We’re four episodes deep into Chris Chibnall’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner and things are going… OK.
Jodie Whittaker looks more comfortable in the role each and every week while her band of companions haven’t hit the point of grating quite yet. The pieces are there for a solid Doctor Who run.
Except that hasn’t quite happened yet.
Re-watching Arachnids in the UK, I found myself bored with the events that were unfolding. The story offers up a tempting premise but quickly falls into the same trap that most of this season’s episodes have also tripped into, one where the story becomes so predictable and by the numbers, it’s easy to zone out as an audience member.
The show’s stories aren’t hitting the mark as they should be, that’s probably down to a lack of stakes being offered up.
Doctor Who is a show that lives and dies by the underlying mysteries and themes that tie its universe together. Ultimately there has to be a threat for The Doctor to overcome, otherwise, things can get pretty dull in a hurry.
Yet every episode of Series 11 has been predictable, failing to challenge the audience or their expectations in storytelling. When the chance arises to do something interesting, the show seems more content to shift gears and “surprise” the audience in a way that ultimately doesn’t benefit the story it’s telling.
This has been evident since the first episode of Jodie Whittaker’s tenure, where her introduction was somewhat underplayed. Rather than pushing her Doctor out the door with a huge bang, her arrival felt muted, subdued and ultimately unable to deliver the punch it should have.
Where Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all got grand outings to mark their arrival, Whittaker’s enemy of the week was a forgettable tooth monster that stalked the streets of Sheffield, failing to leave much of an impression by the episode’s end and leaving audiences feeling like more should have been offered.
It awkwardly set a tone for the episodes that followed.
There’s no sense of wonder in the current crop of episodes. No grand scale to the adventures being offered up. It’s almost as if the show is ashamed of its sci-fi roots and is only paying lip service to them out of obligation.
Take The Ghost Monument, Whittaker’s second outing as The Doctor.
We’re presented with a planet that the audience is told constantly is dangerous and forbidden. Danger looms around every corner, in every body of water and only gets worse at night. There’s so much that could be done with this idea (and has been in the past) yet a good portion of the episode is spent watching the characters doing naff all with this.
There’s no sense of danger presented throughout, even though The Doctor is without her Tardis and the tools she can usually call upon. We’re literally just watching a bunch of people walk through the desert; all the while Whittaker reminds the audience that danger is everywhere.
This is never truly paid off, even when the monsters that Whittaker fears pop up at the end. So bad is the CGI and so corny was the execution that the audience is more inclined to laugh out loud.
The threat is dispatched within minutes and The Doctor never brings up the monsters again. The lackluster build led to a payoff that was equally disappointing and the episode is rendered all but forgettable in the process.
It’s not like Doctor Who hasn’t explored this very premise before and managed to do it better.
The 2009 Doctor Who episode, Planet of the Dead, arguably took this desert planet premise and did much better with it. There’s a sense of foreboding danger throughout as the threat the planet poses becomes steadily more apparent. Tennant’s Doctor is forced into action and forced to do something to save the people he found himself stranded with. He didn’t know these people but he felt an obligation to get them home safely – which created compelling drama throughout the episode.
Whittaker’s team didn’t do this. None of them seem overly inconvenienced by what was happening. Other than a few casual remarks, it didn’t seem to phase any of the team in a way that would make the audience care.
This was the first time any of her new companions had stepped foot on another world but you wouldn’t have thought this from how they behaved. Their reactions and the way they behaved betrayed what audiences expected, leading to yet another subdued and ultimately forgettable outing.
If the characters don’t care, why should the audience?
Even the series best episode, Rosa Parks, suffers from this lack of stakes.
Because the villain Krasco (I’m willing to wager barely anyone reading this could remember his name) was so weak and brought so little to the episode, audiences are left not caring about the threat he potentially poses. His impact in the episode does nothing to back this up and he ultimately serves as a secondary villain to the meta-commentary on racism in 1950’s America.
When your villains are so forgettable and so uninteresting that they basically only serve as plot points to be run through, it ultimately saps enjoyment from the show.
Past episodes that tackled historical events and figures used elements of the shows sci-fi leanings to amplify the impact of the story, something this season of Doctor Who seems very unwilling to indulge.
The best example of this is arguably Stephen Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace.
The story of Madame de Pompadour probably wasn’t known by many watching before the episode aired. Yet the show blended the threat of the futuristic clockwork monsters into the story of her tragic life so wonderfully that it was hard not to be captivated by it all.
The episode delivered because it made strong use of enemies that were creatively unique and memorable – posing a challenge to the characters that ultimately benefitted the story. The stakes were real and The Doctor behaved in the story like those stakes mattered.
Rosa Parks didn’t need this kind of grand sci-fi insertion but it would have been nice if the parts that were there had been used to better effect.
Name dropping past Doctor Who locales (like Stormcage) and hinting at wider connections didn’t benefit the overall story being told. It only served as a distraction and left us with another bland villain that didn’t deliver on his potential and a story that was only saved because the core message was so endearing.
Here’s the thing, I’m not saying that every episode has to be a full romp through time and space. There’s always room for more simple stories that home in on particular moments or character development.
But when we end up with episodes like Arachnids in the UK, the weaknesses that have been present throughout the series thus far become huge sticking points. It leads to story’s that don’t go anywhere fast and one that ultimately disappoints.
Because Chris Chibnall has already stated there isn’t an overarching story, it makes me worry that this situation won’t improve. If there’s no looming threat, the show will continue to meander week-to-week with nothing to ultimately drive the characters forward.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the week-to-week villains were anything to write home about but the evidence so far suggests otherwise.
I’m hopeful that the coming episodes will serve as an improvement to the show overall. As it stands, Series 11 isn’t all that memorable. It’s nothing to do with the performances being offered up but the lack of quality on the story side of things and the lack of stakes is leaving a very bland experience for those at home.
Jodie Whittaker deserves better than that.