Tired episode structures, forgettable characters and a flailing Doctor, Stanley Murphy-Johns breaks down the current problems with Doctor Who.
At first glance, this Doctor Who special is as “by the books” as any other; but at a time where ratings have been consistently low since long before Peter Capaldi left the role, is it not time to push the boat out and give us more than “by the books?” In fact, I wouldn’t particularly mind a run of the mill special if I was properly invested in the characters on screen. However, with three underdeveloped companions, a fun but unnecessary Jack Harkness and a Doctor who I feel I still don’t know after two seasons, it all felt much too safe.
I think the problems are clear and they have very little to do with anything on screen. The writing along with the set-up of the current iteration of Doctor Who means that every episode feels clunky and it’s much harder to connect to the stories.
Fans of Doctor Who are always going to have a favourite iteration of the Doctor, and within that iteration every fan will have a favourite monster, assistant, Tardis and so on and so forth. That much is to be expected. As such, I would posit that the problem with Jodie Whittaker’s era as of yet is a lack of substance; no assistant has been developed enough to compete with any from other eras, the Tardis doesn’t feel lived-in in the way that others did, and the new monsters introduced have not exactly been beloved to put it lightly.
The characters in Doctor Who at the moment feel like extras in their own show
I do feel it’s important to stress that I don’t believe any of this is the fault of the performances from the actors. Sure, in moments the dialogue feels cheesy or forced but it always has in Doctor Who. Jodie Whittaker could still be an excellent Doctor, I just don’t think she has been given that chance yet. The rumours that she may be stepping down after her third series are yet to be confirmed, but I think if she was to step down it would be a shame, after all it’s not the doctor that needs changing it’s the showrunner. The show currently feels as though it’s running on a method of (to quote the penguins from Madagascar) “Smile and Wave,” as they produce episodes that have consistently little to no impact.
As for the New Year’s Day episode itself, the story was cohesive if slightly familiar to a certain Matt Smith episode involving Ironsides. It had some decent emotional beats and a compelling ending as Graham went back to helping Ryan practice cycling, but that’s it. If that description appears dull or vague it’s because that’s how the episode felt. Yes, there were emotional beats but I found most of them to be undercut by my frustration at not caring at all for the characters I was watching. A clear downside of having three constant companions for the Doctor is that in two seasons of them being on screen I feel like I know almost nothing about them. In fact, just now I had to look up whether Tosin Cole’s character was actually called Ryan! This brings me to my most important point, the characters in Doctor Who at the moment feel like extras in their own show, even the Doctor herself seems to be constantly somewhat dazed. The show is being controlled in such a way that the characters we are watching don’t have the license to have storylines of their own. They set up, the plot happens to them, they react, the episode ends, over and over again.
I want to end this on a cheerful note but I’m struggling to think of something, so instead I will leave you with this; Doctor Who spans more decades than any other TV show, so of course it evolves as it goes. Unfortunately Chris Chibnall seems, to me, to be more interested in creating something people will remember him for, than something people will like.