The New Doctor Who Is Only Progressive on the Outside

Doctor Who just finished its first season with a woman in the titular role. The decades-long sci-fi series has changed leading men many times — canonically explained by a process called “regeneration” — and we knew about other members of the Doctor’s alien race swapping sexes before. But Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker was the first actress to take the lead role herself.

The season that followed her arrival started out strong. Its premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” took a decidedly more character-driven angle than past seasons under previous showrunner Steven Moffat. In the past few years, Doctor Who was bogged down by endless high-concept villains, cosmic disasters, romantic subplots, and twisting continuity. Most of it went nowhere and completely reset season-to-season. It continuously undercut most of the menacing monsters and emotional stakes. Although there were some bright spots.

The 2018 season, under the oversight of new showrunner and Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, felt like an exhale. We could finally relax long enough to worry about the main characters — specifically Graham, Ryan, and Yaz, the Doctor’s new traveling companions introduced at the start of the season. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was literally about saving one “unimportant” person that never appears in the show again.

Unfortunately Grace, Ryan’s grandmother, dies during the rescue. And the relationship between Graham, a white retired bus driver, and Ryan, his black step-grandson, quickly became the focal point of that new character-driven drama… kind of.

The pair certainly talks about Grace. The second episode in particular establishes that Graham wants Ryan to open up to him. Ryan, meanwhile, clearly doesn’t see his grandmother’s husband as family (he makes a recurring point not to call him “granddad”). But slowly, and then very suddenly, a pattern emerged on the new Doctor Who.

Ryan wasn’t actually that upset about Grace dying. He’s just mad that his off-screen, absentee father didn’t show up to her funeral. From then on, he almost never directly addresses the woman we know single-handedly raised him when Ryan’s mother died. There is next to no tangible evidence of their apparently loving, supportive relationship once Grace is out of the picture.

Instead, her ghost becomes an object of angst exclusively for Graham — sometimes literally. In episode four, “Arachnids in the UK,” Graham returns home after traveling through time and space with the Doctor. He briefly hallucinates Grace standing with him, before returning to travel the cosmos. And it’s honestly pretty touching. It’s a visualization of how we expect people who are no longer with us to just be “there” like always. And Bradley Walsh, the actor who portrays Graham, strikes a great balance of melancholy and dry wit throughout the show.

But later, in “It Takes You Away,” Graham sees Grace again. Except this time she’s a sort of hologram created to tempt him into staying in a parallel universe. Ryan never even gets to meet the simulacrum. Instead, his B plot involves telling a blind girl not to trust her father. It’s an assumption clearly based on his own “deadbeat” dad back story that ultimately turns out to be correct. Then finally, in the season finale, Graham gets a chance at revenge against the creature that killed his wife. The entire episode hinges on whether or not he’ll sully his soul by killing. The Doctor verbally opposes this, but does literally nothing to stop him.

In the grand tradition of that puerile moral dilemma, Graham does not murder the toothy alien that killed Grace (and literally billions of others besides). Instead he and Ryan trap it in a hellish stasis pod — balanced tortuously between life and death — for all eternity. But at least nobody died!

If you’re wondering where the Doctor and Yaz are during all this, don’t. The two women are totally passive players throughout this major arc of the show. Yaz in particular gets ignored so much that it beggars suspension of disbelief. She’s a traffic cop, we learn in the first episode, but you wouldn’t know it if you missed the premiere. It never comes up again for the rest of the season. She doesn’t even mention it when an American real estate magnate holds her at gunpoint in her own hometown. You’d think a dangerous act like that would prompt a response.

The omission becomes downright laughable (if it wasn’t already) during the New Year’s special. During the ep, the Doctor and company track a parasitic alien through Sheffield. Eventually the monster steals a cop’s clothes and car to blend in better.

Despite working as a police officer in this exact city, Yaz never comments on the situation. Nor does she call any of her friends and coworkers to warn them or request help. She just takes down notes for the other leads and tells someone where to find a coffee shop. That’s her entire role in an episode where Ryan inexplicably reunites with his “con man” father — closing the loop on the character’s racist and cliched back story. Meanwhile, the first explicitly queer character of the season is an extra that exists solely to mention he has a boyfriend, before getting his neck snapped off-screen.

Doctor Who’s lens is firmly interested in only one person: Graham. He gets to be warm, emotionally vulnerable, tough, funny, sincere, sarcastic, wise, and out of his element in equal measure throughout the season. The rest of the cast — even the damn Doctor herself — are supporting characters on his emotional journey.

New Doctor Who

The artistic imbalance is almost graceful. The further you get from Graham on the spectrum of character backgrounds, the less interested Doctor Who becomes in its lead roles.

Graham, the older white man, gets all the attention. Ryan, an able-bodied black man, gets the second most texture. Sure, his background is a badly aged trope, but at least he has one. Then there’s the Doctor herself; she gets a few scene-stealing monologues that try to paper over the season’s increasingly shoddy writing. By the time you reach Yaz, a Pakistani British woman of color, however, you might think Chibnall was forced to include her at gunpoint. Maybe her total lack of agency and characterization, outside of two episodes that are more about her family than herself, was an act of protest on the show-runner’s part.

It all breaks down like this: Doctor Who got its first woman protagonist in more than 50 years of television, but not a lead writer with the chops or interest to write them.

It shouldn’t have been terribly surprising. Even as the show diversifies its cast, Doctor Who has exclusively had white, male show-runners since its reboot in 2005. Chibnall follows Steven Moffat and Russel T. Davies. Moffat notably brought on a lesbian woman of color as the Doctor’s “companion” in his final season. Meanwhile, Davies himself is an openly gay man; multiple queer characters appeared on the show throughout his run. Those supporting members didn’t get the prestigious lead role, but they were easily more developed than even the Doctor herself is under Chibnall’s eye.

This season’s Doctor was as inconsistent as she was passive. Nowhere was that more evident than in the mid-season episode “Kerblam!” The title refers to an obvious Amazon stand-in: a galactic delivery company that uses robots to send out its goods.

Things go awry — as they always do on Doctor Who. It turns out that Kerblam! has automated away nearly all human labor in the future. Things take a more immediately sinister turn when we find out the company’s ruling A.I. is killing its tiny fraction of organic workers. It seems clear, at first, that unchecked capitalism has created a monster.

But nah… The system has actually been hacked by a workers’ rights activist, who plans to launch a genocidal protest against Kerblam!, using its robots to bomb innocent people across the universe. The Doctor teams up with two company executives to stop this underclass terrorist (he’s literally a janitor). Then she gives an impassioned speech about how the “system” — whether that be the A.I. or the capitalist practices it obviously represents — is fundamentally good. It’s “extremists” like him that turn the world against people.

This is despite the fact that the Kerblam! A.I. literally liquefies an innocent woman to prove a point — to show the villain the wrongness of his plan. The Doctor is totally fine with that, however, and leaves the system completely intact. She nods amicably as the executives (two people who let their company become a murder machine) promise to do better next time.

This is not typical Doctor Who behavior. Previous Doctors toppled governments, blew up planets, and rent time itself apart to undo morally unjustifiable infrastructure. There’s always been an anarchic streak to the character: from their flamboyant, hodgepodge wardrobes to the environmentalist messages of past series. The Doctor’s most hated and most famous enemies, the Daleks, are a direct metaphor for fascists (specifically the Nazis). You cannot extricate that leftist streak from the very DNA of the show without ignoring its entire history.

Of course, the Chibnall season doesn’t try to extricate the show’s politics. It just massages them. Like most modern capitalist ideology, it wants to assimilate more people and ideas into itself, while strictly maintaining the usual hierarchy.

The Doctor can be a woman, but she can’t be angry, assertive, or the center of the show. Ryan can get screen-time, but only filtered through a damaging stereotype. Yaz can be… present, but she’s a glorified tape recorder. Meanwhile, lovable old Graham maintains the status quo as the heart and soul of the show, even as it superficially shifts around him.

There is still a lot to like on the margins of Doctor Who. The production values, set and costume design, and even the music are better than ever. The acting (when the actors have something to do) is charming across the board. Yet you could say all of that about nearly any season under Moffat’s tenure. That era had significant pacing and plotting problems. But the new Doctor Who? It’s wasting one of the most interesting opportunities the show has ever had on neoliberal propaganda.

But Whittaker and Chibnall’s next season won’t start until 2020. Hopefully, that gives the creative team time to come to their senses — to realize how badly they’re squandering a fresh start for the series that drew in massive viewing numbers. But like in the show itself, I suspect we’ll just get more of the same.