So was the 13th Doctor's era THAT bad?
People love Doctor Who. It's easy to see why, when you have character with a magical box that can go anywhere and any time.
It is one of the most genius concepts that television has ever produced, and you need no further indication of that than the fact it's been going for nearly sixty years. However, with a show that goes on that long there inevitably comes the disagreement around what era of the show you prefer.
This is always the key conflict between overeager fans, all of whom fell in love with the incredible concept of the show during any particular era. While some fans accept the show in whatever form it takes (embracing the change, as you will), there will inevitably be an interpretation that you may just not click with. Either that, or you react negatively to and see it as getting away from what made the show great.
Me personally? While I have my favourite periods of the show, I find it hard to fully hate an era, because every era has usually brought something new and interesting to the table and given us a new spin on the Doctor that I haven't seen before.
It may make some recoil in horror, but the era that made me fall in love with the show is actually an especially controversial one, being Colin Baker's time during the 1980s. I know it is an era with flaws; filled with violence and an over-reliance on previous lore of the show, not to mention several generic stories and questionable decisions. But The Doctor being this unstable figure made for such an interesting dynamic change to previous eras, his progression made him such a compelling character, and when stories hit, they hit hard. Colin Baker is the reason why I fell in love with this show.
So when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the new Doctor, joining Chris Chibnall as showrunner in 2017, the backlash and differing opinions was nothing out of the ordinary. Every Doctor has had detractors before they began. But let's get the obvious exception with this backlash out of the way.
Full disclosure, I know that we live in a world still struggling with patriarchal issues and structures, and while it is important to break those down and strive for a world of open equality, we're not there yet, sadly.
But, the discussion of the Doctor's gender has ALWAYS been around. From genuine discussion to parodies and more, it was an inevitability that in a show about exploring the universe and embracing change, that something like this was going to happen.
To put it simply, what matters most in Doctor Who is having a wonderful and complex character who gives us fun sci-fi adventures, and if you're focusing on the gender of a character and using THAT as the determining factor of your opinion, you're focusing on the wrong thing. You only have to look at Michelle Gomez and her performance as Missy (as a recent example), and how quickly she has risen up the ranks of the best Masters to see that what matters most is what you do with the character. The best part about Missy was how incredible her story was, and Gomez embodied it perfectly.
In November last year, we said goodbye to the Whittaker era, and while it was heart-warming to see many new fans sad to see her go, it was also disheartening to see fans happy to see the back of her. It was a moment of such toxicity for something that is just meant to bring joy. And as such, I find myself in a weird place with the show, the fans, and the last five years.
I don't hate the creators of the show. When you are putting this much effort into what is now a tent-pole production for the BBC, it is fair to acknowledge when that effort actually translates to screen. Applying a blanket-style criticism and assuming everything in an era is trash is not an objective argument: in fact, it is similar to the arguments that fans were levelling at the Star Wars prequels during the 2000s and 2010s. Yet, now people are increasingly coming round to those films, and that the strengths of the storytelling and ideas far outweigh their shortcomings.
We are only a few months post the Whittaker era at the time of writing, so it is too early to determine how this era will sit in the greater context of the show's history. But we are able to look at it in full, with time to digest. If that is the case, what are the episodes that stand out? What is the Thirteenth Doctor's era defined by? Are the criticisms levelled at it legitimate?
I can only give you my opinion, and to me I can only summarise it like this: it is an era that COULD have been one of the best.
The production design is immaculate. The aesthetics are some of the most gorgeous the show has ever had. There is a great bunch of directors and an incredibly talented cast and crew leaping out of the screen with every episode. Even episodes where the subject matter is laughable, most of the time it still looks great on screen.
I love Jodie Whittaker as an actress. I honestly do. Whether you love or hate the portrayal (we'll get to that) there is no denying she brings a breezier energy and a new lease on life that I think the modern era of Doctor Who needed. There comes a point, especially after ten seasons, that you can't have a character being endlessly bogged down by the guilt of the Time War. That natural recovery is part of the change, and she is able to embody that when the show writes to her strengths.
So what holds all of this back from being an era that COULD have been one of the best? Well, like a clunky segue, we need to talk about the writing and direction of this era, because here the criticism is not unfounded.
The sad part is, Chris Chibnall is an excellent writer. I know it's easy to criticise now, but back when he was announced as showrunner in 2017 he was regarded as one of the biggest writing stars in the UK, having delivered Broadchurch, some great episodes in season two of Torchwood, and he's made some good episodes for the main show as well. So, what happened?
The more I've looked at the show, the more I've realised how well Series Eleven has aged. When Series Twelve rolled around, the show really started to lean into previous lore. Yeah, while that is great for those familiar with the show and those willing to jump on the nostalgia train, it isn't necessarily good for the long-term health of the show.
We've been down this road before during the 1980s, especially when the Fifth and Sixth Doctors had returning villains week after week. It is important to remember Doctor Who is at it's best when it moves with the times, it's a major reason the show under the eras of the Third and Fourth Doctors, not to mention under Russell T Davies and arguably Steven Moffat, are viewed as the most creative times of the show.
The Whittaker era definitely tried new things, not just changing the Doctor. There was increased emphasis on historical stories, and even a few globetrotting stories that harken back to older eras. However, from Series Twelve this emphasis on previous villains and characters becomes the driving force of the show, and not for the better.
It's a well-talked about comparison, but a lot of similarities have been made between Jodie's performance and the performance of Peter Davison. The Fifth Doctor was, for sure, likeable. But often he had moments where he was cheated out of a more complex examination of his character. For the Thirteenth Doctor, there was an additional issue: actual moments of questionable morality. The murdering of a whole bunch of spiders in Arachnids in the UK. Or committing actual genocide in multiple moments of Flux. There's actually quite a lot of instances where I thought, I am supposed to be cheering for this character?
However, when the Thirteenth Doctor was at her best, I would argue that she outshone her lowest moments, and gave us something new that the show hadn't seen before: a Doctor in recovery, with a new lease on life. While the Thirteenth Doctor's era is not one I will personally gravitate to, that doesn't mean that there isn't enjoyment to be had. At the end of the day, this era has it's fans who will enjoy it no matter what, and if you do, more power to you. So no, the Thirteenth Doctor's era wasn't all bad.
So what are the best episodes? Well, here is my top five in no particular order (only just from the TV series, not expanded media). If you haven't seen these episodes before, (or maybe even if you have) I think you should check them out. Or, indeed, re-evaluate.
Series 11, Episode 9: 'It Takes You Away'
Full Disclosure (and I feel like I'm going to say this a lot): this is not a perfect episode. In fact, it feels like three episodes in one. When it came out it was an episode that divided a lot of fans, specifically for the talking frog at the end.
And yet, the more I look back at Series Eleven and the Whittaker Era in general, the more this episode stands out despite it's flaws. The best way to describe it is that it is not a episode that you walk your way through, but that you feel your way through. The third act is especially gut-wrenching, as companions come face-to-face with their grief, and also acceptance of each other.
I also just love the idea of a sentient universe who wants to have friends, and can transform themselves into anything at all just so they can get those 'friends' to stay. It makes the 'villain's' motivations extremely saddening, and rewatching it, that final scene with the frog actually hits a lot harder than it should.
Again, it has flaws, especially with the strange dimension that takes up much of the second act, but this was an episode I think fans were much too harsh on.
Series 12, Episode 6: 'Praxeus'
Again, many fans took issue with one element of this episode, being the fact that the Doctor was able to save Jake at the end of the episode, making us all wonder why they didn't do the exact same thing when actual companion Adric died during Earthshock back in 1982.
I think this nitpick of the plot was blown out-of-proportion, overshadowing what was actually quite a good episode. I'd argue that the best episodes of Doctor Who always have one thing that is objectively stupid, even the likes of classics like The Caves of Androzani (you know the animal I'm talking about). It's just part of the show at this point.
The idea of a globe-trotting episode that drops you straight into the action when things are already in mention was something that had been attempted on one or two occasions during this era. However, this is the episode where it really works, as the fam try to combat a faceless alien contagion that spreads by microplastics that have accumulated in our bodies.
It helps that the environmental messaging is actually incorporated naturally to fuel the sci-fi, rather than being ham-fistedly sold to you with no subtlety.
So many Whittaker era episodes often fell into one of two major issues: either the opening act took up so much of the episode that it made the resolution feel rushed, unresolved or unearned; or that the episode moved at such a frenetic pace that the audience barely had the chance to breathe and process what was going on. Of all the episodes in the latter camp, Praxeus never bores you or makes you feel lost. It works.
An underappreciated episode of the Whittaker era, this is one episode that you should check out again.
Series 11, Episode 3: 'Rosa'
This is where the Whittaker era starts to stand out for me, and was the key inspiration for writing this article: that was this era's daring ability to reinvigorate historical stories. Historicals during the early years of the Revival era felt somewhat obligatory. Honestly, before Rosa, I'd argue the last true standout historical probably 2010's Vincent And The Doctor.
The decision to focus a lot of the historical episodes on incredible women from history was an absolute masterstroke, and episodes like Rosa were instances where I realised no other era would dare to try and do an episode like this. Returning to such a time in American history at a critical moment in the civil-rights movement is something that not only leads to a great episode covering topics that are still relevant today, it's the kind of episode that harks back to Sixties-Who, when such stories were used as an educational tool more than anything else.
In a sense, Rosa leans back into a foundational part of the show, and the premise was frankly a genius idea. It's also one of the first standout moments for The Doctor, as she battles a setting that rejects both people of colour and women. In this space, the companions' dynamic also begins to work, and the wider discussion of social justice framed in the context of this moment in history gives the episode strong legs.
While it is still early days in terms of judging the Whittaker era already, Rosa already stands out as an episode of this time, and also serves as one of the gutsier episodes of the wider Doctor Who universe.
2022 New Years Special: 'Eve of the Daleks'
Yes I know, this is a very weird choice. This is an instance where personal preference looms over the general consensus. The Dalek episodes of the Whittaker era are hit-and-miss (to put it lightly), with episodes like Resolution coming close greatness, only to be let down by ripping off other era of the show. And then there is Revolution, which is... well... trash.
Eve works much better though, especially because we just come off the back of Flux: a frenetic, intense story that, while an admirable effort in terms of introducing new ideas and crazy concepts, was all up just a mess. An enjoyable mess at times, but still a mess.
Having an episode grounded in one place was exactly what this era needed at this point in time. The idea of a self-contained, smaller story of The Doctor and Co. getting caught in a time loop and escaping the Daleks actually makes for a much more focused adventure. It was also helped by the fact that the supporting cast was quite well realised.
While Yasmin developing her feelings for The Doctor felt a little tacked on (and goes nowhere in the greater scheme of the era), this is a late era Whittaker episode that I think stands out.
Series 11, Episode 6: 'Demons of the Punjab'
There are a lot of episodes in the Whittaker era that do come close to being genuinely great. I thought about including Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror in this list because it is so damn fun, but the moment the villain shows up the episode falls apart. I also thought, hey, Can You Hear Me? is pretty good, with it's examination of depression and a setting that was the scariest since 2017's Oxygen, but the ending of the episode is an absolute disaster.
But, when it comes to episodes that are some of the best pieces of TV Doctor Who has ever done, Demons stands tall above the rest as the jewel in the crown for Whittaker's historical stories. Not only is it the best Whittaker episode in my opinion, it is honestly one of the best historical episodes Doctor Who has ever done.
Focusing again on a piece of history that isn't talked about enough, The Doctor and Co. find themselves in the Punjab in 1947 just before the partition of Pakistan from India. The episode expertly examines how this peaceful landscape became a battlefield directly off the back of a decision made thousands of miles away. It is a critical moment, not just in British history, but the history of South Asia, and it's a decision the subcontinent has been grappling with to this day.
This is a brave story that twists and turns, subverting your expectations. It's a story about a situation that is completely out of our characters' control, and yet it's themes of radicalisation and that violence only begets violence make it feel incredibly relevant. Even the monsters of the week subvert expectations; the idea of alien war race who choose to put down their arms and commit themselves to be there for those who die alone is such an incredibly heartfelt sentiment.
But, what also makes this episode really stand out is Jodie Whittaker.
After years of having guilt-ridden weight from the Time War (especially during Peter Capaldi run), the Thirteenth Doctor really feels like the same character who has a new lease on life and a reminder of what matters most. While the majority of her era struggles to achieve that feeling (especially feeding her expositional dialogue that feels endless), Demons of the Punjab is where they really nail what this Doctor stands for, both in writing and in performance. Jodie Whittaker's scene as marriage celebrant for Umbreen and Prem is not just the standout moment for this episode, but of her Doctor. Screw the haters, she was The Doctor and that moment proves it.
There were PLENTY of shocking episodes in the Whittaker era, as there always are in any era. But was the era that bad? No.
Fans have a strange way of coming to love Doctor Who over time, people forget how hated the Colin Baker era was in the years following it's end. Now, many recognise that the risks taken during that incarnation's run has seen an explosion of depth for the character that has echoed through the show for decades afterwards.
It is too early to guess how the Whittaker era will be reviewed by fans, but it would be wrong to assume everything in the era didn't work. Sometimes the era played it safe, sometimes it was held back by terrible writing, sometimes it fell back too heavily on previous Doctor Who lore.
It had the potential to be one of the most ground-breaking eras of the show, and while I, like many others, may have gripes with it, the fact that it's has fans in its own right who now love this wonderful show and the fact it did go out of it's way to try new things makes it worthy of respect.