Jodie Whittaker takes the helm of the TARDIS…and it’s about time too
Every Reeneration on Doctor Who marks a new beginning. A chance for the show to revitalize and reorient itself, providing the perfect opportunity for new fans to start watching. It’s primarily a chance for a new face to take the lead role, and sometimes, a new showrunner to take the reigns, as is the case here with the latest season from BBC America. Season 11 ticks all those boxes and more. After the departure of the superb Peter Capaldi as Twelve, we say hello to the new incarnation portrayed by Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch, Attack the Block). Taking over from outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat (Sherlock, Tintin) is Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch, Torchwood). Fresh faces on both sides of the camera that take the show in new, and old directions.
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.
For the uninitiated, you can read a rather old introduction to the show I wrote here. But in short, it’s about a rogue alien, a Time Lord, one who crosses time and space in his ship (the TARDIS), helping people where he can, thwarting nefarious types, typically with a human companion or two by his side. Originally started 55 years ago, it’s been a staple of British TV since, aside from a sabbatical in the 90s. Starting with a remit to use it’s historical aspect to educate as well as entertain, it’s relaunch back in 2005 turned it into something of a global phenomena. One of the key aspects to it’s longevity it the concept of Regeneration, where the Doctor gets injured/killed/or the actor gets wanderlust, prompts the physical change, a new body, a new mix of memories and personalities to create another iteration of the person, revitalizing the character and the show.
Season 11 kicks off after such an event, and the big deal here is that in over 5 decades, the lead is now to be played by a woman. The ease with which she assumes the mantle is unsurprising given her talent, and also adds to the knowledge that such a casting choice shouldn’t have taken this long. There’s a otherworldly, eccentric quality that persists within the character whoever is playing it, and it’s one that Whittaker channels while putting her own distinct spin on things. She embraces the tech nerd aspect of the Doctor, with technobabbly rolling off her tongue with ease. A scene in the first episode will gleefully inspire young girls interested in STEM. A joyous fixer, fueled by good intentions.She’s supported by a new crew of human companions, police officer Yaz (Mandip Gill), her friend Ryan (Tosin Cole), and his step-granddad Graham (Bradley Walsh). There’s a real camaraderie between them all, brought closer together by the Doctor. A diverse cast, bringing a charm and natural ease to the show. The season does struggle at times to do them all justice, but in time that balance should emerge, but as it stands, the new crew on the TARDIS is one of the highlights of the show.
As to the episodes themselves, my colleague delivered some fine weekly recaps if you want a more in depth look at them. We also had a bit of banter together and broke down our thoughts on the season. As you’d expect, there were highs and lows. Episodes like The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument are entertaining romps that helped do the heavy lifting well, in terms of (re)introducing the Doctor, and her new companions. Rosa and Demons of the Punjab are standouts, superbly leaning into the show’s original remit of opening up a slice of human history and delivering an wallop of emotion and morality. Kerblam! follows the shows traditions of using futurstic settings to provide satirical and social commentary on modern situations (Amazon bad y’all), while The Witchfinders was a rather campy excursion using a historical setting, blended with elements from Hammer horror, and It Takes You Away was perhaps the only real attempt to do something a little fantastical all season, more on that later. Others like The Tsuranga Conundrum, Arachnids in the UK, and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos had noble intent, but fell flat in terms of execution. They also best represent some of the issues that plagued even the better episodes of the season.
Often, the show finds itself mired in drammatical elements, usually pertaining to the companions. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps ground the show, but they need to develop a better shorthand. Much of these components felt a little redundant or repetitive. Also, the show lacks some of the more fantastical moments and plotlines that have come n the past, so the effects of this grounding works to counter what isn’t so prevalent anyway. Chibnall himself has in the past indulged a little wheel spinning to pad or keep things moving along, look at the second and third seasons of Broadchurch for that. It’s evident here, exacerbated by the episode length being extended from the traditional 45 minutes to a full hour. But overall he gets many creative decisions right, I just hope he realizes his limitations and gains some more focus (or recruits writers who can) and taps into some more whimsical and nutty parts of his imagination too. To cut loose and embrace more of the interstellar/timey wimey aspects the show has available to it. This cast and their dynamic deserve it.
One thing that stands out about season eleven is the visuals. Not just special effects, but the whole affair is shot in a far more grand and cinematic way. Production values taken up a notch. This Blu-ray shows it all off very nicely. Blacks are deep, colors are natural but plenty vibrant at times, and detail is impressive. Overall there is a quality sheen throughout.
Extra features are rather plentiful and varied, seemingly an amalgamation of all the small content produced to promote the episodes as they aired. They can be found spread over all three discs of the release:
- Audio Commentaries: The Woman Who Fell to Earth with director Jamie and Jodie Whittaker. Rosa with writer Malorie Blackman, producer Alex Mercer, and Mandip Gil. The Tsuranga Conundrum with producer Nicky Bilson, and cast members Mandip Gil, Ben Bailey Smith, and Suzanne Packer. Demons of the Punjab with Alex Mercer, writer Vinay Patel, Mandip Gil, and Shane Zaza. Each is full of insights, geeking out about the show, details on various production or development details, reflections on filming, set stories, cast gossip and more. Rather delightful additions
- Closer Looks: Each episode gets one of these featurettes running around 5 minutes. They look at a specific scene/aspect of each episode and some of the choices that went into it. For instance, the first deals with the building of the Doctor’s new sonic screwdriver
- Cast Video Diaries: Bradley on a Train, Mandip’s South Africa video diary
- Becoming the Doctor: Obviously focused on Whittaker, how she was brought on board, auditions, Chibnall’s intentions, first introduction, costume design, shared thoughts from other cast and crew too
- Regenerating Doctor Who:Bit of an overview of showrunner Chris Chibnall, his past, and his vision for the show
- Directing Doctor Who: A piece on Jimmy Childs who directed the first episode of the new season. Planning shots, tone, special effects, and more, along with comments from the cast and crew on his approach
- Friends of the Doctor: A nice but too short piece on the assembly of this Doctor’s new cohorts
- Everything You Need to Know About TARDIS: Intro to the new incarnation/design of the Doctor’s vessel, inspired by past designs and Whittaker’s own personality
- Making the Theme Tune: The composer shares his approach to the theme and the music on the show, which is stellar this season, especially the bass heavy intro
- Best of Social: A whole host of on set tomfoolery. Jodie Whittaker can’t ‘floss’ apparently
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of this release is that it doesn’t include Resolution, the New Years Day special. As an episode, it’s a superbly entertaining tale, one that yet again manages to find a way to bring back the malice and threat of the Daleks, the Doctor’s most notorious enemy. More than this, it served as a far more effective bookend to the season that Ranskoor, so the release feels a tad incomplete without it.
The Bottom Line
Season 11 is a solid foundation for a new Regeneration cycle of our favorite Time Lord. Whittaker excels, and her newly assembled band of friends are some of the most compelling on the show in years. Chibnall steers the show well overall in his inaugural year as showrunner, but hopefully manages to work in a little more focus, but also be bolder, and unleash some of the more bizarre ideas percolating in the Doctor Who writers room.
Doctor Who Season 11 is available via the BBC Shop from January 29th