When the final episode of Series 11 of Doctor Who faded off our screens back in late 2018, my podcast partner and I had to sit back and evaluate the whole thing. We’d been doing ‘hot take’ episodes weekly for The Doctor Who Show, but once The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos aired, it was time to click the blocks of Lego together and really think about the series overall. Had it worked? Had it failed? Was Jodie Whittaker finally the Doctor? Had she done enough to stamp her name on the role?
You can hear what we had to say in the Doctor Who Series 11 Wrap episode. An episode I haven’t heard myself since producing it almost a year ago. If you do listen to it, let me know if it’s any good, yeah?
I’m deliberately not listening to it before writing this blog, however, because I want to explore where I feel things are at with the 13th Doctor as we sit here in late 2019, prior to the series return in just under two months from now, presuming a New Year’s Day kick-off.
What got me thinking about Jodie this week was an article where Arthur Darvill speculated that Jodie’s second series would see her “bloom”.
I always think the second series of anyone in that role is the one where they bloom. You’ve had the year of ‘Will they like it? Won’t they like it?’ and then the second year is great. We saw that with David [Tennant], Matt [Smith] and Peter [Capaldi], the second series is the one where they have fun. – Arthur Darvill
Putting aside that Darvill is an old Broadchurch sparring partner of Jodie’s and that the only really surprising soundbite would have been if he slated her performance instead, I’m intrigued by this idea that, in Darvill’s opinion, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi “bloomed” in their respective second series. I don’t think you can say that at all.
Tennant rushed into his first series like the proverbial bull at a gate. Unsurprisingly for a long-term and old-school fan of the series, he seemed to know what he wanted to do and owned the role from the start. His relationship with Billie Piper’s character, Rose, is regarded as one of the key Doctor-companion relationships in Nu-Who and their ‘break-up’ in Doomsday, with that haunting musical score, one of the series’ key moments. Doctor Who in 2006 was mega. All of this in his first series.
By comparison, Tennant’s second series is broadly regarded as weaker. As much as I like Freema Agyeman’s portrayal of Martha, the pairing isn’t as good as what Tennant pulled off with Billie the series before and isn’t a patch on what he’ll do with Catherine Tate a series hence. Throw in some total stinkers including Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and The Lazarus Experiment and this isn’t a series where you can say the Doctor blooms at all. Granted, it does include the wonderful Human Nature/The Family of Blood, but by the time we get to the finale and Tennant is turned into Dobby from Harry Potter franchise, then back again, and is then flying, Christ-like, through the air… please. His second series had its moments but wasn’t some tangible leap forward.
Fish fingers and custard
Which brings us to Smith. I had incredible trepidation when he was cast, partly due to his youth. I have nothing against youth per se (“my Doctor” Peter Davison was the youngest in the role prior to Smith), but simply felt an older Doctor was needed at the time as a contrast to Tennant. Smith’s casting, I felt, was trying to give us “another Tennant” straight away, and I didn’t see any sense in that. Well, aside from appealing to a certain audience demographic which the BBC had enjoyed attracting via Tennant and didn’t want to lose right away.
I say all of this to highlight how wrong I was about Smith. His first episode was a revelation. I felt he was the Doctor from the opening scenes, let alone the slightly heavy-handed bit towards the end of the story where we had a flashback to all his past selves before Smith burst, literally, through the middle of them to announce himself.
Admittedly, this wasn’t the first story Smith filmed. Also like “my Doctor”, Davison, Smith recorded his early stories out of sequence, actually debuting with The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone and going on to record another couple of stories for good measure before filming his debut fifth. So you could say, “Well, Rob, no wonder he had it down in The Eleventh Hour…” but I’d simply point at his performance in the Angels two-parter that he recorded first. He’s got the role pretty well sussed from the start. You don’t watch Series Five chronologically and suddenly have the sense he’s gone backwards in those later episodes. No, I’m convinced Smith knew what his Doctor was about from the start.
She cares, so I don’t have to
The Capaldi era is interesting, insofar as it doesn’t follow the strong starts from Tennant and Smith, however, it doesn’t bear out Darvill’s idea, either. The Capaldi Doctor begins life as an utter prick to be around. There’s no nice way of saying it. And although this seems to have been by design (and thus Capaldi is doing exactly what he’s supposed to), the overall portrayal still wavers and goes all over the shop in his debut series. It’s like each of the episode writers had a slightly different idea to what the character should be doing and the script editing wasn’t strong enough to make it feel cohesive.
This kind of wishy-washy portrayal continued into Capaldi’s second series, too. He wasn’t the complete arse of the first series, but moments of unlikeability were the order of the day, topped off with the rather peculiar idea of, “Let’s pretend that although he’s super smart and has been around humans for a long time, he suddenly forgets all the basics so we can do a gag every episode with Clara…” which got very old, very fast. So, no, I don’t feel the Capaldi Doctor bloomed, or even particularly got it together, in his second series either.
Capaldi, bless him, finally fired in his third series. That’s where he genuinely bloomed, to bring us back to this concept of Darvill’s. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said he should have emerged from his regeneration with wild hair and a kindly uncle figure from the start. It might have looked good on paper to have an arc for this Doctor, and to “get right” what the Colin Baker era “got wrong” (and wasn’t allowed to complete anyway), but when you see Capaldi in his third series, the pangs for that to have been his portrayal all along are massive.
Whittaker of course, has only had one series and a special at the time of writing. That series, I felt, was underwhelming. When I look at the list of stories today, I see four out of 10 stories I could go into bat for. Five, if really pressed. That’s not a good average. The New Year’s Day special was passable too, but not spectacular. And while stories are very much the responsibility of each writer (and ultimately Chris Chibnall as the showrunner), I don’t think Jodie’s portrayal of the Doctor really fired (in either the series or special), either.
Unlike Tennant and Smith who emerged from their debut episodes with a strong sense of what their Doctors would be, Jodie just seems to be… there. She says the lines, she pulls an occasional funny face, and she sticks up for what’s right. But is there a character in there? It’s all seemed reasonably bland, so far. A generic Doctor, if you will.
In this sense, I agree with Darvill. Jodie’s second series is absolutely a chance for her to bloom. After all, when you’re coming off such a relatively low base where a third of fandom were openly outraged at your debut series, another third were disappointed it wasn’t better and maybe only a third were “true believers”, anything out of the box is going to be an improvement and seem like growth. Again, Tennant and Smith already had bloomed by the time of their second series but, conversely, Capaldi took three series to do it… so Jodie has time. And that’s a vital thing to remember. Not everyone can be Smith or Tennant from the start.
Going into this second series for the 13th Doctor, I feel Whittaker has everything to play for and, given some good stories from Chibnall and his writers, I think there’s every chance for her second series to be really good. Conversely, we could get a few episodes into it and it will become apparent that not much has changed since the first series and it’s just more of the same. That would be a shame, and potentially set up a scenario where Whittaker’s Doctor could be handed the chance to come good in a third series, a la Capaldi, but that assumes a lot of things… it assumes Whittaker won’t do well in her second series to begin with, and also assumes that she’ll even be around for a third. With so many rumours swirling about her future, who can even tell anymore?
What do you think? Has Jodie’s Doctor bloomed yet? Comment below.