Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)
Image Description: The Doctor, Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan send a message to The Master
Matthew Kilburn pauses for thoughts on Series Twelve
Back at the start of Series Twelve, in the wake of Spyfall, I’d considered whether Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who might be presenting the Doctor, despite superficial differences, in a similar vein to Steven Moffat’s conception of the character. Moffat once quipped that where Sherlock Holmes was a man who wanted to be a god, the Doctor was a god who wanted to be a man. In the light of Spyfall, the Thirteenth Doctor’s actions throughout Series Eleven might be viewed as those of a godlike being who felt the need to avoid her past nature even more than in earlier incarnations. The Doctor sought to walk the universe with a lighter tread, a voice of optimism in dark times, an embodiment of hope.
The problem with being an embodiment of principle is that you are always facing challenges; the problem with trying to step down from your earlier lofty position is that the calibre of your enemies changes too. So the Doctor’s foes in Series Eleven were perhaps intentionally more ordinarily criminal than the forces of mythological threat to which audiences had become accustomed. The Sarah Jane Adventures had promised that life on Earth could be an adventure too; by the lights of Series Eleven, the nature of that adventure seemed to be battling prejudice and hatred without and within oneself, and counting the small victories even as one was aware that one fell short of one’s own ideals. At the same time, the series’ mode of address was too superficial to really engage with the themes it was raising.
Series Twelve has provided more episodes in which I felt genuine dramatic tension and apprehension for the next revelation, but it’s still been an uncertain journey. Once the series had committed itself to a mythological and character arc concerning the Doctor, episodes which bore little relationship to that arc needed to offer standalone tales of equivalent force, and few did. Orphan 55 seemed to change motivation several times during the story; Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror was highly entertaining, but its contrast between Edison and Tesla lacked some conviction. The series was on firmer ground when analyzing itself; Ruth’s role as energetic tour guide wryly commented on the Thirteenth Doctor’s presentation of herself to her companions, while Ruth’s relationship with Lee echoed those intense co-dependencies the Doctor had with companions before Series Eleven.
Last year, I wrote of the Thirteenth Doctor’s need for an audience to confirm that she represents consensual authority, in charge through acknowledgement by her ‘fam’ over any assertion of her superior Time Lord nature. At the close of Fugitive of the Judoon, their baldly expressed support helps restore the Doctor’s sense of identity. The scene is an example of a very technical era of scriptwriting which barely acknowledges the inner lives of the characters except in direct statements such as these. It’s one reason why Graham, Ryan and Yaz have been difficult to get to know; there’s little sense of the inner conflicts which govern their verbal and physical reactions to events. This is noticeable in many of the recently released scripts for Series Twelve on BBC Writersroom, which are largely much more economical in their attention to character than those from earlier eras, though there are partial exceptions, such as the markedly less literal The Haunting of Villa Diodati. All sorts of thoughts stem from this, such as how far Chibnall’s Doctor Who is estranged from a Gothic heritage. Where Praxeus toys with the symbology of possession, zombification is brief and of limited consequence, in contrast say to the partial transformations of The Fires of Pompeii, the gleefully self-aware eviscerations of Aliens of London, or even the different living deaths of Ashildr and Clara, let alone the jamboree of takeovers in the mid-1970s. It’s perhaps the return to the Gothic which made The Haunting of Villa Diodati so well-received, although the Lone Cyberman’s debt to Frankenstein’s Creature was brutally explicit in a manner fitting to this era’s approach, rather than playfully allusive.
The advent of Chris Chibnall was protracted, and it’s tempting to see his concerns trailed long before his arrival. The Doctor’s conversation with Ashildr towards the conclusion of Hell Bent included the slightest of hints that the Doctor might not be who they thought they were. Now, one wonders how far Hell Bent’s teasing over the Hybrid prepared the way for Chibnall’s reconceptualization of the Doctor’s origins. The Thirteenth Doctor had demonstrated and enjoyed a certain priestliness last year, delivering benedictions in The Tsuranga Conundrum and Demons of the Punjab, but her decision to let the surviving spider in Arachnids in the UK starve to death suggested the limitations of her doctorate of hope. The Thirteenth Doctor can be read as having trust issues: she wipes the memories of Noor and Ada in Spyfall rather than risk them sharing what they learned while travelling with the Doctor, and likewise her trust of the fam has been circumscribed by her wish to keep them – and by extension herself – at a distance from her backstory. That this tale turns out to have been erroneous anyway is a cruel joke. The Doctor falls, from demigod with disciples, to nameless waif killed and resurrected over and over in the service of Gallifreyan eugenics.
They are then buried in the security apparatus of the emerging state, they rebel, are captured and reprogrammed. There are those who will see the white male identities of the first twelve Doctors as the imprisonment of the multifaceted Doctor within an imperial patriarchal structure; not surprising, in that case, that the Doctor was drawn to a late-twentieth century fading imperial power on Earth.
Despite the protracted gap between series, my observation last year that Chris Chibnall refused to burden his version of Doctor Who with linking concepts of questionable success is seriously outdated, though I was right that he was playing his arc long. He and his colleagues are still working out, two series in, how their version of Doctor Who works. Perhaps concentrated blocks of stories with plot and character elements in common rather than arc- and non-arc episodes through a series would be more rewarding to viewers and indeed programme makers. Intentions will have been compromised by Covid-19 and whether and how Doctor Who returns to production in the autumn. The challenges the programme now faces are different from those envisaged when Revolution of the Daleks wrapped before Christmas; but the future is rarely what we expect.