NOTE: Some spoilers from throughout the twelfth series of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
Doctor Who’s present direction has been divisive to say the least. After Broadchurch showrunner, Chris Chibnall took the reins of the series in 2018, complete with casting the show’s first-ever official female Doctor, the series moved away from most of its familiar trappings, in favour of taking the narrative in a bold new direction. Now armed with three companions and scads of all-new threats, the previous Series Eleven of Doctor Who proved to be a hit with critics, but left many longtime fans less than pleased, due to the heavy departure from New Who’s previous format under former showrunner, Steven Moffat in particular. This is a bit strange when you consider that Doctor Who has always founded its over-arching themes on the beauty of change, evolution and embracing new ideas and wisdom, but even by those standards, Chibnall has certainly not been shy about making his own unique mark on this long-running sci-fi TV franchise.
After merely one New Years special to represent the show in 2019, Doctor Who finally properly returns for a full sophomore season under Chibnall in 2020, once again aspiring to bring the franchise to unprecedented new heights, fan expectations be damned. Series Twelve of New Who is certainly an interesting beast too, since it can often range very wildly in overall quality. On the one hand, this season does indeed feature some of the most bold, fresh and exciting Doctor Who episodes of the modern era, eventually culminating in an earth-shattering twist that changes how we’ve understood this universe since its earliest inception in the 1960’s! On the other hand though, Series Twelve of Doctor Who also contains some of the most frustrating, botched or downright awful episodes of the show’s modern incarnation, ultimately sporting a respectable, if occasionally unreliable ‘Go Big or Go Home!’ mentality.
I will say this about Series Twelve however; Even at its worst, it is one of the most interesting, debatable and memorable Doctor Who seasons to come along in quite some time. It’s not always great, and sometimes it can be pretty bad, but when this season is on the ball, it’s utterly fantastic! It also helps that Jodie Whittaker is now even more settled into her leading role as The Doctor as well, alongside her faithful trio of companions, finally allowing the show to present a balance between all-new obstacles, and a few classic personalities and enemies. While Series Eleven focused entirely on all-new foes for The Doctor (excluding the New Years special, which revolved around a new spin on age-old enemies, the Daleks), Series Twelve does contain a few familiar Doctor Who antagonists in some of its episodes, most notably the Judoon and the Cybermen, the latter of whom go on to serve as the climactic threat of the season.
Easily the best and most delightful return from a well-established Doctor Who nemesis in Series Twelve however is that of The Master, who has mysteriously regenerated into yet another all-new, previously-unseen incarnation. Now played by Sacha Dhawan, The Master is freshly motivated by a truth so devastating and so terrible, that he once again destroyed all of Gallifrey upon learning it! Dhawan’s Master is a kooky, but undeniably wicked riot too, appropriately book-ending the season and staying out of its middle episodes, which can continue revolving around a slightly serialized, but still mostly independent run of adventures across time and space.
As for how these adventures fare, well, this is where the season can be a little… Inconsistent, to put it diplomatically. Certain episodes, like, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” and, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, are amazing, and must-watch entries for avid Doctor Who fans especially, due to their brilliant storytelling and fun, exciting presentation. Then there’s episodes like the sub-par, “Praxeus” and the outright terrible, “Orphan 55”, which validate every otherwise overblown fanboy fear about the series’ current direction, by over-focusing on half-baked political messaging and un-earned soapbox grandstanding. Doctor Who can do political episodes, along with episodes that involve introspection related to issues like the environment and technology abuse, but the way it presents these issues this season is too often juvenile, shallow and condescending. Further hurting episodes like these is the fact that this season of Doctor Who didn’t exactly bring its A-game when it came to its many lacklustre new enemies, instead putting most of its best story ideas into familiar foes like the Judoon, who do admittedly make their overdue return a pretty sharp one here.
It’s worth slogging through, or outright skipping, those duffer episodes however, because the climax of Series Twelve is one that’s well worth the wait, if you’re willing to embrace its complete upheaval of established Doctor Who lore. The over-arching mystery behind this season is executed pretty fantastically for the most part, at least beyond the quick, unrealistic defeat of The Master and his supposedly unstoppable army of Cyberman/Time Lord hybrids. The short version is that the Time Lords and what they stand for are essentially one big lie, and they’re actually deriving their regeneration powers from The Doctor herself, who is a mysterious being from another dimension. This mystery was first hinted at wonderfully during, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, when The Doctor encountered a black, female incarnation of herself, masquerading as a human named, “Ruth”, who is a formerly unknown regeneration from the heroic Time Lord’s past. Apparently, The Doctor has had an undetermined amount of past lives, regenerations and missions that have been completely wiped from her memory, opening up a huge new wellspring of potential Doctor Who storylines, particularly now that the series is starting to throw out its former rule of not incorporating parallel universes into its storytelling.
Considering the massive metaphysical implications of changing The Doctor’s backstory, and that of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, so drastically, it was also nice to see that the human touch of the series also didn’t completely go amiss in Series Twelve. Granted, Series Eleven had noticeably better human storytelling, especially now that Ryan, Yas and Graham have gotten their fundamental character conflicts and origin stories out of the way, but Series Twelve still managed to deliver a few legitimately good companion-driven arcs. Whether it was Yas having to come to terms with the limits of her adventures through time, or Ryan pondering what happens after he inevitably has to exit the TARDIS someday, the companions did sometimes manage to tug at the heartstrings, even if Graham was most often left to serve as mere comic relief or inspiration in this case. Graham does seem to have already gone through a lot of his best storylines last season, but he’s still the most fun and witty companion in The Doctor’s current ensemble, so he’s nonetheless a joy to bring around on the TARDIS for the time being.
As much as not every element of Series Twelve worked, and some of it faceplanted pretty hard at times, one at least somewhat has to respect the fact that Doctor Who has big, ambitious ideas under Chibnall’s leadership, and doesn’t care to apologize for them. This was a season of dizzying highs and infuriating lows, but it all came together in a mind-blowing finale that carries massive implications for the entirety of the series, as far back as its Classic Who origins even! Like I said, if nothing else, Doctor Who hasn’t been this interesting or provocative in quite some time. As much as the show had some rather bad episodes here and there in Series Twelve, Chibnall’s bold creative spark is at least making Doctor Who feel fresher and wider in scope than it has throughout most of its entire modern run. Thankfully, the weak episodes can be easily skipped too, and the ultimate payoff is well worth the journey either way, especially when The Doctor and her companions have now more comfortably settled into their roles, even if this does sometimes come at the expense of more legitimate human drama.
So, where does Doctor Who go from here? Well, it could go anywhere in Series Thirteen, even beyond its previously established borders, and that’s the most exciting element of all to come out of Series Twelve! We are supposedly getting another special episode at some point towards the end of this year (which hopefully won’t be pushed back into 2021, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that’s occurring at the time of writing), but for now, the show has demonstrated an impeccable commitment to challenging its foundations through 2020’s current episode selection. This can lead to some especially frustrating failures when the show’s headstrong writing can’t figure out when to quit, but as with any definitive new era of Doctor Who, what’s old can find new life when it’s not afraid to challenge what we previously understood about it. Perhaps in that respect, Series Twelve is more in tune with the spirit of Doctor Who than ever, both the best and the worst of it. Even when the season doesn’t succeed, that determined spirit to explore new frontiers and challenge pre-conceived notions still shines through, daring us to think differently, and embrace pain, confusion and betrayal as much as we do excitement, joy and inspiration.
Doctor Who goes for broke with tons of ambitious, narrative-shifting ideas in Series Twelve, which leads to some of the most superb episodes of the modern era, as well as some of the worst.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Some standout storylines that are very cleverly executed
Fantastic returns for The Master, the Judoon and the Cybermen
Boldly challenges and re-defines the foundation of Doctor Who lore
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Some awful storylines that heavily botch their themes