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Doctor Who: Has the regeneration gone wrong?

PUBLISHED: 17:43 10 December 2018

Doctor Who: All change for series 13. Tosin Cole as Ryan, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Bradley Walsh as Graham, Mandip Gill as Yaz (C) BBC/BBC Studios/Sophie Mutevelian..

Doctor Who: All change for series 13. Tosin Cole as Ryan, Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor, Bradley Walsh as Graham, Mandip Gill as Yaz (C) BBC/BBC Studios/Sophie Mutevelian..

(C) BBC/BBC Studios/Sophie Mutevelian..

In October, Doctor Who returned to our screens full of groundbreaking optimism. Jodie Whittaker was the first female Doctor and Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall had become the new showrunner. As the final episode of the year transmits this weekend, Steve Russell and Andrew Clarke have different feelings about the show they love

Previous Doctors: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith Photo: BBCPrevious Doctors: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith Photo: BBC

What do I love about Doctor Who? Well almost everything – the eccentricity, the drama, the aliens, the quirky writing, the characterisation, the relationships between the various regulars, the threat, the aliens, the ominous sense of danger and the amazing theme tune.

I am a true super-fan. Ever since Jon Pertwee swept his cape back over his shoulder, I have been there by the Doctor’s side, their constant companion – all of them – marvelling at the contradiction between their humanity and their otherworldliness.

I loved the casting of Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor. I think she is a fantastic actress and loved her in Broadchurch. The success of Michelle Gomez as Missy, the female incarnation of the Doctor’s arch-enemy The Master, proves that Time Lord regeneration can flip between genders in an exciting and dramatic way – so why has this current series left me wondering whether it’s time to hand back my TARDIS key and leave the Doctor wander space and time without me.

Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton as Dr Who  in the classic story  The Three Doctors Photo: BBCJon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton as Dr Who in the classic story The Three Doctors Photo: BBC

After a brace of engaging opening episodes, this current series, the first-helmed by Broadchurch writer and Dr Who contributor Chris Chibnall, has become distinctly underwhelming. The fire has gone out of the writing, it’s lost its sense of wonder, it’s pace and energy. It’s become, dare I say it, rather pedestrian.

The imagination and inventiveness, the epic nature of its storytelling, is missing. Doctor Who has become small-scale. Even, during the classic era, when the show’s budgets couldn’t always match its soaring imagination, the stories always had ambition.

Sadly, this latest run of adventures can hardly be described as adventures because nothing much happens. A subtle indication of this can be found in the format of the programme.

Ever since the series returned in 2005, there has been pre-title, scene-setting sequence, resulting in a cliffhanger – a homage to the weekly serial nature of the original series.

Under the direction of Chris Chibnall, this set-up scene has gone. There’s no mystery, no sense of danger, no dramatic threat being introduced which results in the Dr Who scream which leads us into that hypnotic theme tune.

Instead, Jodie’s TARDIS arrives, wheezing and groaning, The Doctor and her team get out, wander around a bit, deliver some moralistic message, get back on board and go on their merry way.

This isn’t the Doctor Who I have spent the last 48 years enjoying and it’s led me to sitting down and examining exactly what it is that has left me so unengaged.

The rot became tangible during the The Tsuranga Conundrum episode when half an hour in I found myself looking at the clock and wondering: “How much longer has this to go?” I had enjoyed the previous week’s story Arachnids in the UK, choosing to overlook the fact that it was a shameless rip-off of the Third Doctor story The Green Death, but it was Rosa, the week before that had first set the alarm bells ringing.

I thought Rosa Parks was a terrific subject for a Dr Who episode but the low key way it was told was totally alien to a series that injected real drama and jeopardy into its historical stories.

Way back when The Doctor was put on trial by The Time Lords, at the end of the Patrick Troughton era, it wasn’t for stealing a TARDIS, it was for interfering in the timeline of other species.

The Doctor was unrepentant, saying evil had to be fought and this has been his modus operandi – until now it seems. Jodie’s Doctor is more concerned with letting history take its course rather than interfering and promoting change.

This was my problem with the Rosa Parks episode. From a drama point of view, the Doctor was a guest star in her own series. It was like watching Rosa’s life through a window rather than becoming an active part in her story.

The sorry introduction of the racist alien was woefully underwritten. There was no characterisation, no backstory, no motivation. He was a cardboard cutout, a cypher designed to advance the plot and an excuse for The Doctor to be there. The ease with which he was dispatched was insulting.

In fact, most weeks the resolutions to the story are too easy, too contrived.

The tone of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is also too overtly educational, it’s almost like a schools programme introducing you to historical moments like racial segregation in the American south, the partition of India or the hysteria surrounding witches in 16th/17th century England.

It’s also too moralistic with its metaphorical rebuke of Amazon and online shopping in the episode Kerblam! In the past when The Doctor found himself in a moral maze, the audience was left to draw their own conclusions rather than being lectured.

There’s a sense that we, the audience, are being talked down to. Perhaps the lack of alien threats is a reflection on the series writers beliefs that aliens do not present threats but are just misunderstood life-forms.

In any event, this results in a serious lack of drama and excitement and I miss my cliffhangers. After this weekend Chris Chibnall has a year to get the series back on track... let’s hope he uses his time wisely.

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