Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.
I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.
Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.
It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.
The strange aspect of this is that change, on some level, was what many fans and critics of Doctor Who wanted as Moffat’s tenure came to a close.
While Capaldi was a fine Doctor, the grumpy old beast who steadily softened into the grandfatherly professor filled with regrets, arguably his tenure lacked the material afforded to Matt Smith and (for the most part) David Tennant before him during the Davies years. Capaldi’s run peaked with the Heaven Sent three-part story in Season 9 which said goodbye to Jenna Coleman’s companion Clara and figured out an emotional and inventive way to undo the gambit of Gallifrey being lost and the Time Lords wiped out in the Time War. His final season was ultimately something of a victory lap, one designed primarily to give his relationship with Michelle Gomez’ Missy (the female incarnation of the Master)—one of the best aspects of Capaldi’s era—a level of closure, which for this timeless conflict between the two long-standing enemies seemed fairly definitive.
Doctor Who is a unique show in the sense that while the series operates within the same continuity, each new Doctor and particularly each new showrunner is given the opportunity to reboot the show within those parameters. This is precisely what Davies did back in 2005 when the series returned from a 16 year hiatus (the wobbly American TV movie aside). There ended up a clear delineation between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Who. Or ‘nuWho’. Though legacy fans would try and decry the new era as lacking substance, all Davies did was repackage the classic series with a modern genre aesthetic, moving the show away from adventure serial multi-part silliness to a post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American-style dramatic model. It worked gangbusters, pulling in old and new fans (such as myself) alike. What Moffat did was continue the approach but alter the style, turning Davies’ science-fiction blockbuster melodrama into a deliberately knotty, self-referential fairytale.
The Smith years were characterised by mythologising and deconstructing not just the Doctor but the show itself. The Doctor’s Wife characterised the TARDIS, and episodes like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS explored its workings like never before. The Eleventh Doctor’s entire arc, of facing his destiny on the fields of Trenzalore, the creepy Silence cult of aliens etc… was all weaved into a long-form narrative mythology which questioned the meaning and substance of who the Doctor, in many ways the most mysterious protagonist in modern fiction, really was. Moffat teased his name, his parentage, his entire backstory on Gallifrey of stealing his TARDIS, and by The Day of the Doctor weaved it quite beautifully into a celebration of the characters 50th on-screen birthday in which he undid the full stop of the Time War created by Davies, a device meant to isolate the Doctor and give him a tragic exceptionalism for a new era that defined him.
In truth, Moffat seemed as disinterested in Gallifrey and the Time Lords as Davies was, avoiding the Doctor becoming drowned in their arch mythology and grandeur even after Smith turned into Capaldi and he no longer became the vaunted ‘last of the Time Lords’. Capaldi’s run was to an extent an echo of the detailed Smith mythology, with the Twelfth Doctor trying to self-analyse his own being. Re-introducing the Master this point made sense to provide that contrast and Missy was just as much of an inversion to the traditional Who tropes from Moffat as his approach to the mythology during the Smith years.
Missy wasn’t just a literal enemy for the Doctor but a psychological one, no longer simply the crazed madman we saw in John Simm’s Harold Saxon but a complicated female Machiavelli toying with redemption. The Doctor Falls appeared to lock that off with a definitive death for Missy, and indeed the Master, having brought back Simm to provide that psychotic contrast within the villain himself. By the end of the Capaldi era, it felt like Moffat had mined the show for all it was worth, perhaps even staying a season or two too long.
Chris Chibnall had been the expected replacement for some time, having written episodes during the Davies and Moffat era, and he brought with him an expectation of serialisation given his fame writing the hit murder mystery Broadchurch for ITV, which proved to be ironically unfounded. Season 11 was the most defiantly stand-alone series of Doctor Who since the reboot in 2005. New companions Ryan Sinclair and Graham O’Brien had an emotional narrative through line of repairing a relationship broken by the death of a woman they both loved, but the Thirteenth Doctor herself faced no great enemy, no ongoing mystery, no continued threat. Premiere episode The Woman Who Fell to Earth and finale The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos had a simplistic tether but that was all. Few of the episodes had emotional weight or packed much of a dramatic punch. The main exception was civil rights drama Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, focusing on Kashmiri border segregation. Both, tellingly, were period episodes. Anything set in the modern day or on an alien world often fell flat.
Even bringing back the Daleks in Resolutions didn’t work and felt forced, attempting to give the Doctor a chance to face down her most infamous and intractable foe. Many fans bemoaned moving the series from it’s coveted Christmas Day slot, a staple of British TV for over a decade, supposedly because Chibnall believed there were no more Who Christmas stories to tell. The New Years Day slot opened up the possibility for fresh new approaches to the festive special but Resolutions was no vibrant proof of concept in this regard. Going into 2019, excitement and expectation were at perhaps an all time low for new Who. Rumours abounded that Chibnall and or Whittaker were out the door after the next series (for the latter that would make her the only actor since Christopher Eccleston not to play the role for at least three seasons). The experiment seemed to have failed, in terms of moving Doctor Who away from the detailed mythological fairytale of Steven Moffat back toward more of a lightweight, fairly throwaway, accessible science-fiction adventure romp.
Why did that approach fail? That’s the question. There could be numerous reasons. For one thing, the writing in Season 11 simply wasn’t on a par with previous seasons, with Chibnall seemingly lacking the seasoned chops of either of his predecessors. In tone, he seemed far more aligned to Davies; less book or cine-literate than Moffat, yet more grounded and real. Davies used urban London and Cardiff as key locations during his tenure. Moffat’s first companions came from a fictional English village.
Chibnall geared his first season around Sheffield, lending the show the most deliberately ‘northern’ vibe since Eccleston in Season 1, especially with Whittaker playing her Doctor as from north-west England (possibly Mancunian, but it’s never precisely defined). This was pure Rose & Jackie Tyler territory here but Chibnall struggled to give his companions the same weight – and lets face it, the companions are usually the ones who drive the storytelling in Doctor Who, or at least always did in the Davies years. Moffat’s last couple of seasons with Capaldi made them far more *about* the Doctor alone. The companions and the actors playing them grew into their roles across the season but the scripts and stories simply lacked the same power or heft as in previous years.
We also have to appreciate how audiences have evolved over the years since Doctor Who returned in 2005. While there is some indication that stand-alone stories are heading for a comeback, particularly with the success and growing proliferation of the anthology series, serialisation and character work has become the cornerstone of prestige television. People expect a beginning, middle and end to a story, with clear and relatable consequences for their protagonists. This became a staple particularly in Doctor Who, with even one season companions such as Bill Potts having a defined arc throughout Season 10.
We had also perhaps been spoiled by Moffat’s revelatory approach, in how he mined the series mythology and the inner workings of the character to often thrilling effect. Think of episodes such as The Name of the Doctor or The Pandorica Opens. These were big ‘Mytharc’ episodes within a structure of semi-stand-alone adventures for the TARDIS team of the time which forwarded and advanced the plot and character arcs. Chibnall did away with much of that and the result was… underwhelming. We had been programmed to expect more.
It therefore is little surprise that Spyfall, the two-parter kicking off Season 12, entirely suggests Chibnall is reversing course. In just these two episodes he brings back the Master (now again a man, played with Simm-like mania by Sacha Dhawan). He destroys Gallifrey and introduces a Moffat-esque season-long mystery in the Timeless Child (which in fairness was seeded in Season 11’s The Ghost Monument). He builds the entire premiere story around a James Bond lampoon (just look at the title!), with the strangely cast Lenny Henry as the Bond villain (a role the Master also to a degree plays).
Chibnall throws in Davies-like historical figures such as Noor Inayat Khan & Ada Lovelace, weaving them into a story centred heavily around female empowerment and influence – indeed there is one sequence where the Master makes the Doctor kneel and say his name which is loaded, given the Doctor now being a woman, with dark sexual and abusive subtext in terms of gender politics. Spyfall is the kind of ‘kitchen sink’ two-parter we seemed light years away from in the stripped back, simpler Season 11, and the result is admittedly a more satisfying experience, even if Chibnall lacks the skill of Moffat or Davies’ ability to write well enough so his plot holes were less glaring. Future episodes look set to feature the Judoon, last seen beyond cameo appearances in the Davies-era, and recurring legendary villain the Cybermen. Everything is pointing back to where we came from.
Only two episodes in, it’s early days to truly judge Season 12 or the shape of it. Chibnall might well have figured out a way to have his cake an eat it, balancing the throwaway stand-alone plots of his first run with a more substantive mythological arc for the Doctor, fuelled by a proper nemesis, but Spyfall certainly suggests he has significantly caved to the detractors of his first year and is sailing the good ship Who back toward the tone, style and territory of his predecessors, and could well end up giving us a season which combines the two in many ways. On one hand, this will be rewarding.
On the other, it feels regressive. While Season 11 was weak and unremarkable in many places, it was at least a sign that Chibnall wanted to place his own mark on the show, retool Doctor Who into a different beast, and with time and space as the writing improved and the actors grew ever more into their roles, it could have yielded results in Season 12. By attempting to cash in on past success stories, we could end up with a familiar but recycled product, simply echoing stories and ideas we have seen before.
Let’s see what Season 12 brings and whether it will continue to regenerate back into itself, or Doctor Who might manage to use some of that Time Lord energy to further evolve.