‘Doctor Who’ sticks season 12 landing


Promotional Art

Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole return for 2nd season as the doctor and company

Pippin Hart, Co-Editor in Chief

“Doctor Who” Twitter is a mess. It only takes ten episodes to utterly obliterate the hearts of fans of the 50-plus-year-old British television show. After its 2005 revival, the “Doctor Who” fandom has weathered woebegone aliens and dramatic deaths, and many a regeneration––the handy trick the show uses to swap out the lead actor through extraterrestrial death-defying. Season 12, however, is a different beast altogether. 

In 2017, the 13th incarnation of the titular Doctor (a pseudonym; her name is a secret the universe can never divulge) stepped onto the scene in the form of Jodie Whittaker. Though her first season played things astonishingly safe and failed to reach the show’s emotional heights, her second, the one that just finished airing hardly a month ago, is memorable, thought-provoking, and a rip-roarin’ good time. 

The season opener, “Spyfall,” riffs on spy films and sends the Doctor and company on a chase of intrigue through space and time after a mysterious tech mogul and his possibly-interdimensional aid. The episode doesn’t stay in one place for very long. In the opening sequence alone, we see the plot unfold in multiple locales, most of which we don’t revisit. The way it uses setting as a jumping off-point illustrates something about the season as a whole: after season 11 stayed so close to Earth, season 12 is wide-reaching and restless. 

“Can You Hear Me?” is the most ambitious of these place-hopping adventures, jumping between 1300s Syria, 2020s Sheffield, and the beginning of time. Of all the episodes in season 12, this one takes the most risks, for the biggest payout. It’s almost unbearably weird––but that’s precisely what “Doctor Who” is meant to be. 

“Can You Hear Me?” marks an excursion into the realm of the supernatural, metaphysical, and strange, incorporating gods, nightmares, and planetary collisions to draw a sharp comparison to the Doctor’s meddling in human affairs. “Doctor Who” is at its best when self-critical, holding the Doctor under the lens of scrutiny. In seasons 5 and 6, the more unhealthy aspects of being one of the Doctor’s human companions came to light. Here, Whittaker’s 13th is faced with the remarkable power she holds as a time traveler, and whether or not, even with good intentions, she comes to resemble a deity. 

Immediately after, in the winter of the Doctor’s discontent, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” faces her with an even harder pill to swallow. In a secluded vacation home in Geneva, as Mary Shelley sets to work on Frankenstein, the work of an old enemy re-emerges, casting doubt on the Doctor’s “save everyone” M.O: how do you weigh one life against possible billions? When the consequences for  relentless compassion come––as they always do––will you be ready for them, knowing you could have acted differently? 

Which brings the 2020 slate to its devastating finale. 

Without giving too much away, “Doctor Who” always delves into its mythic, pre-episode-one lore when it really feels it has something to say. The Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey, always seems to be on the business end of a world-ending catacylsm whenever the showrunners think it’s time to switch things up. The current showrunner, Chris Chibnall, indeed, plays this time-worn card, but what makes this take fresh is the way he’s intent on unraveling the Doctor’s personal history. 

Though he spends the entire season selling it too high, the finale does come as a promptly-delivered gut punch, hence the break-downs in unison as the episode airs on each side of the Atlantic. Chibnall employs a figure from the Doctor’s past, the surreal landscape of history lived within a database, and some exciting new variations on familiar themes from the show’s resident composer, Segun Akinola. (The way he tackles the leitmotif for a recurring monster, the half-human, half-machine cybermen, is mechanistic, relentless, and above all, brilliant.) 

As far as characters go, the companions traveling with the Doctor from episode to episode are fun to watch, and they get more substance than they did last season, but the real wealth in “Doctor Who” comes in the form of side characters. Usually, they’re the fodder that gets picked off to raise the stakes. That’s still true here, but at least it breaks your heart.