DOCTOR WHO Blowout Hoedown Mega-Extreme Season Breakdown Spectacular with Jon and Brendan

Another season of the legendary British sci-fi series Doctor Who has come and gone, this year bringing major changes in front of and behind the cameras. Perhaps most noticeably, for the first time ever in official canon, the time-tripping, dimension-hopping, face-shifting adventurer Time Lord known only as The Doctor was played by a woman, with Jodie Whittaker (Attack the Block; Broadchurch) stepping into the TARDIS and facing off against a galaxy full of ill-tempered aliens.

Joining Whittaker was an all-new crew of human Companions, including police officer Yaz (Mandip Gill), avuncular widower Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Graham’s step-grandson, the excitable Ryan (Tosin Cole). Together, this strange band (or “fam” as The Doctor referred to them) voyaged through time and space, running into threats ranging from giant spiders attacking contemporary Britain, to a gremlin-y creature wreaking havoc on a spaceship in the distant future, to a magic mirror leading into entirely new universes.

Many of these adventures were scripted by new showrunner Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), taking over from previous showrunner Steven Moffat (who took over from Russell T. Davies, who re-launched the show after a two-decade hiatus).

As we have a time (or two) in the past, Cinapse brought in two Doctor Who lovers to hash out the highs and lows the newly-finished season. What worked, and what didn’t, and what should be dumped into the Time Vortex? Find out below!

BRENDAN: Well, you can find my thoughts on the season in my various recaps so Jon, I’d like to give you the floor to start us off. I suppose the biggest elephant in the room to address is the new Doctor herself: Jodie Whittaker. Has she proven herself worthy of wielding the sonic?

JON: Well. Jodie. Yes. Very much yes. There’s a baggage free tone to her I find refreshing after having a brooding Doctor for so long. She’s affable, smart, socially awkward (alien yo), and just the right kind of nerd to inspire. That first episode with her forging her own Sonic from Sheffield steel was a delight as well as an inspiration to many of the kids tuning in, some probably for the first time. I think she’s been lumbered with more technobabble than her predecessors but she’s dropped those lines with a quirky grace that makes it palatable. So yes. She’s a great fit and it only compounds discussions over why a woman didn’t get a chance earlier.The Companions seem to be shouldering more of the show than previous, though, and I’m wondering if that’s a deliberate choice to ease her in, to further broaden the show’s diversity, or to (most likely) tilt the show into more reflective fare.

BRENDAN: You bring up the Companions. I was pretty nervous going into the season that having three full-time TARDIS guests would overpower the show (hell, Doctor Who often struggled with what to do with Amy AND Rory). All three proved to be absolute delights, though Yaz seemed to get short shrift most often. Graham may well be my favorite Companion of the entire run of new-Who, if only because he refers to The Doctor as “Doc” (which…how did no one ever do that before? It’s adorable). The down-side to having so many Companions running around (plus each episode’s respective guest stars) was every episode feeling just slightly more sluggish than need be. Doctor Who’s has a pretty standard set of stock plotlines that it cycles through and riffs on, and this year it often felt like the show was taking a scenic route through very familiar story beats. Sometimes it worked, but even the best episodes did more than a bit of wheel-spinning.

But let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this thing. What were your high and lowlights of this particular season (and New Year’s special)? And do we just automatically rubber-stamp the Rosa Park-themed “Rosa” as the season high-point or were there other moments with a claim to that crown?

JON: I remember your trepidation on Twitter about the multiple companions, as I’m sure you remember how some (myself included) responded by pointing out how the show had handled it just fine before, notably in the classic era. I agree with you that the balance wasn’t quite right, especially for Yaz. Graham also was a nice surprise, and where I had the most fear. A first-time female Doctor, and you stick an old white guy in the TARDIS with her. That could have been a recipe for disaster, but they pulled it off quite nicely. Even if they did get a little mired in the family drama quite often.

Highlights? “Rosa” obviously, and I’d likely say “Resolution”, the New Year’s Special. It felt like they finally got the balance right, save that prolonged (and unnecessary) scene between Ryan and his Dad. The stakes felt real without taking away from the intimacy, everyone had a role to play, and they also managed to yet again pull the Daleks out and give them a new devilish twist, even if it did feel a lot like Eccleston’s “Dalek” episode at times. Also I was rather amused at the implication that a looming Brexit might have caused the collapse of UNIT. For a singular moment, when the Doctor approaches her TARDIS in “The Ghost Monument”. One of those moments of pure poetry that exudes the tingles that only a show with 55 years of history can.

But that scene I mention that dragged “Resolution” down a tad is symptomatic for the series as a whole, often leaning into soap opera rather than space opera at times. The writers need to find more of a shorthand with regards to the companions and their baggage as it really weighed down the show at times.

BRENDAN: With the exception of the awful finale (which “Resolution” nicely made up for), I thought the season loosened up nicely as it went along, with a nice variety of episode types and tones. “Kerblam!” was satirical sci-fi, “Witchhunters” was the show in horror mode, while “It Takes You Away” returned the series to the fantastical, whimsy-drenched approach that dominated the Moffat seasons. At times it felt like the series was plugging the new team into every different format available to see what worked best, but by the time Jodie finally went toe-to-toe with a Dalek in the New Year’s special, it felt like she, and the new show around her, had become fully formed.

This seems as good a place as any to bring up the big shake-up behind the scenes. If I was curious/nervous about Whittaker taking over as The Doctor, I was actively terrified about Chris Chibnall becoming head writer and showrunner this year. Chibnall has a number of acclaimed works under his belt, but I found his previous Who efforts to be either thuddingly mediocre or outright awful (and that’s without even getting into the Torchwood atrocities he has to his name). Chibnall has writing credits on six of this year’s eleven (including the special) scripts, two of which I found wretched (“Arachnids”, “Ranskoor”) while the others were at the very worst functional-if-unexciting. At times it seemed like Chibnall was playing it very safe and studiously avoiding the wild flights of invention and imagination that led to both splendid highs and bug-fuck lunatic lows during the Davies and Moffat eras. Part of that feeling I think came from the expanded runtimes for every episode, which meant that even episodes with extremely simple fetch-quest plots tended to drag through needless shoe-leather just so everyone in the cast had something to do. If anything, I hope Chibnall is emboldened by the ratings and critical success of this season to take big risks and really push himself and his creative team. He’s proven that he can make Doctor Who work, but now I’d love to see him make the old bird sing.

What about you Jon? What were your expectations for Chibnall as a showrunner, and did he meet, exceed, or miss the mark? What do you hope this latest group of writers and directors take away from this season?

JON: Let me put it one way: Chibnall doesn’t have a “Blink” in him.

His only standout work was the first season of Broadchurch. He’s very workmanlike, and I think very geared towards drama (maybe melodrama) than anything more clever or fantastical. Which means some aspects of Who are going to be strengthened, some paid less heed, and some aspects milked to plug the gaps. And I agree, the expanded length of the episodes this season likely contributed to some wheel spinning. He hasn’t been awful, but he’s never had a complete grasp of any episode from his pen this year. “Resolution” came close, but still overindulged the drama unnecessarily, spending over five minutes in what felt like an episode of Eastenders. ‘Tim Shaw’ as the big bad was very underwhelming and symbolic of his desire to go personal rather than spectacular. I don’t think the aim of doing it that way is wrong, but the execution was.

But my original sentiment remains, he doesn’t have the over-the-topness of Davies or the smart whimsy of Moffat. He needs to swing for the fences more or get in some writers who can imbue a little timey-wimey-ness to proceedings. I do give him credit for strongly representing one of the show’s original remits though, that of a window to the past and educational too. “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” (showrunner, not writer, on this one) are great examples of the moral lessons Who can deliver.

I would like to say the show looked great this season though. Took a little getting used to at times, I was a bit worried about the cramped darkness of the TARDIS interior, but some of the visuals were superb. The Doctor walking up to her TARDIS in “The Ghost Monument”, for example, is immediately iconic.

BRENDAN: I think we’ve just about covered it all, so let’s wrap things up with a little chat about Daleks. Prior to the New Year’s special, “Resolution”, this season studiously avoided using any of the classic monsters and aliens. I was particularly grateful for this, as it not only allowed the show to better establish its own voice and style away from years past, but also because it has to be said that first Davies and then Moffat absolutely wore out fan-favorite fiends like the Cybermen and the Daleks, particularly since modern technology meant that they could create endless hordes of the clattering things. The first couple times giant armies of these villains came pouring down from space or out of wormholes, it was exciting. But Doctor Who kept bringing them back to rehash the same conflict again and again.

Chibnall’s decision to hold off on The Doctor’s oldest foe until later in the game turned out to be a master-stroke, as by the time we got there it proved tremendously satisfying to see Jodie Whittaker finally stand toe-to-toe with a Dalek. Because it aired so close to the rest of the season, and because it wraps up a number of arcs and stories that have been playing out over the course of the year, “Resolution” felt less like a special and more like the proper finale to the season. As such, bringing in the Dalek felt like capstone to the year, finally and completely cementing Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.

Jon, how did you feel about the show eschewing the classic creatures this season, and how did you feel when “Resolution” revealed that the squiggly monster thing was actually the squiggly monster thing Whovians know and love-hate? If the show were to bring back some more classic monsters from the old days, who would you like to see get brought back?

JON: The concept of the squiggly thing being the actual Dalek is nothing that new, first shown to be that way in the Baker years. I kinda wish the BBC hadn’t mentioned the Daleks in the preview content though, as I’m sure some would have been pleasantly surprised. It was a good move to solidify the threat of one, rather than to unleash a disposable horde of pepperpots though. I recall reading once that due to licensing issues, they have to use the Daleks once a season or they lose access to them, no idea if true, but could explain a lot of things. I was fine with not delving back into the classics and crafting new baddies for sure, but it’s worth pointing out that there are 55 years worth of classic villains to pull from, not just Daleks and Cybermen. The Sontarans and Zygons have seen a well deployed return, as have the Ice Warriors and SiIlurians. But think of the Axxons, Movellans, the Daemons, or my own personal nightmare fuel, The Kandy Man from The Happiness Patrol. There’s plenty to draw inspiration from.

One thing stands out and that is the Gallifreyans themselves. We got something of a resolution towards the end of Capaldi’s reign, alleviating the guilt of the Time War for 13 to be so chipper, unlike past regenerations. But they’re out there now, and if the Daleks can keep popping up why not the Time Lords, who proved to be a massive thorn in the side of Doctors past. It could give the show a very different dynamic than other seasons of Nu-Who, to have some authoritative meddling above the Doctor, something that strengthens her resolve. An individual eliciting change, in the face of old fuddy duddys wanting to maintain the status quo. What could be more fitting for our current era.

The Kandyman


Oh man, well, I guess it’s good to know that there are still vast corners of this universe that remain under or un-explored.

And that’s all folks! Doctor Who will return presumably some time in early 2020, and when it does you can trust that Jon, Brendan, and all the other Whovians like them will be lining up to learn to where in the world(s) that strange blue box and its even stranger pilot land next.

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