Matt Brennan and Josh Jackson review Doctor Who each week in a series of letters.
When you said “alien war” last week, I have to admit I pictured something… grander. Sure, trapping entire planets inside opaque crystals as revenge for being stranded in space for 3,407 years sounds like a big deal, but I was imagining massed armies, with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions caught in the crossfire. Maybe they’re saving the extra special effects for the New Year’s episode?
As I said of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” I jest, I jest. Well, kind of. I can’t say this episode enthralled me, despite the return of Tim Shaw and the culmination of Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) season-long building arc. (I did think Chibnall and company arrived at a satisfying conclusion, on this front—now they can move on to a new conflict for the companions to grapple with when Season 12 airs in 2020. And hopefully find one worthy of Mandip Gill’s Yaz.) It’s not a clunker, exactly, there’s just not a lot of there there. For one, we’re asked to buy that a species whose individuals live thousands of years would blindly accept a blue man with teeth in his face as their Creator—including Downton Abbey’s no-nonsense Mrs. Hughes, no less!
You tell me: Tim Shaw is the first recurring villain the thirteenth Doctor has faced. (And the way Graham and Ryan “dispose” of him makes me think we haven’t seen the last of him, either. How does he stack up against other of the series’ Big Bads? And how does this episode stack up in handling it?
I believe he goes by Tzim-Sha, but I’m just going to call him Tim Shaw because he’d be outsmarted by the Zygons or the Master, exterminated by the Daleks or assimilated by the Cybermen—in a heartbeat. Mr. Shaw was overcome by two guys with laser guns and soft hearts. He’s a pretty uninspiring nemesis to bookend this season of Doctor Who, even if he lucked out into convincing super-powered beings into thinking he was a god.
I too was hoping for something a little more epic with the title “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.” We arrive after the battle, with Tim Shaw having captured five entire planets he’s put in stasis. The stakes are at least high with Earth next on Toothface’s list. And it takes some creative problem-solving from the Doctor to restore order to the universe. But it wasn’t the big finish I was expecting.
Still, Jodie Whittaker continues to shine in her role. And Graham and Ryan had good moments together and some closure with Grace’s killer. We’ll have to wait until 2020 for Season 12, but we’ll at least get a New Year’s special to tide us over before then.
So, you’ve now seen an entire episode of Doctor Who. What surprised you most about the show? How did it compare to what you were expecting? Will you go back and watch any of the previous Doctors before we reconvene in 2020?
I think what surprised me most is how easy it was to find a way into Doctor Who. I pitched the idea of corresponding about the season in part because I worried I wouldn’t “get” it, or that there was simply too much Doctor Who lore—even limiting ourselves to the modern reboot—for me to sift through without guidance. Like most of the great science-fiction franchises, though, Doctor Who’s history enriches the experience for longtime fans without shutting out newbies like myself. Week in and week out, your expertise helped contextualize what I was seeing, but I never had a moment where the story was hard to follow because I knew nothing about Doctor Who. As New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz has said of other series, Doctor Who teaches you how to watch it: Each episode, good and bad, sketches in recurring themes and tropes, and does so without a lot of cheap, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you surprises. In this sense, though Doctor Who is far from perfect, it never feels like wasted time. It earns our commitment to the characters and our interest in the plot the old-fashioned way, by going back to basics and trusting the viewer to play along. That’s refreshing.
It also means I’ll be digging into the other seasons, and probably jumping around quite a bit. Jodie Whittaker is my first Doctor, and as you note she’s been the consistent highlight all season—I’ll be interested to see Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, David Tennant, and Peter Capaldi in the role. Since the historical episodes have been a favorite of mine so far, I’ll definitely be seeking out some of those, as well as the installments you’ve recommended over the course of the season. And I’ll be looking at the companions’ arcs and the futuristic episodes to see if they give some indication of how the Chibnall/Whittaker Who can improve in those areas, which have been weak links this season.
Most importantly, though, I’ll be tuning in come 2020 to see what adventures the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz get up to next. I am, officially, a fan.
Thanks for coming along with me on the journey this season, Josh. Any final thoughts?
It’s been a joy to watch this season with your fresh set of eyes on one of my favorite TV pleasures. I’ve long argued that while Doctor Who is not the greatest sci-fi series of all-time (that honor still belongs to Battlestar Galactica), it is without a doubt the most fun. The Doctor may know more guilt and pain than any creature in the universe, but at her core, she just wants to take her companions a good adventure, help out where she can and have a merry old time. And this season was just that.
Jodie Whittaker is now #MyDoctor. She breathed new life into the series right when it was needed, boosting ratings and proving wrong all those silly doubters who thought an alien with two hearts and a dozen different bodies somehow had to always be a white dude to be “believable.” Imagination really is a wonderful thing.
The Doctor Who fandom is full of imagination, which you can see at any fan convention. I’ll leave you with my own creation from five years ago, when I built a Tardis-themed soap-box-derby car for my kids to race. It looked better than it steered. ’Til the New Year special.