Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Doctor Who essentially resets in Series 11. There are a lot of changes, from theme music to the Tardis to the entire cast, and even the setting is completely new, moving away from Cardiff, and even moving abroad a bit more regularly too. All those changes make this feel like a new programme, or like it is a reboot. Essentially, it is as if following the drop in television ratings by series 10, the show made a conscious effort to transform itself so much that it could attract new viewers, and a new generation of fans.
We will discuss all of those changes in more detail later in the conclusions, including the cast, the settings and the new cameras, but for now let’s set the scene. In terms of story arcs, we get a completely clean slate in Series 11. ‘Twice Upon a Time’ tied up the Twelfth doctor’s regeneration and gave us Bill Potts, Nardole and even Clara Oswald for the final time. So, we have no overhanging questions apart from the standard, “Who is the Doctor?”, which gives us a blank canvas from which to meet the Tardis Team.
There is a complete overhaul in cast, as well as much of the background team, from this series onward. The biggest visible change in that respect is the Doctor, of course. Jodie Whittaker takes over from Peter Capaldi and becomes the Thirteenth Doctor, as well as becoming the first woman to portray the Doctor. Up to this point, Whittaker is probably best known for her roles in Broadchurch (with David Tennant) and in an episode of Black Mirror, and was a controversial choice, albeit mainly because she is female. She brings a lot of energy to the part however nonetheless, which can’t always be said for the companions. The most recognisable member of the team to many will be Graham O’Brien, played by Bradley Walsh, who is a staple of British prime-time television as host of The Chase. Tosin Cole, who plays Ryan Sinclair, and Mandip Gill, who plays Yasmin Khan (Yaz), are also no strangers to evening television either, having both been regulars at different stages on the British soap, Hollyoaks.
Regarding any further changes and developments from Series 10 as we move into Series 11, we also have changes behind the scenes. The end of Peter Capaldi also brought to a close the Steven Moffat era as well, who had been the main showrunner and head-writer of the for seven years, since Russell T. Davies moved on after Series 4. Essentially, phase two of NuWho was now complete, and now phase three would be entrusted to Chris Chibnall, who had long been a writer for the show anyway. He is responsible for Series 7’s ‘The Power of Three’, for example, as well as many episodes of cult-classic spin-off, Torchwood, so his appointment as the new main man of Doctor Who ahead of Series 11 shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise, even if it hasn’t worked out quite as well as many would have hoped. In this series, he wrote four of the opening five stories (excluding ‘Rosa’) as well as the finale. The remainder of the stories were written by the most diverse team of writers in the history of the show, as a conscious effort was made to be more inclusive, to have more female writers, directors, editors and more people involved from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
We can’t forget the music either. The long established composer, Murray Gold, left the show as well following Series 10. If you were to go back and listen to the theme tunes to the previous four Doctor’s, there are only slight variations between them. If anything the biggest changes come in the visuals of the credits and the fonts used. However, Series 11 brings about the biggest musical change the modern show has ever had. In fact, the opening episode didn’t even have a theme song, and we only heard the new rendition of the classic tune for the first time at the beginning of the second episode.
The changes continue in regards to the Tardis, sonic screwdriver, and even length and airing of the episodes. Stories were slightly longer this year, at an average of 50 minutes. However, there were only ten episodes compared to the traditional 12 or 13. The series was aired on Sunday night’s for the first time in its history, between October and December 2018 over ten successive weekends. Three weeks or so after the finale, we had the New Year’s Day special ‘Resolution’, which was also a change, as it was the first year without a Christmas Day special since the show’s return in 2005.
Before we get into the episodes, for those of you reading these reviews for the first time, they are being written in light of our upcoming Doctor Who tour of Cardiff filming locations. The Welsh capital has served as the backdrop to most of the new stories filmed this century, including parts of Series 11, be it in studios in Cardiff Bay or around the city’s streets and buildings, and a tour of those locations will become a reality later this year, once tours are possible again, of course. Series 11 is no exception, especially in, for example, ‘Kerblam!’ (Cardiff Bay Barrage), ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ (The Police Headquarters), and ‘Arachnids in the UK’ (Celtic Manor). In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future, and a fun look back on the individual series’ as well to get us through lockdown.
With the set up and changes all noted, finally, it’s time to dive into the stories.
The last special was a Capaldi episode so that allows us to dive straight into the first story of the series, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’. There was a lot going on, as we had to meet five new characters for the first time, including Graham’s wife, Grace, and a new villain as well, "Tim Shaw". It felt like an entirely different television programme compared to the previous ten series due as much to the camera quality as to the change in personnel or the move to Sheffield. A solid opening though, with interesting characters, some dark tones, and even an unexpected death. It certainly left the viewer wanting to see more.
‘The Ghost Monument’ is also a decent story, especially due to the filming location in South Africa and the strong supporting characters. This episode is a classic example of series 11’s ability to generate a strong premise, stunning visuals, good performances by most of those involved, and yet it still feels a bit flat. Maybe that’s because the team don’t feel settled yet, or because they haven’t had a Tardis adventure yet, or because Ryan and Yaz are a bit annoying still...
The third story, and possibly the most well-known from this season is ‘Rosa’. While a fascinating real-life story well told, well handled, and it hit a lot of right notes in terms of tone, performances, accents and setting, something just didn’t quite feel right. Doctor Who does do historical episodes almost every series, and they’re usually fine, but maybe the closest to what was done here is ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, as the actions of the Doctor are influencing a specific moment in time. However, usually they’re in a time period where the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare or Robin Hood just happen to be loosely involved in a more important overall story, but here it feels like we have been given a history lesson, rather than just an entertaining episode that just happens to involve Rosa Parks. Still a great piece of television nonetheless.
‘Arachnids in the UK’ is, of course, widely derided for being completely pointless, and wasting the guest appearance of Big from ‘Sex and the City’, who not so subtly plays an evil Donald Trump type figure. At least this episode brings us back to Wales, as it’s mostly made at Celtic Manor Resort. And while the environmental message is not exactly subtle, the spiders are pretty creepy for a while. On top of it all, we should really be getting to know the core cast of characters a bit better by now, and it doesn’t feel like we are.
‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ is probably the first time ever in NuWho that the name of the episode is difficult to pronounce, and suddenly it becomes a regular thing having never been an issue before. The gang find themselves on a ship called the Tsuranga, where there is a pregnant man, and a cute little alien called a Pting, which looks incredibly fake. Eventually the Pting is defeated by inhaling the bomb on board the ship and it floats out into space.
Continuing with the history lessons, ‘Demons of the Punjab’ explains the partition of India and Pakistan to us. However, it’s not quite a simple retelling, but rather there are demons involved, and rather than trying to reverse anything, which is how it seemed in the beginning, the ‘Fam’ have to make sure things go ahead as planned. In this case an interesting insight into a complicated period of history, while not letting the history lesson rule the plot.
Now for perhaps the most fun episode of the series, ‘Kerblam!’. The gang infiltrate what is essentially an Amazon-like company in response to a distress call. This also might be the most excited the Doctor has been all series as well. There are fun characters, a bit of romance, we learn a bit more about the personalities of the companions, and even though the ‘antagonist’ is foiled and he still, kind of, gets what he wanted anyway, it doesn’t prevent this from being a fun ride.
Things get a little darker for the remainder of the series from this point on, particularly in terms of settings. ‘The Witchfinders’ brings us to Lancashire in the time of King James I, in the early seventeenth century, where there are regular witch trials and drownings of supposed witches. It turns out these ‘witches’ are just possessed by aliens and the Doctor, who was even thrown in the river for being a witch, saves the day. A story best remembered for Alan Cumming as James I, who takes a bit of a shining to Ryan.
‘It Takes You Away’ is one of the stronger episodes of the series. It has decent character development, an uneasy setting, a strong villain and a twist finish as well, which is pretty much all one can want from an episode of Doctor Who. The highlight of which is Graham reuniting with his wife, Grace, in an alternative Norway, and eventually being called “grandad” by Ryan.
And for the series finale, we have another ridiculously named story, ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’, which brings back the villain from the opening episode of the series, Tzim-Sha. It is fairly bland an uneventful as series finales go, but it does focus more on the relationships and personalities of the main characters, which is really what the viewer wants anyway, seeing as we only had ten episodes in which to get to know four major protagonists. Ultimately, Graham gets that fistbump from Ryan, and the Doctor shows some backbone and some Doctor-type qualities in her final words to Tim Shaw as well.
Finally, we have ‘Resolution’, which isn’t really Series 11 or 12, but it’s closer in time to 11 so let’s talk about it now. It’s pretty entertaining for a first New Year’s Day story, and has a superb first half. We open in the ninth century, and suddenly we’re at an archaeological dig under Sheffield in the modern day, and then there’s even a high speed car chase all of a sudden. This is the first old-villain appearance since the Thirteenth Doctor’s arrival, and continuing with the theme of starting over, we have got back to basics with the Daleks here, as there is only one and it is the first one. It kind of loses its way in the second half, as it doesn’t know how to defeat it without making it seem weak. We also get bogged down in the drama between Ryan and his dead as well. Overall though, a fairly lively and entertaining special.
This really took a while to get going, and for numerous reasons. That’s not strictly a negative thing overall, just a fact. As mentioned, it initially barely even feels like Doctor Who, and there are plenty of logical explanations for that. Every series feels different when there are huge changes but there was more to this one than even Series 1 or 5. However it is more like Series 1 than any other, trying out some new things, some of which work and others don’t. It felt like a fresh start though, not in a Series 5 kind of way, but like it was a totally new show getting back to basics and resetting for a younger and newer audience. That’s not to say it was a bad thing, but just really different.
The camera is a good place to start. The picture quality is better than ever, and definition and resolution are higher. The eleventh series was shot using Cooke and Angénieux anamorphic lenses for the first time in the series' history, a creative decision made in order to make the show look more cinematic. It basically looks like ‘The Day of the Doctor’ 50th anniversary special, but better, and for every episode. So, surely that a good thing, as the picture quality is amazing.
We also have three companions for the first time in NuWho. It has happened in the classics, but not in modern times. Three companions is just too many though. Either just Yaz, or just both of Graham and Ryan would have been fine, but all three seemed too much. That is especially so as there are only ten episodes to work with. We were denied time to get to know the three of them, and more importantly the Doctor, because we were meeting four new characters. As a result, we barely get to know Yaz at all outside of ‘Demons of the Punjab’, and it takes even longer than usual to adjust to the new Doctor as a result of having so many passengers. These companions are relatively weak in comparison to some favourites of the past as it is, and ultimately the current three find themselves relying on one-liners or brief moments of sentiment between each other in order to complete their characterisation.
We should just add the Doctor into that category as well, as this is the longest it has ever taken to get to know the Doctor. She was given three companions in order to ease the burden of being the first female Doctor, but that in turn distracts from getting to know the personality of her Doctor. So it’s essentially a lose-lose situation overall, because nobody wants three companions anyway, and we’d rather spend more time with the Doctor than with any of them as well.
There may be trouble with the characters because they are so many, but there are a lot of good intentions behind it all. A fresh start is a positive thing, and is always something exciting. We feel the same way whenever there is a new Doctor, new companion or big changeover like we have now. It is also a positive to have this fresh start without any of the old villains, which was a good decision. It’s also positive that the whole universe doesn’t already know who the Doctor is, which seemed to be the case from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi in particular. Having a death in the first episode was also a strong decision. It gave them all a reason to be together, added some stakes for a change, and created some reference points for the future.
Continuing on the positive side of things, the new opening theme is amazing, and perhaps the best of NuWho once you get used to it. The sonic looks great as well, and it was fun seeing her make it for a change. However, on the other hand the Tardis is definitely a weak point, and has changed too much from the relative consistency of the previous ten series.
Not helping on all those previous counts though is the writing. That is why the characters don’t gel as well as we would like, why we don’t get to know the Doctor as quickly as usual, and why a lot of promising stories don’t quite pay off. It has been criticised already in countless locations, but it really is very different. It’s just more simplistic overall, there’s too much exposition, too much preaching rather than letting the story explain the message, and the jokes are far less subtle than in the past. As a simple example, just because you have a character like Graham doesn’t mean he can be used for Dad Jokes all the time and you can get away with it. The drop in standard is particularly startling because Chibnall wrote a handful of stories going back even to Series 5. He also wrote most of the first series of Torchwood, and even Broadchurch! So we know he can do science fiction, Doctor Who, characterisation and adult content, so it beggars belief why the quality has dropped off so much in Series 11. The stories are often very promising throughout this series as well, but the dialogue often lets them down.
So with all that in mind, there’s a lot of challenges to overcome, which as a result clearly doesn’t help the stories. On top of that, there are only ten episodes, ten stories and no two-part stories either. So ten individual stories need to be told while at the same time giving us some backstory and character development consistently on four new characters. So, combine that to the inconsistent dialogue and the occasional slack acting, let’s call it, and you have ten stories that are not all that they can be. There’s some great ideas though. Episodes like ‘The Ghost Monument’, ‘Rosa’, ‘Demons of the Punjab’ and ‘Kerblam!’ give us something new, interesting and with a lot of potential, but they never reach the climaxes that we expect or want, because of the underlying issues we’ve discussed.
Before we move into ‘The Awards’, there’s some final points of information. Graham using the term “Doc” is not cool, but again they think they can get away with it because he’s older and playing the comic relief. Also, on that note the use of “Fam” is forced as well. Speaking of naming things, the titles of some of the episodes are not very Whovian, as was mentioned earlier. Some stories even feel like they could be any show, not necessarily Doctor Who.
Overall though, you can’t help but feel content enough in the circumstances. New things were tried, there were no old villains reused once again, there were a lot of new characters and new stories and even though not everything worked, and no episodes will live long in the memory, the effort of everyone involved is commendable.
Best Episode - ‘Demons of the Punjab’
Already noted, just a great story. It may have been a history lesson, but also one with a purpose.
Worst Episode - ‘Arachnids of the UK’
Probably the most insignificant story of the series, as well as the most preachy.
Best Character - Grace O’Brien
The companion who got away really. The one who spent the least time on camera turned out to be the most interesting member of the group.
Favourite Moment - “Grandad”, ‘It Takes You Away’
All series, we wanted to hear Ryan say it, and at the end of ‘It Takes You Away’, he finally called Graham, “Grandad”, in what was the emotional moment of the series.
Best Villain - Llin, ‘The Ghost Monument’
He didn’t spend too much time on screen compared to some other antagonists, but left us curious and wanted more of him.
Favourite Guest Star - Alan Cumming, ‘The Witchfinders’
The Scottish actor really hammed it up as King James I, and was the stand out performer of not just his episode but maybe even the series.
Obviously Cardiff/Wales Location- Celtic Manor Resort, 'Arachnids in the UK'
This is the least subtle of the very few options to choose from, but Celtic Manor is such a well established and prominent location in south-east Wales, outsiide Newport, these days that even the extra CGI couldn’t hide it.
Location Not So Obviously Cardiff - Cardiff Police Headquarters, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’
Cardiff’s police headquarters is situated in the Civic Centre area of the city, not far from other Whoniverse stalwarts like the Glamorgan Building and City Hall, and it makes its first Who experience in the opening episode of the series, when Yaz walks into work.
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