Making Up For Lost Time: Doctor Who: S12 E01-04 - Reviewed

After what has felt like a long time away, due to an extended between-season break, Doctor Who is finally back, with the season that will really establish what kind of era showrunner Chris Chibnall and star Jodie Whittaker's tenure is. Season 11 was a good but not great debut season for Whittaker's 13th Doctor. Whittaker herself was excellent from the start, and quickly found her footing and established her identity as a very strong Doctor. 

The season had some very good episodes, and at least a couple truly great ones, and the whole thing felt very evocative of the classic series, and particularly the excellent (and pretty underrated) 5th Doctor Peter Davison era. The three companions – Tosin Cole's Ryan, Mandip Gill's Yaz, and Bradley Walsh's Graham – eventually developed into really good characters, with Graham being the unlikely standout. But the problem with the season was that introducing four new characters all at once, while also trying to establish the tone of a new showrunner's era, was a bit too much; The Doctor, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan all got a bit shortchanged in the character-development department in various episodes in the season's first half, as the scripts would sometimes feel spread a little thin between such a large ensemble of newcomers. All of them got to be the dramatic focus of a couple episodes, and we eventually got deeper into all of their characters and motivations, but by the time we really got to know all of them, and they finally felt like the family unit that Chibnall was clearly trying to develop, the end of the season was starting to creep up pretty fast. As such, it could be said that season 11 was more of an establishing season, laying the groundwork for a new era of the show in a way that took a little while to get where it was going, but should let the series thrive now that it's there.

Of course, it would be a fair criticism to say that a better showrunner should have been able to develop all four characters a bit faster, and in a way that didn't leave some of them feeling neglected and underutilized in certain episodes; it must be admitted that Chris Chibnall has always been an uneven writer for Doctor Who and Torchwood, providing some excellent episodes but also some very mediocre ones, and the verdict might still be out on just how good a showrunner he actually is. His decision to fill season 11 entirely with single-episode monster-of-the-week stories, and not employ a larger season-long story arc, didn't help either: the slower pace of two-parters and the grander-scope possibilities of season-long arcs both provide great opportunities for characters to thrive and develop, and it was to its detriment that the season had neither. But still, season 11 came together by the end and finished very strongly, and delivered at least some great episodes along the way, lending credence to the theory that the large cast and new showrunner just needed time to properly establish themselves. Last year's New Year's special, Resolution, further supported this theory: right from the start of that episode, the four leads genuinely feel like a tight-nit family of well-developed characters, and that proved to be one of their best episodes yet, propelled largely by the strength of the chemistry between them. Now Whittaker and her three cohorts are going into their first season as an established and fully-developed TARDIS team, and can hit the ground running and build on all of that momentum and character-building. Season 12 has loads of potential behind it; the question is, can Chris Chibnall properly channel that potential into a season as good as these characters deserve?

Spyfall, Parts 1 and 2

The most striking thing about Spyfall, from very early on, is how directly and thoroughly it addresses and corrects for every one of the flaws I mentioned earlier from season 11. It feels very much like Chris Chibnall took an honest look back at the previous season during season 12's longer-than-usual development period, took note of where that season was lacking, as well as what it did well, and really let those lessons inform his writing. This is a very nearly perfect season premiere, and everything I could have hoped for. While it may have taken season 11 longer than I would have liked to build its family unit and find its voice, the investment pays off beautifully now: just as in Resolution, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz truly do feel like The Doctor's fam, as she is fond of calling them. They now feel like just as solid a TARDIS team as the 12th Doctor and Clara did in season 9, or as the 11th Doctor, Amy, and Rory did in seasons 5-7. The story itself is an absolutely fantastic example of everything that modern Doctor Who does really well: it's an alien conspiracy mystery, a rather action-packed sci-fi espionage thriller of the kind that recalls the best UNIT and Torchwood tales, it's a time-hopping historical story in its second half, and it's a great cat-and-mouse game between The Doctor and a classic archetypal enemy. I will not say who that enemy is, since BBC made the infuriating decision to spoil the reveal as loudly and unavoidably as possible on social media way too soon after the episode aired, and I'm not about to do the same, but suffice to say that I was very happy with how they handled it, and it felt like a good reveal (if one that could have used more explanation).

That Chris Chibnall initially wrote more for Torchwood than Doctor Who shows – in a good way – in Spyfall Part 1, which unfolds as a fairly action-packed invasion conspiracy thriller centered around a mysterious tech billionaire who is obviously an amalgamation of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. It is excellently paced, has some nice twists and turns, and gives each of the four main characters moments to shine. Plus, it also features a very fun guest-starring performance from none other than the great Stephen Fry. Then Spyfall Part 2 shifts gears to the story's time-travel cat-and-mouse mode, and proceeds to hop back and forth between the past and present, with events running in parallel in both times, in a way that the show rarely does, especially considering that it's a time-travel series. It handles the multiple-time-zones storytelling so well that it makes me really wish the show did that more.

This story arc also does something that season 11 was very much lacking: it sets up what looks to be a very interesting season-long story arc, which taps into the show's long-running Time Lord mythology, and looks as though it might flip it on its head (not to mention address one dangling plot thread from season 11). After two seasons of mostly monster-of-the-week stories, a return to an overarching-season-story format is a very welcome one, and any story that sets out to explore and expand upon the history and dark secrets of Gallifrey is immediately a fascinating one. Of course there will undoubtedly be fans who are upset that this arc appears to be really messing with the show's long-term mythology, with the door appearing to stand open for major plot points to be retconned. But this is hardly the first time this has happened: in addition to the twists and turns of Gallifreyan lore in the Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi years, the Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras both famously messed with the Time Lord mythos a lot, and turned established canon on its head in ways that were very controversial at the time. But now those eras are considered classic, and those changes to the mythos are now revered as established canon; all we're seeing here is the natural life-cycle of Doctor Who as a constantly-self-reinventing show coming around again, and fans would do well to relax and see how this arc plays out before getting too grumpy about it.

With Spyfall Chris Chibnall and his cast and crew have really come out swinging: this is possibly the best script that Chibnall has written for the show, and the four lead actors execute it excellently, despite being one of the larger TARDIS teams in the show's history. It is a great story; or rather two different types of great story joined into one ambitious whole. If this is the standard of writing that we can look forward to, then season 12 will easily make up for season 11's flaws and solidify the Jodie Whittaker era into a strong one for Doctor Who.

Orphan 55

Orphan 55 finds The Doctor and her fam in what starts out as decidedly familiar territory, before distinguishing itself with some interesting and topical themes. The set-up for the episode is basically a mash-up of two of Doctor Who's most well-worn, frequently-utilized plot concepts: the base-under-siege story, and the monster-on-the-loose action/adventure with lots of running down corridors. The premise built around those concepts also feels very familiar: the TARDIS team go to what is allegedly a luxury vacation spot, but soon find that the ostensible-paradise is quite dangerous, and has dark secrets. It's a premise that has been used multiple times throughout the original and new series (most obviously in The Leisure Hive for the original and Midnight for the new), and between that and the use of those time-honored formulas, Orphan 55 starts off with a certain sense of deja vu. However, this ultimately isn't too big a deal because the episode does it really well. At the beginning of the story the utopian atmosphere of the resort is certainly enough to draw the viewer in, and when the monster mayhem starts to break loose, the pacing is fast, aggressive, and exciting; once it kicks into gear, it really never lets up. The monsters themselves are very impressive: some truly nasty practical-effects beasts that give the episode a bit more of a horror-focused Aliens vibe. Ultimately I found myself not caring that it was rather formulaic and familiar, because it was so much fun.

But then as the episode goes on, it shakes up that formula with some revelations that make it very topical. The episode reveals itself to be about some decidedly present-day issues involving climate change and class division, and these themes bring a breath of fresh air to the somewhat recycled setup. The episode has a very valid, important message that is worth repeating, and it is very much in classic Doctor Who style to deliver such a message through a sci-fi/adventure lens. While there are a few moments that are a bit more on-the-nose than they need to be, I thought the themes were quite successful, and set the episode apart quite well from its familiar predecessors, making it more than just another monsters-on-the-loose/base-under-siege story.

Of course, this being 2020, there is a certain angry subset of fans over on the right who felt the need to rail against this episode as hard as possible, repeating the old talking points that “the liberal SJW agenda is ruining the show,” “why did they have to bring politics into it,” “the series never used to push messages like this,” etc. And I truly don't understand it; those complaints make me wonder if those people even watch the same show that I do. Because I'm here to tell you, as a lifelong Whovian who has continually watched a lot of classic Who since I was about 8 as well as the new series for the whole time it has been on... Doctor Who has always been a very progressive, liberal show. At the heart of the series there has always been a philosophy of humanism, and a preoccupation with social and environmental justice. Story arcs have dealt with environmentalism and climate change as far back as the late-60s and early-70s (The Ice Warriors and The Green Death, for starters), The Doctor has always fought fascists, bigots, and tyrants (The Daleks, introduced in episode 5 of season 1, explicitly represented Nazis, after all, and that story arc has a speech by companion Ian equating their worldview with the present day's racism), and while the classic series – especially its early years – certainly had an uneven track record in how well it wrote and treated its female leads, more than a few writers fought hard to bring feminism into the show (companions like Zoe Heriot, Liz Shaw, and Sarah-Jane Smith being good examples at their best-written). Not to mention that the first season of the new series gave us a queer recurring character at a time when LGBTQ rights still faced an uphill battle in mainstream politics, and the show has been very LGBTQ-friendly ever since. And of course, The Doctor has always given big, show-stopping speeches about his philosophy, going at least as far back as The Second Doctor's iconic speech in 1967's The Moonbase, in which he sums up his attitudes as “there are corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things, things that act against everything we believe in... and they must be fought.” For anyone to say that a “liberal, SJW agenda” has infiltrated and ruined Doctor Who simply shows that they fundamentally don't understand what this show has always (within the context of its time-period) been; same goes for the similar statements made against the current iterations of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, which likewise have both always been progressive, humanist shows that had very liberal attitudes for their day.

This isn't to say that there aren't fair complaints that can be made against Orphan 55; just that that isn't a legitimate complaint, since the episode's social attitude is very much in line with the attitude Doctor Who has always had. The writing can be clunky or too on-the-nose at times, there is a subplot involving a would-be romantic interest for Ryan that strains plausibility in how it plays out, and the episode does sometimes feel a bit too much like a “base-under-siege”-by-numbers story. In the end it is a good-but-not-great episode which nonetheless is a lot of fun to watch, and whose heart is in the right place. Even when I recognized that there were elements we've seen before in other stories going back decades, I had a great time with it because the action and the pacing is very well-executed, the art and creature design is great, and Jodie Whittaker really gets to shine with a few big classic-Doctor speeches. It's solid fun, but it probably won't go down as one of the season's best.

Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

I've always really enjoyed the historical episodes from Doctor Who, both those from the early classic series that were basically just straight historical dramas with a bit of a time-travel twist (The Crusade and The Reign of Terror are good examples), and the more recent ones that explore historical events or the personalities of historical figures through a genre-story setting (Vincent and the Doctor and Demons of the Punjab, for example, were my favorite episodes from their respective seasons). So right from the start I was very excited about this episode, and it did not disappoint – at least, not in terms of what I wanted from it. Former ER heartthrob Goran Visnjic guest-stars as Nikola Tesla, in the heat of his feud with Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister) in 1903, when he becomes the target of an apparent alien assassin, and The Doctor and fam must intervene. Again there are legitimate fan gripes about the episodes: the alien subplot feels a bit underbaked, and while my assumption due to the extreme similarity in mannerisms and design is that the scorpion-like aliens are meant to be a sister species of season 3's Racnoss, that this is never explicitly stated has caused some fans to instead feel that the baddies are just very derivative. Whether intended or not, the aliens definitely feel like the same threat from that David Tennant episode repeated, and the alien plot does indeed feel a tad perfunctory. But I think that is completely fine, as that is clearly not what the episode is really interested in, nor I for that matter.

The soul of this episode is all about exploring the tension between Tesla and Edison, the polar opposites of their two personalities, and why one got all the common-knowledge historical credit for inventing electricity while the other was mostly just known and revered by science geeks until Elon Musk named a car after him. Graham, Ryan, and Yaz all more or less fall into the common-knowledge, not-a-science-geek category of starting the episode thinking of Tesla as “that guy who the car is named after... but what exactly did he invent again?” while The Doctor is just about the most star-struck we've ever seen her in any historical episode. The episode's mission harkens back to the early days of the original series when the show was meant as a quasi-educational sci-fi show that would focus on history (a mission that changed quickly when The Daleks proved wildly popular): it wants to teach viewers more about who Tesla was, and correct the common misconceptions about who really deserves to be celebrated as the father of electricity.

The episode portrays Tesla as a visionary dreamer; a poor immigrant who wanted to change the world and benefit humanity with science, possessing a brilliance that was years ahead of his time, but lacking the business sense to sell that brilliance in the cutthroat world of America's gilded age. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, is portrayed as a greedy, self-aggrandizing, rather unscrupulous jerk who is very much a business mogul first and an inventor second. By all accounts their portrayals in this episode are very accurate (Edison certainly was guilty of scientific espionage against Tesla, and was notorious for taking credit for inventions actually made by other scientists in his employ), and if you take out the aliens this episode is pretty solidly-grounded historical fiction. Both actors are great in their respective parts, with Visnjic in particular making an excellent Tesla, coming off as inspiring and charming when his knowledge that he is (unless The Doctor's around) the smartest person in the room could easily have come off as arrogant in the hands of the wrong actor. While the alien threat itself may be a tad disposable, seeing these two opposite personalities, who were real-life rivals, have to begrudgingly work together to stop it is an absolute joy.

Spyfall remains my favorite of the season so far overall, but Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror is a very good episode, especially for those who love the historical episodes. I may not yet be entirely sold on Chris Chibnall as a showrunner – that will rather depend on how well this season comes together as a whole – but I will say that his era has been very good about delivering great historical episodes, which I think is worth a lot, since time-travel stories to the past are both rarer and arguably harder to execute well than time-travel stories to the future. Of course, we have not yet seen anything else connecting to the overarching story set up by Spyfall, which is something I am eagerly awaiting. Perhaps we will see a bit more of that in the two-parter that begins this weekend, featuring the return of the Judoon.

Stay tuned – now that we're caught up with the season so far, regular reviews of each week's episodes will follow on a more consistent basis, as well as some other Doctor Who reviews and articles related to the current classic-series blu-ray line!

Score for season 12 so far:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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