Some say Doctor Who is lacking strong villains this season, but their new focus on a more abstract enemy is making the show shine.
This season of Doctor Who has brought us a series of fascinating new stories, set both in the future and in the past in classic Who fashion. Set on doing what has never been done before, it’s given us a female Doctor and three companions of different races, whose histories are being lovingly and respectfully examined, particularly in “Rosa” and in the latest episode, “Demons of the Punjab.”
But some fans are upset at the lack of truly scary villains this season. We haven’t seen any suitable contenders for the Silence, the Cybermen or the Weeping Angels. So far, we’ve just had Tzim-Sha, a gross guy with teeth in his face, and Racist Guy Krasko — neither of whom can really hold a torch to the enemies the Doctor has faced in the past.
And the rest of the creatures the Doctor and her friends have had to defeat haven’t exactly been evil. The Pting, the spiders and even the strange inhabitants of Desolation were more compelled to hurt others because of their nature than out of a desire to do evil, prompting the Doctor’s compassion.
It’s understandable that fans would feel rather frustrated. But after “Demons of the Punjab”, maybe we should reconsider things. This show is dedicating more time to tackle a villain that we’re not so used to seeing on television, but one that we’re all very familiar with: human prejudice.
Rather than a single character, the enemy in both “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” was a concept. Both Krasko and Manesh are just vehicles for it: the real threat is much bigger, much more encroaching, and can’t really be defeated in one fell swoop like a physical enemy could be.
It’s clear that with this season, Chibnall is trying to do something profound. For all the campy, happy-go-lucky feel of this Doctor and her companions, the episodes aren’t shying away from darkness one bit. Doctor Who is still a family show, of course, but it’s returning to its educational roots — and as always, making us ask the important questions.
It’s easy to chalk up all evil to one entity, but Doctor Who has always had a more complex approach than that.
This isn’t the first season where we’re geting these kinds of episodes; in fact, the most memorable episodes of past seasons have been ones without a fixed evil, but rather an analysis of human nature — such as “Midnight” and “The Beast Below” — or even stories where the enemy turns out to be just another victim of injustice or war — such as “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”, or “Vincent and the Doctor.”
There’s a reason we remember those episodes: they reminded us of who we are as humans, and they taught us powerful lessons. Season 11 seems to be giving that feeling more importance, and when it’s combined with important historical moments that are hardly ever explored in science fiction, the result is particularly impactful.
We need these abstract enemies in Doctor Who. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it would be lazy of Chibnall not to go there. Doctor Who is about exploring the universe and all the good and bad it brings… and the one universal enemy that affects everyone, regardless of where or how they live, is prejudice. There is no easy way to triumph over it — no sonic screwdriver can fully unravel it — but in seeing how characters deal with these struggles in different contexts, and opt for the more moral choices over greed and hatred, helps us find ways to defeat these enemies in our own lives.
That’s not to say that we should completely phase out the monsters (they are what Doctor Who is famous for!), and I do agree with previous assertions that it doesn’t always feel like our characters have much effect on what actually happens in historical episodes (although I guess that’s a side-effect of travelling to the past)… but as fans, we should realize that the Doctor has complex work to do nowadays, and we should let her do it.
As a planet, we need to heal from the dangerous diseases of hatred and prejudice… and she is the Doctor, after all.