Jodie Whittaker’s first Doctor Who series always felt like a bit of a gamble.
After making the high-profile decision to cast the first female Doctor, in 2018 series boss Chris Chibnall released a series of 10 standalone sci-fi stories with little of the usual running arcs, cliffhangers and multi-part stories fans were used to from the modern version of the show. Chibnall also made the decision to exclude well-known alien foes from the series’ back catalogue, instead opting for “all-new monsters” in an attempt to ease in new viewers.
This approach received something of a mixed reception from fans who missed their favourite series elements, but with series 12 now in the rear-view mirror the shape of Chibnall’s grand plan is easier to see. After an establishing year of standalone adventures, upbeat stories and little lasting continuity the audience was primed for what was to come next – almost entirely the opposite.
Doctor Who’s 12th modern series brought a darker, more personal storyline for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, more characterisation for her companions (even if the show still wasn’t entirely successful on this front), interesting new takes on old-school series elements and delved more deeply into Doctor Who lore than would have been thought possible in 2018.
Really, looking at the bare facts of the latest series, Chris Chibnall almost couldn’t have done more to address fans’ basic wishes after series 11.
When we consulted Whovians in 2019 about what changes they’d like to see in series 12, they asked for “more two-parters, long episodes and cliffhangers,” a proper series arc, the return of old monsters, more cold opens, a comeback for John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, a darker side to Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and more background for her companions Graham, Ryan and Yaz (played by Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill).
Looking back over series 12, it’s striking how many of these requests have been satisfied, even pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff (or so it seemed at the time) about John Barrowman coming back, which fans have been hoping could happen for nearly a decade. Is it any wonder that the fan reaction to this series has been so much more engaged, even if viewing figures as a whole have been sliding a little?
From the off, this felt like a more confident, ballsy version of the Whittaker era, beginning the series with Chibnall’s globetrotting James Bond riff Spyfall and sensationally unmasking Sacha Dhawan as a new version of the Master. Did it make total sense based on where we last saw that character? Maybe not – but Dhawan was having such fun chewing the scenery it hardly mattered.
Follow-up Spyfall: Part Two got a little muddled in its overlapping plots – why were the Kasaavin following early computer scientists again? – but gave room for Dhawan’s new Master to shine, while also properly kicking off the mystery that would spawn endless online speculation over the course of the series – who or what was The Timeless Child?
Third episode Orphan 55 (written by Ed Hime) landed with a bit of a thump after that, reviving the worst aspects of series 11 – an overstuffed, thinly-sketched guest cast and plotting inconsistencies – and its environmental message edged into the preachy. But it was soon followed by screenwriter Nina Metivier’s much more satisfying celebrity historical Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, shining a light(bulb) on an often-overlooked figure in the way only Doctor Who can. A fun, solid outing with a great guest cast.
But it was the series’ fifth episode that changed everything. It seems unlikely fans expected much from Vinay Patel and Chris Chibnall’s Fugitive of the Judoon – some David Tennant-era nostalgia from rhino-faced aliens, perhaps – but what they got was downright sensational.
Once upon a time, the return of John Barrowman to Doctor Who would have made an episode in of itself, but Captain Jack Harkness’ comeback was soon eclipsed by the unveiling of a mysterious new Doctor, who up-ended series canon as we knew it with an assured performance from Jo Martin.
This episode was an intriguing, tense mystery with sharp writing, great guest performances (and cameos) – I wasn’t just on the edge of my seat, I genuinely ended the episode stood up in my living room. It was a terrific episode, and a Doctor Who viewing experience that ranks higher than anything I’ve experienced in recent years. No wonder it caused such a reaction.
Following this, sixth episode Praxeus (written by Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall) was pretty thin gruel for me, ignoring all the big revelations for another over-stuffed rush around the globe to stop a vague threat. It wasn’t terrible, just not my favourite – though it’s only fair to note that the episode had a lot of fans, so it might be a bit of a Marmite story.
I found a lot more to love in the ambitious if slightly flawed Can You Hear Me? (written by Charlene James and Chris Chibnall), which finally added a bit of depth to Mandip Gill’s companion Yaz and featured a great old-school villain in Ian Gelder’s Zellin. While I’m not sure the mental health analogies quite tracked in the final act, gorgeous animation and moving performances pulled it through to be one of the better present day Whittaker-era episodes.
Stealth Cyberman story The Haunting of Villa Diodati (written by Maxine Alderton) came next, featuring a twist that must be one of the worst-kept secrets in Who history (spoiler alert – Frankenstein was partially inspired by a Cyberman!) but also delivering an atmospheric, entertaining story with some seriously great imagery. I didn’t know I needed a half-made Cyberman quoting Percy Shelley until I saw it onscreen, but by God I did need it.
Following on from this we head into the controversial two-part finale from showrunner Chris Chibnall. On balance, I think I found more to like in Ascension of the Cybermen, a story that finally centred Doctor Who’s eternally second-best race of cyborgs and included one of the best cold opens (the eye!) and mini-mysteries (who is Brendan?) in the series’ history.
In the finale itself, I didn’t have the same issues many did with The Timeless Children’s big canon rewrite – if anything, I think it adds some more mystery to the series – but I did feel the fairly static storytelling choices made the revelations land a little softer than I had hoped they might. If the Doctor’s confronting the crimes done to her on Gallifrey, why is there no-one for her to confront? To an extent, what is this episode except “the Master tells the Doctor what the series arc means”?
Still, I enjoyed watching it (Cyber Masters forever) and struggle to understand the controversy it has stirred up online. But maybe the finale reaction is characteristic of this series as a whole. It may be that I’ve just been more aware of it this year, but it certainly feels like positions on Doctor Who’s quality have become more polarised during series 12, especially on social media where things sometimes got pretty heated.
But perhaps this passion is part of what makes Doctor Who so special, and helps keep it alive even as ratings have slightly declined over the years. Even the fans who seem to hate Doctor Who love it really and just want it to be slightly different, to hit different beats, and will be the first to tune in again whenever the next series arrives.
From the looks of it, it’ll be a while before that happens – a festive episode is promised for the “end of the year” and series 13 won’t come until late 2021 at the earliest – so I’m sure the debate and digestion of these new episodes is only just beginning.
For now, though, I’m pretty optimistic about the future of Doctor Who. Series 12 felt like a big step up in terms of scale, characterisation and ambition, and made me feel excited about the show in a way I haven’t felt in years. No, not every episode was my favourite, but I got a lot more out of this year’s stories than series 11 and I’m genuinely intrigued to see where it all goes next.
In other words, yes, I’m still keen for a few more trips in the TARDIS. Now the wait begins…
Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks comes to BBC One in late 2020/early 2021