New Series Series Twelve


Chaos in Cardiff by Hugh Sturgess 21/6/21

I think it's become generally understood that serious production problems plagued Series 12. From the unexpected year-long gap after the move to ten episodes was justified (by Tom Spilsbury) as enabling a regular season every year, the abrupt departure of Millennium FX, the visibly unfinished nature of stories like Orphan 55 and Can You Hear Me? - all this points to issues with the production, if not at the level of the "Chibnall and Jodie fired!!!" fantasies of #NotMyDoctor YouTube, but severe enough to leave the series misshapen and misbegotten. It's hardly surprising, really. The show came close to disasters like this before - in 2005 and 2011, for instance. It was bound to happen eventually.

A lot of people seem to prefer Series 12 to Series 11, but I'm not one of them. The whiplash from the soft reboot of Series 11 to this lore-heavy nostalgia-fest inevitably invites theories that Chibnall was "correcting" from the perceived problems of his first year (even though it's hard to imagine he had the time to absorb criticism and change Series 12 accordingly). Another possibility is that the BBC forced the "recruitment year" on him before he had the freedom to do what he wanted from the start. Whatever the reason behind this hard pivot, it's a shame because Series 12 has dumped all that made Series 11 interesting and unique (replaced by bland RTD tribute acts) while keeping all that made it bad. The freshness of Series 11 that made even its weakest episodes intriguing is gone, but we still have thinly written companions with no narrative function beyond feeding the Doctor questions, trite moral lessons that fail to land, a scandalously misused lead actress and several spectacular lapses of tone and judgement to rival Kerblam!'s now-famous "the system isn't the problem" speech.

Series 12 also shows up the limits of Jodie Whittaker's take on the character of the Doctor. Like Smith in his last year, Whittaker has visibly run out of things to do with the part. She thrives on scenes where she's asked to be more than a happy-go-lucky adventurer or an exposition machine. Otherwise, she seems to struggle finding any nuance or depth in the material and instead tends to act like sheer enthusiasm will elevate it. That's a problem when one of the biggest parts of being the Doctor is doing exposition and racing around. That's unusual for a TV role, especially if you aren't a genre actor.

While the original flaw is definitely the writing, it's true that Whittaker isn't doing anything to really elevate it. I think her problem is that she is trying to faithfully communicate the emotional basis of writing that doesn't have any. So we have the goofy Doctor and then the moral-lecture Doctor and then the angry Doctor, but none of these depictions of the character link up and so hitting the right beats in those scenes doesn't really help. I think she would be better off playing against the script more often (the way Matt Smith would frequently do), which would do more to make the performance more consistent and layered. I think she's great in The Timeless Children, for instance, where she gets to play a character with a very clear emotional response to the situation that feels consistent. She's also very good in her Eiffel Tower confrontation with the Master in Spyfall.

I'm not one to say "the actors/writers must know the mythos" but I do wonder if Whittaker would have been wiser to have watched previous Doctors before recording Series 11. Smith (who as I understand it wasn't much of a fan beforehand) did that and was so taken by Troughton he based his entire performance around him. I think if Whittaker had had more of an idea of how past actors tackled the part she would have felt more comfortable playing against the script when necessary. She's a fine actor but is unusually dependent on good material.

"A traveller from an antique land": Spyfall

It's fast-moving and on first viewing covers most of its flaws, but it's just so bland and boring. This is a stew of potentially fascinating ideas at the intersection of Big Tech and surveillance/espionage, yet none of it coheres and it doesn't seem like Chibnall ever tried to make them. The Doctor allies with Ada Lovelace, an early computer theorist, and Noor Anayat Khan, a radio operator and spy, and yet neither of them contribute anything to the resolution of the plot. Their particular perspectives and skills aren't used for any purpose at all - indeed, they are barely even sketched in. Beyond expecting the reflected glory of "elevating" two "kickass women", why did Chibnall include them?

The scene of the companions discussing how little they know the Doctor is striking because we barely know them either. Lenny Henry is phoning it in as Barton, and once again Chibnall lets the baddie walk out of the story untouched.

The story has courted its fair share of controversy for the moment in which the Doctor switches off the Master's perception filter so the Nazis he is working with can see him for who he is - given she has previously described Sasha Dhawan's Master as "not exactly their Aryan archetype", the obvious implication is that they will see that he is Indian. While this is a perfectly reasonable thing for the Doctor to do within the reality of the series, it's a really bad decision by Chibnall. Quite simply, the first non-white Master should not have his race used against him by the Doctor in his first episode. Why make the Master a POC if he's just going to cop racism straightaway? So POC kids can imagine themselves also being subjected to racism?

That said, I find the scenes that follow the climax, wherein the Doctor wipes Ada and Noor's brains despite Ada begging her not too - and even wishes Noor "bon chance" when she knows she's about to die horribly in a concentration camp and won't do a thing to stop it - to be much worse. Noor at least accepts it, but there's something extra-creepy about that. Given that Noor, historically, is about to be arrested as a spy, tortured and executed, it's almost like she's giving tacit consent to the Doctor abandoning her to her fate.

It occurs to me that with the removal of the scene of Noor getting executed (absolutely the correct decision, of course), we are never told that she is about to be arrested as a spy, sent to a camp, tortured and executed. Instead, the Master is arrested as a spy and, it is strongly implied, sent to a camp and tortured. In other words, Noor's real-life fate to given to the Master instead. What possibly reason is there for this except to make us feel sorry for him? Why try to do that when the Dhawan Master is a two-dimensional blackhatted villain? Absolutely horrendous decision made for impossible-to-decipher reasons that speaks to an absolute moral bankruptcy of the program in the Chibnall era. Chibnall wants the show to be getting credit for saying Rosa Park was a hero and we should do something about climate change, yet gets the basics like the morals and ethics of its characters wrong.

And of course Spyfall begins the RTD tribute act by nuking Gallifrey again.

"That annihilated place": Orphan 55

It's not like the RTD and Moffat eras didn't have clangingly obvious social messages, from Aliens of London to Oxygen. What I think is the difference is that those episodes have something spontaneous to say about their chosen targets. Davies wants to make a bleakly comic point about the US and UK governments faking the justification for the Iraq War. Mathieson and Moffat are making a similarly grim point about capitalism treating the bottom line as more valuable that people's lives. You can disagree with the messages, but you can't deny they are genuine.

But the Chibnall message stories don't do that. Orphan 55 is trying to make a point about climate change and (one presumes) issues of intergenerational unfairness. But the lecture at the end amounts to "let's all get together and fix the problem". No one and nothing is blamed, and no solutions proposed. The recurring theme of children feeling abandoned by their parents in the episode doesn't really map onto climate change in any meaningful or forthright way. We're left only with a conclusion that we all need to recognise that climate change is bad - which amounts to a rhetorical dodge.

This pattern is repeated in Praxeus (plastic), Can You Hear Me? (mental illness) and even Rosa (racism). Each episode settles on a pat answer that amounts to "let's all agree that X is bad and we should all do our bit to oppose it". This makes them feel hollow and not a little cynical. One suspects that the subject matter was chosen purely for brownie points rather than any genuine conviction, which grates a lot more than a piece of TV that genuinely has something to say.

The defence I've heard of Orphan 55 is that it's good in itself to have an unequivocal statement of the importance of stopping climate change on primetime TV. I think that's a nonsense defence because who beyond the minority (particularly in the UK) who think climate change is a communist conspiracy would disagree with this speech? It offers no solutions or even suggestions beyond "billions of decisions and actions and people stepping up". OK, but what do those generic, contentless things mean? People stepping up how? To do what? They're platitudes and not even well-written platitudes. The contrast with the punch of "we're fighting the suits" in Oxygen is stark.

This is why the Chibnall episodes feel so calculated in their themes. They have nothing to say on their chosen topics beyond bromides like "people should listen to science and stop global warming" or "mental illness is bad, and there's no shame in asking for help". Both ungainsayably true but also what you'd get if you went to the phone book and asked (as the production team did for Can You Hear Me?) the first non-profit dedicated to the issue you found what their position was. It makes the episodes feel like a calculated play for cred from reviewers who feel bad slating an episode with such an inarguably correct position.

I think calling this "on the nose" is helpful. The episodes grab you and yell their messages at you, but the message amounts to "this is an important issue and we should do something about it". No one likes the person at a party who talks over everyone to give some incredibly trite and pat opinion on a topic.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair": Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror

I have so little to say about this episode. It's just dully competent in executing the 15-year-old formula of the Davies-era celebrity historical. But two things jump out at me:

  1. Nina Metivier is blatantly aware that most Tesla idolatry is based on misinformation, but this doesn't square with the "forgotten father of the modern world" angle and so the script implies a lot without being definitive: look at the way the Doctor doesn't actually say Tesla invented radio, merely that he had a patent for it. Most notable is the script's studious avoidance of describing what Wardenclyffe actually was - namely an effort to blast so much electricity into the atmosphere that anyone anywhere could call on limitless free wireless electricity - because that would show Tesla up as a crank rather than an overlooked genius. It's presented as being like WiFi, when it absolutely was not. It's bizarre that they decided to tell a story about a Great Man "forgotten" by history and needed to endlessly repeat lies about said Great Man to make him look impressive.
  2. Despite a polished script and three solid co-stars (I think Goran Visnjic is excellent as Tesla), it still has a lot of the problems with the Chibnall era: over-expository dialogue (see Yaz's "like it's scanning" line), the script still struggles to find a role for the companions other than comic relief and question-feeders, Whittaker still struggles to find any nuance to her character, and there's still bewildering moral logic like shooting an alien with a laser is bad but surrounding it in a ring of fire and then shooting its spaceship with electricity are fine.

A little bugbear I have about this episode is that Edison dismisses Graham by saying that Britain "never understood business". There's no way an American industrialist at the beginning of the 20th century, when Britain rules a world-spanning empire because it beat everyone to the industrial revolution and the world's largest creditor nation, would say Britain doesn't understand business. It's a neat way for a British writer to reassure British audiences that their country isn't nasty and cutthroat like America. I wonder if this is, like so much else in this era, a throwback to the RTD era. Compare it to Harriet Jones's line "he's not my boss, and he's certainly not turning this into a war" in The Christmas Invasion about the US president. They both position plucky little Britain as bullied by its nasty Atlantic overlord, which seemed so much more obtuse and self-satisfied in 2020 than it did in 2005.

"Whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command": Fugitive of the Judoon

The "chaos in Cardiff" is obvious with episodes Orphan 55 and Can You Hear Me?, but looking at Fugitive of the Judoon, there are all the signs here too.

Once you know all the twists, the awkwardness reveals itself. For instance, nothing disguises the fact that Jack's subplot is solely there to tease the finale and the companions just stand in a line listening to him (in the blogger GigaWho's memorable phrase) "groan about nanogenes in a Kermit voice". Then there's the weird coyness around the box containing Lee's medal. Yaz finds it and the Doctor realises it isn't from Earth - yet doesn't open it? It plays like a red herring, and we're meant to imagine something important inside, yet what exactly is the audience meant to be imagining is in it at this point? I've heard it suggested that we're meant to be expecting a chameleon arch fobwatch like in Human Nature, but we'd only expect that if we knew the fugitive was a Time Lord, and we basically only expect that once the box is open and we know it's only a dirty old medal. It reads like a script that didn't get that final draft to tidy it up. When it's a pivotal arc episode co-written by the showrunner, that's very remarkable.

The Ruth Doctor is great, of course, but no praise of her debut here should come without an acknowledgement of the indictment this presents of the actual current Doctor. If we hadn't had two years of a Doctor who won't stand up to bullies like Robertson, who gives lectures about how the system isn't the problem, who wipes people's minds against their will and conceitedly wishes good luck to people she knows will die, who spouts incoherent morals like killing a suffering creature is bad but locking dozens of them in an airtight room to suffocate is fine - if, in short, we'd had a Doctor who was like the Doctor, then we wouldn't be so impressed when the genuine article turns up.

This episode has one of the most egregious instances of the thirteenth Doctor's incoherent moral hypocrisy. She is appalled that the Ruth Doctor tricks Gat into firing the sabotaged rifle and killing herself - but this is a textbook move for the Doctor to pull. Thirteen herself did this exact trick on her first day on the job, when she tricked Tim Shaw into detonating the DNA bombs she'd transplanted into his gathering coil, causing them to rebound on himself. Inconsistent morality is fine - that makes the Doctor interesting, actually - but this is straight-up hypocrisy, and it's not clear at all that the story knows it. Again, that this episode shares an author with The Woman who Fell to Earth and doesn't see the contradiction is wild.

"What powerful but unrecorded race once dwelt": Praxeus

I quite like Praxeus - I like opening in media res on the TARDIS crew already scattered across the globe investigating. Like Jon Blum said at the time, it reminded me of the Virgin NAs. The bones of Praxeus feel like the RTD era. Ordinary people, rather than scientists in lab-coats or politicians, drawn together into the Doctor's world. Jake ends up saving the world because he was worried about his ex-husband. While many bits of Series 12 ape the lore of the Davies era, Praxeus genuinely feels like someone doing an homage the way (say) Kill the Moon is homaging the Hinchcliffe era.

The otherwise inexplicable Chibnall co-credit on this script points to it having serious problems in drafting stage. The episode plays like it got out of the writer's control and later edits never reined it back in. Take the whole subplot of the two bloggers, for instance. One blogger gets attacked by the birds and then, it seems, teleports to a nearby hospital in the middle of the night without waking her friend, and in the space of a few hours the hospital staff realise she's infectious and isolate her, but then the entire staff and patients all die from Praxeus (if they evacuated, then why no guards?). On one level, this is fridge logic, but it's painfully obvious that the initial mystery is abandoned as soon as Ryan calls the Doctor in.

There's also the broader sloppiness that Gabriella first meets Ryan and we have the (quite amusing) "you work out?" remark, but halfway through she gets paired with Yaz with whom she has no connection or rapport. Wouldn't it have made more sense to keep Ryan with Gabriella throughout?

Who exactly texts Jake asking him to come and rescue Adam? They are played as an obvious trap (written in all caps and include precise geographical coordinates) but why would the aliens try to capture Jake? Watching the episode, my only conclusion is that Adam really did send the texts after all, but how? He's dying of Praxeus while wired up to an alien machine - is he busily texting away complete with latitude and longitude while in captivity? The bit of machinery Yaz risks everything to steal, that the aliens are loath to destroy, never turns out to be important.

These feel like things that ended up not going anywhere as the script was rewritten but were never tidied up or deleted altogether. I guess the Peruvian scenes substantiate the claim that the episode is about how the whole world is connected (otherwise it's just Madagascar and Hong Kong), but they end up as mysteries without answers.

"The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed": Can You Hear Me?

Is any episode (apart from Orphan 55) more blatantly hacked about by production problems? Most obvious is the notorious moment the Doctor escapes from her shackles by twisting around a bit and the sonic screwdriver floats out of her pocket into her hands. I remain bewildered anyone thought that was fit for broadcast. I can only begin to wonder what production problems prevented Chibnall, the director and frankly even the cast from thinking up an alternative to whatever the script was going for. But there are script problems as well: note the way Tahira and the Aleppo segments have no connection to the rest of the plot beyond pure contrivance: Zellin beams the sound of the Chagaska's roar into the TARDIS, even though his lure is based on beaming images into Graham's mind separately. Note also the very obvious fashion in which the episode finishes because of random technobabble. It's also the third script with a Chibnall credit this season that has three unrelated global settings to create a false sense of scale, to the point that we should consider this his default filler the way sex comedy was for Moffat.

There's also a classic Chibnall-era duff line: "We immortals must have our games. The Eternals have their games, the Guardians their power struggles. To me this dimension is a beautiful board for a game." Game, game, game. Seriously, does no one read these scripts aloud before they're recorded? With all the duff lines of this era, I do wonder where the directors and actors are in all this. When an actor reads (to think of an obvious example) "you hate humanity, yet you are one", why doesn't she say "hey Chris, uhh this line's a bit weird, right?" You can't blame them for the writing itself, but it's also true no one is doing anything to elevate it.

This episode has received a bit of flack for the Doctor's brush-off in response to Graham airing his fears of his cancer recurring. The party line is that the thirteenth Doctor is deeply social anxious and just doesn't know how to handle the situation. In essence, we're being ableist by criticising her. I'm afraid I just can't buy that this Doctor is actually socially anxious. This is a Doctor who is, when she wants to be, acutely attuned to the emotional needs of her companion - in fact, that was one of her defining traits at the beginning of Series 11. She stares total strangers in the eye, as in Resolution, and tells them in front of other people that they let their son down by abandoning him. "Socially awkward", like so much in the Chibnall era, seems like a character trait we're told exists but are never really shown.

I think ending an episode about mental illness, which has the message that you shouldn't be afraid to reach out to other people for help, with someone doing just that to the Doctor herself and her doing a "whoopsie I'm just so awkward!" gag was a very poor decision.

"I am Great OZYMANDIAS, saith the stone": The Haunting of Villa Diodati

I find The Haunting of Villa Diodati to be a tough watch, but not for the usual reasons for Chibnall era. It's polished and elegant - Maxine Alderton uses the dance sequence to very stylishly convey exposition without it seeming laboured - with strong performances from the guest characters. Whittaker too gets good scenes with Byron and Ashad, managing to find an edge in her scenes with the latter that is so often lacking.

However, I find the murder of the maid so genuinely upsetting it taints my whole experience of the episode. It's so savage and brutal and made worse by the Doctor very very strongly implying that her death was regrettable but unimportant in comparison to that of Percy Shelley. It's an episode that feels nasty and sadistic.

It's another indictment of the Chibnall era that neither he nor Alderton were able to think up a better moral basis for the Doctor to hand over the Cyberium to Ashad than "But what would the world do without the poems of Percy Shelley?" Ryan is proposing letting Ashad tear the Cyberium out of terrified innocent man and the Doctor's angry response is that, basically, Percy isn't just any old terrified innocent man, he's the guy who wrote "Ozymandias"! Perhaps more than anything else in this era, it's this - this inability to conceive of any moral basis on which it's acceptable to save Percy's life beyond that he's a celebrity - that speaks to a genuine moral disaster the most.

"That colossal wreck": Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children

I doubt I will shock anyone when I say that I don't like the Timeless Child retcon. It's banally "mythic", repeating the "Chosen One" beats of almost any fantasy franchise with a side helping of the "magic child" cliche that most people will just compare to either Superman or Harry Potter. You can almost imagine Chibnall seeing it as a way to restore mystery to the Doctor's character and open up boundless new spaces in their past. It would be nice if this did either of those things. It paradoxically reduces the Doctor's mystery to invent a whole bunch of "secret" Doctors who, if Ruth is anything to go by, are all exactly like the other new series Doctors. Rather than letting us imagine the weird, tragic or shocking past of the Time Lord later known as the Doctor, the Timeless Child colonises it with yet more of the same. The Doctor has always been the Doctor, it seems.

Like all grand theories of canon, the explanation is never going to be as interesting as the mystery. The most obvious example is the Doctor's name: there's simply no way that any explanation of what their name is and why it's secret will be good enough to make up for destroying the mystery forever.

Does anyone really think that the Timeless Child improves the series in any way? "The Doctor is a magical child the Time Lords experimented on to perfect regeneration." What does that add to our understanding either of the Doctor or the Time Lords beyond a few more lines in their Wikipedia articles? We never needed a mythic "secret origin" to the Doctor to make them interesting. What does it add to the Doctor's relationship with the Time Lords to add this analogy for child abuse (yuck) to their shared history, but only after you've gone and blown them all up again so there's no one for the Doctor to react to? It's fake drama, and the episode knows it. It's almost laughable to me when the Master finishes giving the Doctor the tea on the Timeless Child and then says "I know you're broken" and the Doctor seems to share that view! You need to do a lot to convince us that the Doctor truly is demoralised beyond recovery, and I simply can't see what in the story of the Timeless Child that would do that.

Perhaps even more bewildering is the way this revelation is done: via an unbroken monologue by the Master while the Doctor just stands there looking horrified. This is beyond amateurish - purely for this Chibnall should be banned from professional contact with the English language.

The Timeless Children is a mess of an episode where the Timeless Child doesn't even play into the resolution at all and all the decisions are either made by the villains or a random old man named Ko Sharmus. And it manages to squeeze in examples of the two most annoying things about Chibnall Who: duff lines and warped morals. Graham gets an incredibly stupid, self-defeating line: "You said to the Doc that you thought she was the best person you'd ever met. But you know what, Yaz? I think you are." And the episode ends with the Doctor deciding not to blow up the Death Particle to wipe out the CyberMasters but seems fine with Ko Sharmus doing it for her. Quite what made Chibnall (for all our criticism of him a wildly successful TV writer) think that was a reasonable way to end the season is hard to decipher.

Series 12 might be more thrilling in places and be more entertaining to a diehard fan, but it also lacks the genuine newness and brilliance of Demons of the Punjab or It Takes You Away. It's a deep admission of defeat and a pitiful retreat back to the imagined greatness of the RTD era. In its own way, it's far more demoralising than Series 11 could ever be; it's the reassurance that no, this era of the show is not going anywhere.