For the last few years I've been largely avoiding doing play-by-play reviews of New Who, as I did when it first came out, though I have continued to watch it avidly and definitely have Views about it all. I've slowed down on my commentary partly because the blogging environment has changed, and I now use LJ largely for book reviews; but also partly because one of the senior production team of the Moffat era is related to me, and I didn't want to make his life difficult (people saying "Look what your cousin wrote about your show!" etc).
Obviously the Moffat era is over, and the Chibnall era has begun. It's been too busy a time for me to do the episodes one by one (I think I was travelling on four of the last ten Sundays), but here's my brief take of likes and dislikes from the year just gone. If you want more detail, I strongly commend this comprehensive and thoughtful overview by Darren Mooney, and the episode reviews by various contributors at the Doctor Who Reviews and Space Time Telegraph blogs for each episode which I link to below. (I note that seven of the ten reviews on DWR are by people named Matt or Matthew; John Connors seems to have written five of the ten at STT.)
Overall I have enjoyed it. I don't agree with Darren Mooney that this has been the weakest series of New Who; I really think that Series 6 (2011), which started with The Impossible Astronaut and ended with The Wedding of River Song, made much greater demands on the viewer for insufficient payoff. However I think I will agree that the highest points of this year's stories were not as high as those of previous New Who seasons; even Series 6 had The Doctor's Wife. On the other hand, none of the low points was quite as awful as the 2007 Daleks in New York two-parter or the 2014 Kill The Moon. I do agree with Darren Mooney that it looks in general much much better than any series of Doctor Who ever has before. The absence of continuity (no theme music in the first episode, no Tardis interior until episode two) was disruptive but also intriguing. The new music is a welcome change (not that I hated Murray Gold, but he's been doing it since 2004).
It's interesting to see historical stories being approached in a different way. I was scratching my head to think of previous New Who series with three stories set in Earth's historical past, but actually there have been several (Series 3 with The Shakespeare Code, the Daleks in New York and the Human Nature adaptation; Series 5 with Victory of the Daleks, The Vampires of Venice and Vincent and the DoctorA Town Called Mercy, Hide and The Crimson HorrorRosa and Demons of the Punjab.
Of the ensemble, I think Jodie Whittaker has clearly nailed the kind of Doctor she and Chris Chibnall want her to be. She does the open-mouthed flabbergastedness a bit too much, but she is not the first Doctor whose standard facial expression annoyed me (Peter Davison's anxious face, Jon Pertwee's arrogant pout, Colin Baker in general). I'm a bit more concerned about the character, which doesn't always display the compassion that most incarnations have shown. (But the First and Fourth Doctors, who are among my favourites, often fell short there too.) I hope that Chibnall has a plan for a character arc here, to be further developed in 2020.
I like all of the three companions. Against fan consensus, my favourite is Mandip Gill's Yaz, who I find a convincing audience identification figure, followed by Bradley Walsh's Graham and then Tosin Cole's Ryan. I do feel that juggling four regulars, for the first time since Davison days, has proved challenging for the scripting at times. The extra five minutes per episode helps. So does the switch to Sunday, which seems so obviously a good idea now that one wonders why it was never tried before. I am not sure about the decision to have a series of ten single-part episodes. Previous series of New Who were able to play with the pacing of the plot to make things more interesting (admittedly, not always with huge success). It's also clear that the last episode of this series, effectively, is the New Year 2019 special.
And speaking of the episodes:
The Woman Who Fell To Earth: (See also Matt Tiley at DWR, Matthew Kilburn at STT)
This really had one job to do, and did it pretty well – introduce the new Doctor, set up the companions, have an alien threat. The death of Grace showed that this version of the show is going to play hardball. (I would not be at all surprised if one of the main cast gets written out in similar fashion in 2020. NB that in the first episode of Torchwood, Chibnall also killed off a woman of colour who looked like she might be one of the core cast, and she too was brought back to life in a later episode.) The alien threat itself was rather low-key – locally horrible but without wider drama – which turned out to set a tone for the rest of the season. Glorious shots of Sheffield (a city I have never been to).
The Ghost Monument: (See also Matt Dennis at DWR, Sean Alexander at STT)
One of the weaker episodes, in which the Doctor and companions (and the people they meet) are getting from A to B. Like the previous episode, it features a bizarre sfnal quest, though this time we sympathise with the questers. Some good lines in the script but not a lot of oomph, and a muffed ending (not the last). A rare Norn Iron accent from Susan Lynch.
Rosa: (See also Matthew Kilburn at DWR, Tim Worthington at STT)
Now we're getting serious. I remember an Eastercon panel discussing places that a Doctor Who story could never go, such as the Holocaust. (I would add Ireland.) I'd have thought that the segregated Deep South would be on that list too, but was proved wrong by Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (incidentally the only woman of colour to have written for Doctor Who in any medium, as far as I know; her first venture was a short Seventh Doctor story in 2013.) Within the constraints of the format, I thought this dealt with a crucial subject respectfully and entertainingly. One of my favourite stories of the season.
Arachnids in the UK: (See also Ken Scheck at DWR, John Connors at STT)
A very obvious riff on The Green Death, my favourite Third Doctor story, which also had some great return-to-Sheffield characterisation moments, and really impressive special effects, but completely muffed the ending. (What happens to the bad guy? Is it really more compassionate to lock the spiders up until they die?)
The Tsuranga Conundrum: (See also Matt Hills at DWR, John Connors at STT)
This was the only episode of the series which really qualifies as space opera. It has notable similarities to Chibnall's Tenth Doctor story, 42. But we also get challenges to gender stereotypes (the woman general, the pregnant man), the Pting is a work of genius, and of course I loved the Hamilton reference, though as John Connors points out, "for the second week running we have a predator just doing its thing, the threat it poses being a side effect". Not awfully deep, but I thought it was effective.
Demons of the Punjab: (See also Simon Moore at DWR, John Connors at STT)
My favourite story of the season. Partition is an even trickier topic for a Welsh show to tackle than segregation, particularly if you are bringing aliens into it, but this was a brilliant piece of bringing the huge story of the breaking of nations home to the local effect on one family. The special version of the closing theme really does bring tears to one's eyes. This and Arachnids in the UK are part of why I like Yaz so much.
Kerblam!: (See also Simon Moore at DWR, John Connors at STT)
This on the other hand left me cold. I was not happy that the Doctor leaves an evil system un-overthrown, having defeated the revolutionary who was trying to bring it down. As Darren Mooney points out, "The episode’s happy ending has the company giving the employees four weeks off, but only paying them for two of those four weeks." It is totally out of whack with the show's progressive history. The script, performances and especially the effects were all good, but the politics left a bad taste in my mouth.
The Witchfinders: (See also Matthew Kilburn at DWR, John Connors at STT)
This one also fell very flat for me, my personal low point of the series, though a lot of people seem to have loved it; it simply had too many egregious historical errors for me to enjoy it. I was reminded of my similarly hostile reaction to The Plotters, a Who spinoff novel set in the same historical period. Alan Cumming is clearly having great fun as King James; perhaps a bit too much.
It Takes You Away: (See also Marcus at DWR, Sean Alexander at STT)
On the other hand, and again contra fan consensus, I really liked this one: quietly understated and creepy, scary in places, emotionally effective, and with a stellar performance from Ellie Walwork as Hanne. Along with Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, one of my favourites of this series. Incidentally this is not the first time that TV Doctor Who has been to Norway – the final scenes of Doomsday (2005) are set on Bad Wolf Strand, which we are told is not far from Bergen.
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos: (See also Matt Hills at DWR, Matthew Kilburn at STT)
It's not unusual for Doctor Who to muff the final story of the year, both in Old Who (The Time Monster in 1972, The Armageddon Factor in 1979) and New Who (Last of the Time Lords in 2007, Dark Water/Death in Heaven in 2014; not to mention End of Days, the appalling last episode of the first season of Torchwood, also in 2007). It's still disappointing when it happens, though, and I felt that the final episode had a particularly complex setup (the Ux requiring considerable suspension of disbelief) which then failed to pay off emotionally or even dramatically – it seemed rather bathetic to lock the villain in a box from which the next space tourist will surely release him. Bradley Walsh's Graham did get a bit of closure, but at the end of it all I didn't really feel I understood the point of the whole journey. Maybe things will become clearer on New Year's Day.
So there we are. I'm glad the show is back; I'm glad we have a very different star and ensemble from the past; and I hope it will find its feet, as the second season of Torchwood largely did after the bumpy first season.