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Doctor Who’s 11th season off to a good start

In its 11th season Doctor Who has been reborn yet again. There’s a new Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, the first ever woman to embody the character, and a new showrunner, with Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall taking over for Steven Moffat, who has been showrunner since 2011. Though Doctor Who hasn’t seen a shift in style this bold and sharp in eight years, the show has wasted no time throwing the viewer into its ceaseless momentum, with mixed results.

Four episodes in, Jodie Whittaker is proving herself to be a fantastic choice for the Doctor. Her approach to the character is reminiscent of the smiling enthusiasm of David Tennant’s incarnation, with hints of Matt Smith’s eccentricity, wrapped together by an alien awkwardness similar to that of Peter Capaldi, but with a greater warmth.

What sets Whittaker’s incarnation apart from her predecessors thus far is her openness. Previous incarnations have hidden themselves away behind cheery or steely personas to disguise pain or set companions at ease, but the 13th Doctor wears her heart on her sleeve. Though she’s strange and alien, she flings herself fully into the situations and feelings of those around her, taking an avid interest in them, trying earnestly to understand and to be understood.

It’s a subtle but distinctive character choice that has room to manifest itself in a lot of very intricate ways. Thus far, its most distinct consequence is that the Doctor is more woven into the ensemble cast than ever before, acting cooperatively amongst them rather than as a hierarchical leader.

Whittaker has a total of three companions, the most people traveling consistently with the Doctor since 2005. Tosin Cole plays Ryan Sinclair, a young and aimless man trying to figure out his place in the world. He’s accompanied by his step-grandfather Graham O’Brien, played by Bradley Walsh. Mandip Gil plays Yasmin Khan, a young policewoman who wants to make a greater difference.

As a team, the companions are great. Each of them is likable, and they’re cooperative, flexible, and kind people. Ryan is a bit of a goof, clumsy but clever. Graham raises helpful questions and thinks ahead. Yasmin acts fast and is very adaptable.

Though they each have individual characteristics, each character requires greater and closer development, which is made difficult by the larger cast and naturally fast pace of the show. Chibnall has, in some ways, worked against himself.

The season premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is strengthened by its quick pace, establishing bonds between the Doctor and her new companions on the fly while introducing how she operates.

That same pacing is carried into “The Ghost Monument,” which begins at a refreshingly breakneck speed, throwing the protagonists into a dangerous and unfolding situation, forcing them to act first and ask questions later. Rarely does Doctor Who so trustingly drop its audience into its situations without doing some amount of establishing exposition work, so having two consecutive episodes move fast is a nice change that feels more respectful of the viewer.

Unfortunately, “The Ghost Monument” collapses soon after, not knowing how to focus on its large cast. It flits between the different motivations and concerns of its characters, but cannot decide what to zoom in on. The viewer ends up feeling too outside all of the characters, in a story that fails to properly establish and hold up to its stakes. The end result is an episode that displays a strong skeleton for a Doctor Who story, but fails to put any meat on the bones.

“Rosa,” which focuses on Rosa Parks on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycotts, is the most stand-alone of the season thus far, and one of the more challenging historical periods Doctor Who has traveled to. Doctor Who has never addressed racism this explicitly, and though at times its approach in presenting the intense racial hatred of the American deep south is less nuanced than it could be, with dialogue that occasionally feels like it belongs to an after-school special, the episode nonetheless does clever work to make sure Parks remains the hero of her own story, and that institutionalized racism is not presented as a thing of the past. Considering Doctor Who is largely a show for children, the episode is effective and educational.

Still, to be three episodes in and to not have had a moment alone with the Doctor, nor any smaller storylines surrounding her individual companions, is a problem. “Arachnids in the UK” partially remedies this, mixing the team up into smaller groups and allowing each character to shine more clearly. Whittaker has greater room to stretch her wings and be weird, rushing around with her head forward and her eyes wide open, in a state of constant openness. The episode’s most glaring flaw is the cartoonish billionaire villain. Doctor Who has a history of introducing outrageously grotesque characters, and most often it’s fun and charming. Without much subtlety, however, this episode’s character becomes an unconvincing caricature of our political moment.

Season 11 has worked fast to establish Chibnall’s stylistic touch. Viewers familiar with the near-laughably low budget of Doctor Who’s earlier seasons will be struck by the this season’s crisp and vivid camera work. Chibnall allows rich but expansive settings which frame and fade behind closer character shots. We’re often close to each character’s face, a choice that implicitly favors small action over the large, and works with and against what the show’s writing is doing at any given moment.

So far, Doctor Who’s 11th season is off to an uncertain, but potentially strong start. The show’s central cast is charismatic. Whittaker continues to be a great choice for the titular role. The cinematography is fantastic, the costumes and sets are beautiful, and the music is effectively subtle.

In its first four episodes, the show has rushed onto screens kicking and punching. Now what it needs to do is take a breather, slow down, give the audience more time to connect to the cast of characters, and establish focus. The Doctor still needs more scenes to establish her character when by herself, and some storylines that directly challenge her headstrong empathy would be a welcome direction.

The companions, too, need space to be fleshed out. Yasmin is the most flat of all of them, and it would be fantastic if she could get a storyline that takes the time to examine some aspect of her outlook.

The villains, too, need work. Three of the four episodes have had villains acting in a largely tertiary role, as a sort of embodiment of a more abstract, central evil. This is a clever choice, but needs to be balanced by closer conflicts with tangible stakes on both sides.

Still, Doctor Who is in exciting territory. The show at present has a wide array of potential it can exploit to great effect. It has all it needs to shine. So long as it slows down, trusts itself, and finds its voice, Doctor Who can be better than ever before.

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