REVIEW – Doctor Who series 12

Despite having watched the finale on Monday morning via ABC iView, I wanted to wait until after the Thursday evening broadcast on free-to-air here in Australia before I expressed my views on the series. And while I did enjoy most of it, when I sat down to start writing I realised I didn’t remember much of it (in all fairness I don’t remember much of the Eleventh Doctor era either).

It wasn’t until watching back this trailer that I started to recall series 12 and all the good (and not so good stuff) about it and it began to crystallise a few things for me.

Going back a little bit… Series 11 was an enjoyable and somewhat straightforward series. It felt smaller than we’re used (much like the Christopher Eccleston series) to as well as safer, and it had to be in order to allow viewers time to get accustomed to Jodie Whittaker settling in the new role (to which she did so rather well and with panache) as well as for the new creative team to get their bearings.

By comparison, series 12, building upon that previous groundwork, was allowed to swing for the fences. And while I admire that ambition, there were more than a few times they let go of the bat.

I enjoyed series 12 overall and had a lot of fun with it but what I’m remembering most of all are the big moments from the series rather than the stories being told (and I didn’t have a problem with those either bar one or two). That obviously sounds like a failing but it’s not the first time this has happened…

From here on there will be SPOILERS for SERIES 12

Series 12 kicked off with the very cool two-parter “Spyfall” and it was a fantastic way to get back into the show and reacquaint ourselves with the “fam”. One of the few background, world-setting things that I liked from this was that it slipped in there the current state of organisations such as Torchwood and U.N.I.T. While some may complain that we should be shown these things I think that sneaky mention worked well enough for me. Sure it was probably just a way to explain why MI6 is getting involved but it hints at something bigger we may have missed. I found that tantalising.

But more than anything else, what I loved about these this two-parter was the reveal and re-introduction of The Master. For me that was a legit surprise and a delightful one too.

I’ll admit it took me a moment to grow accustomed to Sacha Dhawan’s portrayal (I had gotten used to and adored Michelle Gomez’s version as Missy) but I soon revelled in his over the top evilness, which reminded me of a nasty, more depraved version of Caesar Romero’s Joker from the 1966 Batman series (almost dressed like him too). And I’m loving that!

Going into the episode featuring Nikola Tesla, I was originally feeling apprehensive primarily because I was so over nerd culture’s obsession with idolising of him. But it turned out to be a very fun episode that helped give The Doctor someone of comparable, I won’t say intelligence but instead ambition, to bounce off of. Have her meet someone that she apparently respects, perhaps even idolise, or just relate to was a most enjoyable story.

It also helped remind people that Thomas Edison was an exploitative arse (sometimes that gets lost in history) so that was a bonus.

My appreciation for the Judoon is multifaceted: I’m somewhat intrigued by their use as “law enforcement”, my fondness for them is perhaps enhanced by how underused they appear to be, I think they look cool, and from a maker point of view I’m simply fascinated with the behind-the-scenes workings of the design and build of such an animatronic.

So it was great to see them again in action hunting down a fugitive who we eventually find out is The Doctor.

I’m still torn on whether or not I liked this reveal. I certainly don’t hate it yet on the one hand I enjoyed how it was set up and revealed. “Ruth” being such an innocuous “human” tour guide as a disguise really threw me and I was intrigued at what it was potentially being setting up. On the other hand, when we do finally “find out” I’m not sure it stuck the landing.

It needs to be said that many conflate the feeling of confusion, discomfort, and dissatisfaction over major reveals and story twists (like the death of a beloved character for example) with it instantly meaning that it was “bad.” But the god damn point of such surprises isn’t purely to surprise but to make you feel something even if that something is frustration. And I’ll admit I had to process that by analysing and asking myself “what does this add to the story?”

I’ll get to it later as to why I don’t think the ultimate reveal in the finale quite worked but for now I enjoyed the set up but it was also hampered by a mild dissatisfaction that we had to wait a few more episodes until we even approached this issue again.

In the meantime, the brief return of Captain Jack Harkness in that episode was a pleasant surprise and really came out of nowhere. Mind you that too also felt it had no proper (or at least satisfactory) resolution to that either. He delivers a message but doesn’t have anymore involvement to the main story arc? That seems like such a waste and merely a callback for the sake of a cameo.

A couple of episodes felt slightly wonky because they presented some great elements and weren’t bad stories but they sort of fizzled out at certain points. For example in the episode “Can You Hear Me?” we got some great character development for the three companions, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. For the most part we’ve had some good little bits and pieces for them here and there but this episode really allowed them to show off something with a little more pathos and filling in some gaps in the background. This isn’t a failing that we never got such before (keep in mind Graham and Ryan had a lot to deal with over the death of Grace).

That episode would have benefited more if it didn’t have a “threat of the week” to run the main plot, a main plot that didn’t really thrill because of what were ostensibly character studies was much more compelling to watch.

Similar with “Praxeus” where we got to see the “fam” working like a well-oiled machine even when they are separated and there was even an effort to show Yaz as more adventurous and gung-ho as she travels with the Doctor. Episodes like these showed an evolution of the characters, even with Ryan questioning how much longer they could keep doing this and I think that’s fascinating. Sure it was missing from series 11 but we were still being introduced to the new version of the Doctor then.

One of the criticisms that many have with “Praxeus” as well as the episode “Orphan 55” is that both are too overt in trying to “preach” an environmental message and honestly I have ZERO issue with that. I mean I grew up on Star Trek so I’m used to preachy and moralising science fiction. Hell, most important science fiction is about something and it’s not always subtle about it either

Although it had potential with a few character building elements (especially for Ryan), “Orphan 55” was a legitimately bad episode but none of that had to do with being on the nose when it came to moralising to the audience. You take out the speech the Doctor gives at the end of the episode and it’s still a poorly told story.

People who are against progressive messages in media are often opposed to the message itself. Let me put it this way: We currently live in a world where some parents refuse to vaccinate their kids based on a long debunked lie, there are people who deny the existence of man-made climate change despite the evidence, and there are folks who believe, in 2020, that the Earth is flat. So no, I have absolutely no objection to the heavy-handed manner in which any media attempts to lecture about something important when they tell their stories and preach their progressive messages if it means some of these wanks learn something!

If I haven’t made it clear before I really enjoy Whittaker’s take on the Doctor. It’s very much a riff on David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor (which makes sense as they worked together for three series of Broadchurch and Chris Chibnall worked on Who previously under Russell T. Davies). In series 12, that performance has made some shifts into being more of her own if only mildly. And a lot of her character development is nicely tied in with her interactions with the “fam”. My favourite moments in this series are when she gets a little more stern with them and starts to question whether it’s still a good idea to bring them along on her travels.

While Ryan and Graham got most of the development in series 11, Yaz got a little more in series 12, which I really enjoyed. There is even some foreboding, as mentioned before, where Ryan questions if this is all there is (which ties into the rumours that both Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh might be leaving) There is something wonderful about their team/family dynamic that I appreciate as a counter to previous companion pairings that always had an air of romance to them. Rose, Martha, for a little bit there Amy (before she remembered Rory), and even Clara with Eleven. Non-romantic pairings have existed before too like Donna, Bill, and (my favourite) Clara with Twelve but it’s always refreshing to portray different dynamics.

Apart from the awful “Orphan 55” most of my criticisms of series 12 seem to be middling and minor. and while there is a lot that I liked, very little blew me away. Which then brings me to the finale, “The Timeless Children”…

One thing has been bothering me about the finale…
A lot of shite has been thrown at the series 12 finale but I actually really enjoyed most of it. It was quite the fun and compelling episode. I loved seeing the Cybermen back and I loved the ideas that was being presented in particular the Master’s plan to create a new race of Cybermen with the regenerative powers of the Time Lords.

I’m also a really huge fan of the first revelation as “shown” by the Master of the origin of the Time Lords’ regenerative powers coming from studying the foundling named the “Timeless Child”. This adds to the arrogance and elitist nature of Time Lords that the Doctor was trying to buck all their lives.

What I have an issue with is the second revelation: that the Doctor is the Timeless Child.

I need to clarify, that I think it’s absolutely fascinating to find out that the Doctor may have had more lives that she does not currently remember. That opens up a whole slew of story telling possibilities. This is also not a new idea as many fans have pointed out such a possibility was introduced when the Doctor entered into a mindbending contest with Morbius (that episode even pops up when the Doctor overloads the Matrix in order to escape). This idea then had the door kicked down off its hinges when Steven Moffat (frustratingly) introduced The War Doctor (frustrating because it should have been Paul Mcgann as originally planned but also John Hurt was so good!). So it does fit into canon.

However, I don’t value canon as much as other fans these days. Its importance should serve basic consistency and grounding a story in said consistency but it shouldn’t stand in the way of telling a good compelling story. And I say this as a Star Trek fan who has sat on both sides of this argument (we’ve had to hand wave and explain away a great many incongruities over the last 50 years for the sake of good stories).

But my problem with the revelation of the Doctor being the Timeless Child has less to do with canon and more to do with theme and character development. It undermines how “great” the Doctor is meant to be coming from someone so “average” and it’s born from her willingness to go out and explore and do good as well as rebel against the institutions that lord themselves over the rest of the time and space.

The Doctor’s reputation across time and space, the fear the Doctor evokes from the various enemies, and inspiration they have on the people they save, is from the actions the Doctor takes.

Funnily enough that very notion is what “Doctor Ruth” tells Thirteen while still inside the Time Lord Matrix when she is freaking out about her life being a lie. Doctor Ruth reminds her that she has never defined herself by what came before or what she was “meant” be. So why should this matter now?

Personally, I can see both sides of this as I’m the type of person who values honesty and truth and the importance of having all the information to make important decisions so such a revelation would rock me to the core even if momentarily. But at the same time I would have to rebalance myself with the rational notion that finding out such a secret does not necessarily change who I am and what I have achieved.

The other issue I have is a matter of “optics”. With so many misogynistic haters looking for any reason to shit on this new incarnation, making the Doctor have a special origin plays too much into the “Mary Sue” trope and that’s rather unfortunate.

But here’s a very important question I need for fans on either side of this revelation to consider: How do we know the Master was telling the truth?

The Master showed the Doctor the part about the foundling and the development of the Time Lords’ regenerative abilities. But when it came to revealing who the Timeless Child was he simply tells her. He also claims that a lot of that data was redacted, so much so that even he couldn’t bypass it. If that is the case where did he get that info from? He even admits to transmitting the rather abstract scenes set in Ireland to the Doctor’s mind. For what purpose?

To break her.

The motivations of any bad guy do not have to be practical or make sense to you the regular person sitting at home who lives their lives, hopefully, without machinations of harming others. They can be as petty as any troll or bully who plays these sorts of mind games. They do this shit because they’re sadistic and because they can.

The unsatisfying thing about the finale is that we’re left with a cliffhanger. So while we get an answer about the Timeless Child we don’t actually get a resolution to the story arc because the Judoon who turn up are a call back to an earlier part of the arc and not just random. This implies there’s more to the arc.

And I think that may be my main issue with series 12, as much as I enjoyed it, it was unable to properly incorporate an over-arcing story.

Think back to series 1 with Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor and “Bad Wolf” was the culmination of some very subtle hints and callbacks throughout each episode that were tantalising but not over-powering. Series 11 is perhaps the only new era Doctor Who series to not have a story arc (the finale is basically a sequel to the premiere episode as they go up against “Tim Shaw” for a second time). Stephen Moffat revels in story arcs with epic scope and it’s been hit or miss. During Eleven’s era all you remember are those big epic moments associated with the arc whereas with Twelve (and I’ll admit to a little bias here as he is my favourite) Moffat toned it down a little so each individual story could stand on their own.

The big story arc moments in series 12 (the few there are) overpower the smaller episodic stories: the return of the Master, the Timeless Child, Doctor Ruth, origins of regeneration, the Doctor’s origin, these stand out way too much and drown out everything else whether it be their impact in the episode or the discussions amongst fans, positive and negative (kind of like that one numbnut who proposes at another person’s wedding, that’s the thing you remember for better or worse) .

Too many people throw around the criticism of “bad writing” but honestly that gets a little lazy. I’ve never watched Broadchurch so I don’t know how Chibnall and co handled story arcs there but here it was simply clumsy and awkward. With a couple of exceptions, the episodes themselves were enjoyable enough and some even compelling enough to keep watching.

It’s frustrating that we’re left on a cliffhanger and no satisfying resolution to the Timeless Child arc (thus far) but at the same time it achieves what it set out to do and make us (or at least makes me) want to find out what happens next.

I’m not annoyed enough by anything in series 12 to get worked up about it. I enjoyed it, I appreciated the many ideas it attempted to introduce, the character developments it finally had a chance to play out, and I also admire the ambition that was absent from series 11. I neither hate nor love this series but am still intrigued by what it’s trying to do.

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