Doctor Who: Series 11 Episodes 9 and 10 Reviewed; Series 11 Reconsidered

Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall's first season of Doctor Who has (pretty much) come to an end. Yes, we have the New Year's Day special coming in just over two weeks, which will surely act as a sort of second season finale, but for all intents and purposes this week's The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos wraps up series 11, closing its principle character arcs and bringing the first year of Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor full-circle. And what a year it has been for Doctor Who: between the groundbreaking debut of the first female Doctor and the soft-reboot brought by a new showrunner, this was the beloved series' best-rated season in several years. But how has it stacked up in the grand scheme of the long-running show? Jodie Whittaker has been resolutely fantastic, feeling unmistakably like The Doctor from her first episode, and giving us a perfect mix of familiar traits from past Doctors (a bit of Davison, a bit of Tennant, a bit of McGann, and occasionally still a dash of Capaldi) and new eccentricities and personality traits all her own. But for at least the first half of the season, she was without a doubt the best thing about it by a long shot. After a very good season premiere, the first few episodes – all scripted by new showrunner Chibnall – were intriguing, engaging, and full of great potential and ideas, but also rather uneven. The Ghost Monument and The Tsuranga Conundrum were both pretty solid, retro-feeling sci-fi yarns which built memorable worlds that were ultimately better than the macguffin-filled stories themselves. Rosa told a strong time-travel-paradox story with very relevant and powerful social commentary at its core, but some of its writing was a tad on-the-nose in a way that made its execution not quite as smart as it could have been. And Arachnids in the UK was pretty terrible, with a half-baked plot and one of the laziest Trump satires in current pop culture (I mean, he practically is a parody of himself, and Chibnall couldn't be any more clever than this?), all of which was about on par with the bad title that I can only assume was an awkward stretch of an Anarchy in the UK joke.

Most of these episodes were uneven for the same two core reasons. Firstly, introducing four brand-new characters all at once is a lot for the show to juggle. It struggled to give all four leads significant, characterization-building things to do in each episode, and in the process it spread itself a bit thin, and took longer than most seasons to make the new TARDIS team really feel established. Aside from brief, episode-or-two-at-a-time groupings like 10, Rose, Jackie, and Mickey or 11, Amy, Rory, and River Song, Doctor Who hasn't had a consistent, every-episode four-person TARDIS crew since Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Adric, and this is why: given the action-oriented nature of the show, it takes almost half the season for the large cast of characters to all start feeling like fleshed-out real people. All of them had clear, likable personalities, but it took way too long to really figure out what made them tick, and this is including The Doctor, who was often just as shortchanged in terms of substantial characterization as her companions. However, this probably was exacerbated by the second core reason: that Chris Chibnall is a very uneven writer, and he was trying to do so much with these first few episodes that he stretched himself in ways that were not always successful. Or perhaps he underestimated how much character drama we needed relative to the amount of sci-fi action, or tried too hard to keep things moving fast and fun to ease fans through the transition between eras or win over the naysayers who were skeptical of the first female Doctor (though it would have been a bolder move to not care whether those folks were put off or not). Either way, the first half of the season needed to slow down a little more and spend more time with its characters when they weren't running around.

However, Chibnall appears to be a stronger showrunner than he is a writer, as most of these issues resolved themselves at the season's halfway point. In addition to Whittaker being an excellent Doctor, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole have from the start made strong, likeable supporting characters, even if the scripts didn't always give them enough to work with. But around the midpoint of the season, as their characters became more defined, all three of them solidified into excellent companions, with Yasmin and Ryan's personal quarterlife struggles feeling believable, and Graham rather unexpectedly becoming the show's second heart (Gallifreyan anatomy pun intended) after The Doctor, with his mix of humor and sadness and his story arc of dealing with grief. The scripts also improved significantly... ironically once Chibnall stopped writing them every week. Demons of the Punjab was an absolute masterpiece: the best episode of the season and one of the best historical stories in years. Kerblam! was a fantastic mix of sci-fi thriller and snarky social satire with great art design and atmosphere, feeling a bit like a Black Mirror-inspired retelling of the Tom Baker-era classic The Robots of Death. The Witchfinders was another excellent historical, for the first time pitting the first female Doctor against historical misogyny in a very interesting way (to be honest, it would have been nice if the season had further explored how her new gender affects how different cultures treat her, but at least they did it well here), and bolstered by a top-notch performance by the great Alan Cumming. With that run of episodes series 11 made up for its early unevenness and then some, allowing it to go into its final two installments in top form.

It Takes You Away isn't entirely successful, and gets a little messy at times, but when it is good, it is very good, and stylistically it is something very new and different for the series. If this had been a two-part story with more time to develop its ideas and mythology it would have been pretty much perfect, but as it is there is a lot about it to love, even if it probably has too much going on for its own good. Stylistically and narratively it feels like a combination of a Christopher Nolan reality-bender and a modern high-concept-horror film like A Quiet Place or Hereditary. Beginning as the tale of a blind girl found locked in a seemingly-besieged cabin in the Norwegian fjords, the episode goes to places that you would definitely not expect from its opening minutes; places creepy, fantastical, and both. And it does it all with excellent art design that is among the season's most striking and surreal. It also gives some major, well-deserved attention to both Ryan and Graham's character arcs, as they both cope with grief and anger for family members gone. But ultimately this is a bit too big and ambitious a story for 49 minutes, and the script several times relies on plot devices or made-up-on-the-spot bits of mythology to justify itself, at least a couple times delivered in fairly clunky dumps of exposition. If this were a two-part story it could have introduced these elements in a more gradual way that would have felt less arbitrary and more earned, and the whole thing would work better; as it is, there are some moments where (more than usual for Doctor Who) you have to just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. But considering how strong the episode's strong points are, that isn't too hard to do.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, on the other hand, tells a grand-scale story that is perfectly fitted to 50 minutes. It is similarly epic in scope and big on ideas (with at least one major new thing to add to the show's lore), but it is told in a way that feels perfectly tuned to the length of the episode. Chris Chibnall returns to write this one – his first script since the first half of the season – and it is by far the best episode he wrote this year, and one of his best Doctor Who scripts period. This feels once again like Chibnall the writer/showrunner of the acclaimed first season of Broadchurch... not Chibnall the writer of Arachnids in the UK. This finale brings the season full-circle, back around to its premiere in both narrative and thematic senses, and it does it in fairly unexpected ways. A familiar foe returns, Graham and Ryan's grief and anger over the murder of Grace is once again at the emotional forefront, and both of these elements are delivered on in very satisfying ways that feel earned. But the plot surrounding those elements is something rather new, and it unfolds brilliantly in its own right as an effective blend of dark sci-fi and fantasy. This is a finale which often feels like a standalone adventure, but it works as both equally well; a rare quality indeed. Because it isn't one of those finales involving a conflict that has been built up across a season (or perhaps, let's be honest, because Steven Moffat isn't writing it), its stakes don't feel forced or absurdly high, but it still connects back enough to tie the season together into something more cohesive than the collection of standalone stories that it generally has been. It ends the season on a high note, and the way that it pulls some significant emotional threads together makes the whole of series 11 stronger.

Jodie Whittaker ends the season impressively, firmly anchored in the role of The Doctor. She inhabited the character wonderfully from episode one onward, but has nonetheless grown into the role as the season has gone on, despite having to sometimes contend with underwritten scripts that didn't give her quite enough to work with. After struggling to get enough characterization amid limited available screen time, the TARDIS team of Ryan, Yasmin, and Graham have coalesced into a very strong ensemble, and the chemistry both among themselves and with Whittaker has become wonderful to watch. His first season as showrunner may have gotten off to an underwhelming start amid underwritten scripts, but in the second half Chris Chibnall has proven himself to be a solid leader for the show. After these last few episodes, and especially this finale, I am very hopeful that the Whittaker/Chibnall era will go on to be a great one. Assuming it can run with this season's strengths, learn from the things it didn't quite get right, and bring back some of the stronger writers that were responsible for its finest moments, this finale left all the pieces in place for a fantastic series 12.

Overall score for episodes 9 and 10:

Overall score for series 11:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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