From the moment Jodie Whittaker was revealed as the 13th Doctor in July 2017, incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall began building a Doctor Who unlike any before it. More than a year later, with Whittaker and Chibnall’s first season in the books and a New Year’s special—rather than the more traditional Christmas episode—on the horizon, the results are impressive. Chibnall assembled an entirely new team of directors and writers, including the show’s first ever writers of color, to tell 10 stories of the first female Doctor, all without a single returning monster or supporting character.
As different as previous showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat’s visions for Doctor Who were, their decade’s worth of adventures collectively established the rules that Chibnall has delighted in deconstructing. Instead of teaming the Doctor with a young woman as primary companion and maybe a man as clearly secondary companion, Whittaker’s Doctor has three companions of roughly equal importance, with the most conventional new series companion—Mandip Gill’s Yasmin Khan, who most closely fits the profile of Rose Tyler, Amy Pond, and the rest—being the least-developed of the three. Season 11 broke with some of the new series’ most basic grammar, including the pre-credits teaser and the music of longtime composer Murray Gold. The cumulative result has been a season of television that was frequently good, and, failing that, always refreshing.
I’ve focused on how the 13th Doctor’s show breaks from that of her four new series predecessors for a reason: The show’s more concrete emphasis on representation and revamping the show’s structure may be revolutionary, but much of what sets apart the storytelling in Chibnall and Whittaker’s Doctor Who is deeply old-school. Davies wore his Buffy The Vampire Slayer influence on his sleeve by reviving Doctor Who as a character-driven series with a heaping helping of soap opera, while Moffat used his ability to tap into viewers’ most elemental fears to deliver a series of intricately plotted, dark fairy tales. Chibnall, on the other hand, reaches back to the original mission of series creator Sydney Newman, who devised the program as an educational, family-geared show that alternated trips into history with hard science fiction. The notion that Doctor Who would be used to teach children about their world was part of why two of the Doctor’s initial companions were a history and a science teacher.
The new series has broadly alternated past- and future-set stories since it began in 2005, but Chibnall has stressed the educational component in a way his predecessors never did. Consider “Rosa,” this season’s first historical episode. The Doctor and her friends’ encounter with civil rights icon Rosa Parks on the eve of her arrest keeps its outlandish elements to the bare minimum, the better to focus on the actual facts surrounding Parks and segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. The only interlopers in the story are our heroes and a racist, rogue time traveler intent on undoing this pivotal moment in human history. As such, the Doctor’s eventual victory lies not in big technobabble-laced explanations or even fiery speeches about humanity realizing its better nature, but rather in carefully researching Parks’s actual movements on the day of her arrest, ensuring she remains on her proper course.
In theory, “Rosa” fits into a familiar category of Doctor Who episode. Davies pioneered what has become known as the celebrity historical, in which the Doctor meets a historical figure and proceeds to nerd out about how wonderful said figure is. The Doctor’s encounters with the likes of Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, and Winston Churchill were largely uncritical celebrations of those people, focused more on the remarkable qualities that made them legends—and, more specifically, British legends—rather than the actual context in which they existed. Moffat’s tenure gradually played with this formula, with “Vincent And The Doctor” taking a heartbreaking look at the pain of Vincent Van Gogh’s existence and the later “Robot Of Sherwood” using the mythical figure of Robin Hood to hold a mirror to the Doctor’s own legendary qualities.
“Rosa”, though, is a far more fundamental and important subversion. When they first meet, the Doctor and her friends start tell Rosa Parks what big fans of hers they are—Whittaker rarely looks and sounds quite as much like David Tennant’s 10th Doctor as she does in that scene. But Parks pushes back sharply, reminding them of the dangers of their situation, especially as they pertain to black companion Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole). At that moment, the show jettisons the storytelling conventions of the celebrity historical in favor of something surprisingly close to 1960s Doctor Who’s exploits in turning back time. In those stories, the First Doctor (William Hartnell) and his friends encountered the likes of Marco Polo, Richard the Lionheart, Maximilien Robespierre, and Emperor Nero in scenarios without any science fiction elements at all. The conflict and peril of those stories came from what made the past itself dangerous, and in exploring that, the show taught young viewers about history.
“Rosa” fits squarely in that tradition: Yes, the time-traveling racist is a major adversary, but he is explicitly secondary to the real-life threats that Parks navigated, with the depiction of her arrest playing out with no interference and through the actual words exchanged between Parks and bus driver James Blake. Season 11’s other two historicals do feature actual aliens, but again the real history takes center stage. “Demons Of The Punjab,” set during the partition of India, uses its apparent monsters as a red herring, ultimately turning the focus back to the very human horrors that unfolded as Britain carved the Indian subcontinent into two new, religiously separated nations. And in “The Witchfinders,” the Doctor takes a justifiably dim view of King James I, whose total commitment to ridding his land of witches demonstrates why he was dubbed the wisest fool in Christendom. In all these, Doctor Who has done its homework, weaving in real historical details and considering their effects in a way that doesn’t just sound like the Doctor reciting a famous person’s Wikipedia page.
The season’s science-fiction episodes don’t hew quite as closely to the show’s original vision—but then neither did the original show. Newman famously declared the series should have no “bug-eyed monsters,” which is famous mostly because the show lasted one entire story before introducing the Daleks, contenders for the title of most iconic bug-eyed monsters in all of science fiction. Chibnall and company arguably fared better here: What aliens there are this season tend to be humanoid or, in one case, an indestructible space-borne goblin with a surprisingly shapely butt.
No, the monsters aren’t a strength of this season. But then, the show never pretends it cares about channeling viewers’ nightmares in the way Steven Moffat did with killer angel statues or carnivorous shadows. Rather, Chibnall’s interest in science fiction lies more in world-building and, as Newman himself once described the genre’s appeal, using the future to safely say something nasty about the present. That’s most on display in “Kerblam!”, which uses the far-future equivalent of Amazon to critique automation and post-human corporate speak. Like most of this season’s best efforts, the menace lies entirely in the evil we as humans create.
Even other stories that are more about plunging the Doctor and her companions into outlandish sci-fi scenarios—which the Hartnell era certainly indulged in, as anyone who has seen “The Keys Of Marinus” or “The Web Planet” can attest—revels in the wonder of science in a way distinct from the Davies or Moffat eras. Take “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” also known as the one with the well-butted alien. Amid some silliness, the episode takes time for the Doctor to marvel at a starship’s antimatter drive. Previous new series Doctors, David Tennant’s especially, would be awed by such sights, but the show in those cases played it more as an indication of the Doctor’s alien perspective. Here, the focus is squarely on communicating real, if speculative science. Even “Arachnids In The U.K.”, the season’s weakest entry, cared enough about accuracy to consult with a spider expert.
Finally, there’s the TARDIS team or, as the Doctor grows increasingly fond of calling it, her fam. The closest antecedent for the four-person team is the show’s original cast, which put the Doctor in the company of his granddaughter and a pair of school teachers from mid-20th-century Earth. As companion Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) puts it at one point this season, “it’s a very flat team structure” for both groups, with the 2018 team possessing an ensemble dynamic that recalls their 1963 counterparts. But this season cares about serialized characterization in a way that would make Russell T. Davies proud, as a loved one’s death in the opening episode drives the arcs for Ryan and Graham. Unfolding against such an otherwise different-feeling show, this familiar new series companion-centric storytelling doesn’t feel obligatory in the way it sometimes has in past years.
The cumulative effect then is a season that breaks with the show’s newer traditions by tapping into what made the show revolutionary way back in 1963, and, in its way, in 2005, before anyone involved knew enough about what they were doing to devise a formula. At their best, both Doctor Who and its hero are an amalgamation of all that came before to make something bold and new. The more things stay the same, the more they change.