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)
You came back for Part 2! Thank you. This is a good start.
(If you’re not a returning reader, and are wondering what this post is and why we’re talking about Series Eleven, check out the first half of the review over here. Then, if you dare, come back to this post and witness the grand finale of Bit of Adrenaline, Dash of Outrage, where there’s a lot more outrage than usual.)
Following our discussion on characters, themes, and representation in the first half, today I’m joined by four new guests to discuss some slightly different aspects of the series, before we wrap up and provide a final verdict.
Kevin Burnard (@scriptscribbles on Twitter) is a writer, blogger, and sometimes even a vlogger. He can be found making videos and gifs on Tumblr and Youtube (@scriptscribbles) analyzing Doctor Who and other pop culture media, or just spamming gym selfies to Instagram. He co-wrote a feature-length episode of The Twelfth Doctor Adventures and formerly helped run this site. His favourite Doctors are the scary ones.
Janine: PR is a broad topic, and we could spend a lot of time exploring the margins, so I’m just going to come out with it. I think Doctor Who is suffering from an identity crisis — probably for the first time since the Wilderness Years. There are people who’d make the case for it having suffered one more recently, but I don’t find any of those cases especially convincing. Series 7B might be accused of feeling aimless, but the show knows exactly what it’s doing — it’s throwing a bloody big birthday party, and the only problem is that it’s not sure what to do in the months leading up to it. Series Eight asks a lot of questions about the lead character, the makeup of the show, its moral values, and the role of the companion — but it’s consciously, metatextually engaging with those problems in a way that’s deliberate and, really, very successful. And Series Ten might be biding the time until the new showrunner, but it still finds the room, as Sam has suggested, to formulate a coherent political praxis to follow the philosophical musings of previous seasons.
Series Eleven is an altogether stranger beast. And it’s strange, I think, because Chibnall — like many of us — doesn’t know what Doctor Who is actually for. With Netflix taking over as the main provider of cult television, and the BBC producing quieter “high-brow” contemporary dramas (“The Bodyguard” is loud and successful, but Chibnall wouldn’t have been able to predict its success), the show finds itself in a strange place. It finds itself wanting to be several things: a family-friendly, comforting Sunday evening teatime drama like “Call the Midwife”; a Netflix genre show like “Stranger Things”, and something else, something that doesn’t fit into a box — an anthology show which, unlike nothing else on television, requires no foreknowledge on any previous episode.
It’s okay to have more than one vision for a show, but there are visible tensions between these ones. The family-friendly Sunday evening drama wants to avoid conflict, which causes it to clash with the Netflix drama it wants to be. The binge-worthy genre show wants a story arc and a returning villain, but that feels wrong when it’s aiming for new stories every week. Because the problem is, Chibnall craves the status of something like “Stranger Things”, which has (from what I understand, having never watched it) story arcs, and cliffhangers, and twists… but he’s also paradoxically terrified of story arcs, following the constant criticisms of the Moffat era being too “pretentious” and “complicated”.
So Doctor Who wants to be lots of things, but it’s afraid of trying to be any of them. It can’t find a vision, an ethos, a mission statement, a consistent style… and a show can’t sustain an identity crisis on this scale. Something will have to give, and soon.
Kevin: I think it’s safe to say a lot of the problems here come from listening to too many expectations. Both in the writing and the promotion, Series 11 feels afraid to take a definite perspective. As you mention, it’s torn between serialized and episodic storytelling, for one thing. But I think it’s worth noting this is something the show has attempted before in recent memory. Series 7 had the same goal of standalone accessibility, and oddly enough, attracted many of the same criticisms, with awkwardly structured standalones, characterization struggles, and an overall fandom sense of frustration. 7B benefited from Steven Moffat being, I think it’s clear to say, a bit better than Chibnall, but I do have suspicions this might be something the BBC might have pushed for in both cases and which has a negative impact on the storytelling.
Where this era does have a mission statement, it’s definitely in diversity, but a fairly facile form of diversity, as you and Audrey discussed. We have a diverse cast of characters, but outside the designated very special episodes of “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, the stories ignore those perspectives (and Yaz in general). I also think these characters are shown very little depth or nuance out of a desire to make the series, as you were commenting, cozy teatime fare. The same goes for the new Doctor, who is oddly toothless. Perhaps the blandening of Doctor Who has been done to cushion the female Doctor, or perhaps it’s just to gain more viewers. Either way, if sustained, I have to question how long the viewer boom will last.
And speaking of bland, I think the real PR gaffe this year is promotion. For one thing, it’s been commented a lot that ads sold something substantially different tonally from the actuality of this series, with a lot of people focusing to the kaleidoscopic color of one promotional poster in comparison to the heavy, stripped-down grays and browns that dominated much of this year. I think that dichotomy is a bit much, but there’s definitely a jarring difference between the magic promised and the magic actually seen.
I was mentioning criticisms earlier, and a lot feels like a response to them. But probably the worst is the response to spoilers. Obviously there was backlash last year when Simm was given away in the trailer, but this year has compensated by clamping down on any details that could sell what Series 11 actually is; no wonder we get those generic magical pictures. This has sort of been a trend in general; a lot of people lately have been claiming that trailers give away too much. Frankly, that’s rubbish. Yes, blowing Simm was a gaffe. But generally, a trailer exists to provide a sense of the arc of a story; in movies, you’ll get all of act 1 summarized, a sense of the meat of the movie in the act 2 complications, and maybe a few shots of the action or melodrama going down in act 3. Series 11 has barely even suggested the first acts. If you advertised 2008’s “Iron Man” like this series has done, you wouldn’t even see him in the suit, you’d be sold a gritty prisoner of war drama, which the film definitely isn’t. Without exception, this year’s next time trailers have been the worst in the show’s history, because of that fear of spoilers. It means they refuse to sell what the stories are actually about.
It doesn’t help that Series 11 had few actual shocks, the sort of things people afraid of spoilers desire preservation of. There’s no Simm moment. The biggest twists this year are the death of Grace and the return of Tim, both of which obvious to savvy viewers from miles off. All that secrecy just served to make the bland realities look more distant and less enticing.
I guess that’s what I’d describe Series 11’s identity as in the end, over-managed blandness, with no thought given to how course correcting each element (less spoilery trailers, more accessible storytelling) produces a whole (calculated bland stories advertised without a hook).
Janine: And not just blandness, but outright incompetence on a few occasions. Who thought that any ordinary viewer reading a copy of Radio Times would be interested in watching an episode called “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”? It speaks volumes for how little input anyone other than Chibnall and Strevens has had, because I can imagine Julie Gardner turning to Davies back in the day and saying “Russell, no one will want to watch this crap”. And beyond clunky titles, the problem with vague promotional material (like the trailers you mentioned) is that, if you’re going for episodic storytelling, you need to say something about each episode. For all my gripes with Series 7B, I think most regular BBC One viewers were able to say “next week is a haunted house story on Doctor Who” or “looks like Doctor Who is doing hammer horror with Dame Diana Rigg”. I can’t imagine the same response to the very little promotional material we saw for “The Tsuranga Conundrum”.
Kevin: Absolutely. The blockbuster of the week formula at least had blockbusters to build itself on. It’s impossible to say any sort of thing “Tsuranga” or “Ranskoor” were selling beyond “it’s Doctor Who”. And Doctor Who existing only in relation to itself and existing only to do Doctor Who things isn’t a very sustainable model.
Janine: Arguably, “Doctor Who things” are by definition other things — it’s a show fuelled by originality and change, by telling new stories in new places every week. Except Chibnall seems to think that “Doctor Who things” means generic sci-fi. I can’t see that model of the show selling for more than a year. Really, the era should be playing to its strengths — the historical stories have been popular with fans and non-fans alike, so why not have a historical finale?
Kevin: My suspicions are whatever is next is already planned. We were talking about the influence of the binge model, and the Timeless Child rather does imply there’s a longer term plan than just this year. Perhaps the plan is to start with an accessible year before getting heavier into an arc? But on the evidence we have from the Stenza, I can’t imagine going in any good arc direction. I hope there’s been enough time to recalibrate based on reception this year, because I think it’s clear everyone needs it.
Elizabeth Edwards (@twoesonename on Twitter) is an aspiring writer and singer, currently spending her days chipping away at her first novel and writing one-act plays, in between various loads of homework. She’d really rather not pick between the Eleventh and Twelve Doctors, as she loves them both dearly, so she’d probably say her favourite Doctor was Moffat’s Doctor (best part being you can include Clara under that broad definition).
Janine: Having just discussed with Kevin the fact that Doctor Who seems to be going through a bit of an identity crisis, I think it’s safe to say that the crisis very much permeates the show’s politics at present. I’ll talk about this a bit more in my section with Sam, particularly about the different responses the show has been eliciting, but there’s a lot to be said for the fact that critics of the show are basically taking the stance of “it’s too PC” or “it’s not PC enough”. Because, I think, to a certain extent, the recurring theme of absence which I discussed with Tom is reflected in its politics. Or, to put it a bit less charitably… I think the series is making a woeful attempt (as any attempt will inevitably be) to aim for political neutrality. It wants to look trendy, and representative, as I pointed out during my discussion with Audrey, but beyond the surface-level representation, some of the politics have been, as we found in our discussion of “Kerblam!”, pretty reprehensible. What have you taken from the series?
Elizabeth: This series, it strikes me that Doctor Who has focused on the dilemma of proportionate — and, perhaps more to the point, appropriate — retaliation. Throughout, the tension of the episodes’ endings have revolved around how the threat was resolved. The Doctor judged Robertson for shooting the spiders and King James for burning the aliens, while the finale hinges around how Tzim Sha can be defeated (after, of course, the Doctor’s rejoinder to Karl for attempting to kill him.) For episodes that are very space-y, like “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, this isn’t a massive issue. For episodes with proper villains, though? It’s rough. Really, really rough. The Doctor sanctimoniously judges her companions for the desire to kill or shoot, but she fails to provide an alternative reaction other than to let reprehensible people off scott-free, no matter how heinous their crimes. It’s notable that she has no plan on how to capture Tzim Sha in the finale, but blasts Graham for his desire to kill him anyhow. This kind of morality of moderation, avoiding direct action against bigots and murderers, permeates liberal culture, and it does terrible damage. This kind of rhetoric feeds into those impulses in a seemingly-innocuous, but ultimately destructive, manner.
When your opponent acts out of good intent, when their actions are only mildly harmful, this is a reasonable, kind philosophy. However, when you face a genocidal madman like Tzim Sha, mercy becomes nothing more than a self-aggrandizing impulse. It makes you feel good. The Doctor’s politics, then, become smug superiority — or, to use an overused but rather useful term, virtue signaling. This is a universe of Daleks. To save the universe, they must be destroyed. The “do I have a right?” moral handwaving might have been permissible in 1974, but nowadays pop culture has to act simultaneously as activism. Doctor Who has immense reach, and the opportunity to encourage a generation of young children to stand up for what’s right. Instead, it proposes that you have to follow the lead of enlightened authority figures. From series 1-10 of NuWho, the companions have always had the power to shut the Doctor down when they’re wrong. Donna demanded he save a family in “The Fires of Pompeii.” Clara thoroughly dressed him down in both “Kill the Moon” and in “Hell Bent.” This series, Ryan has been chastened for shooting a robot, Graham has been told that he’ll be no better than a GENOCIDAL MURDERER if he kills the aforementioned killer, and Yaz… hasn’t had a personality, has she?
Of course, it’s unfair to solely look at the series when it puts its worst foot forward (hence why I haven’t touched upon “Kerblam!” yet, because… ohh, that’s an essay all on its own), so I think it might be educational to look at “Demons of the Punjab.” In “Demons,” the team faces a fantastically-written allegorically alt-right group of murderers, led by Manish. Prem, hearing that his little brother has murdered a wise man, doesn’t even hesitate. He sends his wife and mother-in-law away, and goes to face them down, knowing that he’ll almost certainly die. The Doctor takes her companions far away, watching the encounter until… they look away. The Doctor is the fastest talker in the world, a negotiator without compare. She doesn’t even try to intercede, and doesn’t have the courage to face up to the aftermath. She instead needlessly submits to historical teleology, deciding that Prem has to die. And why does he have to die? So that Yaz can remain unchanged. He’s a sacrificial lamb, made to save her friend, and if that isn’t a metaphor for liberal politics than I don’t know what is.
Janine: And more to the point, the Doctor’s morality isn’t actually consistent. True, she’s characterised more generally by a strict rule of non-intervention, but the specifics change all the time (she even jokes about it in the finale! And nothing more is said!). One minute, the message is “brains beat bullets”; the next, it’s “bullets in the foot beat bullets in the head”. One minute it’s “don’t shoot robots”, the next it’s “shoot all the robots”. “The Ghost Monument” at least tries to contextualise the Doctor’s morals within a pragmatic groundwork: brains beat bullets because you run out of bullets, but never run out of brainpower. But “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” doesn’t make any appeal to pragmatism. It would be easier and safer to kill Tim Shaw. It’s not about being pragmatic, and it’s definitely not about a consequentialist form of pragmatism. The outcomes of actions doesn’t seem to matter, because saving Tim Shaw is framed as the right thing to do even if he goes on a genocide spree after. So I think Chibnall is going for a sort of deontological, agent-centric account of ethics, where you can’t kill because it makes you a bad person, because it’ll split Graham into seven Horcruxes or something. And it fits with what Tom and I were saying about grace as a recurring theme this series — that is, it makes sense that, to accompany the Christian imagery of grace, salvation, and community, we get a thoroughly conservative Christian view of the sanctity of life, and a rule-based account of which actions are and aren’t okay.
Elizabeth: That moment of joking with Ryan infuriated me. Joking about inconsistency is par for the course with the Doctor, but paired with her moralizing during the rest of the series it just looks like blatant hypocrisy. I think the agent-centric idea of ethics sounds exactly right, but I think it’s also rooted in a complete misunderstanding of Doctor Who as a legacy. There’s that great quote from Steven Moffat about the Doctor having a screwdriver and two hearts instead of a lightsaber and X-Wing, and how they’re defined by their kindness. I think what Chibnall has decided is that, given his complete lack of interest in writing side characters that matter even slightly, the Doctor has to extend this kindness to her opponents. It’s unkind, he might be driven to insist, to kill Tzim Sha. It would be cruel to destroy Robinson. (“Demons”, for its faults, simply falls afoul of the typical Doctor Who “fixed points” nonsense). However, kindness has to be conditional, at times. The phrase Terrance Dicks coined was “Never cruel NOR COWARDLY.” Justice demands consequences. The Thirteenth Doctor doesn’t like consequences, because they aren’t nice.
Also, speaking of agent-centricity, it’s notable that she’s fine with Charlie the radical anti-Amazon union member dying. It would be easy to just dismiss this as Chibbers and crew being reactionary conservatives, but I think it’s more fair that the Doctor wants to avoid having blood on her hands. She didn’t press the button that set off the explosives — Charlie did, and if he dies, well, that’s on him. The same nearly takes place in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” even more illustratively; when Tzim Sha poisons himself, it’s perfect, to the point where she grins. When Karl trips him, he had “no right.”
Janine: At the start of the series, I really thought Chibnall was formulating the Doctor’s moral outlook on the speech Twelve made to her at the end of “Twice Upon a Time”. But now it looks to me like when Twelve said “Be kind”, Thirteen heard “Be nice”.
Elizabeth: I think the mistake might have been in assuming Chibnall wanted to engage with the Capaldi era.
Janine: Definitely. The show seems to have been doing everything it can get away with to erase the Capaldi era. And that’s not just giving it an identity crisis as a piece of television, it’s plunged it into moral uncertainty. The problem is, Thirteen’s politics are straight out of the Tennant era. I don’t want to bash the Tennant era, because I really do love it, but if you’re going to emulate it you have to understand what it’s saying. When Ten calls himself “The man who never would”, he does it (I like to think) wracked with regret. He does it because he think he’s wiped out his own people, because he has the blood of two whole races on his hands. What he’s really saying, but of course won’t say, is that he’s “The man who’d never do it again”. But we’ve moved on. The Doctor has forgotten, and then changed Gallifrey’s fate, and Twelve literally died blowing up a bunch of Cybermen unapologetically because he understood that saving children was more important than saving his soul. If you then try to return to Tenth Doctor morality, you get a character who a) is randomly going against her own ethos and b) who has no reason to wallow in self-aggrandising pacifism, because she’s past the Time War now and doesn’t need to prove that she’s The Woman Who Never Would.
Elizabeth: For all that Ten is the most popular Doctor, his characterization is ruthlessly idiosyncratic, rooted in very specific neuroses that just aren’t broadly applicable. Thirteen is many things, but a trauma victim isn’t one of them. And, of course, that gets at why Chibnall’s politics are so basic — popularity. These are politics meant to be popular and well-liked and make the viewers feel good and righteous inside. And it’s so bloody unnecessary. Series 11 was always going to be a huge hit. New Doctors tend to give boosts, and a female Doctor was sure to bring in a host of new female fans. The conservatives were always going to get rankled by a series with a female lead. Why not lean into it? Why not stake out a claim to being properly politically conscious? I’ve tried to avoid saying this since 2016, but quite frankly Chibnall should never have gotten the job if he was going to waste an opportunity like this.
2018 is a rather strange year to think about, because the Overton window is simultaneously shifting to the left and to the right. This could end up being the year that fascism properly returned, or it could be the year the socialists and Marxists first stood up and said “No.” Either way makes Doctor Who look bad, generously being behind the times, and at worst demanding submission to monsters. It’s not just unpleasant, it’s not just upsetting, it’s abhorrent.
Janine: It’s true. Appeasement tactics never work. Trying to please both sides still means you only please one — rather than pleasing progressive or reactionary fans, you satisfy middle-of-the-road political centrists. The Guardian-reading aunt who still votes Lib Dem, as a friend of mine would put it. There’s no such thing as being politically neutral. Reactionary fans think there is — they think that a show dominated by white straight people exploring the British Empire in an uncritical light is “unpolitical”. But anyone with a modicum of a sense recognises that politics are everywhere. Like you say: lean into it. Embrace it. Own it. You can get accused of many things then, but confusion or ambiguity won’t be two of them.
Elizabeth: As someone who’s been burned by too many poorly-taught English classes, I think a point perhaps worth making is that ambiguity doesn’t automatically equate to nuance, despite what many a desperate critic might say. Series 11’s perspective has been a simple directive, easily digested, so long as you ignore everything that might complicate its morality. “Be a good person,” it urges, without wanting to define “good” outside of “loyal citizen of the UK, who follows the laws of the UK, to make Old Queen Bess proud.”
Janine: And as someone who used to teach English classes (hopefully good ones), “ambiguity as nuance” only works when you’re a writer like Shakespeare and you’re trying to portray the diversity of moral viewpoints, and interrogate the inner workings of each character, challenging the viewer to take a side and discover what that says about them. That’s very different from committing to one vaguely-defined cause and making every “good” character line up with it.
Elizabeth: Absolutely. Not that I’m against ambiguity in the general sense, but it has to be framed as uncomfortable, something to grapple with. Chibnall wants his ambiguity to be ignored. He doesn’t want it to be resolved, because that would require making a statement, which would in turn require his scripts to be about something rather than just fifty minutes of professionally-made television. With a standard like that, I’m glad Doctor Who isn’t coming back in 2019. I’ll watch it compulsively in 2020, I won’t be able to help myself, but it will be a chore. It’s a voice we won’t need next year, as the fights for marginalized communities’ rights continue to be waged. At least Big Finish produced an audio with good politics a few times a year.
I’ve gotten rather heated throughout a lot of this writing, but I have some pity for Chibnall. This was the wrong year to drop the ball politically. The stakes were at the highest they had been since the Thatcher era to take a proper political stance. However, that doesn’t excuse his utter failure to provide any perspective other than a judgemental piety, urging the protection of the status quo in a time where the status quo causes millions to suffer. Thirteen’s surface charms don’t belie the sheer noxiousness of her demands of her companions, her emphasis on non-interference, and her unwillingness to take a stand and combat monsters. My only hope is that Season 12 will be better, while knowing in my heart that it won’t be. Taking a political stand might lose viewers, after all. Isn’t that what’s important?
Ethics and Aesthetics
David McCormack (@davemccormack on Twitter) is the Head Writer of the audio drama Verity Weaver (coming 2019) whose life ambition is to eventually replace this sofa with an actual bed. He may or may not have been a guest here before. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi, and not just because he can do a mean impression of him.
Janine: So, we’ve discussed the political failings of Series Eleven. We’ve discussed the ineffectiveness of moral ambiguity, the falseness of moral neutrality, the discomfort of making the Doctor sanctimonious about killing and conservative about the law. One pertinent question remains, though: why do these things matter? Because for all we’ve shown that there’s a strong case for Series Eleven being pretty morally abhorrent in places, we’re left with the possibility of an objection something along the lines of “So what? What’s that got to do with anything?” And, actually, it’s an objection you can see cropping up all over the place — a lot of discussions about this series which have taken a particular moral or political angle usually end with someone saying “Who cares, it’s just television”.
Equally, there’s a larger group than ever lobbying for television which is “politically neutral”. I already mentioned to Elizabeth that I think this is a misleading notion that usually miscasts reactionary thinking as objective logic, but it’s important to touch on anyway, because it’s an idea that seems to be gaining an unsettling traction within mainstream discourse. A quick browse through the top search results on Twitter under the #NotMyDoctor hashtag tell me about Series Eleven having “stupid politically loaded plots” and “turning #doctorwho into a progressive propaganda machine with a specific agenda” or, if you like, a “”social engineering SJW project”. A worrying number of people, even if they’re a minority, are fixated on the idea that the Doctor shouldn’t be political. The rest don’t seem to care whether it is or isn’t, as long as they don’t have to discuss politics.
Which leaves us, as I suggested, with a problem. We can defend progressive, social justice-oriented views, as we’ve always been doing on this site. We can argue that Marxism or socialism are better alternatives to capitalism, or that equating genocide with revenge is factually wrong, or that championing the struggles of minorities (i.e. African Americans) is always a good thing. But we can’t yet address the point that television is the appropriate vehicle for those social causes, or that being such a vehicle enhances the quality of the art. Of course, now is the right time to have that discussion, so that we can ground our views in a more coherent framework.
So, should Doctor Who be used as a political weapon, and if so, why?
David: Yes, it should. I say this in the surely vain hope that it will be accepted as obviously true. Quite contrary to the claims of new far-right detractors about social justice warriors cutting off great art at the root, great art has always been morally and politically charged art. With that art has come an angry mob, like a plague of locusts, that every few decades attacks art for ‘moralising’ about, essentially, issues it wants to ignore.
I find it both remarkable and predictable that the self-avowed ‘anti-political correctness’ detractors, who claim that narrative art is at its essence apolitical, would not lead such a vehement crusade against Orwell or Dickens if prompted to do so. Were they sat in front of a Dickens novel, they would surely recognise that it is political to its very core. Putting aside Dickens’ xenophobia and the frankly nauseating portrayal of working-class families (for example, the insufferable Cratchits), they would probably identify that the author attempts to position himself as an ally to the working classes and uses the text (in this case let us say A Christmas Carol) to terrorise the rich into supporting them. This is not a cause they would find troubling, if we work on the assumption that they tend to sideline debates about economic inequality. They would likely praise the text as a great literary work.
Yet they would persist in focusing their attention on Doctor Who because the issues addressed within the show are ones which they harbour a desire to distance themselves from. They are willing to join Dickens in deploring upper-class Victorians but are much less enamoured by portrayals of systematic racism, postcolonial attacks on British imperialism and challenging studies of institutional sexism today. It is the same indictment the philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes of her critic Richard Posner, who actually makes the choice to distance himself from the work of Dickens because (Nussbaum suggests) ‘where the subject is old age or self-knowledge, Posner is happy to concede that literature pursues these ethical issues; but where the subject is helping out the poor, he pulls back into a stronger vision of the aesthetic-detachment thesis’. By the same light anti-SJWs enjoy and praise art which pursues their chosen ethical causes but deplore that which they disagree with as ‘too political’.
The outcome this analysis yields (I hope) is that if certain consensus literary masterpieces are profoundly and irreducibly political, then we do in fact allow that narrative art can have political features or even be in the most essential way a political thing. If this is so, the demand to exclude political commentary from Doctor Who’s toolkit is not a choice grounded in a consistent commitment to an ‘autonomist’ (‘anti-ethical’ or ‘anti-political’) standing on art but is a selective reactionary demand that art can only be political if it takes the side of their own reactionary impulses or spews uncontroversial truisms. No one who has engaged in this issue can really be committed to the position that Doctor Who should never be political, and I would agree with you that an attempt to make the show apolitical would be aggressively indifferent, and indifference is itself a political attitude.
If we have such reasons to believe that Doctor Who is and often ought to be political then our debate shifts to which causes it ought to champion. As a lefty I can only advise from my heart that the show adopts a progressive agenda and should be a vehicle for social justice.
Janine: And I can only agree! But are we saying, then, that the show is actually better for being political? Or is political a genre in itself — so one week we have sci-fi Doctor Who, the next we have political Doctor Who, then we’re back to historical Doctor Who? That doesn’t feel right, given that, as you’ve said in the past, sci-fi is political; and as I’ve said in the past, so is historical fiction. But even so, can we go about showing that the show really gains anything from being progressive? The way you’ve framed the argument could almost be read as “Well, Doctor Who is going to end up political one way or the another, and being political has never stopped art being great, so it might as well be”. But it isn’t yet clear whether we gain something valuable.
For what it’s worth, I think we do. There’s an argument which I’m very pleased to see gaining popularity, which is that telling more progressive and diverse stories means you get new voices, new stories, and originality is a positive feature of art. I mean, politics aside, “Demons of the Punjab” just isn’t something we’ve seen from Doctor Who before. It’s a new aesthetic, a new approach to backstories, it owes a debt to different cultural influences (even musically), and it’s properly educational in a way that a story about, say, Churchill during World War II, isn’t, because everybody who grew up in England knows about the speeches he made during that war, and how great everybody thinks he is, and so on. So… for my part, I think Doctor Who does gain something from being political.
David: Noel Carroll (a true philosopher of Christmas) as best I remember him argues that art is a great vehicle for moral education because it portrays moral truths in an especially potent way. The objection I might anticipate here is that this is a feature of great literature but not of children’s television. I wouldn’t give that objection the time of day because children’s television, I should think, calls for a whole other level of moral education. Children might not be persuaded by a dry list of rules about how to treat other people but a morally immersive storytelling exercise like “Hell Bent” could give them access to certain moral truths which will make them better people, engage them with the story and trigger a powerful emotional response. Those are surely the markers of great fiction.
Janine:And on the flipside, it would be fair to say that Doctor Who loses something when it’s politically insensitive, ethically misguiding, or outright wrong/nasty about something. So, just as we can praise it for “being political” in a way that enhances the story, we can also condemn it for being, well, shit political fiction, or just morally repugnant. That might seem like it puts us in a bad position. We’re still liable to the criticism that, for instance, “Rosa” is too didactic. But is that really a problem? I’m more than happy to criticise “Rosa”, not so much for didacticism but for embodying a wider ethical ethos that I’m uncomfortable with. So I think we’re still making progress, just by forcing our opponent to criticise the story on ethical grounds as opposed to for being ethical.
David: I very much agree. We want to say that Riefenstahl’s best work suffers for being Nazi propaganda. I also would not want to give the impression that ethical and aesthetic value just collapse into the same system, and I say this because I take it that some works of art can be ethically commendable but aesthetically flawed. They could be politically astute but badly structured; they could be moral but boring. Just prescribing to a politically-correct worldview does not make art good. But it helps. Crucially, I wanted to state my distaste for an as you say growing group of people who have convinced themselves that there is an inverse relationship between the political relevance of narrative art and its aesthetic value. I doubt that my summary compares to any great work of philosophy or art theory but I will be satisfied if I have managed to bring these concerns to the attention of people who have been neglecting them.
Janine: I think we’ve established a lot, which, really, gives us very strong grounds on which to make the assessments we’ve been making in this roundtable. We’ve said that political evaluations are relevant — that it’s justifiable to both praise art for being progressive (that is, if you think progressive politics are good), and to slam art for being politically misjudged, but that it is not, fundamentally, justifiable to criticize art for being political. Doing that just shows up the fact that you don’t want to discuss certain issues.
All things considered, I don’t think we’ll win over any of the #NotMyDoctor crowd. But that’s okay — they believe that progressive causes are evil, so naturally, they’re got political objections to a series which they believe is promoting them (even though, well, it really isn’t). What I’m really hoping is that we might have a case which we can put to the more centrist fans who love or hate the show, but who dismiss political evaluations as having no impact on how good or bad an episode is. Clearly they do matter! It’s not a new SJW theory of art; we’ve been making moral evaluations like this for years.
David: The great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume did it. He believed that morally bad art ‘switches us off’ (not a direct quote at all) from engaging with it and that the art (and not its consumer) is at fault for this.
Janine: I’d even argue that Hegel says the same — he doesn’t really talk about art being immoral, but his whole idea of art’s function in society is political, right? It reflects back at us the self-image society has nurtured for us, and shows us all its flaws until we can make a new one. (That’s a slightly reductive account, but any one of you readers can hit me up on Twitter for some Hegel discourse another time!) I guess Series Eleven does that, in its own messed up way — certainly “Kerblam!” is a pretty direct and unflinching picture of late capitalism that makes you realise that the whole Amazon thing is pretty fucked up.
We’re not going to go on and defend Series Eleven, in case you got that vibe. But what’s the point in debating it, in engaging at all, unless we agree on what sort of criticism is relevant? Clearly, Doctor Who is always going to be political, and an important starting point is to accept that, to agree on what political cause it should come down in favour of, and then, in actually discussing the quality of the show, debate how well it’s achieved its political aims (and whether those are enough to salvage any other flaws it may have). Where Series Eleven is concerned, I think we’re facing the problem of a series that hasn’t articulated its political aims, hasn’t really succeeded in meeting them, is morally and politically flawed, and has a ton of non-moral aesthetic failings.
But this is a starting point. If we’re going to move forward in criticism, we all need to think harder about the standards we’re using, and whether we agree on them. The terms of discourse. Which brings us nicely on to…
The Discourse Problem
Samuel Maleski (@LookingForTelos on Twitter, Tibère on here) is a writer and critic. He writes a weekly-ish column on DoWntime, edits the site, and otherwise is ranting on social media about obscure movies, the eroticism of werewolves, and far-left politics. Also, contributes to Who fan series and has a Black Archive in the works. His favourite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston.
Janine: And so we come to our final point of discussion. This was, to be clear, never the plan — back at the start, when I decided I was going to bring back a handful of guests to discuss select topics, we were going to wrap with a discussion of the themes and give our verdicts. But… well, a lot can happen in ten weeks. And much of that is what we call “discourse”, a word which I place inside scare quotes because its meaning has shifted a lot since it passed into common parlance. “Discourse”, if we’re going to call it that, has been the focused interaction and debate surrounding the series on social media — controversial “hot takes” on Twitter, longer threads about the series, tumblr musings (with strictly no nudity), and so on. Everyone’s been taking part.
It’s not unusual — wherever there’s Doctor Who, there’s discourse, as the saying really ought to go. But things have been a little different this year, and, I’m inclined to say, uncomfortable. There are a few reasons for that, and we’re going to explore those. One reason, and a good starting point for our discussion following on from the previous few sections, is that the series has been politically and ethically inconsistent and ambiguous. As I said above, it’s given us two non-white companions and it’s given us “Kerblam!”. Which means there are two points of political attack: the people who think the show is too politically-correct for achieving a basic quota of representation and acknowledging the fact that other countries have cultural histories, and the people who are legitimately concerned about, for instance, the show’s endorsement of Amazon.
The problem is, the discourse gets muddled. I don’t know how many times I’ve engaged with someone who I think has shared my frustrations with the series, when I’ve said I find it politically iffy, only for them to go on and tell me that, yes, it’s just so wrong that it’s ramming a PC message down our throats (all this ramming, right-wing critics… something on your minds?). And I’ve been mistaken for one of those critics when I’ve criticised the series, because by and large, the show’s vocal opponents are the infamous #NotMyDoctor brigade we mentioned before. And then you get people with legitimate concerns trying very misguidedly to appropriate the #NotMyDoctor hashtag and, well… it’s all just such a mess. Because people, particularly those who stand in a slightly blind political centrist position, are conflating left-wing and right-wing critics in a way that, speaking as a left-wing critic, is verging on slightly dangerous.
(And it really doesn’t help that “liberal” now means both “not right-wing enough” in the sense of being a liberal and tolerant human being, and “not left-wing enough” in the sense of being politically liberal or neoliberal; trusting too much in the values of free speech and free market capitalism. Maybe we should ditch such terminologically vague descriptors.)
Samuel: Exactly. And in a situation like that, I think we as a fandom have to develop strategies to criticize the show efficiently. Because it does very much need criticizing, and I’m not about to tell anyone who feels angry that shouldn’t – there has been some inacceptable, tone-deaf shit this year: the whole of “Kerblam!”, the antisemitic line in “Witchfinders”, the poor handling of the Doctor’s politics, and maybe most strikingly the lack of a LGBT representation that had been clamoured about way in advance. But, well, it’s all a question about how that anger is directed – I’ve seen a lot of critics directly attacking Chibnall, and for me, that, at the end of the day, might prove a mistake. For starters, it’s hard to say how much of this vision we’re seeing right here is Chibnall, and how much is the result of BBC higher-ups, or simply of production clusterfucks: whatever’s your opinion of the man, he certainly showed he could deliver solid television with his work on Torchwood or Broadchurch, so the extreme clumsiness of some of Series 11 strikes me as the sign of a deeper problem than “that guy is just not very good”. But the real problem, I think, is that it reinforces a toxic idea that we, as a fandom, me very much included, have developed over the past decade or so – the showrunner as the sole motor of the show, an all-powerful author controlling everything around him. And like, it makes sense – for all that one might mock the #STFUMoffat brigade for blaming him for casting or acting choices, well … Moffat does have this commending presence, writing-wise, he imposes a vision, one that you see in basically aspect of the show. But honestly, he, and Davies before him, were exceptions, not rules. There are other modes of production that work, as far as Who is concerned – the Classics had split the “showrunner” position between two people; the Wilderness Years very much placed more emphasis on individual writers with relatively loose editorial supervision; Big Finish does … whatever it is they do. And honestly, watching Series 11, I’m increasingly wondering if one of those might not be better. It’s kind of tempting to see it, and Chibnall, as being set up to fail – it’s not that Chibnall isn’t a good writer, but he’s not “that” kind of good writer. He does procedurals, he does network productions, he’s not a creative spearhead – and the thing is, the series could have worked fine with that! “Demons of the Punjab” or “It Takes You Away” are proofs. Moving away from serialization and making Who more of an anthology show … I mean, I’m not going to say I especially would be into it, it’s not necessarily what I’m about, but it could work just fine – and indeed, Series 11 looks, sometimes, like it just really wants to be that. The thin characterization of the leads is bad in a linear development kind of way, but if we are talking about an anthology, it makes more sense to have them more as canvas onto which diverse and new voices can improvise. And really, “Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” translates that problem – get rid of the Tim Shaw stuff, and it’d be a decent enough episode. There is really interesting bits about faith and belief, a cool hook and setting, great aesthetics. But Chibnall seems like he’s forcing himself into being an author – and he’s not, much like Tim Shaw can never be the Creator. Maybe that’s the message we should come away from that episode with: that providential men don’t fall from the skies, and that if we want to change Who, maybe we need to find new ways for it to develop. A new form for a new age.
Janine: I basically agree with what you’re saying, but I think for that exact reason, we should hold Chibnall to account — almost solely — for the show’s mistakes. There are certain PR and scheduling moves that aren’t appropriate to attribute to him, because we know he doesn’t edit the trailers, and we know he doesn’t control the budget. But if he’s putting his name on the first and last episodes of the series, and he’s making himself the friendly face of the show in interviews, and still calling himself the “showrunner”… we’ve got to attribute blame to someone, and he’s the best candidate. Not just because the cap fits, but because he’s chosen to wear the cap. If the show starts to move away from a Chibnall-centric vision, if it goes completely anthology (which I’m starting to hope it will), if he calls himself something other than “showrunner”, then we have a good case in favour of distributing blame. But I think discourse about the author is always going to be inevitable, and natural, and I think for the most part it’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to say “Father’s Day and Human Nature are great”, I’d want to say “Paul Cornell is great”, because those are characteristically Paul Cornell scripts. I wouldn’t want to commend the RTD era without specifically praising Davies himself, because he is the central figure in its success (and I’d praise Julie Gardner too, precisely because they’ve both publicly made a point of displaying her contribution). In the same way, when the show slips up badly — as I feel it did this year — I want to say that it was either because of a bad creative vision (which has to be Chibnall), or a lack of creative vision (which is a problem with Chibnall having too much control and not enough ideas). Either way, for me, he’s the most praiseworthy and blameworthy person involved with the show right now.
Speaking as a script editor, when I ask to be credited as “script editor”, it means I take full responsibility for the failings or inconsistencies of any given script — even if, for whatever reason, I was bypassed during the process and am entirely blameless. And anyone who does point the finger at me is justified in doing so. In the same respect, Chibnall, in crediting himself as “showrunner”, takes responsibility for, well… the running of the show.
Samuel: Oh definitely – he’s still having that creative control, and he has chosen to keep it. But, especially in asking Chibnall to leave or yield the show to some other person, I feel like some of the discourse around the finale might be treating the symptoms of the problem, and not its roots. But I mean, he himself does feed that problem! He didn’t have to draw as sharp a separation as he did with Moffat’s era, for instance, which kind of announces to the audience that we’re on to something new, that a fresh creative vision starts HERE and NOW. All the marketing and rebranding sends a message – and that message puts Chibnall in focus. That’s I think why I’d blame Chibnall for – more than for what actually happened in the series, it’s that he had the opportunity of changing a mode of production that, if not outright flawed, would at least be flawed in his hands, and didn’t take it. He deserves to be dragged. For his production choices, not his character, though. And maybe not forever. But at the moment? Yeah. But then again – as fans that aim to offer our own vision of the show, and a critique of its political content … Well, that critique can’t just tackle the showunner in isolation – I think that what Series 11 showed is that we have to look at how the show at large is made, and what should maybe be changed there. A critique of … the means of production, essentially. Can’t tell if it’s Marxism or an internet roundtable.
The series will have had, in the end, at least the merit of bringing that subject onto the table. And really, with all the absences it’s riddled with, thematic or unintentional … I’m honestly really looking forwards to what the fandom makes of it. What art and writing spawns out of it. I feel like the breathier (not to say “with gaping holes”) vision of Chibnall is going to be a hell of a call to creativity for a lot of people. And honestly, despite everything, I feel confident in Who’s future.
Janine: I think a good compromise is to ask, well, who would you replace Chibnall with? The naive answer would be “Vinay Patel” or “Malorie Blackman”. And they’re excellent writers. But a Doctor Who showrunner needs a level of production experience that only a handful of people in the industry have. Most of those people, by virtue of that experience, are older — and probably more set in their ways. Will we ever see another showrunner who has that wealth of experience and the progressive vision we want for the show? Maybe not. So I think calling for Chibnall to leave, without an adequate replacement in mind, is to essentially beg for another hiatus. And I doubt many fans would want that, when it comes down to it.
Samuel: That’s the problem with the showrunner fonction – it’s incredibly restrictive. And like, you haven’t even entered into the probable requirements of nationality the BBC would be looking into (just imagine what the Mirror would print if you gave the reins to Bryan Fuller or whatever). And when you don’t have an ideal candidate arriving exactly at the right time – which Moffat was, well … It’s an issue. An issue most shows won’t face, because they have a limited runtime and will naturally die out as their showrunner wraps up his vision. But with Who and its basically neverending potential, well … It’s trickier, and leads to compromises like the one who put Chibnall in charge. It’s a problem that remains unsolved, and … Well. It needs to. The faster, the better.
Janine: At the same time, it would actually be a shame for the show to lose its creative vision. Because it would be heartbreaking to think that we’ll never see another era like Davies’ or Moffat’s, with all their specific quirks and ambitions. But maybe that vision needs to come from another direction; maybe the visionary shouldn’t also be writing five episodes a year.
Samuel: I mean, Andrew Cartmel never wrote a script for the show, and no one’s going to call his era directionless.
Janine: Just moving onto one last issue surrounding the discourse… I touched on this back in the “Kerblam!” post, but it would be nice, perhaps, to see a bit more engagement with the economic axis of oppression. We’re starting to get better at recognising superficial virtues and failings — too many white faces, too many straight people, that sort of thing — but we’re still not very good at spotting classism. When someone does, it tends to get brushed under the carpet (“That’s your interpretation, but not mine” — a take that’s very much not seen as acceptable when an episode is, say, overtly homophobic). The problem is, it’s then not just a problem for class, it’s also going to diminish your capacity to engage with those other dimensions of oppression. If you don’t factor economics into your reading, you won’t identity, for instance, a particular postcolonial reading. Or you won’t understand that “system” has two meanings. For all left-wing critics and writers are under constant attack for “cultural Marxism”, I’ve yet to see a strong Marxist critique of this series.
Samuel: Exactly – which might be, really, another one of my issues with focusing on Chibnall alone: the politics of the show do not stem from him alone, they exist in a larger environment, and one that has shown its failings repeatedly this year, between the “Talons of Weng-Chiang” DWM debacle to the constant lack of engagement with the transphobia of certain Who circles. There’s a lot of issues with a lot of the mainstream Who discourse because there are a lot of issues around the people who produce that discourse – and I’m not talking about #notmydoctor fuckweasels, here; but just the fact there’s often a lack of depth to the engagement we do see. A tendency to get centrist with the politics, to ignore more subtle forms of oppression, to not call out certain hierarchies inherent to the fandom. And, well … For all that Moffat got in the way of hatred, the progressive fandom at large was mostly comfortable in its uncomfortable alliance between radical progressives and liberals. With Chibnall’s recent lapses … Well, there’s a rift, and it’s certainly not going to be without some level of unpleasantness, but there’s also an opportunity – and, to echo my previous sentiment, I hope the frustrations people have felt towards Series 11 inspire a new generation of critics and fan figures, that may be able eventually to redefine the shape of the fandom. Well, that’s the dream. I guess at worse, we’ll still get some decent enough Twitter fights out of it, so … yay?
Basically, if Chibnall is doomed to be Who’s Emmanuel Macron, I’m hoping there are going to be some Gilets Jaunes around the way eventually. Because you just knew there was going to be a French metaphor in there somewhere.
Janine: There’s clearly going to need to be radical change, unless we want this fandom to fracture more than it already has. Doctor Who fandom has been mostly pleasant in recent years, but I’m not the only person to feel an uncomfortable tension in the air this year. But it’ll be a slow process, and I think there’ll have to be some shift in the language higher up — as we suggested, maybe moving away from terms like “showrunner” so that we get a better sense of who is responsible for what. A bit of political re-education wouldn’t go amiss (and I’m not suggesting that I’m the Wise Woman fit for the job; I’m sure I’ve got a lot of blind-spots that also need addressing), so that we’re all on the same page when we throw around terms like “liberal”. As David was suggesting, getting people agreeing on standards of aesthetic criticism. These are all big ambitions. So I think for now, the solution is just to listen to each other’s concerns. When somebody says they were offended by a story and can’t agree with your take on it, hear them out — they’re not telling you that you’re wrong for enjoying it, but that you ought to recognise their objections. And as we spoke about in an earlier section, perhaps those objections will force you to concede that the art you’re consuming is, to some degree, flawed.
Because for all we say that “it’s just TV”, it also isn’t. When a heated debate enters the point of discussing issues like class and identity, it becomes about more than just television. If we recognise that, and tread with some sensitivity around those issues, we could make fandom a much more amenable place.
Team Verdict on The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos: 3/10
Team Verdict on Series 11: 4/10
Janine: I started this series with a lot of optimism. Many of my friends, including guests here today, were already doubtful of Chibnall’s ability to run the show. I wanted to hear him out, because I’ve enjoyed a lot of his previous work — and even at its messiest, it’s always shown potential, and heart, and offered something new.
I’m aware that my change of heart might not go down as well. In fact, I’m aware that many readers of this column will have enjoyed the series a lot. All I can say is that I hope you can acknowledge our concerns, and take on board the objections offered by the “fam” here over the last few weeks, whilst also continuing to enjoy the show as much as you have been before. I don’t want to undermine anyone’s enjoyment of a show that has, over the years, helped me through some tough times.
All of which said, I’m now in the position that I can’t continue to endorse what the show is doing. I cannot enjoy it, however much I try. Despite some select gems by guest writers and early signs of ambition, Series Eleven has been the worst and least ambitious season of the show that I have ever watched live. The lack of moral responsibility, for a show with a global audience of impressionable children, is astounding. The fact that Chibnall thinks that “killing genocidal lunatics makes you as bad as them” is the message we most need to hear in 2018 is not a positive reflection of his character. It suggests a man more concerned about righteous anger than fascism, more concerned about policing the political tactics of disadvantaged groups than about tackling inequality. And if you’re not convinced that these issues are important to Doctor Who, there’s little else I can say. I’ve dedicated this column to letting a diverse range of voices discuss the moral worth of this show. And for what it’s worth, I think they’ve put forward a rather marvelous case for the importance of those considerations.
Running Doctor Who is a dream job, and very few people can do it. I certainly couldn’t, though I’d be flattered if any future showrunner decides to make me their Julie Gardner. I doubt that many of the people I know, even the most talented, would be up to the job. But I’m becoming painfully aware that Chris Chibnall is among them. What little vision he does have for the show is dull, patronising, and at worst downright mean-spirited. This is not what an actress of Jodie Whittaker’s calibre deserves, and I only hope that, if this era does crash and burn, Whittaker evades the blame — and that we can acknowledge that gender, in the end, had very little to do with it.
Fancy joining the gang to discuss the New Year Special? Drop in and say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to tune in for Tibere’s feature on Saturday, and if you haven’t already, head this way to catch the most recent.
Thanks so much for joining me this series — and have a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from the fam!