'Doctor Who' Series 11 recap: Jodie Whittaker's first season reviewed and rated

·8-min read
Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (BBC)
Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (BBC)

So now we know. After falling off that crane in Sheffield, Tim Shaw… sorry, Tzim-Sha spent 3,407 years in exile: wounded but plotting his revenge. Luckily for him, he came to be revered as a god. Less luckily for him, the Doctor returned to finish the job, foiling his planet-bottling plans with the help of a couple of awesome Ux – and, of course, her TARDIS fam.

‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’ provided an action-packed – if technobabble-heavy – conclusion to Jodie Whittaker’s first series at the helm of the TARDIS, bringing closure to the story of Graham, Ryan, Grace and Tim Shaw and proving (as if it was ever in doubt) that our heroes are the better men (and women).

So after 10 weeks of adventures in space and time, where does it leave us?

The watchwords on everyone’s lips going into this series of Doctor Who were ‘inclusive’ and ‘relatable’, and there’s no doubt new showrunner Chris Chibnall and his team delivered on that front. Making Sheffield the Whoniverse’s new centre of gravity was a very canny move, and there was something pleasingly back-to-basics about the new TARDIS crew, with their own personal journeys largely background noise to the real business of four friends just hanging out, enjoying each other’s company and righting the odd galactic wrong before breakfast.

Tosin Cole’s Ryan was sweet and vulnerable, while Mandip Gill’s Yaz combined compassion with inner steel (though of all the leads, Gill was arguably has most underused).

But it’s Bradley Walsh’s Graham who really stole hearts this year, mixing gentle humour with quiet dignity as a man dealing with grief through the most dramatic form of displacement activity imaginable.

Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien (BBC)
Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien (BBC)

In its own way, Walsh’s casting was just as inclusive as Cole’s and Gill’s, designed to send a message that this is a big-tent show with no upper or lower age limit, and where ITV viewers are just as welcome as Netflix-savvy teenagers.

It’s a strategy that seems to have paid off. With a whopping 10.9 million viewers, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ was the most watched debut story of any Doctor. And, while there’s been an inevitable drop-off over the weeks, the show has still enjoyed a healthy uplift compared to recent series.

Critical reaction has been largely positive, too, with most hailing Whittaker as a breath of fresh air. Of course, with Chibnall making a deliberate choice to introduce voices and perspectives that the show may have been neglected in the past – including more women and people of colour on the writing and directing staff – there has also been some (entirely predictable) grumbling about Doctor Who becoming “too PC”.

But I can’t imagine Chibnall and co will lose much sleep over upsetting the likes of Jeremy Clarkson (who bemoaned the “ham-fisted attempts to ram lefty dogma down our throats”) – and anyone who thinks the Doctor has only just started being a social justice warrior clearly hasn’t been paying attention for the last 55 years.

Also, the series’ most unashamedly ‘woke’ episode, Rosa, was arguably also its strongest. A stirring period drama quite unlike anything we’ve seen in the Doctor Who canon before, it wrapped the story of Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement into a witty, action-packed sci-fi adventure that honoured the dignity of the material without ever feeling too worthy or preachy. (‘Demons of the Punjab’, in which the TARDIS landed during the bloodshed of the Partition of India, was cut from similar cloth, but didn’t didn’t quite land the same emotional blows.)

That said, this series has been guilty of overdoing the Hallmark sentiment on occasion, with Jodie Whittaker shouldering the weight some rather on-the-nose Sunday sermons about friendship, tolerance and the power of love. (They’re all good, positive messages, in a slightly theatre-in-education sort of way, but sometimes maybe it’s enough to show without telling.)

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who (BBC)
Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who (BBC)

Talking up the series pre-launch, Chibnall spoke of the need to give each story its own distinct visual and tonal identity. That’s always been Doctor Who’s killer USP, of course – no other show on television re-builds from the ground up every 50 minutes – but all the beats this year were plotted to provide maximum variety. Just look how episodes 4,5 and 6 took us from the cobwebbed shadows and rotting landfill of a Sheffield spider invasion to the sterile, brilliant white sets of a futuristic hospital ship then the drowsy idyll of rural Punjab.

This was arguably Doctor Who’s most cinematic series ever, the combination of shiny new anamorphic lenses and extensive location filming in South Africa and Spain conjuring everything from the widescreen desert vistas of alien worlds to the dank fog and skeletal trees of early 17th Lancashire. We’re not in a gravel pit near Croydon any more, Toto.

It sounded gorgeous, too, with new composer Segun Akinola proving himself one of the series’ best assets. From the clamorous industrial rhythms of ‘The Woman Who Fell’ via the sweeping, Maurice Jarre strings and Eastern devotional music of ‘Demons of the Punjab’ to the mournful cello of ‘It Takes You Away’, this is going to be one must-have soundtrack album.

Above all else, though, this series really belongs to Jodie Whittaker. From the moment she fell from the sky and into that train carriage – brain racing at a million miles an hour, mouth running even faster – Whittaker has led from the front with a Doctor who combines high-voltage energy with warmth, charm and infectious enthusiasm. A shining, fizzing beacon of light, she’s exactly the Doctor we need in these uncertain, divided times.

Pitching for her place aboard the TARDIS at the end of Arachnids in the UK’, Yaz told our hero: “I want more. More of the universe. More time with you. You’re like the best person I’ve ever met.” Spoken for truth.

But the last word, of course, goes to the Doctor: “Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you. Constantly.”

Best episode: ‘Rosa‘. It’s really quite something when a TV show with 55 years on the clock disarms you with something so new and so unexpected, you’re forced to reconsider your perceptions of what this show is, or can be.

(If you pushed me to rank the series in order at this point, I’d probably go with: Rosa’, ‘Arachnids in the UK’, ‘Kerblam!’,The Woman Who Fell to Earth’, ‘Demons of the Punjab’,The Witchfinders’, ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’, ‘It Takes You Away’, ‘The Ghost Monument’,The Tsuranga Conundrum’. But that will almost certainly change.)

Worst episode: ‘The Tsungara Conundrum’. An underpowered base-under-siege runaround weighed down by a critical mass of info-dump dialogue and forced emotional beats – though psychotic alien hamster the Pting was a big hit with the kids in our house.

Best guest star: Vinette Robinson’s Rosa Parks was a masterclass in understated dignity. Honourable mention to Claudia Jessie’s sweet, naive Kira, whose death in ‘Kerblam!’ I still haven’t quite got over.

Scariest monsters: The giant mutant spiders of ‘Arachnids in the UK’ and the flesh moths of ‘It Takes You Away’ were great examples of that Doctor Who staple of taking something from the everyday world and making it terrifying (or even more terrifying, in the case of spiders). The smiling assassin delivery bots of ‘Kerblam!’ were also pretty unnerving.

Best scene: It could only be Rosa Parks’ historic stand on the bus, which managed to be punch-to-the-guts sad and punch-the-air triumphant at the same time (and Andra Day’s Rise Up was the perfect soundtrack choice).

Worst scene: The birth scene in ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’. Started out quite funny, before turning tooth-rottingly saccharine. And the end of the otherwise terrific ‘Arachnids in the UK’, where they seemed to run out of time to finish the story.

Scariest moment: The Doctor, Ryan and Jade exploring Anna’s flat in ‘Arachnids in the UK’ was deliciously creepy. Monsters literally under the bed – what could be more Doctor Who than that?

Funniest moment: Sorry (not sorry) it’s more ‘Rosa’ love: the scenes in the motel room were comedy gold, from the Doctor hinting she might be Banksy and Graham pretending to be Steve Jobs to their delightfully awkward married couple act.

Maddest moment: The Frog. In ‘It takes You Away’, an entire conscious universe was projected into the body of talking amphibian with a Yorkshire accent. True story.

Quote of the series: The Doctor: “Maybe they’re out shopping. Or bowling. Some races like bowling. I’m talking to cover up my latent worry.” Ryan: “I know. I’ve got that now.”

If we’ve learned one thing from Series 11 of Doctor Who, it’s… When you travel with the Doctor, always carry a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Next time: ‘Resolution’. As the New Year begins, a terrifying evil is stirring from across the centuries of Earth’s history. As the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz return home, will they be able to overcome the threat to planet Earth?

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