Arts tv review

‘Doctor Who’ Series 12: masterfully thrilling

An improved if not overcompensated effort

★★★★✩
Doctor Who: Series 12
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone, Lee Haven Jones, Nida Manzoor, Emma Sullivan
Screenplay by Chris Chibnall, Ed Hime, Nida Metivier, Vinay Patel, Pete McTighe, Charlene James, Maxine Alderton
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Badley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
BBC One

Chris Chibnall’s second series as Doctor Who’s showrunner features its actors’ strongest performances. In contrast to the disjointed Series 11, Series 12 had tension, tears, and terror wrapped neatly into an epic series arc, albeit not without its flaws.

The most marked improvement from the previous season is in the writing. Series 11 featured ten standalone stories, but they were inconsistent in tone and poorly executed. On the other hand, most of Series 12’s episodes were engaging. Each story managed to retain its uniqueness while also being expertly weaved into the series arc.

Furthermore, whereas Series 11 featured no villains from prior Who canon, Series 12 showcased the return of some of the show’s most notorious: the Master (Sacha Dhawan), Cybermen, and Judoon. Of course, returning monsters always risk treading all-too-familiar territory, yet Series 12 balances the old-school with novel twists to keep audiences on the edges of their seats. 

For instance, while “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” begins like a standard ghost story, it shifts focus when a Cyberman abruptly appears halfway through the episode. Suddenly, what seems to be a standalone mystery becomes an apocalyptic crisis, leading directly into the two-part finale. Yet, the transition is masterfully done and the Cyberman’s presence makes sense.

Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Thirteenth Doctor is impeccably nuanced. From the moment the camera pans to her expression at the end of “Spyfall,” the fiery ruins of Gallifrey before her, one can already feel the tension between her usual cheeriness and her newfound disillusionment. Series 12 attempts to remedy Series 11’s overoptimistic and bland Doctor by spotlighting her inner conflicts. Here, the Thirteenth Doctor truly excels.

Indeed, the tension only escalates. In “Orphan 55,” she dodges questions from her companions, Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill). When Queen Skithra (Anjili Mohindra) asks the Doctor whether she’s ever seen a dead planet (“Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”), she rages. In “Fugitive of the Judoon,” she is defensive in response to her companions’ questions, and finally in “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” she snaps and rebukes her companions for questioning her judgement. Over the course of the series, the companions grow disgruntled. Ryan, in particular, converses with Yaz at the end of “Can You Hear Me?” to express his doubts about continuing to travel with the Doctor.

Moreover, recurring elements throughout the series highlight the Doctor’s internal conflict. The Timeless Child, the centerpiece of the series finale, appears in both “Spyfall” and “Can You Hear Me?” The motif of planetary destruction starts in “Spyfall” and continues for the remainder of the series, particularly in “Orphan 55” and “Praxeus.” Finally, the Dregs, seemingly one-off monsters in “Orphan 55,” reappear in Ryan’s dream sequence in “Can You Hear Me?”

Dhawan’s Master is thrilling with his exaggerated and childlike glee for his evil plans. He feigns cooperation with the Doctor as a secret agent in the series premiere, but quickly descends into insanity when he is revealed to be her long-time nemesis in the final minutes of the episode. In “The Timeless Children,” he is at his most sinister, manipulating the Doctor’s psychology while creating a new Cybermaster race to conquer the universe.

The companions get more developed this series too. In many stories, they split away from the Doctor to carry out different tasks among themselves. Consequently, they just have a lot more to contribute to the stories. Walsh, Cole, and Gill portray their characters with such emotional range that it’s difficult to get through the series with a dry eye.

Graham continues to offer frequent comic relief above his sorrow undertones. After the events of Series 11, he seems to have gotten over his past, but, as seen in “Can You Hear Me?” he still reels from the death of his wife, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke). He provides occasional wisdom, and it is he who comes up with a lifesaving plan in the finale. Even though he changes the least throughout the series, he was already the most characterized heading in and can afford to take a back seat. 

Ryan, on the other hand, is continuously tested this series. When the Doctor is unable to save Bella (Gia Ré) at the end of “Orphan 55,” he begins to question how his life in the TARDIS is affecting him and those around him. Furthermore, in one of the most vulnerable moments of the series, he advises his friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang) to seek help for his depression (“Can You Hear Me?”). As a more subtle development, Ryan starts the series being unable to aim a basketball due to his dyspraxia, but it’s his accurate bomb-throwing that saves his life in “The Timeless Children.”

Yaz, arguably the most underdeveloped companion last series, finally uses her police training in “Spyfall,” “Fugitive of the Judoon,” and “Praxeus.” First hinted at in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” her daring attitude is finally fleshed out, especially when she spearheads an impromptu mission in “Praxeus” or runs into a dangerous portal in “The Timeless Children.” Notwithstanding her recklessness, however, Yaz is endearing. While her family served as a plot device in Series 11, her relationship with them this series underscores her growth. This comes to the forefront after exploring her most vulnerable moment: running away from home (“Can You Hear Me?”).

Where the series shines is in its diversity. It casts a black Doctor (Jo Martin) for the first time in the show’s history and contains the first episode that places a gay couple (“Praxeus”) front-and-center. Representation in media is indubitably important, but often such attempts feel forced. The show handled this well by not sidelining any of these characters. Jo’s Doctor plays a central role in her episodes, and the positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community is commendable. “Praxeus” is thus far the only Doctor Who episode to make me cry three times or more and is one of my favorites of the series.

Yet, despite the plethora of amazing things this series has to offer, it falls short in two major ways. One issue is that too much of the series feels like buildup and the payoff in the finale cannot live up to the hype. Chibnall penned four of the ten episodes and co-authored an additional three. It’s no surprise, then, that even the stories by some of the other writers had the series arc embedded within them. Unfortunately, the audience is left with too few clues leading up to these frequent cliffhangers, making their resolutions rushed and too-convenient. One can only handle so many surprises before they start to feel overused and ineffective. Secondly, although the show has its heart in the right place with some of its messages, it feels preachy at times. The primary offender is the monologue that ends “Orphan 55.” 

Nonetheless, the show continues to awe, even going into its 58th year.