Originally published on Green Man Review!
“Big serious crisis.”
Season twelve, the second season with the Thirteenth Doctor. With me? Let’s go!
As I’ve said before, the Twelfth Doctor just wasn’t my jam. He was written as too much of a trying hard character, with his Shades and electric guitar. As much as Peter Capaldi tried to work with what he was given (exactly what the hell it all was I’m still trying to figure out), I just never connected with his Doc. The 13th Doctor however? Last season she mixed joie de vivre with a no-nonsense attitude and toned down crazy. And it worked for me.
This new season is truly gorgeous to look at, and visually stands next to eleven. The money is on the screen with the cinematography, practical effects (for the most part – stick pin in that), and set design. I loved staring at it all. And the theme is just as good it was last season, blending the traditional tune with heavy bass beat. Ditto the Rorschach-esque opening credits imagery. And then there are the stories. Unfortunately, things get a bit messy this season, with the usual overarching story coming back into play with the thirteenth Doctor’s second season. There are stories and themes that work well, but most of the time? Things get a bit too heavy-handed. Let’s dig in.
‘Spyfall pt 1’
The Doctor, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan are back, baby! Things quickly go wobbly in the UK, as per usual. It’s lovely to see Stephen Fry as MI6 honcho ‘C’, and SIR Lenny Henry (who will always be Chef to me) as a secretive internet mogul. But that’s not the big news in this episode; The Master is back, as crazy as ever. And, of course, bent on universal domination and the destruction of our Doctor. The plotting here is all over the place, but Sacha Dhawan’s delightfully unhinged Master is a joy to behold.
‘Spyfall pt 2’
The Doctor’s ‘fam’ (Graham/Yaz/Ryan) obviously escape that pesky cliffhanger – it is the beginning of the season after all – but a new threat to Earth emerges. There’s a lot of bopping from past to present to an otherworldly dimension of Spyfall 1&2’s main alien baddies, but things get so hectic I checked out and just let things wash over me. Historical episode, Ada Lovelace, Nazis, and a figurative bombshell dropped by The Master leads the Doctor and fam into the arc of the season. It’s a fascinating one, but one that ultimately gets very little real attention as showrunner Chris Chibnall tries to cram so much into this season there’s little time to get invested in much.
Vacation episode! Naturally, an all-expenses paid vacay to a luxury resort ends up another day at the job for Our Crew when things are revealed to be not as they seem over at Tranquility Spa. The creatures – known as ‘Dregs’ – are loads of fun as long as you don’t look too closely at them when the lights are fully on. There’s an environmental message shoved into viewers’ faces, and it’s so heavy-handed that even a granola-muncher like me rolled my eyes at it. That the secondary characters are nothing but pseudo-slasher movie victims rather than individuals we care about. And what the heck really happened to that one character who got grabbed by the Dregs? Killed offscreen with zero fanfare. A fascinating idea that’s clumsily delivered and just as clumsily dismissed. Ah well.
‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’
Yay Tesla! In 1903 there’s the usual Tesla v Edison stuff, along with yet another fascinating alien species we get little background on. The Skithra, scorpion-like aliens led by a humanoid queen, remind me a bit of Klingons in their warlike demeanor and in-your-face personalities. But they’re just monsters-of-the-week in an oddly paced story that has moments of brilliance but doesn’t quite rise to excellence. Goran Višnjić does a wonderful job as Tesla, and the final scenes are bittersweet, letting me actually feel something. One of my favorites of this season.
‘Fugitive of the Judoon’
My very favorite episode of this season sees those pesky Judoon mercenaries are back, searching for their target in the UK. As they go about things in their typical bull in a china shop kinda way, the Doctor tries to protect the humans that inadvertently get in their way. As things progress, there’s a whammy of a reveal that blends Who with The Long Kiss Goodnight in a way fans will eat up. Kudos to Jo Martin as a woman who has more than your usual backstory. Please bring this character back again. And again. Oh – and we get a small dose of Captain Jack Harkness! Better than nothing, and while John Barrowman never disappoints (that saucy minx), his time onscreen was much too brief.
Another good story that suffers from dragging here and there. And another environmental message that is in no way subtle, but is done much better than in Orphan. The Praxeus – an alien bacteria that attacks…spoilers, darling – is a particularly nasty bugger that harked back to earlier seasons of Who. Bonus points for a sweet love story that sees astronaut Adam trying to connect with his husband Jake, a man who can’t seem to emote. The wrap-up is a bit too quickly done and could have used another five minutes or so, but all in all it’s a good alien invasion ep.
‘Can You Hear Me?’
Choppy editing hobbles this story of fear, immortals, and time travel. From Aleppo in the 14th Century to a young woman trapped in a space prison on the fringes of the universe, the Doctor tries to figure out why so many people – including Yaz, Graham, and Ryan’s BFF – are having weird nightmares. While the Big Bads of this episode are interesting and I’d like to see them cause havoc again, as with other episodes in this season, plotting and pacing are too choppy to really dig in beyond a casual “That’s some cool stuff going on there!”
‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’
Who takes a stab at the tale of Villa Diodati, when the Shelleys, John Polidori, and Lord Byron got together to try to scare each other silly. It’s the birth of Frankenstein! Not to mention Polidori’s “The Vampyre”! I should be eating this up with a spoon. While the actors do good jobs with their characters – especially Jacob Collin-Levy as a louche but entrancing Byron – there is such a thing as too weird. This is a case of a great story killed by oddness in the last act. Yeah, it builds upon Captain Jack’s comments in Judoon, but as with many of the ideas in this season, it’s ham-fisted, draining a some of the enjoyment out of what should be a fun spooky romp.
‘Ascension of the Cybermen’
The penultimate episode! The Master returns! And the Cybermen – led by Ashad, The Lone Cyberman (long story) – are ready to finally annihilate humanity! Our Crew jump into the future, where thanks to a reboot, the Cybermen are back and laying waste to humanity. It’s a pulse-pounding episode that had me seriously wondering if Chibnall would wipe out humanity in this outing. As with most penultimate eps, there’s a Holy Cow moment at the end that sets up the finale nicely.
‘The Timeless Children’
Where do I fucking start with this. Chibnall took decades of Who lore and threw it in a blender. Now typically I don’t much mind a spin on what we’ve thought we’ve known…but here? It’s an affront to cannon, sure. The real problem for me is the gaping plot holes this reveal makes in just about every season of the doctor, new or original. And yeah I’m gonna spoil it, I’m that mad. Seems our good Doctor was never Gallifreian. She was a foundling, discovered by a space explorer from Gallifrey, brought back to the explorer’s planet to raise. All the info on how to become a Time Lord? It’s all thanks to genetic experimentation on our ‘Timeless Child’, the Doctor. It takes a character who leaves her homeworld to explore the galaxy and says “Ahh, but she was never one of them in the first place! Isn’t that novel?” No, it’s not. It’s annoying.
I’m not loving that revelation, simply because it feels like it’s done just to open the door for spin-offs. More cash grab than conscious character development to move the Doctor forward. Hell, at the end of the finale, she basically shrugged and dealt with the new information with little to know emotional or psychological blowback. So? Zero development. Yay. Add in a cliffhanger that feels more like a desperate attempt to get viewers back for the next season than actual story progression? I might have yelled at my screen.