My Heart Breaks (But Still Hopes)
I am probably both a typical and atypical Doctor Who fan: I've watched it since childhood, but I do not follow anything of the show outside of catching every episode (I don't watch behind-the-scenes extras or follow casting or showrunner changes, though I will admit to creating a sound file of the original 1963 theme song to use as a ringtone--that was simply essential). I am very invested in the character and the uniqueness of the show. Oh, and I'm "a girl," so I am also invested in seeing (and believe it is possible to see) a successful female Doctor. With all of that in mind, I'm very reluctant to say a bad word about this new season. And maybe it is wrong to do so, since the show needs and deserves our support. But support includes loving criticism--though I don't harbor any delusions that these criticisms will be heard. Still, gotta say this somewhere. The stars of this show, Whittaker included, are wonderful performers, and of course the production values of the show have not faltered. The directing seems technically fine (unnoticeable, which I assume means fine). What is breaking my heart this season is THE WRITING. Yes, these are dark times, and there is validity to the notion that when times get this dark, one must simplify messages of light in order to reach as many people as possible. But here, simplification is not the answer. Let the after-school specials be after-school specials. Don't make after-school specials of Doctor Who, a show that is loved, and endures, because of the intelligence and complexity with which it delivers both its drama and its comedy. The viewers who complain that this show has declined because it has "become political" are, in my opinion, tragically mistaken: this show has ALWAYS been political. Watch it all again, and pay attention. Doctor Who has always artfully, cleverly, complexly, hilariously tackled issues of race, class, and gender, the wonders and the crimes of science, and most of all, power and violence. If you say that Doctor Who was not political before this season, I say to you that you must have been watching a different Doctor Who. Yet while these reviewers' critiques are woefully off the mark, their lament that the show is faltering is, sadly, correct. Not because it has "become political," but because it has confined itself to simple, narrow sentiments of good and bad, as if our humanity (since the Doctor is, ultimately, all of humanity and its potential combined into one brilliant, flawed, vulnerable, glorious, ever-changing life form) can be reduced to thinly sketched episodes of our history or heavy-handed allegories of our present. A history lesson on the Partition of India or an exposure of the environmental crimes of big business is important, sure, but if this is going to be the subject matter of a Doctor Who episode, don't foreground the messages a writer wants to get across at the expense of the drama (day characters here are all well acted, but they never say one unpredictable thing and rarely connect in a significant way with the contract characters), of the Whoniverse (for instance, we have to work overtime to consider how the aliens of the Punjab even matter to the episode, thematically or dramatically), or, most of all, of the DOCTOR, who rarely plays more of a role in each episode's events than any other character: she might have a little more technical knowledge, sure, but we more often are TOLD that she is special or smart or brave than we witness these aspects of her character--she is not an agent of insight, change, or even disaster, as the Doctor always has been. The Doctor--male or female--must lead the way, make the biggest mistakes, harm and save in equal measure, and then find a way to redeem him or herself in some way that is true to the circumstances--the place and time--of a particular episode, while carrying the marks of that adventure (the scars and the triumphs and the lessons) forward. The Doctor must teach the companions and learn from them. This doctor runs about, and knows things, sure, but she is not being given the grandiose agency or fallibility of her previous regenerations, a fact that I would accept if I had any sense that the writers intended to create such a dilemma, crafting the series in a way that gradually revealed why. A female Doctor might be extra vulnerable--unsure of herself in this form that she has to admit is indeed different than the others, or perhaps totally confident in her form, but struggling with the way everyone else responds to it--but vulnerability is--duh!--not passivity. I dare the writers of this season--or anyone, for that matter--to take the scripts we've seen thus far and strike the specifics of the Whoniverse from them: take out the TARDIS and make it a time-travel wormhole; take out the sonic and replace it with some other magic wand or tricorder; take out the Doctor herself and replace her with an intrepid leader of a fantastic human four--say, Grace, Ryan's "nan"--and see if anything major changes. I dare you to take the Doctor out of Doctor Who Series 11, and see if you experience any loss. The loss is ALREADY being experienced by those who have come to look to Doctor Who for beauty and wisdom and love, and I'd say that in today's climate--the one the writers are so obviously responding to--that is no small tragedy. But it's not too late. You've got the raw material here. A rich history (which you need not reference explicitly, but you must not erase!) and a lovely cast, including a potentially fantastic Doctor. Please bring the level of the writing back to what it should be. In our sad, divisive, backsliding times, we don't need to dumb things down or change what has uplifted us in the past: we need to allow it to do what it has always done, louder, more courageously, more transformatively--and I think nothing has more potential to reach, galvanize, and unite us than the complex fictional world and intensely human characters that used to make up Doctor Who.