NEW YORK — Jodie Whittaker, the 13th Doctor herself, sat on a Doctor Who panel over the weekend at New York Comic Con 2018. She eloquently discussed everything from her heroic influences, to her hope to inspire both male and female fans of the show to come together and celebrate the character's 55-year legacy.
That same day, Whittaker's first episode as the new Doctor aired, and the reviews came in within hours. Season 11 currently holds an unprecedented 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Whittaker was deemed "brilliant," "delightful," "wonderful," "playful," "energetic" and every other superlative under the sun. The episode itself, "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," earned similar praise. By all accounts, after a few rocky seasons, it seems that Doctor Who is back in rare form, entertaining science-fantasy fans of all ages.
That still doesn't necessarily mean you should watch it, though.
Whittaker's performance speaks for itself, and the season seems to be off to a strong start. But longtime fans should remember that Doctor Who has a history of showcasing fantastic actors in slam-bang premieres -- then whiffing things fantastically just a few episodes later.
There’s no question that Jodie Whittaker is the right woman for the job of the Doctor. But the show has let fans down so many times before, it may be time to jump ship before the almost-inevitable downward spiral begins.
Editors Note: For those who haven't watched Dr. Who before, note that there are some spoilers ahead related to previous seasons.
Misusing great actors
David Tennant, the 10th Doctor, had a pretty solid run of episodes, from his high energy debut in “The Christmas Invasion,” to his heartbreaking departure in “The End of Time.” We got to see the actor’s full range in one exciting, inventive story after another, for almost five years.
Things have declined a bit since then.
Matt Smith took on the role after Tennant left. Smith is an enormously talented actor, utilizing his lanky frame for engaging physical comedy, and his winning smile for the perfect delivery of quippy one-liners.
In his debut episode, “The Eleventh Hour,” Smith met the quixotic Amy Pond, discovered his affinity for fish fingers and custard and saved the world from an impending alien invasion, all while trying to grapple with his new demeanor and fashion sense. In other words, the whole adventure was exciting and charming, while setting up an exciting season-long arc.
In Smith’s last episode, his uncomfortable romance with convoluted companion Clara took a backseat to a weird, maudlin riff on the Christmas spirit. Some intense rapid-aging makeup hid the best parts of Smith’s performance, which the writers then shoehorned into the 12th Doctor’s introduction. Over the course of three seasons, Smith went from vivacious and fun to a pack mule for depressing, brooding stories, and it showed.
Likewise, consider Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor - and arguably the best comic actor to have the role so far. In his freewheeling premiere, Capaldi confronted a t-rex in Victorian London, called upon some fan-favorite supporting characters, clarified his relationship with Clara and delivered a memorable monologue about his eyebrows. The episode juxtaposed Capaldi’s incredible comedic timing against his brusque sincerity, and made him one of the most endearing incarnations of the Doctor yet.
By “Twice Upon a Time,” Capaldi’s last appearance, things had gone off the rails again. He’d bid farewell to Clara one season before in a truly bizarre reversal that ended with the companion flying away in a space diner, so he had to conclude his run with underdeveloped companions Bill Potts and Nardole. “Twice Upon a Time” was a continuity-heavy Christmas special where Capaldi got to show off a bit of his range, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he never got a chance to make the most of his full talents.
Stories not worth telling
Another major problem with Doctor Who over its last few seasons is that the stories have been overly sentimental and convoluted. While Doctor Who usually excels at telling standalone adventure stories with the whole family in mind, a good chunk of Smith and Capaldi’s runs were simply love letters to their own tangled continuity.
Smith had to deal with a season-long arc involving a mysterious time traveler, President Richard Nixon, a silent alien invasion of Earth (which never got fully resolved) and the joyless departures of beloved companions Rory Williams and Amy Pond.
Meanwhile, Capaldi had to untangle Clara Oswald’s complicated backstory, an unnerving saga of undead Cybermen and a frankly depressing arc about Maisie Williams as an immortal Viking girl who loses her children — and can’t even remember it, because of her mortal capacity for memory.
At its best, Doctor Who is uplifting and charming; seeing Smith and Capaldi try to deal with topics that would feel more at home in a Black Mirror episode is neither.
A job for Jodie
Granted, there are a few reasons to be optimistic about the show’s 11th season and its 13th doctor. Whittaker herself is off to a strong start, of course, but there’s also reason to believe that the story might not be so scattershot this time around.
Chris Chibnall has replaced the controversial Steven Moffat as Doctor Who’s head writer. Previously, he worked on the critically beloved Broadchurch — where Whittaker also starred, coincidentally — and has previously written thoroughly decent Doctor Who episodes, including “The Hungry Earth” and “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”
But a good lead actor and a good lead writer do not make up for years and years of misdirected cast members and slogging stories. If Whittaker can bring Doctor Who back to the consistent quality of the Tennant days, then more power to her. But if you want to wait until the end of the season to see how she does, rather than gamble 45 minutes each week, you’ll probably have history on your side.