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How Doctor Who’s return to smaller stories has reinvigorated the series

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Nov 26, 2018, 4:20 PM EST

It’s safe to say that Doctor Who Season 11 has ushered in its fair share of changes, including a new Doctor, a new showrunner and a ton of new writers on staff. But, its most impactful storytelling shift has nothing to do with the fact that the Doctor is a woman now — though that's a necessary and long-overdue change, and Jodie Whittaker is indeed wondrous. No, it appears that the biggest change at the dawn of the Chris Chibnall era is that Doctor Who is telling small stories again.

This is actually a much bigger deal than it sounds. Former showrunner Steven Moffat reveled in telling big stories, constantly swinging for the fences with sweeping, convoluted ideas that pushed the envelope of what Doctor Who could be. And, that was extremely important — it helped drive the show firmly into mainstream pop culture consciousness, gaining a fifty-something sci-fi series more fans and a greater worldwide appeal than ever before. And let’s be real, some of those stories were amazing creations that will forever live in every Whovian’s all-time best episodes list.

But despite its epic scope and clever twists, Moffat’s Doctor Who was often lacking from an emotional perspective, particularly when it came to genuine stakes and lasting consequences. Sure, part of that problem was due to the constant reversals and resets of those self-same twists, leaving viewers wondering how much of any story they could trust to last beyond the closing credits. The other, however, was the show’s insistence that every story had to be the biggest possible version of itself, with epic, colossal, often potentially universe-ending results.

Each Big Bad the Doctor faced had to be the most dangerous in the universe. Every companion had to be the most special, the most mysterious or the most magical in some way. Each sacrifice had to be even bigger than the one before. Even the TARDIS’ Cloister Bell, once reserved only for “wild catastrophes and sudden calls to man the battle stations,” according to the Fourth Doctor, was basically sounding in every other episode as crisis after crisis occurred.

It honestly got kind of exhausting.

Because, let’s face it — if every danger, monster, or puzzle is the worst thing the Doctor could possibly face, then nothing has any actual meaning. Not really. There is no sense of scale or impact, only the constant need for further escalation, the drive to make the next danger, monster, or puzzle more frightening, more complicated, or bigger than the last. There’s nothing left but to try to outdo yourself, week after week and arc after arc. And that eventually leaves everything feeling rather empty and hollow, as though no story truly matters, in the end.

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That’s not at all what Doctor Who is – or should be – about. This show isn’t Lost or Westworld, and it doesn’t need to stuff itself with puzzle box mysteries or shock twists to keep viewers coming back. Not every story needs to be groundbreaking, and each arc doesn’t need to have a specially designated must-see moment built in at the end.  

At the end of the day, it just needs to tell a good story. And, thankfully, that’s exactly what Season 11 is doing.

This particular incarnation of Doctor Who is going back to basics in a truly refreshing way. Season 11 is simpler, quieter, and much more focused on character-driven adventures than in recent years. Some viewers, used to the epic narratives of the Moffat years, have dubbed the new season boring or complained that its stories are pointless. Others have even assumed that its more basic feel must be some kind of trick, a misdirection meant to cover up for the real twist that must be coming in the season finale. Not only is this reading incorrect, but it’s also ignoring some of the best things about Season 11.

The Chibnall era thus far is not defined by mystical cracks in the universe or identical girls who replicate throughout the Doctor’s timeline. Instead, it’s focused on one woman’s desire to better understand her grandmother’s past. It’s about the team’s determination to protect an important moment in history — and meet the people who played a part in it. It’s the story of a trip to help someone (or something) simply because they asked for it.

Yes, Season 11’s stories are about relatively small stakes, rather than the fate of the larger universe. But they’re no less interesting for the fact that they’re personal tales whose resolutions generally affect only a handful of characters. In fact, their repeated focus on empathy and care underlines even further the, for lack of a better word, smallness of these stories and why that’s actually important.


These episodes are comprised of little moments that combine into a surprisingly effective whole. The revelation that the supposed monsters of “Demons of the Punjab were actually there solely to make sure that Prem didn’t die alone was a massive gut punch, but it’s one that only works if we care about this random character we just met 20 minutes prior. We do, though – we care about what happens to Prem, as well as to Kira from “Kerblam!,” Karl from “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Willa from “The Witchfinders,” and more. Chibnall’s Who takes the time to show us why this one person’s story ought to matter to us. And in the end, for us, as viewers, their stories feel like a universe. Small and self-contained, yes; but rich and full all the same.

Doctor Who can be a show with big, sweeping arcs and grand monsters when it wants to. But it doesn’t have to be – and is often better when it isn’t. There’s certainly a time and place for a “Journey’s End” or “The Pandorica Opens”. But these epic sorts of stories matter a lot more when we are given a chance to breathe between them, and when we’ve gotten a chance to see a bit more of the world the Doctor and her friends are fighting so desperately to save.