Doctor Who: the Thirteenth Doctor’s Character Arc is Too Little Too Late

It's not just the Timeless Child arc that made a mystery of who the Thirteenth Doctor is; her characterisation is only now coming into focus with two episodes to go.

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who
Photo: BBC

With two episodes left before she regenerates, we’re only now starting to see the Thirteenth Doctor’s character arc forming: like many Doctors, her whimsy is a front masking a more serious flaw. In this case, it’s that she talks a lot but says little. She’s inactive, preferring to shut people out rather than talk about what’s bothering her (she’s repeatedly snippy in response to Yaz asking reasonable questions). This started to change at the end of ‘Flux’ and during the course of ‘Eve of the Daleks’, which forced her to reach out to everyone in order to save their lives. At this point in her story though, the development feels too little too late.

Have you ever been in a work situation when someone insists on everything going through them, but they’re so busy and/or distracted that this takes forever and they never reply to your emails? The office bottleneck? The Thirteenth Doctor is this, essentially, and it’s made her arc shallow as a result. We’re only just starting to get to the upward curve in her last few stories, yet she’s still deflecting.

This means that Jodie Whittaker hasn’t had much to work with during her tenure in the role. Opposite Alan Cumming in ‘The Witchfinders’ or Craig Parkinson in ‘The Vanquishers’, we’ve seen how good she is playing a relationship with substance. With Yaz though, the Thirteenth Doctor has been blunt and dismissive since the end of Series 12. The recent development of not knowing how to deal with romantic love is the first time Whittaker and Mandip Gill have really had something strong to play. As a result, the Thirteenth Doctor’s characterisation has come into focus very suddenly, making it clear how static it’s felt in the preceding series.

In her first story, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’, the Thirteenth Doctor’s character is slightly different to how she’d end up: she does act against the antagonist, tricking Tim Shaw into a trap with a view to ending his cycles of violence. Then Karl, who Tim Shaw was trying to kill, decides to push Tim Shaw off a crane and lets him teleport away. The foundation is there for a Doctor who has tried acting decisively and failed, who is wary of this happening again, but none of the following stories build on this.

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Echoes of the Fifth Doctor

Chris Chibnall’s writing is reminiscent of Eric Saward’s. Saward, the Script Editor on Doctor Who between 1982 and 1986, wrote the Fifth Doctor as an idealist in a harsh universe, frequently unable to exert enough authority or power on a situation to prevent mass slaughter. His stories were cynical and violent, seeming more interested in gun runners and mercenaries than the Doctor and his companions. Dialogue was frustratingly distant to how people actually speak, feeling more like someone had shown an AI bot a spoof Shakespeare play (my personal favourite is “That can’t be so! A creature strong enough to destroy the probe does not exist!” from ‘Warriors of the Deep’).

Characters’ emotional responses were often implausible, such as the minimal reaction to the death of Adric; Nyssa merely being a bit put out by the Master destroying her entire planet; or the fact they’re not all constantly depressed by all the horrible deaths they see. Frankly it’s remarkable that Tegan lasted until ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ before the constant violence became too much (triggered in this case by the Doctor taking up arms specifically to kill Davros – a character she has never met or likely even heard of). However, when Saward writes Tegan’s leaving scene you can tell he has the ability to write strong character moments, and wish the show had been more geared towards that.

Despite this, there’s enough going on with the Fifth Doctor to form a character arc. Whether deliberate or not, the Doctor has his idealism crushed and becomes what he hates, only to redeem himself in his final story. This isn’t flagged up by the productions, but fans have found enough moments to hang an arc on. Even if it’s unintentional, it’s still there and it works.

Chris Chibnall’s writing feels similar, but he’s writing after Doctor Who engaged with the main characters’ interiority and focussed on their emotional responses to their situations, while Saward was inheriting a show that hadn’t done this before.

Like Saward, Chibnall pushes the nastiness and cynicism to the fore, writes dialogue that’s a challenge for actors to deliver, and his characters don’t so much evolve as have things happen to them that give fans enough to fill in the blanks of a character arc. Yaz, for example, was implied to have considered suicide in ‘Can You Hear Me?’, or at least to have tried to run away from home, and this major life event was neither mentioned again nor informed any future character development (for example, in ‘Revolution of the Daleks’, Yaz is sleeping in the TARDIS but we don’t know what her family’s response is). Her character is based on what the episode needs her to be (in the case of ‘Can You Hear Me?’ Yaz needs to be another character with mental health problems), rather than the other way around. This isn’t isolated to her.

For all that John Bishop is an amiable screen presence, it’s hard to have much sense of who Dan Lewis actually is. We know that he volunteers in a food back and goes without food himself, but then nothing he does after this seems connected to this detail. There’s a sense of telling rather than showing (for example, Graham sitting down with Yaz to say how great she is rather than having stories which show us) and this approach results in long and dull exposition scenes (such as the Master explaining the Timeless Child story to the Doctor).

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Choose-Your-Own Characterisation

This tactic means that characterisation has mainly been left to fans who are invested. If you’re not invested – and frankly, it’s easy to see why you wouldn’t be – you’re not going to put any work in to extrapolating Dan’s personality. This extends to the Doctor. Like the Fifth Doctor, the Thirteenth has enough happen to her that you can extrapolate a storyline. Like the Fifth Doctor, it’s difficult to know how deliberate this was.

While Thirteen has constants like letting antagonists go free without consequences, and observing rather than acting, there was more of a sense of joy in her first series. Series 11 has her nerding out over anti-matter engines and bouncing around like Tigger. Also, the all-new guest writers in Series 11 deliver strong scripts (‘Kerblam!’ with its brutal twist is very well written for the most part) that – coupled with the lack of returning monsters – give Series 11 a freshness that boded well for the future.

However, Series 12 felt like it learned all the wrong lessons. Gone was the blank slate for jumping onto, and back came the Master, Cybermen and Gallifrey with big changes to the mythos of Doctor Who. This is also where the characters feeling like plot functions really starts to damage things. The Master comes back because the Daleks can’t destroy Gallifrey again, but this makes the Master a round peg inserted into a square hole. The Doctor doesn’t tell her friends about the destruction of her home planet and then gets annoyed at them when they offer help. Strangely though, ‘the Fam’ don’t seem that interested in letting the Doctor speak either. She’s snapping at them, something’s clearly wrong, but they never really press her on it, just reassure her that it’ll be fine because they’re all friends.

Series 11 mentions ‘The Timeless Child’ early on, but it’s not until Series 12 that we move away from the initially joyful Doctor into this closed-off figure, holding onto whimsy like a shield. There are also possible hints of Yaz being in love with the Doctor, but it’s impossible to tell if these are deliberately planted or just look that way retrospectively. The first story where something feels clearly intentional is ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ where Yaz is absolutely fixated on finding the Doctor again, but this is two years into her story – either this is a new addition to the character or it’s been too subtly deployed to register.

The Twelfth Doctor’s Evolution

Not being planned isn’t a problem – the Twelfth Doctor’s arc felt natural but was being written on the hoof when his initial characterisation was deemed too extreme. Peter Capaldi commented on the character in an interview with The Daily Telegraph:

“I wanted to be a more distant and alien Doctor. Because that’s how I remember William Hartnell,” he said. “Being a kid in Glasgow on dark winter nights when this strange figure with the white hair and slightly irate voice could open this portal to a magical world.”

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He added: “The default now is a kind of cosmic imp. Which is great. But I wanted to touch the dark winter nights. I’m not sure whether the brand supports that any more, but that’s what I was interested in.”

And so when his initial take proved too much, he was reined in, ultimately bringing him nearer to the ‘cosmic imp’ but with a more abrasive take on it. This wasn’t a long-term plan, more a series of ad hoc choices that worked out really well. One thing you couldn’t say about the Twelfth Doctor though, is that his character arc wasn’t clearly signposted.

Whereas Twelve’s was hearts-on-sleeve, Thirteen’s characterisation is only being revealed now in her final few stories. It’s either because the characterisation is being applied retrospectively (and certainly the Doctor and Yaz being in love seems like it’s a late addition) or because a choice was made to treat this as a reveal akin to the Master’s return (and we know how much this particular production team likes to keep plot twists secret). The former seems more plausible, we know it happened with the previous incarnation, and also it seems incredibly brave/foolish to reveal the Doctor’s character three series in and invite people to watch the first two series back with this knowledge looking for confirmation of the pattern.

Is there a sense that the character it reveals for the Doctor – introverted, socially awkward, difficulty processing change, using whimsy as a mask – is intended as a representation of autism? It would fit in with Chibnall’s other representations of mental and physical health conditions (Ryan’s dyspraxia, Hanne’s blindness in ‘It Takes You Away’, most of the characters struggle with their mental health in ‘Can You Hear Me?’…) but an autism diagnosis is unlikely to be revealed this late in the day. It’d be crass to either reveal one or insert it retrospectively now, and the benefits of such a veiled representation would be dubious.

More likely, given the way characters have been given traits rather than personalities (Graham: has cancer, Yaz: ran away from home, Dan: is there) and don’t talk about their thoughts or feelings (note how Ryan’s first real one-to-one conversation with the Doctor comes in his last episode, simply to explain his motives for leaving, rather than feeling organic), the Doctor and Yaz’s conversations in recent episodes point towards this being necessary for the plot of future episodes. That it reveals character is a fortunate by-product.

And so the frustrations of characterisation come into focus. It’s not that audiences shouldn’t have to think about television, it’s that there’s a difference between an author inviting an audience to fill in the blanks and an author essentially handing them a sheet with a few bullet points and saying ‘fill in the rest yourselves’.

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Doctor Who: Flux is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.