Doctor Who S13E1, “Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse”, kicked off the last full season for both Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and Chris Chibnall as showrunner with a messy, but entertaining, bang. The two will now be forever linked as their respective runs will have started and ended together.
Whittaker had to navigate the very intense, and persistent, sexism directed at her for daring to even take on the role. But, through sheer skill and determination, she was able to win over the part of the viewing audience willing to give her a chance at all. With her performance growing over the course of her first two seasons Whittaker was able to settle into the role and develop exceptional chemistry with her TARDIS “fam,” allowing this final run to feel like a deserved bow, rather than one last chance at redemption.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Season 13 is for Chibnall. He has consistently shown that he is not a good enough writer to move beyond the issues that have plagued him since he took over as showrunner. He has shown no ability to ground the show in relationships between the characters, which was Russell T. Davies’s specialty. Nor has he shown an affinity for the fantastic realm of intricate plots, which marked the Steven Moffat era. This left very few areas where he could succeed. And so, even Chibnall’s greatest contributions seem, so far, to have been limited in follow-through.
The “Timeless Child” storyline and introduction of an almost infinite number of past Doctors could have been a compelling and infinitely rewarding well. So far, it has been a lot of extra noise in the midst of an already overwrought succession of storylines. Big ideas, canon-changing concepts, and complete upheavals of the status quo are tossed around constantly, but there is rarely, if ever, an interesting story that follows any of it. With all of that said, Chibnall does have at least one strong suit as a writer, “Historicals”. I must admit that Chibnall’s episodes focusing on historical figures, especially “Rosa”, have consistently been my favorites since the reboot of the series in 2005.
Interestingly, “The Halloween Apocalypse” is neither historical nor concerned with the “Timeless Child”. Yet it still may be the most classically recognizable style story of the entire Chibnall era so far. From the mid-adventure start to the cliffhanger ending Doctor Who S13E1 kept moving forward with a momentum that is often lacking in the current iteration of the show.
The Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gil) start off the episode trapped in midair in the middle of an adventure we have not been following, already months (if not years) from the departures of Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). Whittaker and Gil have had tremendous chemistry since their first moments on screen together and the first moments of Doctor Who S13E1 are no exception.
Gil consistently layers her performance with a frustrated pathos that indicates just how much she cares for the Doctor, and just how much she wishes she could move on as the others have done. Yaz is not alone in the world. Her family has been the focus of a couple of episodes, but her sense of self is entirely connected to the Doctor in a way that she, and by extension, the audience, can see is both incredibly important for her, and also stifling.
Underlying this, while never explicitly stated, it definitely seems that, like so many companions before her, Yasmin Khan has a crush on the Doctor. There seems to be a reluctance from the creative team to let this relationship blossom. While entire seasons in the Davies years were, for good or ill (and I’m on the side that it was mostly for ill), dedicated to the companion’s mooning over the “Oncoming Storm”. In Doctor Who S13E1, Yaz mopes and shows her frustrations, as she has for much of her time on the show, but without the others there the spotlight is even brighter. Yaz has stayed with the Doctor for a reason. And it is a reason the show seems hard-pressed to run away from as fast as possible.
It seems the way that Chibnall and the team have decided to avoid this plot is by bringing in two new male companions. First, there is Dan Lewis (John Bishop), the working class Liverpudlian who gets captured to set the Doctor and Yaz off on this particular adventure. Bishop plays Dan with an immediate and irrepressible charm. There is likely more to him than we know at first, as seems inevitable in Chibnall’s stories, but there doesn’t need to be. Dan is similar in many ways to Graham but, with his loneliness so complete and his compulsion to do good things for others, we can see the ways in which Dan might stand out if given time on the show.
Yet time is a luxury we do not have. With only six episodes in the season and Yaz already on the crew, it seems that there will be no time to really focus on either of them. Character interactions throughout Doctor Who S13E1 suffer due to this. Especially since we also have to be introduced to Vinder (Jacob Anderson). In contrast to Dan’s compelling introduction, Vinder’s seemed very rote and plot-oriented. He had to be introduced to let the Doctor know about the threat to the universe and, it seems, he might be a forced love interest for Yaz.
The existential threat that brings Vinder into the story isn’t the only thing going on in Doctor Who S13E1, as the plotlines and villains pile on top of each other to an almost absurd degree. There are the dog-like, and aptly named, Lupari who are working to save humanity. (The “dogs are man’s best friend” joke of the whole story is the main point of all of it, but I still loved it. You can give me a character like Karvanista, a fluffy dog-faced alien in a suit of armor, any day and twice on Sunday.)
In addition, the Weeping Angels return and revert to their “time stealing” manner of menace from “Blink” to wreak havoc on Dan’s love interest. Some amazing-looking Sontarans are somehow in the mix, using the chaos to advance their own war-like interests. And finally, there was “Swarm”, a threatening and deadly villain with a personal connection to the Doctor, it all just felt classically “Whovian”.
Swarm’s introduction near the start of the episode also gave us another example of the, sadly all too common, “woman of color in a position of power doesn’t know how to do her job” trope. Marginalization of women of color continues to be a giant issue with the show. The Chibnall era has made it a point to have a lot of women, and many of them people of color, in the powerful “leader” position the Doctor encounters. This is great for representation percentages but it also leads to a problem. Every time that type of character shows up, she has a tendency to be inept. And, as is the case in “The Halloween Apocalypse” these women of color are killed off early, often, and in unceremonious fashion.
Swarm and his “sister” (who is also introduced by killing off a woman of color) are also confusingly presented. I think this is due to Chibnall adhering to the unnecessary “Mystery Box” trope. Instead of telling the story, the idea is to present mysteries for the audience to solve (which may or may not actually be meaningful.) What we can discern is that Swarm has a psychic connection to the Doctor. His entire relationship seems to have a vibe akin to that between the Doctor and the Master. It seems likelier than not that Swarm is related to the Doctor’s forgotten past, and the whole “Timeless Child” storyline. But due to the way Chibnall constructs stories, this is both unclear and may just be pure fantasy.
It is my sincere hope that Doctor Who (and Star Wars) decide in the near future to stop trying to wrap the entire story in a mystery that is hidden from the main characters and the audience. I want the storytellers to focus on crafting a story that is well told and makes narrative (not necessarily logical) sense, rather than on trying to hide what is really happening for some sort of “Big Reveal”.
As it stands Doctor Who S13E1 definitely set up a lot of possibilities for the new season. It was overstuffed and confusing, but there is plenty of time at this point for everything to come together. And, if Chibnall and company can actually embrace the multi-part arc they have given themselves, it could lead to a really deep and meaningful season of television. Or they could continue to focus on the pageantry rather than the humanity of the characters and leave us wanting even more to return to former glories.