Review—Doctor Who Series 11: O Doctor my Doctor.
O Doctor! my Doctor! our adventuresome trip not done,
While the TARDIS has weathered every rack, the prize remains unwon,
Earth is my port, I hear no bells, no screeches, the people appreciate the wonders, but
Lungs gasp for air in the vacuum of space, the vessel remains lost;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O brilliant flashes of blue,
Somewhere in space my Doctor floats,
Still ready to save the world.
I grew up with Tom Baker on PBS. He will always be my Doctor. When I’m going low-key genre with my wardrobe, I wear a Fourth Doctor neck tie modeled on his famous long scarf. But I also very much appreciated the intensity of David Tennant and sensitivity of Matt Smith. Peter Capaldi’s curmudgeonly take on the Doctor never connected with me, nor did his companions following Jenna Coleman’s departure. Capaldi never appeared vulnerable, until he turned into Jodie Whittaker and fell out of his TARDIS.
And now we have Jodie Whittaker, the woman who fell to earth.
After regeneration, all Doctors are a bit confused as their bodies rebuild for their reconfiguration. This rebuilding brought Whittaker some of her best material as her name sat, in one scene, on the very tip of her thing in her mouth she also could not name.
In her first outing, Whittaker performs admirably with a mix of Peter Capaldi erudition and her own emergent, seemingly empathetic leanings. Ms. Whittaker will make a fine Doctor. Her work in Broadchurch and her role in Venus attest to her versatility and screen presence.
The big question for Series 11 of Doctor Who is not Jodi Whittaker, it is Chris Chibnall who wrested away the Doctor Who legacy from Steven Moffat. Moffat famously created plot intricacies that sometimes aspired to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their narrative weaves.
While Moffat may rightfully be accused of wrapping the Doctor in a cloak of personal mental machinations that made him less-and-less accessible to those who chose not to track the thread across episodes, Moffat cannot be indicted for thinking small. Moffat appreciated the grand tapestry of the universe and he created a Doctor who sat not on a stage, but flitted as a sprite with full access to the majesty of the cosmos.
Chibnall seems more concerned with the human condition to start, which is always a good place to begin, but for grand science fiction, it is sometimes not enough. The Woman Who Fell to Earth leaned into an earlier Doctor Who. It felt a little monster-of-the-week, albeit a rightfully good monster with his own broken alien vibe.
But beside the Doctor and her companions figuring out literally what happens to them next, the stakes seemed pretty low. The tension all came from Whittaker’s Doctor not yet ramped up to her full Doctorhood. With all faculty’s engaged, the Doctor should have dispatched this alien with relative aplomb half-way through the episode with plenty of time to set up the perplexing challenge she would face over the next several episodes.
This break between Doctor 13 and her predecessors is clearly not accidental. I am sure Chibnall has experienced the outstanding Day of the Doctor where the Doctors synchronized sonic screwdriver calculations to shatter the atomic matrix of a door. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth Whittaker’s Doctor arrives sans sonic screwdriver. She goes on to impressively build one. But this isn’t a new incarnation, it is a new sonic, which means it isn’t the “same software—different case” that played such a pivotal role of not actually breaking out the Doctors out of their middle ages cage, but in establishing their connection across millennia.
One episode tells only one tale. We may have seen enough though that the immediate future may hold a smaller, more intimated Doctor Who moments as we navigate through Chibnall and his vision. There is plenty of room for innovation at all scales. As I have often complained of even my favorite franchises like Star Trek, they tend to get lost in their backstory, for some reason forgoing the freedom of an unconstrained future while apparently at ease with complicating and jostling established canon.
My hope is the Chibnall looks forward. He may not choose to write his stories across the vastness of the stars, but I hope he at least chooses to continue to write for a Doctor who can still discover surprises even in the intimacy of the universe.
[Side note: I’m pretty sure that Chibnall and Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck did not coordinate the powerful survival of their main characters after falling from the sky and slamming into Earth. In the case of the Doctor, she crashed through the roof of a train. As the Captain Marvel trailer reveals, Carol Danvers nearly demolishes a Blockbuster video store. Regardless, both characters exhibit a power of narrative as women get recognized for heroism, strength, and resiliency. While I remain pretty sure Chibnall, Boden and Fleck didn’t collaborate, I’m also pretty sure that any male protagonist making such an entry would have followed their landing with expletives and complaints. Here’s to a future in Sci-Fi where mansplaining gets replaced with men finally realizing they can learn something from the women in their lives.
To the women arriving from space, a quote from Walt Whitman that is both a greeting and a farewell:
May-be it is you the mortal know really undoing, turnning—so now finally,
Good-bye—and hail! my Fancy.]
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