Watching Series 12 of Doctor Who hasn’t always given me happy feelings – and that’s mostly not because of what was onscreen. After every episode, there would always be plenty of comments from people on social media, and a great many of them were complaints and declarations that Chris Chibnall and the “woke” BBC had killed the show forever. Even in previous seasons that aired after social media had gained significant influence in everyday life, I can’t remember such comments bothering me on the same level. Is it that there were really more negative comments this time around, because significantly more people weren’t happy, or is that I’ve been paying more attention? Given that, apparently, fans have finding things to complain about since William Hartnell left the show, maybe it’s just more visible now. Whatever the case, it’s hard to ignore so much negativity and not let it influence your thoughts, and I found myself starting each episode with at least a little trepidation. I couldn’t just stop looking at Twitter since there’s plenty of non-Doctor Who-related content there I want to check out, but as time passed, I tried not to let it bother me and just judge the show as I found it. Ultimately, I just want to watch Doctor Who and, hopefully, enjoy it.
While I was mostly entertained by Series 12, I’m not going to pretend it was the best series of Doctor Who ever. Like Series 11, it didn’t offer anything spectacular – and it ended up being weaker by virtue of having at least one episode that could be called flat-out bad instead of merely lacklustre. The overall feel was largely very similar to Series 11, yet there were also episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus where I felt like they were trying to capture the less gritty atmosphere of older eras, which I didn’t mind at all.
And while Series 11 was just a series of individual adventures, Series 12 tries to have an arc as most previous seasons have done, involving the return of the Master (played delightfully by Sacha Dhawan), the second destruction of Gallifrey, the “final” war against the Cybermen, and the revelation of the Timeless Child. While this arc made more sense than, say, the one about the Silence in Series 5 and 6, and it’s allowed to leave some gaps to maintain some mystery, it still didn’t provide adequate payoff for everything it hinted at. This is particularly true with regards to Fugitive of the Judoon, which is still a good episode on its own, but at this point, frustrating too. The return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness is basically wasted on a small amount of exposition; and after such a huge revelation of there being another Doctor that Thirteen doesn’t remember, the Ruth-Doctor only makes one more brief appearance in the finale. We have to mostly infer things about her from what we learn there, and hope that she comes back in Series 13.
Meanwhile, I’m honestly still okay with the Timeless Child. I find the concept interesting and won’t mind seeing how it gets explored further in the future. With there being so many gaps in the Doctor’s backstory already, it doesn’t strike me as an jarring, blatant violation of canon like, say, the reveal of a previously-unmentioned third Dumbledore brother in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald did. Perhaps that’s also because Doctor Who has been around for decades and worked upon by many different people who tried different approaches to the central concept, with mixed success.
Jodie Whittaker gets to show off her range a bit more this series, as the Thirteenth Doctor is put under more pressure, struggling to maintain her previous optimism and being forced to face the more difficult side of being a centuries-old master of time. Sadly, Graham, Ryan and Yaz have not been improved upon since Series 11. They’re all pleasant to watch and work well as a group, but they still feel hollow. If anything, they’ve gone backward: they get little in the way of development, and some things from Series 11, like Ryan’s dyspraxia, have just been forgotten about. I don’t feel able to appreciate them as people, the way I did with the likes of Donna or Clara. The closest thing that any of them has to a proper role in the team is Graham providing comic relief; when it comes to saving the day, they just fit in where the story needs them.
Compare this to another three-person team of companions: Ian, Barbara and Susan. Combined with the Doctor, they had a proper team structure, one that was easy to understand as it resembled a traditional family: father, mother, daughter, and grumpy old grandad. They had defined personalities and values which meant they reacted differently to different situations, such as when Barbara wanted to change history by persuading the Aztecs to abandon human sacrifice. They were each able to fill a role when the situation called for it: Ian handled physical confrontations, Barbara was best at integrating and making useful alliances, and Susan was best at…getting captured and needing to be rescued, I guess. We just don’t get enough of that from the Fam.
Previously, I’ve compared the series’s average score to those of other series to see how it ranks, but that doesn’t really feel appropriate anymore: it’s been a while since I’ve watched some of those other series, and undoubtedly my standards and what I look for will have shifted, as well as the atmosphere of the show itself having changed a lot. Going by my gut, I would put Series 12 in the lower third: definitely better than Series 10, maybe better than Series 2, probably on par with Series 3 and 7.
So here’s my episode ranking:
02. Fugitive of the Judoon
03. The Haunting of Villa Diodati
04. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
05. Spyfall Part 2
06. The Timeless Children
07. Ascension of the Cybermen
08. Spyfall Part 1
09. Can You Hear Me?
10. Orphan 55
Worst episode: To test a theory, I ran a Twitter poll asking if the worst episode of Series 12 was Orphan 55 or anything else. 10 out of 11 respondents went with Orphan 55, supporting my theory that it really stood out as the season’s lowest moment. There was a slow, dull plot; uninteresting, underdeveloped side characters; and an old lady constantly whining for “BENNNIIIII!” But worst of all was the message about climate change which, while unquestionably a subject that needs attention, was painfully shoved in with no subtlety whatsoever – the Doctor practically breaks the fourth wall, like in William Hartnell’s Christmas episode, to preach to the audience. That’s not how Doctor Who, which is first and foremost an entertainment show, should be commentating on current issues. Rather than inspiring people to act against climate change, Orphan 55 felt like it was actively trying to prove the haters right.
Best episode: Praxeus was, in some ways, the anti-Orphan 55, going right where the other episode went wrong. It had an environmental message, but one that was better integrated into the story; it had several side characters, but they were more sympathetic and with believable arcs; and instead of being boring, it delivered an exciting adventure that felt more traditional for the show.
So what about Series 13? There are indications that both Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole will be leaving the show; assuming that Mandip Gill stays, this could either give Yaz more room to grow, or allow a new companion (preferably just one) to enter the mix and stir things up in an interesting way. Obviously, I’d like some further elaboration on things that were raised in this series, and a more substantial return by Captain Jack wouldn’t go amiss. And maybe, while it’s being broadcast, I actually will avoid looking at Twitter. It’s not likely to do any good.