed her in the middle of more self-contained stories while fanning the flames of the season’s arc. Instead, the flames flared occasionally, but kept sputtering.
Another problem with having such major revelations and then not following them up is that revelation-free episodes then feel like filler. So something like the Tesla episode, which is actually a pretty decent piece of trad Who, comes across as a disappointment. The show currently exists in an uneasy hinterland between episodic drama and serial, and doesn’t seem to know how to make the most of either format.
I have other issues with the season, especially its lack of subtlety when it came to “issues”, a continued lack of ongoing subplots for any of the companions and overwrought pacing and gabbled exposition in most episodes. The less said about Dick Whittington’s cat in “Orphan 55” the better. I also thinks it’s a shame how little really good material Whittaker is given to get her teeth into – she’s rarely allowed to dominate a scene.
But there was some stuff I really enjoyed, too. Moments when the season truly came alive. I won’t list them because that’s just be a list, and you’ll probably disagree with many of them. But I do love Jodie when she’s given the chance to show some depth. Graham is just brilliant. Doctor Ruth was a blast. Cybermen with silly Time Lord collars were a wonderfully silly image.
I just wish the series felt more coherent and less ADHD. It’s a show now that I watch for moments that appeal to me, rather than one I can lose myself in. I love this show and always will, but we’ve definitely hit a rocky patch in the relationship for the moment.