I never did give my verdict on the new series of Doctor Who. It only seemed fair to give it a few weeks to get into the swing of things. But also, none of the episodes so far really gave me much to say…
In general, I think this series is great. Compared to what we’ve put up with in recent years, it’s the breath of fresh air the show needed. A second reboot. No dumb overarching plot no one cares about,… In fact, very little that feels superfluous whatsoever. It’s a stripped-back Who and it’s been a long time coming after the televisual mud of recent years.
I think the show has gone back to its heart, as it was in the early years of the reboot, as a character-driven show. It’s not about endlessly retconning the Tumblt-baiting lore of the Doctor’s pasts and futures but rather it deals with the Doctor’s relationship to the humans in their charge and the difficulties of being a seemingly immortal alien with a love for fragile and all-too-human human life.
This episode was a case in point of what this series has managed to do so well. It focused specifically on Yaz, a young police officer from Sheffield of Pakistani heritage who asks to go spend time with her grandmother in 1950s Lahore. An initially reticent Doctor agreed but, of course, things don’t go according to plan. Yaz doesn’t quite get what she bargained for and ends up inadvertently exploring the secrets of her grandmother’s untold past — specifically, her controversial and tragically short-lived Hindu-Muslim first marriage, cut short as the family were caught up in the political violence of the partition of India in 1947.
I think this episode encapsulates everything I love and hate about this new series.
On the negative side, the script is frequently stunted, written like a script for stage rather than the screen, with character exits often feeling like they were ripped from a hammy panto, and this isn’t helped by moments of really wooden acting and sluggish editing, no doubt exacerbated by its new longer running time. It has the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster but remains stuck with the writing chops of Hollyoaks.
That’s being said, I’m reluctant to moan too much because it is such a massive improvement on the last few series and, to be honest, would Doctor Who even be Doctor Who if it wasn’t a little bit shit around the edges?
On the positive side, however, it’s taking risks in brand new ways. Whilst some have rolled their eyes at the show’s diversity and political correctness, it deals with genuinely interesting social implications around time-travel. A previous episode, aired during Black History Month, didn’t pull punches in its treatment of Ryan, the Doctor’s new young black companion, when he travelled back to a segregated American South, travelling on a bus with Rosa Parks.
This was genuinely interesting and educational TV for the whole family, taking the opportunity to explore very real moments in our recent history. Plus, I’d rather a show that mirrors the calendar of its airing than having a token trip to Victorian England every five episodes.But what is also notable is how these trips to our recent pasta needn’t be so stringently politically correct. In fact, last night’s episode was anything but, shown as it was on Armistice Day and the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
It would have been far too easy to have the Doctor don a poppy and go visit the trenches. Instead, the series chooses Armistice Day to orbit around some of England’s own recent atrocities. It’s not explicit, but it’s close enough.
In the episode’s central scene, the Doctor discovers that a pair of “demons” stalking Yaz’s ancestors are not intergalactic assassins disrupting history, as she first thinks. They are actually a previously hostile race of aliens that, having witnessed the wanton destruction of their own planet, now travel the universe to honour the unacknowledged and lonesome dead, bearing witness to those deaths which are not seen.
“Why here? Why now?”, the Doctor asks before answering her own question — the partition of British India, forming the republics of Pakistan and India, based loosely along the lines of religious majorities, resulting in a massive refugee crisis and a million dead.
Much blame for the upheaval is laid at Britain’s doorstep for rushing through the process as well as failing to anticipate the huge shifts in population. Little of this is explored in the episode itself — it’s only fleetingly hinted at in two separate lines of dialogue — but to show this episode at this time of year, when our media is so often gripped by a poppy-obsessed moralising hysteria, to point to the unromanticed and unacknowledged casualties of British incompetence outside Europe is quite a statement.
In light of all the initial hysteria in the run-up to this season about the fact the Doctor was becoming a woman, it’s commendable that the show has actually found itself some balls in the process.
It’s production faults aside, this is some brave telly.