Janine Rivers (@janinemrivers on Twitter) is a writer, script editor, and musician. She spends her days working in a library, and is the head-writer and editor behind her passion project, The Twelfth Doctor Adventures. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
Header picture by Esterath (@finlay_hs)
It’s hard to believe that we’ve already reached the end of Jodie Whittaker’s first series of Doctor Who. When we started this column back with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, we didn’t even know half the episode titles — and now, wherever you look, fans are organising their rankings and making predictions for Series Twelve. The nights have drawn in, too, and a decidedly Doctor Who-less Christmas approaches (unless you’re planning to catch the Twelfth Doctor Adventures Christmas Special).
With the show back on New Year and then off air until 2020, it seems increasingly likely that the New Year Special will be either a thematic summation of, or response to, Series Eleven, rather than the start of something new. But for logistical reasons, we’re going to do the series wrap-up in this post, discussing both the finale on its own terms, and our thoughts on the series as a whole — then we’ll be back for a final post in the New Year, to see whether the special has met our expectations and/or alleviated our concerns.
For this post, I’m going to be joined by a selection of this year’s guests to discuss various aspects of “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” and Series Eleven as a whole, from the characters and villains to the political complexities of the show and its new PR strategies. So buckle up, and prepare yourselves for the trip of a lifetime…
Ruth Long (@UndiscoveredAdv on Twitter) is a writer, amateur graphic designer, and animal lover, best-known as the co-lead writer of Clara Oswald: The Untold Adventures, a fan-written project following the character of Clara after the events of Hell Bent (the trailer for which is now available on Twitter). You can also catch her on the odd Who podcast, writing meta, or waffling about this, that, or the other on forums. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi (and if she’s being really cheeky, Jenna Coleman).
Janine: When we last spoke during the “Rosa” roundtable, Ruth, I remarked that Thirteen’s definitive trait was her honesty: “She’s got a lot of Ten and Eleven’s mannerisms, but those Doctors could both be pretty devious. Thirteen is honest to a fault”. As the credits rolled to “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, I found myself disagreeing with that assessment. Thirteen tells her companions, in this episode, that she feels has to lay down the rules for newbies — even though those rules are seemingly arbitrary and ever-changing. So there’s something inaccurate about her moral instruction, for starters, that she’s half-conscious of. But the careful omissions of details about her past chip away even further at her honesty. Despite scolding Graham for seeking revenge on Tim Shaw, she never once mentions the fact that she fought in a far greater war, that she has taken lives, that sometimes it has been necessary to use violence against her enemies. Whilst she doesn’t seem to openly lie all that often, Thirteen doesn’t seem to say very much.
Which leaves me wondering what her defining trait is. And to an extent, I have to wonder if it’s her pacifism. Her strict abidance to the law of non-intervention, her anti-gun policy, her opposition to revenge as a motive…
Ruth: Now that is a very interesting point. When I last joined you in discussing Rosa, Thirteen was still a Doctor we were only just getting to know. And in hindsight, with the context of the entire series (minus the New Years special), I can now say that I disagree with that statement as well. The thing is, I remain unsure of where the character lies (pun intended). Certainly on the surface she seems to present herself with an emotional honesty not seen to this extent in previous incarnations, and I’d be otherwise inclined to describe her as earnest and sincere, but as you’ve pointed out, there comes a point where that manner she shows to the world (and indeed the viewer) starts to feel disingenuous in certain situations, where her moral standing and sanguine demeanour veers into questionable or hypocritical.
There are a lot of fascinating potential complexities to unpack here: Is she in denial? Does she reprimand Graham, for example, out of personal experience, because she knows full well where that path leads? Is she projecting, directing her words at herself as much as him? Does she conceal these darker aspects of herself lest it taint her friends’ perception of her? Is there a sense of the Doctor’s protective, paternalistic tendencies in wanting to protect her companion’s innocence? Is her leaning towards non-intervention born of a desire to somehow atone for mistakes she has made in the past where she has gotten people hurt, where the ripples she has created have led to colossal tidal waves?
The problem is, I can’t work out whether the series believes these to be genuine character flaws and layers, or whether we are simply supposed to accept that the Doctor is in the right on these matters. There is evidence to lend to some of the aforementioned ideas: her downplaying her role in what I believe was a war record – ‘The Book of Celebrants’ – in front of Yaz, Ryan and Graham in “The Tsuranga Conundrum” comes to mind, as does the fact that in the scene where she is at her most ruthless during “Rosa”, she has sought out her enemy – Krasko – alone, so her companions don’t get to see her in that light. “The Witch Finders” also has a prominent theme of people denying the darkness in themselves, and King James suggests that the Doctor hides behind her title. But strangely, the framing of the narrative for the most part appears to be indifferent towards or even at worst actively against us making such readings of the character.
For one, as you say, Thirteen talks a lot but says very little about herself; this in itself is a consistent trait of the Doctor’s, but it’s been turned up to thirteen, as it were, with this incarnation. We haven’t yet seen her mention that she is a Time Lord onscreen as an obvious example, but more telling, I think, is the lack of her ever revealing to her friends – particularly Graham – that she has or has lost a wife herself (on multiple occasions, no less!). That feels like an especially pertinent issue on which she could empathise with Graham, and the absence of any reference to it, especially in “It Takes You Away” (which features two deceased wives as a pivotal emotional thread) and the finale feels all the more conspicuous. I understand their reluctance to dwell too much on the past in their new vision for Doctor Who, and don’t wish to get hung up on this detail, but I do find it to be somewhat emblematic of us not really getting much insight at all into the Doctor’s interiority.
Another, and even more important, element in the framing of this Doctor is conflict, or rather, the lack thereof. But this is something I’ll go into shortly, as it pertains to the other lead characters and their relationships.
Janine: Equally, the Doctor’s been a grandfather! A widower and grandfather — two points on which the Doctor should be able to relate to Graham and offer advice. But she refrains from doing so. And it’s interesting, because those references would be easy enough to make. There’s that very well-known scene in “Fear Her” where the Doctor mentions off-hand that he used to be a father, and say what you like about the episode, it’s a brilliant beat — right at the height of the Doctor/Rose relationship/romance, he just comes out with something that makes Rose, and the viewer, painfully aware that however close they are, she’ll never really be able to grasp the centuries of love and pain that the Doctor can call his life. But we see nothing like that from Thirteen. No “My wife used to say…”, no “I know the pain of missing the woman [or even person] you love”, no “being a grandparent is many things, Graham, but it’s never easy — trust me, I know”. References that would have been delightful, easy, and surely obvious. Their absence feels calculated.
Ruth: Indeed, they do feel like intentional omissions, which leads me to wonder why this aspect of the Thirteenth Doctor isn’t really drawn attention to, or many of her flaws at all for that matter: at least by her companions beyond the odd passing interaction. There’s never a scene like the one at the end of “Gridlock”, where Martha has had enough of the Doctor being vague and dishonest with her, so she pulls up a chair and refuses to shift until she gets some answers (“All right, are you staying?” “Til you talk to me properly, yes.”). Because that’s just it, we can’t examine these facets of a character (and this applies to all of our leads) unless there is conflict – however major or minor – that allows the story to draw them into focus, and moments dedicated to exploring their reactions to that conflict; i.e. emotional consequences. I don’t recall Yaz, Ryan and Graham ever truly challenging the Doctor, and in turn the Doctor isn’t prompted to self-examine or share. There is rarely enough internal and interpersonal conflict in any significant sense for us to test the character and discover whether there is more going on than what we see on the surface, and I certainly like to think – and sincerely hope – that there is far more to this Doctor than that – Rosa I feel was the most dynamic and complex we’ve seen Thirteen as acknowledged in the narrative, and I’m desperate to see more of that going forward.
This isn’t to say of course that there are aren’t occasions where the Doctor is critiqued in the series; as mentioned before we see it in the confrontation between her and King James in “The Witch Finders” (that episode in general is one of the few where Doctor’s passivity is addressed and risen above – to great effect), or when Astos calls her out for being selfish in her thinking during “The Tsuranga Conundrum”. But these incidences are generally quite sparing, or else – as is the case in the finale where Tim Shaw monologues at length about her failings – we get little insight into the Doctor’s feelings on them, and the actions she takes as a direct response (compare that to Nine in “Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, where it’s made clear he feels responsible for the fate of the Game Station and the rise of a new Dalek superpower, and spends that whole story trying to make things right). And crucially, this critique doesn’t really come from the other leads; they’ll sometimes come out with a comment or two, but that’s more or less the extent of it. Where this starts to become genuinely problematic is when these sides to the Doctor and her approach aren’t addressed as being dubious when they evidently are… *side-eyes the Kerblam! man standing in the corner* because when even the Doctor’s friends have nothing to say about it, we’re left to conclude that the narrative doesn’t feel these are issues worth remarking upon, or issues full stop (or else Yaz, Ryan and Graham are just far too indulgent of the Doctor).
Janine: Of course, we do get conflict in this episode — conflict between the Doctor and Graham, when Graham confides in Thirteen that he’s going to kill Tim Shaw. Which is a great place to launch a discussion into Graham, I think, because it gives me the opportunity to raise a new perspective: though I agree with the broad strokes of her review (and found it an absolute pleasure to read for its sheer brutality), I don’t agree with Dr. Sandifer’s assessment that Graham is a “white manpain” character in “Battle”. Because, here’s the thing, Thirteen and Ryan both basically lampshade the fridging/manpain tropes fairly early on, and Graham responds to Ryan with the killer objection that Grace would have wanted him to kill Tim Shaw. Which is absolutely a fair response — the typically problematic fridging narrative is of the white man who goes after the character that butchered his pretty, innocent, gentle little female love interest. Whereas Grace, as Graham points out, was a strong woman and would have gone after Tim Shaw herself. So this isn’t a revenge plot where all-consuming grief undermines the wishes of the deceased… it’s literally Graham trying to make Grace proud by finishing the job she would have completed herself. And it’s an objection we never see addressed. Graham ultimately chooses to let Tim Shaw live, for the reason that he doesn’t want to break the team up. In other words… because Thirteen has laid down a sanction, and Graham abides by the sanction. There’s no moral conviction behind his actions. He’s manipulated into putting down his gun by an ironically militantly pacifist Doctor who has emotionally blackmailed him into finding non-violent (but still pretty severe) punishments.
Ruth: Although I remain disappointed with the decision to kill off Grace in order to fuel the emotional arcs for Graham and Ryan (arguably the only characters in this TARDIS team that get noticeable arcs in Series 11), I believe they’ve handled the aftermath about as well as they probably could have, short of pulling a Steven Moffat and totally turning the trope on its head (alas). There has been a lot of emphasis on honouring Grace’s memory, using her legacy to guide the characters’ own actions and attitudes, and the moments where she is referenced (or even makes an appearance), have been some of the most impactful and moving in the whole series. The way that the finale manages to – to some extent – subvert the typical revenge motive by making the argument that it is an action Grace would have approved of works as an extension of that theme (“Your Nan might have been kind, but she is was also tougher than you and me put together”).
But I would argue that the primary catalyst for Graham’s change of heart is Ryan, not the Doctor, who fails to dissuade him from his plan with their initial butting of heads. Because Ryan counters this position of Graham’s by positing that being “the better man” is the best way to do right by Grace, not resorting to lethal violence, hence Graham repeating Ryan – and Grace’s – words to Tim Shaw when the moment arrives as he decides not to go through with killing him. It’s intended, I think, to be a part of showing how far Graham and Ryan’s relationship has come. However, it doesn’t change that, as you say, the two opposing moral stances aren’t given equal weight and scrutiny (after all, Graham is ultimately framed to be in the wrong here), and this conflict, such as it is, is as swiftly and neatly resolved as it is introduced, with – once again – a dearth of emotional consequences. We get all of one scene where the Doctor and Graham disagree on the matter, which amounts to little more than a stern reprimand: we don’t get a scene where the two characters properly argue, and this division between them isn’t carried through the story, because they’re split up for the rest of the plot. Upon rewatching, I actually think they’re trying to play the fault with Graham’s plan as it being selfish and reckless (i.e. go up against this powerful being and you won’t stand a chance), but it’s muddied by all of these other counterpoints; it’ll make Graham a bad person, it’ll break up the group, it’s against the Doctor’s (self-professed ‘always-changing’) rules.
This thread in the finale is so ethically muddled, because Thirteen is being manipulative (another common Doctor flaw), and the idea that killing the genocidal mass murderer makes you as bad as him is ridiculous, but I’m not sure the story considers these issues to be so, because there’s no true payoff for either of them. Yes, Tim Shaw essentially declares that the Doctor not killing him is what lead to all this death and destruction, and he really hammers that point home, but because we don’t really see the characters discuss this (to be fair Graham does point it out, but not with the Doctor) or get much of a look-in to how the Doctor feels on the subject, it just comes across as a cliché villain speech. I don’t want to dissect the morals of this series too much as I know you’re going to be covering those areas later on, but it strikes me as having quite a… superficial and reductive approach to morality at times. Not that this is applicable to every episode in Series 11, but it often feels like there’s little room afforded to examine the nuances involved, which also ends up leaving things feeling inconsistent (we didn’t see Thirteen object to Epso and Angstrom being named joint winners as a direct result of the former threatening to hunt down and kill Ilin in “The Ghost Monument”, for example).
I love many aspects of Series 11, and don’t wish to create the impression that I’ve disliked it, because the reality is quite the opposite, but it does frustrate me greatly, especially on a character level. You have such lovable leads brimming with potential in Thirteen, Yaz, Ryan and Graham, portrayed by a hugely talented cast, yet the show almost seems to be afraid to challenge them, to push them beyond the realm of amiable and endearing. It’s as if their desire to make the Doctor and her friends as likable as possible is at odds with painting them with richness and depth, but the two aren’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I can’t help but feel like there’s bit of a dissonance between intent and execution occurring to exacerbate this as well: I keep noticing flashes of what they’re going for with these characters, it’s just that the series doesn’t always give us enough to work with in the text itself. Graham has had many moments of pathos, and the development of his relationship with Ryan has been a definite highlight, but outside of that I’m personally left wanting, because I don’t think these characters have been explored and developed nearly as much as they could have. And nowhere is this more evident than with poor Yaz.
In Yazmin Khan, we have all the makings of a wonderful heroine. We know that she longs for more from her life, that she’s ambitious, astute, determined, considerate and supportive. She hates being underestimated, can find her family too much at times, and admires the Doctor deeply, being her greatest champion and confidant. In many respects she is the quintessential companion, following in the footsteps of adventurous women enamoured with the Doctor and their world like Rose, Donna and Clara. Which is why it’s an immense shame that for the most part, Yaz’s role in Series 11 has been relegated to assisting the Doctor alongside the odd bit of bonding with other characters; usually for the benefit of fleshing them out over her. You could do a hell of a lot with the concept of Yaz being the one who Thirteen most frequently confides in, who looks up to the Doctor to the extent that she trusts her wholeheartedly and is perhaps blind to some of her friend’s flaws and the dangers of travelling with her as a result. We could see their relationship grow into something complex and beautiful, one of two women with kindred spirits, who become ever closer as the series progresses. You could also explore the fallout from that: is Yaz’s idolising of the Doctor healthy? Does it make her put her own life at risk? Does it affect her home life and job? How does the Doctor herself feel about this?
There’s absolutely the opportunity to present a new, interesting spin on Rose and Nine’s relationship in Series 1, or Amy and Eleven’s in Series 5, or something entirely new. You could even use Graham and Ryan having more sceptical approaches to form an interesting division/contrast within the group (indeed, I believe that was supposed to be the case going by the pre-series interviews, but we come back to the intent vs execution problem again). And that’s only one of the many avenues they could pursue with Yaz’s character and this relationship, including exploring a romantic bond between her and Thirteen. But instead Yaz becomes the receptacle of exposition, the asker of questions and the source of encouragement for other, more developed characters. And that sucks, because she deserves better than that. Of course, not every Doctor/companion dynamic needs to be the explosive volcano that was Twelve and Clara, not every companion needs to be the array of complex internal struggles that was Amy Pond. And it’s not as if there’s nothing to Yaz’s character (I would contest anyone who calls her a ‘cardboard cut-out’ – that criticism seriously rankles): thanks to Mandip’s brilliant performance and what little we do get in the text of the series we have at least an idea of who this woman is, but as Yaz herself says in her very first scene: she’s capable of so much more.
Janine: Very well said. And I think there’s a great opportunity, furthermore, to really use Yaz as a chance to explore Thirteen’s morality. She is, as I’ll go on to discuss in one of the further sections, very much an advocate of ‘deontological’ rule-based morality, honouring the laws of time, swearing against certain actions (i.e. using guns) on account of their inherent ‘wrongness’. Which gives you a nice way into understanding why Yaz’s idolisation of her could be so dangerous: as a police officer, she’s susceptible to unquestioningly laying down the law regardless of the circumstances. So the idolisation makes sense, and could be worrying. But despite those promises, we just haven’t really seen it — nor have we seen, as was suggested at the start of the series, Ryan challenging the Doctor (other than in “The Ghost Monument”). And like you, I wish we got to see those moments, because companions are so much more interesting for their flaws. Just look at Clara!
Ruth: Exactly, and it’s not that any of them have to be flawed to the degree that Clara was, or that they’re lacking in flaws. When I speak of conflict and depth, I’m not necessarily thinking of high-flung arguments or trauma or turmoil: this series isn’t about those things, and it doesn’t need to be, in fact it’s a refreshing change of tone after the Capaldi era. Though I’ve found, for instance, that we haven’t really gotten any of the classic ‘hero’ moments we usually see with companions. They all help the Doctor save the day, but there aren’t many situations where it can be said they’ve had to step up and prove themselves against the odds independently, where they define their values, and I think that’s because they’re just not tested on a level where that sort of deep character can be showcased. It could simply be the product of a different storytelling approach, but it’s one that I don’t think facilitates the same kind of profound character revelation and progression.
Something I’ve also picked up on is that there isn’t a whole lot of intimacy between these characters; no hugs, not much in the way of tenderness or acts of affection that demonstrate the connections they share (the last scene of “Arachnids in the UK” did have that and it was beautiful, likewise the look between Thirteen and Yaz at the end of “Kerblam!”; I just wish there were more of it). True enough, this is in-character Graham and Ryan, who are more closed-off, but the closest we get to genuine emotional catharsis comes in the scenes between them (or with Grace), whereas the TARDIS team as a whole unit appears content to remain comfortably within the domain of ‘friendly group of people who all get along well and support one another’. And that’s not a bad thing in itself, but as we’ve discussed even in the most amicable of relationships there still needs to be conflict that forges these bonds and engenders change: the lifeblood of storytelling and of Doctor Who. There’s an odd air of restraint to proceedings here that has me longing for more, because right now (especially outside of Graham and Ryan) it honestly feels more like we’re told they’re a family who have undergone this immense journey rather than shown it.
I’d like to come back to your first point about the defining trait of the Thirteenth Doctor. It’s hard to reduce any character in Doctor Who to one singular attribute, but over the course of this discussion, re-watching some of the episodes and reading various think pieces on the series (both positive and more critical), I think I know what Series 11 wants it to be, and what it actually reads as in the text: Hope. That’s how this Doctor was summarised in the lead-up to the new era, “a beacon of hope.” But you know what I feel we ended up getting? The aesthetic of hope: the hope of warm words and attitudes. It’s a kind of hope ingrained within the conservative throughline of the series: the status quo cannot be or should not be altered in any fundamental capacity, evil will persist and injustice continue to exist, and we must cling to our faith, optimism and core values in the face of it. I’ve seen a number of redemptive interpretations that discuss how exploring Thirteen’s relative powerlessness and helplessness against different forces is a bold new take on the character, but quite frankly, that this is the message of the first female Doctor, especially in the global and sociopolitical climate of today, breaks my heart.
It’s not there isn’t merit in tackling the concept. With episodes such as Demons of the Punjab and Rosa, it’s an approach that works because those stories are dealing with established real world history, and it’s important to acknowledge the value in empathising, bearing witness and sharing those legacies. But passive hope as a mission statement for the character? That’s not the hope of the Doctor. It’s not a radical, passionate hope, one that demands better, that brings about true change. Nor is it the hope of escapism and fantasy, where tears can alter the course of a war or bring life in the wake of death, where an alien with two hearts who travels the universe in a blue box that’s bigger in the inside can fight the battles we aren’t always able to. It is instead resigned to the tether of circumstance, and doesn’t dare to dream, believe in or fight for more. And it’s this sense of reservation, this reluctance towards rocking the boat that permeates this series and this TARDIS team, from their emotional expression to their development to their interiority to their relationships, that is in my opinion their greatest weakness, and what holds them back from being the vibrant, complex, compelling and rewarding characters they could be.
Mark Laherty (@MarkLoafers on Twitter) is a media critic who can usually be found on Virtual Citizens. He is not married, has no children, and does not live in Surrey. His favourite Doctor is Clara Oswald.
Janine: We’re now officially allowed to discuss the unlikely return of the show’s greatest adversary. Apparently. Though, let’s be clear, I think everyone expected (and feared) the return of Tim Shaw of the Stenza.
I’m slightly perplexed by why Chibnall thought this would be worth keeping secret. It makes a degree of sense to bring back the antagonist of the first episode as a way of showing how the team has grown (or rather, hasn’t grown at all) since their first encounter with him, but that’s the sort of statement that doesn’t require layers and layers of secrecy. So I was genuinely beginning to suspect that in the last ten minutes, we’d discover that the Stenza were either slaves, allies, or enemies of the Daleks. As it happens, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” is literally a Tim Shaw runaround. That’s it.
Mark: I share your disappointment with Tim Shaw – and really, it’s just Tim Shaw rather than the Stenza. Partway interesting hints of the Stenza’s wider reign of terror in “The Ghost Monument” are here abandoned in favour of good old Tim.
The thing is, I could rabbit on all day about how Tim Shaw is rubbish and terribly dull, but I think everyone already knows that from watching it so I don’t need to explain it. So, let’s try to unpack what his deal is in this episode.
James Wylder wrote about how Tim functions as a sort of cracked, dark mirror of the Doctor – not as obvious a mirror metaphor as last week but I agree with his case. When the Doctor comes face to face properly with Tim again, he’s crouched in the centre of a sort of circular stage, surrounded by sci-fi-looking columns. Comparisons have been drawn to Darth Vader but it also works as a sort of anti-TARDIS. If Tim Shaw’s toothy escapades are to be understood as him physically assimilating his defeated enemies into himself, then the anti-TARDIS can be taken as him assimilating the Doctor as part of his revenge quest – mimicking her tactics.
But, to pull back from thematic analysis for a moment, this smacks of missed dramatic potential. If Tim is a dark mirror of the Doctor, why doesn’t it highlight some lack or flaw in the Doctor? The reason, of course, is that Thirteen (according to the narrative) has no substantial flaw because it hasn’t given her an arc. This sort of makes sense – it’s the first season of a female Doctor, let her run around and be unambiguously heroic – but it’s another manifestation of how Thirteen thus far has been relatively shallow. Of course, I’d have to qualify that by saying that Tim is clearly meant to be a simple parallel to Graham, since they’re both out for revenge.
Janine: I like that reading a lot — I think it resonates with the growth we’re supposed to have seen in the leads this series, which also explains, to some degree, why we’re not seeing any reflected flaws. Tim Shaw, like the Doctor, whisks ordinary human beings away, on a whim, to a distant corner of the universe. But the difference is that whilst he preserves them in chambers where they will rot, powerlessly, the Doctor lets her “friends” grow into strong, responsible, spiritually-fulfilled citizens of the universe. (I certainly don’t think that’s what has happened, but it’s what we’re meant to think has happened.)
Mark: Yes, exactly. Another aspect in which Tim is (supposed to be) an anti-Doctor is this religion angle. I have to start by saying that I was totally unimpressed by how this was handled. It wasn’t outright offensive as such but… well, as El Sandifier said, “a LITERAL cross jfc”. But! Let’s give it a look-in all the same.
The idea here seems to be that Tim Shaw is an example of what a god or religion shouldn’t be – taking advantage of his followers and inflicting pain on them for his own selfish ends. Meanwhile, the Ux are an example of a self-defeating way to practice religion. Delph, who is being most egregiously and physically taken advantage of, objects to his treatment but no one will help him. Andinio is complicit in Tim’s evil-doings not out of malice on her part but due to her blind faith.
This contrasts with the Doctor as a positive Messiah figure, something that the show has done before and is doing again. As a reading of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, it’s loose but applies in light of this finale. A hero falls from the heavens, enlists followers in the quest of driving out evil, and nurtures those followers.
The Tenth Doctor had several memorable moments of being made into a Messiah. In “The Sound of Drums”, the day is saved because the whole world literally prays to the Doctor – the Master even scoffs, “Prayer?!” And then there’s that famous shot in “Voyage of the Damned”, aired on Christmas Day no less…
The idea that the Doctor ought to be treated as a Messianic figure was, I would put forward, attacked during the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor eras. In “The Witch’s Familiar”, Davros (apparently) offers the Twelfth Doctor the opportunity to kill all the Daleks in one fell swoop, saying “Are you ready to become a god?”. And the Twelfth Doctor (and the audience is expected to agree with him) rejects this, saying that taking the role of a god in order to use godlike wrath and strike down a great number of his foes would be bad. That’s not what the Doctor should be, we’re told, and it’s not what the show should be. This is a clear callback to “Day of the Moon”, where the Eleventh Doctor takes a decent swing at genocide, that time taking aim at the Silence.
In a way, it’s a shame to see the show moving back toward the idea of framing the Doctor as a positive Messianic figure when the deconstruction was so much more interesting. But, given Thirteen’s saccharine non-interventionist bent, we probably won’t see any godlike wrath anytime soon.
Lastly, I want to touch on the Juno Dawson New Series Adventure, “The Good Doctor”. You could make a strong argument that NSAs aren’t the highest form of canon but it links in so well that it seems silly not to mention it. Those who have read the book will remember that the TARDIS Team return to the planet of Lobos, which they had saved from civil war mere minutes ago from their perspective. But, the TARDIS lands decades down the line and they find an oppressive religious state has risen up – with Graham as the Messiah. The joke here, the idea that carries the whole story, is that the Doctor was the one who saved the day but Graham is the one who got the credit because, as records got jumbled, people assumed the Messiah was the man. Through the villainous priest Mykados, we see an entertainingly unsubtle condemnation of all the ways that religion can be destructive and evil – plus some wink-wink-nudge-nudge satire about the casting of a female Doctor.
Now that “Battle” has come out, “The Good Doctor” fits much more strongly into the season’s overall thematic construct.
Janine: That’s absolutely fascinating. So you think, essentially, that the finale shows us two versions of godhood — the Doctor, who nurtures her followers and fights evil with them; and Tim Shaw, who lies about the extent of his power and treats planets like novelty trading cards? It’s a great reading, and it says a lot about how the Chibnall era is already differing from the Moffat era. I don’t think Moffat would have wanted to believe that you can have benevolent gods — he deliberately strips the Doctor down to his basics (an idiot in a box with a screwdriver), such that the closest we ever see to divinity is River Song’s diary becoming a sort of loose gospel.
Mark: Yeah, I do think that there are some interesting ideas about religion under the hood here. The differences between how religion is portrayed from Doctor to Doctor is well worth study.
I think that the episode ultimately comes out as a warning against the potential dangers of organised religion but hopeful about religion’s potential power for good. The last line is “keep faith and travel hopefully.” This ties a positive idea of organised religion to, I think it’s fair to say, the core of the show.
Janine: So we’ve seen that Tim Shaw is, at least, in some way thematically justified to be here. And I wouldn’t even say that in execution, he’s that unbearable. Besides being very slightly inaudible, he’s a lot more intimidating here than he was in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. So what’s to complain about? Well, as I said at the start, there’s just an overwhelming sense of “Oh, is that it?” with his return. There’s also the fact that, as you briefly mentioned, we still don’t really see the Stenza. From what I gathered (if Tim Shaw’s account is to be trusted), the Stenza are still a whole culture of genocidal fascists who hunt down innocent creatures for fun (though as a friend of mine suggested, maybe that’s just a lie they told Tim Shaw to get rid of him for a bit!). So it’s really bizarre that we never see them, and that Thirteen seems to just walk away at the end, entirely content to allow their species to go on plucking trophies from history and systematically cleansing whole planets. Is this an oversight, or are we not yet done with the Stenza?
Mark: Essentially, while I’m interested in the themes that Tim shows, I share the popular disappointment with… well, most of the things that he actually says and does. The problems from the first episode carry over; while the production values are impressive, the design ultimately just makes him look like what I’d call a Goomba villain comparable to the Atraxi. Which is fine when you’re in that narrative place but very worrying when you’re given the role of the long-game villain… and, unfortunately, I think that’s what’s in store here.
“The Ghost Monument” does deliberately – I would even say heavy-handedly – set up the overall Stenza as a force for evil stomping from planet to planet. So, they may well be returning in Series 12 and beyond – or maybe the thread will just be dropped the way so many other enemies have been dropped. I didn’t find Tim to be much spookier this time around. When Graham has his climactic face-off, Tim totally lacks any air of intimidation because the way he behaves and the scene is choreographed is a failure. Tim just stands there and gives Graham the opportunity to take his shot. Then, he’s felled with one shot to the leg. If our arc villain can be felled by an ex-bus-driver from Sheffield, it’s hard to find him scary.
The clincher here is that none of this makes any sense because Tim Shaw did not kill Grace. It feels almost trite and too obvious to say things like “He just looks a bit rubbish.” But, in a visual medium, looking a bit rubbish is fatal. No amount of pontificating about religion can save you from that. I realise you can point to most of Classic Who as an exception to this but there’s a difference between limited budget/tech and bad design choices.
The overall pacing and structure of this season is dissatisfying and that’s most obvious in “Battle”. The fragmented nature obviously has a lot of appeal for those who want to just hop in at Episode 7 but harms the whole. There are certainly unfavourable comparisons to be drawn to just about any other Modern Who finale. Even the Eleventh Doctor finales which I dislike can be commended for their ambition. I realise this is a smidge controversial but: I can forgive “The Wedding of River Song” and “The Name of the Doctor” for shooting for the stars and crashing into a seventh-storey window. What I can’t forgive is a finale that falls short when it was only trying to jump over the garden fence. Take “Wedding”. A set of mysteries built up over the season culminating in a series of big revelations, even if you aren’t satisfied with the answers, is so much more interesting than ‘the villain from the first episode is the villain in the last episode’. I suppose this is what some people who were tired out by Moffat’s allegedly over-elaborate plotlines wanted. Personally, the return of Tim Shaw inspired no strong emotion. And I think that’s a shame.
Themes and Motifs
Tom Marshall is a postgraduate working in the field of Norse mythology and ecocriticism. He has written about Doctor Who and other TV shows for CultBox, the Outside In book series, You and Who Else, and You and 42. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
Janine: Looking at the series as a whole, we should now be in the position to trace some sort of thematic through-line. Samuel Maleski has suggested that looking at absence is a good way into the series; characters and places defined by their non-existence, death, or emptiness — things unsaid, stories incomplete. Followers of Chibnall’s previous work have suggested family, which has been noticeable in the choice of secondary characters, the presence of a step-grandfather/grandson dynamic in the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s allusions to her own family. I have an idea of my own, but first of all, what do you think the main theme (if any) has been this year?
Tom: I would suggest, if I can only go for one buzzword at a time, that “community” might be better than “family”, if only because it factors in another recurrent motif this year, that of spirituality and religion. In Chibnall’s previous series “Broadchurch”, the role of Rev. Arthur Coates was important in anchoring the town dwellers in a kind of tradition, even if it wasn’t one they believed in a great deal. When interviewed about this, Chibnall claimed to be neither a religious nor particularly atheistic individual, but that it was important to him to portray “morality within a community”. I think we see that come up this year too, in some interesting ways, and in ways that aren’t a million miles away from death, emptiness and absence as Sam suggests.
Janine: That leads nicely into my own theory, which is that this is meant to have been a series about grace. A pseudo-Christian conception of grace, that is, as a sort of love and mercy bestowed upon the undeserving by a benevolent figure. First, I think the repeated allusions to faith point in that direction; second, there’s literally a character called Grace; but lastly, ‘Battle’ is ultimately all about Graham choosing not to murder a creature which unequivocally deserves death. Chibnall, I think, sees this as a moment of grace on Graham’s part.
Tom: I think there’s definitely something in that, not only the importance of Grace to the series’ character arcs (both Graham’s and Ryan’s), but also the way in which her absence haunts almost every Series 11 episode. A memory of Grace – and, crucially, a memory of the grace it appears she embodied, or which Graham feels he has been shown, if the funeral eulogy is anything to go by – is something they share together on Desolation, it informs how Ryan reacts to meeting MLK and Rosa Parks in “Rosa”, it’s too much for Graham to bear in their house together in “Arachnids in the UK”. Yoss Inkl’s decision to keep his baby Avocado in “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is portrayed (not unproblematically) as a gesture of grace, and one that explicitly calls back to Ryan’s nan. But it’s really in Episodes 9 and 10 that this thematic lattice pulls tightest: in the way Graham finally comes to terms with his wife’s death, and in the way (as you say) he chooses not to kill Tzim-Sha. Kindness is extended towards the unworthy, something else which runs throughout the season in its own way. I am reminded of the Doctor saying “so long as there’s mercy. Always mercy” from Series 9 – though perhaps we shouldn’t get into theological nitpicking over the difference between grace and mercy! In Doctor Who terms I think it’s more or less intended to be the same phenomenon, or at least two sides of the same coin.
Janine: Grace herself is definitely the point where these seemingly unconnected themes intersect. As you say, her absence haunts the series; she embodies the missing link within a family and community; and she is, herself, an embodiment of the grace we’re meant to show as we travel the universe. And as I said way back in the first column, it’s a very Chibnall tactic to kill a character off in the first episode and use them to make a statement which reveals itself as the series progresses. We saw it with Torchwood‘s Suzie Costello (who was a sign of the rot at the heart of the institute, and who stated in no certain terms what Torchwood’s grim role in the Doctor Who universe amounted to), and Broadchurch‘s Danny Latimer (the ordinary young boy whose death brought to light the secret vices of a whole town).
Tom: If Grace is in some way the heart and soul of Series 11, it does raise some interesting questions about the Doctor’s role in all this. Because this series’ opener very clearly parallels the two – in its dual-meaning title, in Ryan’s address to camera in his YouTube video, and in Graham commenting that the Doctor’s life philosophy seems to be “something Grace would have said”. If Grace is a Doctor figure limited in the physical sense by only being able to operate on Earth, and limited in the narrative sense by being killed off as the series began, it’s almost as though the Doctor and friends take up her mantle, the Doctor becoming a sort of liberated Grace who is free to move up and down and across all conceivable axes. The optics of a white woman “replacing” a black woman are not ideal, to say the least, but it’s still something of a redemptive way of looking at that ‘wound’ or trauma we find in Episode 1.
But then we have to ask ourselves what we make of the Doctor’s choice to extend kindness towards the unworthy, and whether some of her decisions this season show the failure of such grace in practice? This barely comes to play in the finale, but it’s briefly touched on : if the Doctor had successfully killed off Tzim-Sha at the opener, there wouldn’t have been countless genocides at his hands over the next 3,400 years. Can grace have its limits?
Janine: As I discussed with Ruth in her section, I think Chibnall wants the exploration of Thirteen’s pacifism, and here of her grace, to be largely unproblematic. Which makes it all the stranger that the episode draws attention to the Doctor’s act of grace towards Tim Shaw in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. If there is a criticism there, it’s never one we get to see resolved.
Tom: One wonders whether it might be resolved… in “Resolution”!
Diversity and Representation
Audrey Armstrong (@lesbiaudrey on Twitter) is a writer and trans woman. She hasn’t written much yet, but she’s getting there. She otherwise mostly spends her time watching Doctor Who or taking walks. Her favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
Janine: Here’s a nice topic where I can’t be accused of jumping to conclusions — during producer Matt Strevens’ comments during the early promotional phases, it was outright stated that “There will be characters from across the [LGBT+] spectrum”. That was a promise made in print. Have we seen this diversity within the series? My gut feeling is, simply, no. One lesbian with a dead off-screen wife, and a dead lesbian with an off-screen wife were all we had within the first four episodes. Whilst Chibnall may beg to differ, I don’t think “The Tsuranga Conundrum”’s pregnant alien man counted for much. King James I was portrayed as gay, but any good historian will tell you that he was gay, so that seems more inevitable than revolutionary. And, well, that’s it. That’s the lot.
I think we’ve fared much better this year for BAME representation, with both a Rosa Parks-centric segregation story, and a Partition of India story for an explicitly Muslim companion of Pakistani descent. Only two of the companions are white. Ryan Sinclair is dyspraxic, and one of this year’s guest characters (and her actress) was blind. There’s a lot this series gets right, and which ought to be celebrated. But it makes the lack of LGBT+ representation, particularly within the main team (and particularly following the Capaldi era, where Clara, River, and Bill were all canonically LGBT+), disappointing. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, when all the promises were made in a press release in which Strevens referred to the show as “quite gender fluid about the characters and relationships”.
Audrey: In some ways the promise of LGBT rep was classic baiting. They promised a lot, and what we got was both so little, and so unsubstantial that it’s a disheartening step down from Bill last year. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think that the production team intentionally played up the amount of LGBT rep, but is that any better? Did they really think that this was enough?
I think it says something that we don’t actually see anyone in a same-sex relationship throughout the series. There’s plenty of straight ones, and while some of those (most notably, of course, Graham and Grace), are saddled with death baggage like the two lesbians, we also never actually see the partners of them, or learn their names. The closest we get is King James flirting with Ryan. That’s a really poor show.
Janine: Do you think there’s any possibility we’ll discover that a member of ‘Team TARDIS’ is somewhere on the LGBT+ spectrum(s)? Whilst I doubt Ryan coming out as trans any time soon, one of the younger companions turning out to be bisexual isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
Audrey: That’s possible, though I won’t be holding my breath for it to happen just yet. There are moments this series, such as Yaz’s mom thinking her daughter and the Doctor are dating, and Ryan’s every interaction with King James, that could point towards it, but it’s simply not enough.
It’s worth noting that they seemed to imply in that same article where they promised rep that maybe one of the leads would be LGBT. But seeing as nothing is confirmed, either they meant nothing by it, or they genuinely think those two moments I mentioned above count as representation.
Janine: And of course, no trans or nonbinary representation. Which, granted, would be a new thing for the show — but were we moving into another Moffat season, or were RTD back writing the show, it would be a logical step forward. This is still 2005 level representation.
Audrey: In many respects, it’s a step backwards for the show. I think it’s especially glaring coming after Bill, too.
It might be worth mentioning that quote of Chibnall’s where he says sexuality “isn’t necessarily a thing you go into” on Doctor Who, because I think it speaks volumes about the issues, at least on this front, in Series 11. (It’s also straight up false, even in Series 11, given the main emotional hook for much of the series is centered around the grief of a straight person for his wife).
Janine: I don’t always think we need a specific quota for representation, because it’s always clear when an effort is being made. And there just hasn’t been an effort this year. Chibnall got as far as “gay people exist”, but didn’t do a jot of research into tropes (i.e. dead lesbians) that might be worth knowing about. For my part, I just want to see some happy, living gay couples next series. What’s your biggest hope on the representation front?
Audrey: I think Series 11 got close with its casual references to character’s sexuality – Angstrom offhandedly saying she’s a lesbian would, in the hands of someone else presumably, work fine. It just didn’t apply it well, at all. So I hope, in Series 12 and beyond, they stop using harmful tropes, show more happy gay people, and have them be a larger part of the story. Or hell, confirm Ryan or Yaz (or both) as bi! It would be a genuine step up from this year.
I would like trans rep, as well, and not a pregnant alien which really doesn’t count and shouldn’t be, but I’m sadly not holding out much hope there just yet.
Thank you to Ruth, Mark, Tom, and Audrey for their insights today. Join me tomorrow, as I’m joined by some more guests to discuss politics, ethics, discourse, and the absolute mess that was the Series Eleven promotional campaign…