Doctor Who: A Season of Change

Doctor Who Thirteenth Doctor

I’m going to go ahead and revisit Doctor Who now that we’ve got the series over with. (There will be mild spoilers this time.) On a personal like or dislike level, I still fully love the new tone and direction of the show. So I was a bit surprised when I came across a number of critiques on the season’s showrunner, Chris Chibnall. Of the most common complaints I saw, one was that there weren’t enough callbacks to the previous seasons or Doctor Who lore, and the other was that the show felt small. The later I thought was hilarious because that is one of the biggest reasons I love the new season. So let’s go ahead and look at these two issues and see what they mean for Doctor Who.

Where’s the Doctor Who Lore?

First, is it an accurate complaint?

Yes. There is very little reference to previous seasons aside from a few oneliners and a fez, and no antagonists have been traditional Doctor Who villain species.

But is this a problem?

I’d argue, not yet. This is the first season of a new showrunner and new Doctor. We don’t need a huge influx of old history right now. Chibnall is setting up who the Doctor is now and how the world of the Doctor will interact with her. Having lot of backstory in the beginning would only weigh this new Doctor down in ancient history that her companions wouldn’t understand as they only know her as she is now.

Do I want calls backs to staple enemies like the Daleks or Cybermen and would I love to know what actually happened to Gallifrey (since Moffat never clarified that in any way)? 

Absolutely. I’d love to see Chibnall’s take on the Daleks or Cybermen, but I don’t believe that lacking it right now detracts from the show in any way. And adding new species only expands the universe of the show for later seasons.

Do I think it could become a problem? 

If it is never addressed throughout Chibnall’s entire time as showrunner, then yes. Daleks and Cybermen and Gallifrey are staples of the show for a reason and long time fans would enjoy a new rehash of their favorites. To never go into the history of the Doctor would isolate this Doctor from herself and her previous incarnations, which would detract from the show on a whole. It’s a part of the world built over 50 years of Doctor Who, and it would be foolish to never capitalize on an already existing universe. Her history made her who she is as much as the regeneration did. But given the style Chibnall has shown so far, I think that selective use of those pieces of Doctor Who tradition will work very well for him in the future, and I do hope to see more callbacks in coming seasons.

Doctor Who Thirteenth Doctor

It’s Too Small

Like I said earlier, this one made me laugh. I adore the fact the show has reduced from the universe-ending/time-ending/Doctor-ending plotlines Moffat overused and pulled back to smaller, more intimate stories about people. It’s a different type of story-telling, and it’s utterly refreshing. Now, I do have better reasons to defend it than “I like it, so there.” Let’s take a look at how these smaller stories have actually improved the world of Doctor Who.

The biggest reason these smaller stories are so important to the show is because it brings impact back to the stories. As I’ve made clear already, I’m not a fan of Moffat’s time as showrunner. He’s not a bad writer, and I love some of his single episodes from RDJ’s time. “Blink” is still one of my favorite episodes of all the new Doctor Who. But he relied so much on these immense storylines that they lost their impact.

The Doctor’s “true” death was predicted and/or used three separate times during his era. Since the Doctor’s death would mean the end of the show, there was no real fear. The first time made us wonder how he’d get out of it, the second relied on Eleven’s regeneration for emotional impact, and by the third the very idea was so overdone there was no fear or even suspense. It was obvious that the Doctor wouldn’t actually die and that he’d get out of whatever the situation was in some convoluted or completely unexplained way. The same was true for all the major battles and universe-ending paradoxes. They happened so often that they lost their importance.

To paraphrase Eleven, the show got too big, and it was time to disappear a little.

Doctor Who Graham and Grace

These smaller stories bring that significance back to the stories. The Doctor doesn’t always have to show up when the world is ending—sometimes she shows up when your world is ending. And isn’t that a wonderful part of the Doctor that we haven’t seen in a while. These personal stories can be invested in emotionally, because the stakes don’t rely on plot points that we know can’t stick without drastically altering or ending the show.

Personal stories also allow us to explore the core of the Doctor’s character, which is someone who wants to help people. Sometimes that means saving the universe, but just as important is saving one person. “The Fires of Pompeii” and “Vincent and the Doctor” are both excellent examples of seeing the small kindnesses the Doctor is capable of, and Chibnall seems to want to capitalize on that aspect of Thirteen’s personality. This also serves to provide a contrast for when he eventually brings in larger, more universe-threatening plots and will allow those stories to have their power back.

Chibnall’s Writing is Bad

This argument I don’t quite understand. I’m not saying that Chibnall gave us all the greatest episodes ever written. But both Moffat and RDJ had good episodes, okay episodes, and bad episodes—even in their first seasons. That we would suddenly expect a new showrunner to have nothing but great episodes is foolish. Or perhaps a few meh episodes is the only part of what they dislike among all the changes that some people can articulate. Either way, I think that Chibnall deserves the same right to have good and not so good episodes that the other showrunners did.

And Chibnall had some really great episodes in this season. The end of the first episode was beautifully heartbreaking and allowed us to hear the Doctor speak of her grief at losing people over and over and having to continue on. “Rosa” forced the Doctor and her companions to act against everything they believed in order to preserve the history. When Graham stood on the bus, unable to leave, and said “I don’t want to be a part of this,” being a white man who’d loved a strong, generous black woman encompassed the world’s struggle with facing our own awful history but knowing if some of those terrible times hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have progressed to where we are now.

Doctor Who Rosa

I also love that the show isn’t glossing over the problems of time traveling to periods when people of color and women didn’t have the freedoms they do now. Previous episodes touched on this here and there (both RDJ and Moffat had a couple stories that included some discrimination), but overall accepted that they could travel anywhere they wanted with little impediment. Chibnall faces it head on, having Ryan need to get on the bus from the back door, or the Doctor being accused of being a witch for doing exactly what she would have as a man with no problem.

The Doctor’s Companions

I’ve heard a number of reasons people don’t like the companions from little character growth to simply having too many. I don’t know that I would agree with either charge.

Doctor Who Companions Graham Ryan Yaz

The character growth throughout the series is subtle, but not non-existent. In “Rosa,” Yaz experiences not knowing what she is, being mistaken for Mexican and not sure if she should sit in the white or colored section of the bus. So it wasn’t surprising she was so adamant in wanting to see where she came from in her grandmother’s history. And even when she finds out nothing is what she thought it was, it still brings her closer to her heritage and one of the people who shaped who she became.

Then there’s Graham and Ryan, both of whom grow throughout the series. Graham is literally running away from his grief over Grace’s death by going off with the Doctor, but in the process, he’s forced to face the truth of his loss while accepting that he still has people around him he can love like family (especially Ryan). In “It Takes You Away” he has the chance to have Grace back, but by then he knows it can’t be the same no matter how much he wishes it could. And when he faces Tzim-Sha, even though the entire episode he is preparing himself to kill him, Graham has managed to move past his grief enough to be the man Grace would have wanted and that Ryan needed.

Once again, Ryan’s growth is subtle. He was grieving, just like Graham, but he wasn’t grieving the lost future that Graham was. He’d had Grace his whole life. He grieved for the only family he had, and so likewise, his growth was in accepting that he didn’t lose it all with Grace. He needed to accept Graham as family in order to move on, and I personally loved when Ryan finally called him Grandad.

As for there being too many, this isn’t the first time the Doctor’s had three companions. The show started with three companions, in fact. And when you relate it to what often happened in the modern series, three companions off the bat spreads the interpersonal tension out so that the tension between the Doctor and companion doesn’t become romantic. And I am so happy for there not to be a romance subplot. That was one of the many reasons I still contend that Donna was the best companion, so perhaps that’s a matter of taste more than anything.

Maybe whether you like or dislike this season comes down to whether you liked or disliked the big, complicated, high-stakes plots of Moffat. For me, this season felt refreshing and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Doctor Who Thirteenth Doctor Graham Ryan Yaz

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