There’s a moment in “The Timeless Children” when The Doctor basically launches a DDoS attack on the server in Gallifrey that contains all Time Lord knowledge, using her own mind to over-stimulate and break the server in order to escape. The Doctor is left lying unconscious on the floor of her ruined homeworld’s capital.
I can think of no better analogy for how Series 12 made me feel. This was exhausting.
The stakes were always high for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. A lot of fans crossed our fingers and prayed that showrunner Chris Chibnall would not mess up the first chronological and canon female incarnation. While the previous two seasons never reached the heights of creativity and grand storytelling of others in the revived series, I would say that Chibnall did in fact fulfill the obligation to do right by his Doctor. It was perfectly competent television.
That said, Series 12 highlighted the flaws in Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who and they are starting to overtake the joys.
Chibnall does several things better than anyone. He can create these massive ensembles that turn the show into a science fiction version of Clue. He’s been doing it well since “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” where he had The Doctor, two companions, a companion’s dad, two random new historical companions (one a celebrity), and just to top it all off a friendly triceratops. Even something like “Power of Three” which is not very good at all succeeds in making engaging character scenes with a thriving cast of memorables. For the most part, he makes his huge Tardis crew work while also giving the episode’s one-offs plenty of time to shine.
It ties into his other trait. Chibnall is the king of the episode goodie bag. He will throw everything into the mix and just go with it. Lots of previous showrunners were zany, but Chibnall takes it to the next level. Exploding bubble wrap, laser shoes, a Donald Trump stand-in, talking frogs, Cyber Time Lords, cameos from the bloody Morbius Doctors… there is just nothing that Chibnall will not dare. That’s commendable. Elizabeth Sandifer once said that you could judge a Doctor Who episode by its weirdest component. Whatever else you can say of this era of the show, it is not afraid to get outside the box.
However, that style is starting to wear thin. Series 12 was like a bowl of Oops All Crunch Berries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for a month. Chibnall’s poor grasp of a seasonal theme to structure his show around turned the whole affair into a smashed wedding cake. All the colors are still there, pretty as can be, but they’re now on the floor.
The season just had too much happening and no time to breathe. The appearance of Jo Martin’s unknown Doctor was flashed before us and then ripped away without explanation until the very end of the season. Captain Jack returned for a cameo that was awkward and completely meaningless once the wave of nostalgic joy wore off. For a few seconds it looked like we were going to delve into the unexplored (on television at any rate) mythos of the Celestial Toymaker’s race, only to drop the whole thing as a mere monster of the week.
Any one of these things could have built a season by themselves if they’d been taken slower over the course of more episodes, but instead it was like asking for dessert and getting a pie right in the face. Sometimes watching felt more like I was studying for a quiz about a particularly dense fan fic than watching my favorite show.
I crossed my fingers and hoped for a cohesive payoff, but it was a mixed bag. Sacha Dhawan’s Master was simply aggravating after watching the character grow more than it ever had before with Michelle Gomez. Her Master completed a redemption arc that was planned all the way back to the Pertwee era. The Dhawan Master is just a jealous megalomaniac who I couldn’t wait be done with. There was this subtle growth of The Master starting with Derek Jacobi (and furthered in his Big Finish Audio series) and moving through John Simm and Gomez, and Chibnall rebooted it all. We have to start over again. Doesn’t that make you tired?
As for the massive retconning that happened in “The Timeless Children?” Maybe I would be more blown away with it if I had anything left to blow away. It left me numb, not intrigued by the possibilities. The idea of The Doctor as a refugee from another universe and the template for the Time Lords isn’t exactly a new idea, though Chibnall did do it in a fairly interesting way. Such a massive revelation should have been the exclamation point on a tight season leading up to it. Instead, it was more spectacle, more color, more pies in the face.
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When Series 11 was done with I thought it was wonderful. I liked that The Doctor had returned to smaller stories. The petty villains and weird fixation on Sheffield was a breath of fresh air for the series. Series 11 was just fun.
Series 12 didn’t feel like that. It felt instead like Doctor Who by majority vote. I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to your audience and critics, but when you’re shoving everything from ‘80s callbacks to Gallifrey’s second destruction in the mix because regressives whined about too many changes someone needs to start saying no to adding more tricks. More than that, it made me question things I liked in Whittaker’s first season. Barriers broken in diversity now taste like, ugh, virtue signaling (fun fact: Doctor Who Series 11 killed more lesbian characters than any other season… not exactly a good look). What I thought were pointed digs at corporate masterhood in “Kerblam!” now look like a weak both-sides argument with a dash of tone policing. So many missed opportunities as the show danced between social justice and not pissing too many people off.
Why were they missed? Because Chris Chibnall is bad at picking a theme. Russell T Davies wanted to explore what survivor’s guilt did to The Doctor. Steven Moffat dissected the co-dependent relationship between The Doctor and Earth. What is Cibnall’s Doctor Who even about? Two seasons in I have no idea. It seems like its main goal is to please everyone with sugar and not deliver the meat. With another Dalek episode on the horizon, I doubt that will change.
Maybe it’s time to take a break and stick to Big Finish for awhile.