To an extent, The Doctor — in any of their manifestations — is meant to be a mystery. Originally devised a time-traveling scientist with amnesia, the character evolved into an alien from the planet Gallifrey (in the constellation of Kasterborous) who went rouge from his own people after some incident. Across the program’s fifty-eight-year existence, the relative certainty of The Doctor’s nature has led production teams and individual writers to question who The Doctor really is. And, sadly, the thirteenth season of the revived Doctor Who — subtitled “Flux” — reveals just how perilous it can be to question one of the show’s few certainties.
Indeed, presenting The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) as something older the her Time-Lord history suggests has been in the margins for decades. Before the program was put on indefinite hiatus in the 1980s, script editor Andrew Cartmel and a league of younger writers began insinuating a secret history for the character. As both he, writers like Marc Platt, and then-star Sylvester McCoy would eventually say, the intent was to re-establish the mystery of the character’s past as seen throughout the 1960s. The problem: Cartmel realized suggesting a new past means you have to reveal it, which puts you back at the character being less mysterious. His idea, eventually dubbed “The Cartmel Masterplan,” played out in a series of novels and is interesting enough if you want to seek it out.
Current showrunner Chris Chibnall‘s take on The Cartmel Masterplan is far less satisfying. The sole thing in its favor is the presence of Jo Martin as a Doctor obscured from the Thirteenth Doctor’s own memory. Dubbed “The Fugitive Doctor,” she indicates the sort of person The Doctor must’ve been before they left Gallifrey in a stolen TARDIS. But to introduce her, Chibnall has effectively broken the show. Now, The Doctor is not a native of Gallifrey and the discovery of The Doctor by a native Gallifreyan led to the invention of regeneration and Time Lord society itself. As Swarm (Sam Spruell) put it in Season 13’s final episode, The Doctor is now “the first Time Lord” in addition to being an alien to her own presumed homeworld. It’s a lot of suggested answers the audience, particularly those loyal to the Classic Era, do not want while desperately needed answers to the current story remain fleeting.
Why were Vinder (Jacob Anderson) and Bel (Thaddea Graham) part of the plot? Why was The Grand Serpent’s (Craig Parkinson) story so imprecise? Why were Swarm and Azure (Rochenda Sandall) imprisoned in the first place? Why did Division imprison Time itself? In trying to answer the oldest question (hidden in plain sight, of course), Chibnall failed to deal with any of the motivations behind the confluence of events. Even Division’s decision to initiate the Flux event lacks a solid or satisfying reasoning. And that’s before you consider that “Flux” ends with either the universe restored or utterly decimated by Division’s actions (or that Division is seemingly defeated after being introduced just a handful of episodes ago).
But the weakness of the plotting is part-and-parcel of the Chibnall Era. It’s a shame as the central cast — Whittaker and Mandip Gill as companion Yaz — have never been better. Indeed, even newcomer John Bishop acquitted himself well as he spent most of the season as Yaz’s companion. Add to this some fine performances from Anderson, Kevin McNally as Professor Jericho, and the welcome return of Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart and you should have something feeling more like a celebration of Doctor Who‘s continued existence instead of an indictment of its longevity.
And yet, that’s exactly where we are with Time telling The Doctor that there will be no more regeneration. The plot point has been invoked before and feels hollow seconds after Time says it. In fact, so much of Chibnall’s era has the feel of half-hearted reruns despite his quality as a writer (as seen in Broadchurch) and his love of Doctor Who (proved via a 1987 public affair shows in which he appeared as a member of the Liverpool Doctor Who Appreciation Society). Perhaps the true mystery of the Thirteenth Doctor revolves around why a fan with obvious talent as a writer cannot create compelling Doctor Who.
Although, we’re quick to point out that the second chapter of “Flux” — “Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans”, written by Chibnall — is the single best episode of his stewardship. It feels like what he was aiming for the whole time: a single-episode threat The Doctor defeats with both passion and charm while still adeptly developing an ongoing tale. It briefly made us hopeful that the season-long story would prove as compelling. But the pieces never meshed together and the final episode’s refusal to answer anything makes everything, including “War of the Sontarans,” feel like a wasted effort. Or, worse, we’re in the midst of a producer running out the clock because his heart is no longer in it.
Thankfully, though, Doctor Who always survives. It endured ten years of producer John Nathan-Turner, an ambivalent (and eventually hostile) BBC management, and a fourteen year hiatus. It even survived two appearances by James Corden. It will survive the Flux event as well.
Doctor Who returns New Year’s Day in “Eve of the Daleks.”