Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for the season thus far.
When Chris Chibnall started talking about Series 11 – his first season as showrunner and the debut of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor – he made it clear that there would be no returning villains and that there wouldn’t be an overall story arc with a Big Bad. As of “Kerblam!” he’s mostly kept that vow, although there are a few hints here and there that the Stenza might not be entirely out of the picture after Tim Shaw’s defeat in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”
That said, there is a definite theme to this season of Doctor Who. The main villain is regular old human cruelty and apathy to suffering.
Now, I know that this smacks heavily of Joss Whedon’s claim that the Big Bad of Season 4 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was “life,” and the real antagonist was the fact that the show probably should have ended in Season 5, but there is a far better case to make with Doctor Who.
Though I’ve seen some fans call the monsters (when they even are monsters) this go ‘round forgettable, there is a theme. For one thing, more than half of the episodes have arch-villains who are more or less regular people. “The Ghost Monument” has a few cool minions for the Tardis crew to battle, but the real cruelty is in the rally organizer Ilin and his zero-sum race that left a wake of dead people behind it. The tense moments such as Epzo’s pathological self-reliance and Angstrom’s desperate bid for fortune to save her family are all born out of the galaxy’s causal cruelty that ruined their lives.
Likewise, the titular demons in “Demons of the Punjab” are not the Thijarians but a misguided, hateful man who betrays and murders his people for an ideological cause. Thirty years ago the sort of dude who would have been selling us out to the Daleks for cash before getting exterminated in the third serial are now people giving in to other people in the name of violent "righteous" bigotry. No alien tech required.
The time traveling saboteur in “Rosa” seeks only to impede a great moment in Civil Rights history, knowing that inaction alone might be enough to set back the cause of racial equality decades, maybe even forever. In “Arachnids in the UK,” there’s isn’t even time travel. It’s pure human negligence with just the right amount of inconsiderate progress that creates the killer giant spiders. The villain in that episode is the Donald Trump stand-in, a cold, ignorant man concerned with himself and aware of the consequences of his actions so far as they might derail or disrupt his own ascension.
And then there’s “Kerblam!” In a galactic version of Amazon a terrorist plots to take down the mostly-automated company even at the cost of his workplace crush’s life, not to mention the lives of presumably thousands who will open his exploding bubble wrap. The robots and their system AI are played as the monsters similar to the Smilers in “The Beast Below” in the beginning, but just like in that brilliant episode the true distortion lies in how people decide that fighting back from unfairness justifies any means.
I have to admit, this does make for a lot of uncomfortable conclusions. There are no “the fury of the Time Lord” moments thus far. Binary good and evil is largely missing, and I can understand why that makes some viewers feel dissatisfied.
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It is, however, the perfect message for the time we live in. The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan are up against the ultimate foe in human behavior. Comparisons have been made of Whittaker’s Doctor to both Davison and McGann (listen to the radio plays, y’all), but lately I see so much of Troughton’s presence in what she does. Her fights are understated, and they remind me of how the Second Doctor stood against Klieg in the tombs on Telos or Zaroff in Atlantis. The monsters were us in those classic adventures, and The Doctor was there mostly to save us from ourselves by being the best example of humanity she and her friends could be.
If you ask me, what a lot of people don’t like about Series 11 is how uncompromising the mirror it holds up to us is. There aren’t unfeeling eyestalks to hide the evil behind. Most villains this year are indistinguishable from us, and that makes some folks angry because it damages our innocent perception of ourselves.
They should remember, though, that the heroes look like us, too. The only difference is a willingness to step in and fix what you can when you can.
Doctor Who runs on BBC America Sundays at 7 p.m. Central.