Series 11 of Doctor Who was probably the most debated in the programme’s history. It featured the show’s first female Doctor, which became a hot topic on Twitter, and set the eponymous Time Lady adrift in space with a whopping four live-in companions. It also marked the end of Steven Moffat’s long stint as showrunner, paving the way for Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall to take the reigns. With all these changes, many fans speculated whether the BBC had gone too far with its new NuWho.
Despite its critics, the series opened to a whopping 10.96 million views, garnering close to 100 million views over its 10-episode run. It seems the BBC has gone just far enough with Series 11, producing a show that has proved to be the most successful in the programme’s 55-year run.
X (Chromosome) Marks the Spot
“Am I? Does it suit me?… Sorry, half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman. When’s the next train due?”
Jodie Whittaker’s appointment as the show’s first female lead came as a surprise to everyone, including most of the show’s staff members. But the show has remained as unphased by it as the Doctor herself. According to showrunner Chris Chibnall, Whittaker’s character was initially written for a male actor, and remained mostly unchanged when a woman was chosen for the role.
Initially believed to be the most significant risk the show would take this year, Thirteen’s gender has surprisingly had little impact on the show’s narrative. References to the Doctor’s new X chromosome are few and far in-between and are often used to contextualise rather than drive the plot. The show’s major changes are entirely unrelated to the concept of a female Doctor, and the new series exemplifies how inconsequential gender is to the character’s identity, a point that Chibnall has also been keen to stress.
Whitaker’s performance in the lead role is more important. The Broadchurch actor makes the character entirely her own while incorporating enough familiar traits to be the Doctor we all know and love and, more importantly, the Doctor we expect. As one Twitter user noted:
— Rylan Clark-Neal (@Rylan) July 16, 2017
She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not
That said, the lead character’s new gender has brought welcome changes to the relationship dynamics in the show. Previously, NuWho consistently indulged in romantic, often unrequited entanglements between the Doctor and the Doctor’s young, female companions. So much so that in the second series’ episode, “School Reunion,” it seemed perfectly normal for new companion Rose Tyler and former companion Sarah Jane Smith to spend serious screen time arguing over who the Doctor loved more. While entertaining, these relationships quickly became repetitive and predictable.
Classic Who’s romance-free relationships didn’t fare much better, with the characters heavily relying on the Doctor for narrative cues. The show’s first three companions — Susan Foreman, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton — acted as audience surrogates, introducing viewers to the world of Doctor Who with a series of well-placed questions. Classic Who mostly followed this format in its casting, with characters like Ace breaking the mould on rare occasions.
Series 11 steers away from both of these formats, presenting a rag-tag band of merry companions — each with their own story and purpose. The series’ shift from story arcs to character arcs has given us more fleshed out characters — and one of the show’s strongest narratives. Doctor’s companion and widower, Graham O’Brien, loses his wife in Series 11’s first episode, only to be reunited with a version of her in the penultimate episode and face-off against the villain who murdered her in the series finale. It’s a complex and compelling story that has nothing to do with the show’s premise or its titular character. As such, while Series 11’s Doctor feels familiar and on-brand, the show itself seems decidedly less so.
King in the North
Unfamiliar territory seems to be the new series’ mantra. Though the show introduces new planets and new species, its most foreign element is the quite-real and fairly domestic location of Sheffield. All four companions are local to the area, and it serves as the setting for at least part of many of Series 11’s episodes.
It’s perhaps not something you notice until its changed, but the show has historically promoted a singular UK demographic and vocal intonation through its characters, narratives, and locations. For 55 years, the TARDIS has travelled everywhere from Mondas to the birth of the universe, but it has rarely ventured outside of London. This problem isn’t unique to Doctor Who. British media has traditionally been and often still is “London centric,” so it’s refreshing to see such a popular, prime-time programme set in the North.
The show champions Northern engineering as a key factor in the creation of the new sonic screwdriver and makes frequent references to traditional Northern trades. The new series hasn’t just changed locations, its centrifuged the entire plot and it’s for this, more than anything, that it deserves to be applauded.
Space, Race, and Gender Politics
Doctor Who’s ability to tackle serious social subjects was a key concern during the “Great Doctor Debate” of 2017. The show has always sought to mirror and address real-world issues but has always done so through a staunchly sci-fi lens. When it has attempted to deal with real-world problems in real-world terms, it’s often been ineffectual and lacking in depth.
In the third NuWho series, Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones joins the cast as the first black female character with a speaking role. Martha was designed to be the show’s “social conscience,” yet in the second episode, “The Shakespeare Code,” the Doctor is quick to dismiss her concerns about facing racism in 16th-century England. The show only makes two other references to Martha’s race during her 12-episode tenure, and neither of these are adequately addressed or play any part in the plot.
As such, fans were concerned that the format of the show was ill-equipped to deal with the misogyny and racism Series 11’s cast would face in darker periods of Earth’s past. The show blew right past this hurdle in its third episode, “Rosa” — which delved into the complex race relations of the USA in the 1950s. And it kept going. From the 1947 partition of India to the need for AI in a commercialised world, Series 11 made social issues its central theme. Doing so is probably the biggest risk that the new series takes, and its success indicates that it’s a step in the right direction. While these changes weren’t always fully executed, in the era of “wokeness,” the new NuWho is precisely what the show needs to regenerate itself. It just needs a little time to complete the cycle.