X Things I’d Love to See in the New Doctor Who
If you missed the news in all the hubbub of SDCC, a trailer for the new season of Doctor Who dropped. And for once I can say I'm actually excited about it, and not just because the Doctor is now a woman (but yeah, I am hella excited about that). I'm excited because this is a whole new chapter in Doctor Who's saga, and the show desperately needs that.
I mean, it's not a whole lot to go on, a whole 50 seconds. And another 40 or so seconds if you count the teaser trailer.
So let's break it down. Obviously we get the whole "new faces, new worlds, new times" bit. I guess it's only natural for the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, to want to distance himself and mark this as a new beginning. It's not a bad strategy, either!
So what do we see? Some flaming wrecks of presumably spaceships (I won't lie, they kind of remind me of the pod racers from The Phantom Menace). A yard with some old-timey stuff: A car, a jeep, some big boilers. Another scene with the Doctor and her companions standing in the parking lot of what I'd guess is a 1950s or 1960s motel. There's a flash of what's probably a forest, a couple of scenes in various ship (probably spaceships), an old deserted building, and of course a horseback riding scene that's possibly (probably?) a reference to the wild west.
We see the companions, obviously -- three of them, this time, and it seems like they won't know each other before they join up. Their names are Ryan, Yaz, and Graham, by the way. Check out the teaser trailer for more on that:
So what can we expect from season 11? Honestly, we don't have a lot of details. Chris Chibnall apparently wants to keep things quiet -- and again, that's probably a smart move. The less people know, the less they can tear the show apart before it even airs. The teaser doesn't even give us a glimpse at any of the monsters or creatures we might encounter, and Chibnall says we're going to see all new monsters, no familiar faces (not even Daleks!). We've got the usual blabber about "rules will be broken" and some general hype.
I'm not here to tell you what we will see. Because any sort of news will just come through the cast and then through the press. But I would like to talk a little about what I'd like to see. Because Doctor Who is one of those gateway sci-fi shows that lead people down the path to more geekdom. It's also a cultural icon. A landmark, even.
I didn't get on board with the new series of Doctor Who right when it came out. But I do remember watching season 4 of the new series in college, and enjoying it. Then my friend A introduced me to Torchwood. And that immediately prompted a dive back into seasons 1-3. Suffice it to say, in a very short time I became obsessed with Doctor Who.
And then Russell T. Davies and David Tennant both broke my heart by leaving the show just as my obsession was growing. But I was obsessed and Moffat had written a few pretty fantastic episodes during his tenure. Surely it couldn't be that bad, right? It might not be as deliciously good as the RTD era, but I would still enjoy it.
I did enjoy season 5, and parts of 6. Just not as much as I enjoyed seasons 1-4. And....things just went downhill from there. People say you always love your first Doctor the most. I'm a bit of an anomaly then, because 9 is my favorite even though 10 was my first. And I liked Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi as 11 and 12 well enough. But I hated the writing. I hated the giant multi-season arcs and all the build-up just to a couple of throwaway lines.
Enough about the past, though! What's there to look forward to in the future? What can we love and appreciate about Doctor Who instead of critiquing all the bad stuff. (And that's not to say that it doesn't deserve to be criticized, because Moffat and his writing team have a LOT to answer for in my book.) Here's what I'm looking forward to seeing in series 11 of Doctor Who:
1. More Diversity
First of all, if you're complaining or in any way, shape or form unhappy about the Doctor being a woman, you probably just want to close this browser tab right now because nothing I say here is going to make you happy.
Sci-fi (and fantasy, too) for some reason have this perception as belonging to white dudes -- old white dudes especially. And there's a whole LONG list of reasons why that's a load of crap, from the numerous women who were pioneers in speculative fiction to the fact that women and people of color account for a much bigger part of the world's population than old white dudes.
During Moffat's 81-episode tenure, 3 women wrote 4 episodes. That's it. (If I'm honest, Russell T. Davies wasn't much better, with just 1 woman writing several episodes in seasons 3 and 4) And that's not counting directors either. Representation in ALL aspects of media matter. That means it matters who's writing the scripts and behind the cameras as much as who's in front of them. Moffat is on the record as saying, "Stop assuming that I'm a demon who's trying to prevent it, as opposed to the man who's done more to make it happen than anybody else," ...but he also has a long history of saying vaguely offensive and very sexist things so you can make up your mind for yourself.
Fortunately, Chris Chibnall seems really dedicated to making this happen already. First, under his tenure Doctor Who has hired its first writers of color -- and I mean first in the entire 50+ year history of the show (Editor's note: Holy Shit). The show is possibly moving toward a writers room format for some of its episodes, but among its guest writer spots are two women (and three men). Directors will be half men, half women -- and all but 1 of the editors are also women. The new comics series featuring Jodie Whittaker's Doctor will also be an entire team of woman.
And that's not even getting into the companions. We have Tosin Cole as Ryan, Bradley Walsh as Graham and Mandip Gill as Yaz -- a young black man, a middle-aged white dude, and a middle eastern woman. Sharon D. Clarke also has an unspecified recurring role. I am absolutely excited about all of them. Yes, even the middle-aged white dudes. Moffat and RTD both seem to have favored young women for companions, and it leads to the inevitable "young girl falling for vaguely human-ish alien who notices her feelings way less often than he should" trope. (Donna was a great break from this. At some point I will probably wax eloquent on the many ways in which Donna Noble is the best companion of all time, but not today.)
Anyway. I want to see a bunch of different experiences, a bunch of perspectives on traveling through all of space and time, and I want to see how they clash and what common ground they find in making sense of the universe in all its infinite weirdness. It sounds like Chibnall is in agreement there, too. The original show had a group of companions, and so the new batch are a throwback to that. But he also said in an interview, “I love Doctor Who as a big, popular, mainstream, accessible show. So I wanted to make sure that every member of the audience felt they had a relatable character, an access point."
I also hope it will change the dynamic to something a little more platonic. Rose was a definitely romance, with a case of jealous boyfriend. Martha was unrequited love. Donna was a good friendship. Amy had a massive "are they or are they not a thing?" with a bit of jealous boyfriend thrown in. Clara fancied Matt Smith's doctor, and then spent most of the time playing nanny to Peter Capaldi's doctor while he made insulting comments about her appearance. Bill was a good start in breaking the cycle of romance, but there was an unhealthy and teacher-student vibe that didn't sit right with me. Which actually brings me to my next point.
2. Empower the Companions
OK, so technically Chris Chibnall is calling them "friends" now, not companions. I wonder how well that's gonna stick given how firmly entrenched the term "companion" is in the recent lore. But as I've been rewatching Doctor Who, the moments I am enjoying most are when the companions are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Doctor. When they help find solutions, when their thoughts and ideas are treated as valid and not 10 steps behind the Doctor.
As much as I love to see that the Doctor isn't perfect and can have flaws and moments of darkness, petulance, despair, and even childishness, I feel like 11 and 12 in particular were super prone to this sort of behavior. Clara, as a companion, was saddled with handling the worst of it. Even with Bill, Peter Capaldi's Doctor was difficult. He'd flip the dynamic entirely around and tell Bill to decide what happens, because for some reason he doesn't have that right or responsibility -- even when Bill has barely any understanding of what's going on or what's at stake. The Doctor's companions-slash-friends need to be more than just the people who tell the Doctor to quit whining/get it together/don't do this thing.
The Doctor's companions always shine brightest when they refuse to just sit back and wait for the Doctor to save the day. The moments that resonate with me are inevitably when they're leading and inspiring others; when they're doing their part to solve the mystery of what's going on. Rose had some great moments like this, especially in "Tooth and Claw." Martha in "Smith and Jones," Donna in "The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky" and "The Doctor's Daughter." Amy in "The Beast Below."
Those are the companions I want to see.
So it's time put an end to the "know-it-all Doctor and bewildered companion" dynamic as well as the "Doctor is a child and his companions need to tell him to be a decent person" tropes.
The good news is it sounds like, from the trailer, that this is the kind of vibe we're going to get.
3. More Depth in Women Characters
Before I start here, I want to start by saying that I really liked Karen Gillan and Jenna Louise Coleman in the roles of Amy and Clara. The actresses are fantastic, and there were plenty of moments where I liked the characters themselves. But Moffat's tenure of Doctor Who didn't do great at giving the companions a lot of depth. If I'm honest, this is kind of a big problem in any sort of male-dominated media. Even the ones with "strong" women characters, what we get are women are who are one dimensional. They are defined by their toughness (their "I don't need no man" attitude) or maybe some sort of tragic backstory.
Amy Pond was your almost stereotypical fiesty redhead and sex object, especially in season 5. They played this up a lot in that "is she going to choose the doctor or Rory" storyline. And even in season 6 they still played on this. I mean you could probably argue they tried to be creative by giving her Rory as a fiance rather than a stereotypically sexy stud, but honestly, the hot girl falling for the nerdy, kind of awkward guy? Not that original.
And then there's Clara. And Clara had so much potential to be an interesting character. A woman who kept recurring throughout different points of time, meeting the Doctor in different forms at different points in time. Instead, we got a woman who existed solely to care for everyone else. As a nanny, as a teacher, as a companion. Even her death (spoiler alert) was because she put others' needs ahead of her own.
All of that sounds tragic and noble.... except that women are asked every day, often (and usually unfairly), to put others' needs ahead of their own. Women who don't get branded as selfish. And when the show writers opted to revamp Clara when the Doctor regenerated, they made her sassier, but it led to this weird almost-parental relationship with Peter Capaldi's Doctor, where he regularly made unkind remarks about her and she straight up slapped him when he got out of line.
River Song, when she first appeared, was an absolutely phenomenal character. She continued to be interesting the first few times she appeared after that -- even if she lost a little bit of her complexity. She became larger than life, a total badass -- whose defining characteristic was her badassery (she could make even a Dalek beg for mercy).
And then came the big reveal -- that she was Amy and Rory's daughter, and that she was a pawn (used by the Silence) destined to kill the Doctor. And that's about where River Song stopped being interesting, because she was shoehorned into this overly-complicated storyline and a destined romance that was really poorly written and awkwardly acted.
Oops -- I am ranting again. But I've hope I've made my point about the women lacking depth.
As much as I love the idea that the Doctor transcends gender and so who they are isn't dictated by whether they're in the body of a man or woman, I also want to see what happens when the Doctor tries to navigate the world as a woman. I want to see the Doctor flashing the psychic paper and some asshat still questioning it because they can't believe a woman would be the expert. Show us the companions trying to fit the Doctor into "standard" gender roles and her breaking that down.
Likewise with Jodie, I want to see some depth and complexity. I don't want a single characteristic to define her. But I'd like to see how she and the Doctor navigate their friendship, and how they deal with interacting with men -- both the other companions and an assorted cast of characters. Let's see how they handle being expected to do the things that women are often tasked with -- things that more oblivious men probably don't even notice.
That's not to say I want this entire season arc to be about the Doctor suddenly being a woman and gender politics. But it would be a nice change to see some of these issues addressed -- especially because it makes sense to do so. To ignore these issues associated with gender would be, to some extent, pretending they don't exist. Sure, in a truly progressive, advanced society they wouldn't. But they do, because we as humans aren't there yet. So let's talk about them a little. Let's see stories where the Doctor overcomes those barriers and use them to show that women are just as complicated as men -- and that our stories are just as interesting. Let's see women in all their complexity, not just the single embodiment of a typical feminine trait.
4. Better Writing (and a Better Season Arc)
Word on the street is that we won't see any two-part episodes in season 11. I'm a little bit sad about this because there are some FANTASTIC two-part episodes in NuWho canon (Human Nature/Family of Blood, for example). But on the other hand, we've only got a 10-episode season, so they may not want to invest in the fluff and filler that comes with a two-parter.
But either way, I just want to see better writing. Please.
Moffat can write great two-parters and one offs, but he's not so great at playing the long game. The entirety of seasons 5-7 got a bit convoluted with the River Song plot (plots?) combined with the Silence and Madame Kovarian and everything else. The worst part was the resolutions to some of these stories. They felt like a cheat:"The doctor is doomed to die at Lake Silencio and River Song is the one to kill him" but oh wait, it's just a robot and River Song is doing it against her will because she's already fallen in love with the Doctor!
(Pro tip: If your solution to all the plot-related complications of a character having a baby is to magically age that baby, you probably have no business writing that story. Yes, I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer.)
My issue with these stories (and I'll elaborate on this in a bit) is that they weren't really emotionally satisfying arcs. There weren't a lot of clues as to the resolution. Nothing was sacrificed or lost. There was no compromise of conscience or moral quandaries that made you question the Doctor. Emotionally there wasn't a lot of impact (except for "The Angels Take Manhattan"). And all of that is a let-down. Sure, it's always fun to round up the whole gang and storm the castle, but it's not much of a story to tell. With Doctor Who, I WANT to get my heart broken. I want to feel the pain of terrible things happening and not always being able to avoid them. Because those moments are what make the good moments even better.
Remember this? Think of how uplifting this moment was -- and that was because of all the heartbreak we'd experienced up to this point. Not just in this episode, but in every episode leading up to it. So many people died, on and off screen, in The Unquiet Dead, Aliens of London, Dalek, even Father's Day.
This is what emotional impact looks like.
Break my heart into a thousand little pieces; just do it well, please!
5. Focus on the Little Things
Season finales are supposed to be big and emotionally satisfying -- they're the culmination of the entire season, every story arc coming together. But there's absolutely such a thing as "too big." When you're constantly trying to figure out how to make your season openings and endings more "epic" you run into Supernatural-type problems: What do you do when you've defeated the Devil himself (several times)? Well, you take on God's sister that no one knew about. And once you've defeated literal-freaking-deities, what else is out there? What monsters could possibly be scary or more dangerous when you've essentially maxed out your leveling stats?
And that, to me, was the worst problem with Moffat's tenure on Doctor Who. Which is a goddamn pity, because the best episodes of the new Doctor Who series have always been the small ones. "Vincent and the Doctor" still makes me bawl like a baby; same with "The Girl Who Waited" and "The Doctor's Wife." From the RTD era, "Father's Day" will send be into a crying fit pretty quick. The stakes in these episodes weren't high. There was no big bad to defeat (except for House in "The Doctor's Wife"). Instead, each of these episodes is incredibly character driven. It's the interactions between each of the players that makes them fascinating.
(You wanted a reason to cry, didn't you? Right?)
I don't think most fans need totally epic tales of good and bad with high stakes to feel happy and satisfied with a piece of media. What I want, and what I think a lot of others want, is a well-told story with compelling characters. It can be happy, it can be sad, it can be bittersweet. But it has to be well done. So I really hope that before the writers go biting off more than they can chew, they work on getting the storytelling and the characters and the little moments right.
So that's my list. It's a big, abstract list, to be sure. But that's because I'm not wedded to the idea of seeing particular villains or characters recurring. I just want a well-done show, and this is what I think it'll take to deliver.
Oh, and if you're curious? Here's a running list of everything we know about Doctor Who's new season. Which is a good amount of general information... except, of course, a release date!
What are you hoping to see (or not see) in the new series of Doctor Who?