Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Doctor Who Tours have arrived! For information about our upcoming Doctor Who walking tours of Cardiff on August 15th and 22nd 2020, please visit the tour page.
Doctor Who Series 12 is a curiosity. It is certainly a steady progression upon the previous year, and it feels like a natural and consistent improvement as well, but still contains flaws. Nonetheless, there are a lot of positives despite the ups and downs, and there are some stellar episodes and performances throughout.
Series 11 gave us a blank canvas, from which we got a lot of promising moments, a host of new characters and some decent stories. However, for all of that potential it never hit any high notes and was let down by some cheesy writing, bland performances and not-so-subtle moral preaching.
Series 12 still promised a lot though. By the Series 11 finale we had finally got to know the Doctor a little deeper, and by the end of the New Year’s Day special, ‘Resolution’, we were set up nicely for the new series. Regarding any dangling threads from the end of Series 11, there were no major stand-out questions from a narrative perspective. However, we still do have questions nonetheless, such as ‘Who is the Timeless Child?’, which was mentioned as far back as ‘The Ghost Monument’ in early Series 11. Otherwise, are we going to meet the Stenza empire following “Tim Shaw’s” two appearances up to this point? Also, surely the Cybermen are going to turn up this year, seeing as they were excluded from Series 11, but in what form will that be? So, we have questions, but nothing that strictly needs to get answered, and nothing that was dramatically left hanging over from either ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kalos’ (hopefully the episode names improve) or ‘Resolution’.
More than any of that stuff, what we really want is to get to know all of the characters better. Firstly, Yaz could do with some more storylines and with more to do, while Ryan’s acting could use some improvement as well. If this could all happen while also allowing the audience to experience more of the Doctor being the Doctor then that would be great. If anything, Series 11 left people wanting more, because there was so much unrealised potential and character development, so this is an important year to get things right and to deliver on the sliver of potential from Series 11.
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 12, 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 very soon, now that tours are possible again. Series 12 is no exception, especially in, for example, ‘Spyfall’ (Cathays Police Station), ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ (Bute Dock Feeder Canal), and ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’ (Custom House in Cardiff Bay). 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.
Finally, that tour is able to become a reality, and the first running of our Doctor Who Cardiff Tour will take place on the afternoon of Saturday August 15th at 2:30pm, from Alexandra Gardens in Cathays Park (pictured below). The second running will take place at the same time on the following Saturday, August 22nd, before returning more regularly from September. For these initial two tours there will be an introductory price of £10 per person, and a maximum of 12 spaces available on the tour. So, for more information about the tour and how to look, just visit the Doctor Who Tour page of our website.
With the set up and changes all noted, finally, it’s time to dive into the stories.
‘Spyfall Part One’ really is a strong series opener. We are thrust into action straight away, Yaz and Ryan are given something to do and Yaz particularly grows a bit of personality and shows some sass. This might even be the slickest episode there has ever been, set in glamorous locations at a furious pace. It concludes in the most dramatic fashion as well, with the well delivered and unexpected reveal of the Master, and with Tardis crew in genuine grave danger.
‘Spyfall Part Two’ picks up where the first part left off, on a plane with the companions plummeting to their deaths. Unsurprisingly, they get out of it, and in a very ‘Blink’ kind of way, but not without some drama and uncertainty. Ryan even saves the day, adding to the attempts to make the companions stronger and more relevant. The pace of Part One isn’t fully maintained overall, and the companions are essentially replaced with more intriguing historical characters, and not for the last time. Ultimately, Gallifrey is destroyed, the Master’s plans are foiled and the there are lies that will need to be revealed someday.
There have been some unloved episodes of Doctor Who over the years, but perhaps none so universally derided as ‘Orphan 55’. The premise was a bit forced and ridiculous, the characters were one-dimensional, the acting was at times atrocious and the message at the end was embarrassingly delivered.
‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’ did manage to get things back on track however. It was a solid historical episode, albeit one that tried to force a history lesson upon the viewer at times, akin to Series 11's historical efforts. Goran Visnjic was well cast as Tesla and Bulgaria stood in very nicely for early twentieth century New York City. The companions did, kind of, get cast aside for more interesting side characters again though, but ultimately everyone comes together to save Tesla from the Queen of the Skithra. They are an alien race that feed off the hard work of others, which is surely an easy metaphor for the fate of Tesla’s life, as ultimately Yaz is particularly disappointed that despite Tesla’s heroics, his reputation and life doesn’t change for the better.
‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ is often considered to be the highlight of the last two series of NuWho. It does contain many of the facets that are ideal in an episode of Doctor Who as well. It is set in the present day on Earth, and it starts off slowly and mysteriously and doesn’t dive directly into the action. It is essentially a Whodunnit (pun intended!), of sorts, for the first half, but with an unexpected twist, which is soon followed by a monumental reveal, and even Captain Jack pops up for the first time in ten years. Following all of that, there remain questions for the future and a bigger mystery surely awaits.
Perhaps this is becoming a theme of the show now, but ‘Praxeus’ is another example of an episode that gets off to a fast-paced and intriguing start, connecting people from around the world to one another, only to come together in a manner that the audience may find insulting. There is a bacterium that covers human bodies in a crystalline substance before disintegrating them, which is drawn to microplastics. The Doctor finds the cure and it is released, via explosion, into the Earth’s atmosphere so that nobody will be harmed. Essentially if there wasn’t so much plastic on Earth, this “praxeus” bacterium wouldn’t be a threat at all. The companions are also less active in this episode too, while a range of side-characters of different levels of relevance come and go.
‘Can You Hear Me?’ is a story that got a mixed reception. Perhaps it is one that needs repeated viewing, as the message is a bit of a slow-burner on first-watch. Each of the main cast have nightmares or visions while off on their own, which brings them all back together. This leads them to a ship in the future where they meet Zellin, a figure who has been imprisoned between two planets. He tricks the team to release him and help him free his colleague Rakaya, who feeds on the dreams and nightmares of people and descends upon Earth to do so. Overall, this contains an interesting villains, as they are not defeated really, but rather return to their imprisonment for now. It is made clear that they are even stronger than the Doctor, which is something we haven’t encountered for a long time either. This story also focuses heavily on depression and mental health, with the antagonist representing something that you can only suppress but never fully rid yourself off. While that is a subtle message for a change, the subsequent ‘It’s good to talk’ montage seemed a bit unnecessary.
Arguably, the series finale can be seen as a three-part story, which starts with ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’. Set outside Geneva but filmed outside Cardiff, the Villa is a spooky environment full of posh English people 200 years in the past. The hauntings of the villa come about due to the presence of Cyberium, which has been consumed by Percy Shelley. “The Lone Cyberman”, Ashad, comes looking for it and threatening the Earth the Doctor lets him take the cyberium. The Doctor and the gang follow Ashad to the future, while Mary Shelley is inspired to write Frankenstein.
‘The Ascension of the Cybermen’ is a curiously told story, featuring a post-apocalyptic future Earth as well as mid-twentieth century Ireland for some reason. Ultimately the crew and the last handful of humans band together in two-separate groups to make their way to Ko Sharmus, who turns out to be a person protecting a portal. The Cybercarrier that Graham and Yaz have commandeered contains a fleet of Cybermen in stasis, but they manage to arrive to Ko Sharmus anyway, where the portal leads them to a ruined Gallifrey, and to the Master!
‘The Timeless Children’ is a controversial finale, as it potentially undoes much of what we know of the Doctor and the Time Lords. Essentially is makes the Doctor the most important person in the universe rather than one of many of her kind. Anyway, the Master shows the Doctor a matrix of Gallifrey history, included the history of the “Timeless Child” and many of the lives that it has lived prior to the thirteen that we know about. Brendan, the Irish policeman, appears to be an amalgamation of all of these previous regenerations in the distant memory of the Doctor. The finale brought about some form of closure also for all of the companions, either overcoming their fears or finding themselves to a degree, but was definitely dominated by the Master and Ruth (Jo Martin’s Doctor), who were the undoubted stars of the show, if not the series.
Well, this was definitely better than Series 11 in many, many different ways. There were just better episodes compared to the previous year and story quality had a huge improvement overall as well. For example, stories such as ‘Spyfall’, ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’, and even the two-part series finale, are all strong stories in their own right. On top of that the scripts are better and the acting has improved too. The supporting cast were also good, particularly the Master of course, and any other semi-regulars like Yaz’s family or Jo Martin, who started strangely but developed strongly from her first appearance to the last. So, overall, a solid series and a vast improvement on Series 11.
Let’s start with Yaz, who thankfully was a vast improvement this year. In ‘Praxeus’, ‘Can you hear me?’ and ‘The Timeless Children’, we got to know her a little bit better, finally. She was given more to do, her character became more independent and strong, and we learned more of her backstory as well. It was long overdue, having long been the weak link or most disposable of the three companions. However, the balance of the companions has now shifted and she is suddenly the most interesting and the strongest of the three. That is reflected by the impending departures of Graham and Ryan from the show, whose last appearances will come in this winter’s special, which will hopefully come to pass as scheduled.
Bradley Walsh, as Graham O’Brien, for example, seems to know that this is all a little silly and it’s no surprise to read that his run is ending. The opening scene of ‘Orphan 55’ is a good case in point, as from the point that Graham announces that he has won a holiday he seems to know how ridiculous the script is. The same goes for Ryan in many ways. His redemption story arc revolving around basketball was equally ridiculous because of how unsubtle it was. Series 12 did nicely portray him as a young man overcoming his fears and lack of confidence, but it was certainly lacking in subtlety.
The Doctor is a bit more interesting as well thankfully. She was a little too happy and accommodating in her first series, but now she’s a bit more mysterious and has a bit more personality and uncertainty about her. That is mainly portrayed in regards to Gallifrey, how she won’t open up to “the Fam” and how she struggles with sympathy, such as with Graham. It was a great character development to see her almost turn on the companions occasionally, see them as an inconvenience and even close them out at times. Sometimes, they resulted in the companions getting cast aside as an afterthought in certain stories, such as in parts of the finale, or even in ‘Praxeus’ and 'Tesla', but at least it allowed her, and the others, to develop personalities.
While there were improvements in the stories, the writing and the acting, the series was still not exactly perfect. ‘Orphan 55’ has been well publicised as being a terrible, preachy story, and parts of some episodes are slow, such as the explanation of the ship in ‘Can you hear me?’, for example, or the finale’s long section without the Doctor even speaking.
Speaking of preachy, that is totally fine and very welcome if it is in the right circumstances. Allowing a story to convey a message is one thing, but essentially turning to the camera and telling us to protect the Earth is another entirely. In Series 12 we had environmental episodes in ‘Orphan 55’ and ‘Praxeus’, depression in ‘Can you hear me?’, and LGBTQI issues reflected in that same episode. There’s no problems with the messages, just the way in which they are, once again, not-so-subtly, portrayed.
It’s been said that the stories were stronger, and it is probably the grandest scale of ambition in NuWho in years. The reemergence of the Master, and the inclusion of a mysterious new Doctor in Jo Martin, really spiced things up and raised the stakes for everybody. Sacha Dhawan performance follows a long line of outstanding showings from the actor’s who have taken on the role, from Roger Delgado to John Simm and Michelle Gomez. Dhawan certainly didn’t disappoint, from his opening ruse in ‘Spyfall’ to his monologues in ‘The Timeless Children’, and was a welcome addition to the series (and yet another appearance from a History Boy). He left us wanting more, and surely that will be the case when the Whoniverse returns to our screens one day. The same can be said for Jo Martin’s Doctor, although her future is even less certain. Her initial arrival on screen was a little underwhelming but if anything, her Doctor appeared stronger than the Doctor with each scene she stole. Overall, the coming together of their plots in ‘The Timeless Children’ brought closure or a conclusion to the story, but left more questions as to how this existence is even possible, and controversially wants us to believe that the Doctor is the reason for Gallifrey’s existence rather than the Doctor being a product of Gallifrey. Perhaps more satisfying answers lay ahead...
Regarding the major questions of the series, all of them were answered in some form. We discovered that the Doctor was The Timeless Child, Captain Jack’s warning to “beware the lone Cyberman” were realised and explained, we visited Gallifrey and questions and character arcs over Jo Martin’s Doctor and The Master were reached in the series finale as well. Therefore, even if the answers were not always to our taste, everything was at the very least covered.
Best Episode - ‘Spyfall Part 1’
'Fugitive of the Judoon' was impressive as well, but the opening part of 'Spyfall' was a thrill-a-minute ride that Doctor Who just has not provided for a long time.
Worst Episode - ‘Orphan 55’
As mentioned already, an episode lacking in any positives unfortunately.
Best Character - Ruth
Jo Martin’s characterisation started slowly but gained in strength, confidence and conviction across her appearances and to many, became a better Doctor than the Doctor.
Favourite Moment - Finding the buried Tardis, ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’
The two big reveals of the series were between the Master’s reveal and Ruth’s reveal, but the Doctor finding the buried Tardis by the lighthouse was a slightly bigger and unexpected surprise.
Best Villain - Zellin and Rakaya, ‘Can You Hear Me?’
As mentioned above, they were not really defeated and were likely stronger than even the Doctor. It was a welcome reminder that there are stronger enemies in the universe.
Favourite Guest Star - John Barrowman
Picking a guest star is tough. The only options of people who are proper guest stars who are actually more famous than the regular cast were Lenny Henry, maybe, and certainly Stephen Fry, as well as John Barrowman, who isn’t exactly an outsider in the Whoniverse though. Nevertheless, Captain Jack was an extremely welcome addition and it was great to see him in action for the first time since Torchwood ended nine years ago. Hopefully he will be back...
Obviously Cardiff/Wales Location- Cardiff Police Station, ‘Spyfall Part One’
A rare repeated location of Series 11 and 12 is the police station in Cathays in central Cardiff. It might not have been so obvious in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ but it was by the time of ‘Spyfall’.
Location Not So Obviously Cardiff - Bute Docks Feeder, ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’
One can easily be forgiven for thinking this was Gloucester, seeing as the English city was used throughout the episode as well, but when Ruth is walking from her flat (also in Cardiff) to Gloucester Cathedral, she is in fact walking along a canal between Cardiff's city and bay.
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