It was New Year’s Day and Doctor Who was back. A bright, bold global story hit our screens with some goofy but Doctor Who-esque genre pastiche, a creepy set of aliens and a Master reveal cliff-hanger with an actor I thought was very promising in the part. Could it be that after the most bland and forgettable year of Doctor Who to date, Chibnall had now changed gear and was ready to give us an exciting series of Doctor Who?
If only. Series 12 may have had more ambition and tenacity than its predecessor, but I still found it to be severely lacking. In a sense, the bold reveals and high budget visuals were a glittery façade that hid not just a flawed series but a series with most of the same flaws as the one that came before it. There were things I liked across the series, but these were mostly ideas that were let down in their execution. And it’s for that reason that this series fails to have any episodes that truly compete against the greatest stories of the RTD and Moffat eras.
I’ll start with perhaps the most pervasive problem. The companions. They truly are the dullest bunch to travel in the TARDIS, as we’ve spent two series eluding interesting character development of any sort. Individual moments such as Yaz’s subplot in Can You Hear Me? may have elicited an ounce of poignance, but none of it feels grounded in a consistently interesting character who I feel like I understand or know. I think one of the underlying problems is that there is no conflict between this TARDIS team, just constant verbal reassurance about how much they love each other which is undermined by their lack of chemistry. Did anyone really buy Graham’s outpouring of admiration for Yaz in the finale? Like most of the fam’s ‘character moments’ it felt like a shoe-horned attempt at a relationship that wasn’t particularly rooted in what we’ve seen of the characters.
And their relationship with the Doctor is based on the same weak foundation, such that they actually spend quite a lot of this series split up from her and doing less interesting things (e.g. Spyfall Part 2 and Fugitive of the Judoon). Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, independent of her companions, has actually warmed to me somewhat more than she did in her first series. She’s still a long way from contending with any of the other modern incarnations of the character, in my opinion, but she’s settled into the role now.
And then there’s the story-based issues I’ve had. There has been a lot of bad writing across this series both in lacklustre dialogue and underwhelming executions. Neither of these are necessarily new problems to Doctor Who, but I don’t think they’ve ever quite so consistently pervaded a series. Whether it’s the infamously dreadful woman caterwauling ‘BENNI’ throughout Orphan 55, the girl who can’t understand why everyone in the world isn’t tuned into her obscure travel blog, or the highly forgettable surviving humans of theCyber Wars,I’ve been struggling to identify with many of the supporting characters across the series. But the inability to create clever or well-thought out resolutions to any single story is the most crippling flaw of all. The solution to Spyfall essentially just invokes the cop out of going back in time and breaking the villain’s tech off screen, Praxeus relied on some underwhelming technobabble and the resolution to the finale’s climax boiled down to a convenient self-sacrifice that robbed the Doctor of having to follow through on the vaguely interesting moral dilemma that was set up for her. I could go on, but the fact is the only story that didn’t leave a disappointing taste in its final act was perhaps Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. The very definition of average Doctor Who, the fact that this episode was the least disappointing of the series speaks volumes.
But can I at least be glad that, unlike Series 11, we had a story arc? Sadly not. Two things let down the story arc for me: the dire storytelling it demonstrated and the much-hyped but ultimately dreadful final twist. For his great twist, Chibnall was essentially relying purely on the shock factor of what he was revealing. What he didn’t do, as any writer should when writing such a twist, was create a satisfying revelation that brings a sense of clarity to viewers who can suddenly make sense of what’s come before. And I’m not even talking about the way this twist somewhat betrays years of Doctor Who history, I’m talking about how there was so little to prepare us for this reveal within Series 12 itself. The intriguing mystery of the Ruth Doctor – in an episode I actually enjoyed – was not explained by this twist or definitively explained at all, in the end. Therefore, the only true foreshadowing of this twist came in Spyfall when the Master warned the Doctor that the Time Lords had lied about some great secret.
But that scene in Spyfall was a scene of pure exposition tacked onto the end of the story quite uninventively. We then learn nothing whatsoever new about this until the final episode in which Chibnall gives us another scene of pure exposition to explain his twist. The sequence in the Matrix in The Timeless Children is literally a twist for the sake of a twist. It doesn’t really make the slightest difference to the story around it – a story about Cybermen and Time Lords that could work just as well (better even) without this unconnected chunk of backstory that comes out of nowhere. Not only that, the twist doesn’t really make a jot of difference to the character of the Doctor as we know her/him. Since her/his mind was wiped and s/he essentially started a new life as the character we know, all the versions of the character before this memory wipe haven’t made the character who s/he is today and may as well be someone else. The only thing this seems to do is elevate how ‘special’ the Doctor is which, in my opinion, pointlessly undermines the more humble origins of the character established in the past.
I don’t think Chibnall is a good writer and I don’t think this has been a good series of Doctor Who. The sooner he goes the better, but in the meantime I would appreciate giving him a second chance to write a decent companion by writing out the current lot as soon as possible. Doctor Who can be so much better than this.