SPILLING INK: Lessons Writers can learn from the 11th Season of Doctor Who: Balance Strange and Familiar
As the 11th season of Doctor Who comes to a close I feel I can safely discuss it without fear of giving away too many spoilers.
Being a fan of the series for some time now I’ve learned to love the brilliance of a story that has an ever-changing main character. The Doctor remains so in name with each incarnation but there is no doubt that each new actor filling those extremely large shoes brings a new element to the story, revitalizing it.
It’s not just the actor(s) though that bring the iconic character to life. A whole team of writers are behind them, working to balance a foreign element (new actor, new situations) with the familiar elements viewers know and love.
That struggle is never more prevalent than in the first season of a newly regenerated Doctor.
I, like many other avid fans, rabidly awaited the reveal of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor while hoping to see elements of her predecessors to help ground her with the fanbase. To that end, I felt a bit let down. Not at the actress’s portrayal. I felt she did a fantastic job of giving the Doctor plenty of quirk and animation. My disappointment came from the apparent desire of the writers to blaze a whole new trail in the Doctor Who universe without first grounding the new Doctor in our minds.
As a writer, specifically in the modern/urban fantasy genre, I know that the best way to connect my readers with the world I’m writing in is to give them a balance of familiar and strange. Sci-Fi works similarly employing this theory. It must be believable as well as being fantastical enough to really pique interests and hold attention. You need your readers and viewers to feel they can connect with the world. And once established that world must continue to follow the same rules the audience has been taught.
With Doctor Who, especially during a first season after regeneration there has always been some overlap. And rightly so. This helps the audience connect the new elements (new face, new quirks, new catchphrases…) with the world and creatures they have become familiar with.
Admittedly, the first season of any new Doctor is a clunky one. Writers not used to the new actor, often come off as if they are still writing what they know from the old one. The new actor trying to pay homage to the old Doctor hamming it up a little to remind the viewers that their old favorite is still in there, somewhere. It’s a bit disjointed at times, but the story flow still moves forward and we have enough familiar to go on to really settle in for a season as we get to see the true Doctor emerge.
All through the season we saw Jodie Whittaker give her Doctor life, and I like her portrayal of the first female Doctor, but something felt off. A situation would present itself for the Doctor to do or say something very Doctor-y and it would never come.
Episode 4 Arachnids in the U.K. left me with my jaw gaping when Jack Robertson’s character shot a dying creature at point blank range, and the Doctor did little to reprimand him. Where was the ability to make a simple an effective threat, as previous Doctor, David Tennant did to Harriet Jones when she ordered Torchwood to fire on the retreating Sycorax ship?
The Doctor always knew the power of words, and each incarnation has had their way with them. Better than weapons. In fact, another notable quote from that same Doctor comes to mind.
“You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!” ~ 10th Doctor
If the Doctor is nothing else, the Doctor is brilliant. Always having a plan or at least part of a plan, and that’s why the Doctor is able to save the day. I felt like with this new Doctor, they forgot just how ancient and wizened the character was supposed to be. There were times during this season where it felt like the Doctor was a bit clueless. Did the regeneration kill some brain cells? Still, far from dumb, but I got the feeling that the writers did not want to let Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor come across as brilliant or in control of every situation as previous Doctors. I hope next season they let her shine a bit more.
There were positives to this new incarnation too (it’s not all negative), this Doctor was much more empathic than previous incarnations. She felt more in tune with her pack of companions and invested in their emotions. A wise choice, I think. We’ve seen the aloof alien repeated many times, the one who, though they love earth and spend so much time with humans, can’t grasp the range of emotions of the companions they travel with. It was time for an incarnation who “gets it.” Still, that change was drastic, and further highlighted the difference in her character.
And that was really the crux of the problem with this season. It was the bombardment of so much newness that really undermined the integrity of the series. I understand they were working from the ground up with so many changes from the previous season, but the executive decision to wipe the slate clean left me feeling unsatisfied. And that is why I feel like the 11th season of Doctor Who really missed the mark.
We had new everything. New companions. New Doctor. New TARDIS. New writers. New monsters. It felt, at times, as if I was watching an adaptation rather than the real thing.
The number one reason for that feeling was the lack of the familiar.
That epiphany did not strike me until I watched the season-ender, New Year’s (Another new change. Where was my Christmas Special?) episode: Resolution.
I knew from the preview that the dangerous monster had to be a Dalek and squealed with delight when I finally saw the ugly little squiddy thing (sans boob-skirted trash can armor). And at that moment when I was fist pumping the air with triumph at accurately guessing the baddy, it struck me.
Familiarity. That’s what had been missing. Now this feels like Doctor Who!
To me, it was the best episode of the season. It felt like a true Doctor Who episode. I enjoyed every moment of it.
All season long I had been searching for my Doctor. She was right there in front of me, but swimming among so many new and shiny things I couldn’t see it. All it took was that hint of familiarity to really bring me in.
And that, I pray, is what the writers will do next season. Remember the roots of the show. Keep the campy don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously Sci-Fi feel, with monsters we know and love, and we will be able to relax into this new age of the Doctor.