This is all very different. The amazing thing is that the Doctor being female is one of the easiest changes to get used to. Jodie Whittaker is immediately brilliant as the Doctor, so this whole gender change is clearly going to live or die on the quality of the writing. Maybe the tactic was to change absolutely everything to make Doctor Who feel like something very new, and then the presence of the Doctor herself is the only comforting and familiar thing in the episode, helping the viewers to accept her. I don’t know, but either way it works. Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and clearly a very, very good one indeed.
But that was never going to be the most important thing, as strange a statement as that may seem. We have seen great actors play the Doctor, and have their time marred by terrible scripts, and on one occasion we have even seen the opposite of that. So let’s look at everything that surrounds this new Doctor.
Probably least importantly, although worth mentioning, this is a visually stunning episode. It manages to look slicker and more expensive than anything we have seen before: extremely filmic, and not just because of the widescreen format (I’m not keen on deliberately not using part of the television screen, having lived through all that once before, but I’ll control myself and not go on a rant about that here). Everything is modern and fresh, from the liberal use of aerial shots to the way that the rest of the series is trailed at the end by showcasing the acting talent.
The pacing was perhaps a little slower than we are used to, part of a wider impression that the whole episode made of being more akin to an adult drama. That was the impression given by all the direction, pacing and in particular the incidental music. It’s all very slick, and what it does it does extremely well. There remains a slight worry in my mind that the family remit is still being neglected, as it has been basically since Matt Smith left. What was there to interest children? It didn’t feel like a show for them. With an early evening broadcast time it all seems something of an awkward fit, but if there’s one series that can break all the rules and thrive, it’s Doctor Who.
How about the story itself? The post-regeneration trauma was kept to a minimum, little more than a quick nap for the Doctor, and that’s exactly how it should be done. The balance was just about right, with the Doctor held back for the first ten minutes of the episode. allowing the new companions to get established as well. The alien invasion I found instantly guessable as a war between two races, and then when that turned out to be the wrong guess it was replaced by something no more interesting or original. The aliens reminded me a bit of Tennant’s debut in The Christmas Invasion: a big brutish race of bullies – again nothing to write home about. But the first story doesn’t need to be something hugely original. Generally what works best is to throw the new Doctor into a traditional kind of Doctor Who story and see how he/she responds, exploring the new characterisation while the Doctor learns who he/she is. That’s what happens here. And I’m already fed up with having to type he/she. We need to invent a gender neutral pronoun that isn’t “it”.
We have a group of four companions here, of sorts, so anyone who has followed any of the pre-publicity will have guessed that one of them was for the chop. Again, this seemed like a very adult-demographic thing to do, but it was handled with tact, a far cry from the lingering shot of Clara’s death we had to suffer a couple of years ago. I still prefer companions to join the Doctor’s travels because it’s an amazing thing and they want to do it, rather than the other two alternatives that have been tried many times over the years: (a) make them orphans, or (b) have the Doctor kidnap them. There are elements of both of those ignoble Who traditions here. Bradley Walsh is going to be magnificent though, just as I expected.
There was a sense of saving some of our treats for later, which could be a clever tactic. What do we expect to see in the first episode of a relaunch of Doctor Who? The new title sequence and the new TARDIS, for a start. Neither of those things were present here, although the former can presumably be guessed to a certain extent from the end credits playing over a vortex that was highly reminiscent of the Pertwee era. With so many viewers tuning in out of curiosity, particularly for the first female Doctor, it makes sense to leave the TARDIS reveal back for the second episode.
So what else is there to say? I mentioned the aerial shots above, but that was part of a wider attempt at vertical storytelling, which gave the episode impressive scale. The major plot beats were to be found vertically as much as horizontally within the story: Ryan, Graham and Grace sat on the outcrop of rock, shot to appear a lot more precipitous than it probably was, the Doctor’s arrival from above, the location of the cable monster, the fabulous chase sequence on the cranes…
…speaking of which, was it just me, or was all that jumping stuff made a nonsense by the design of the cranes? Maybe it was just shot badly, or maybe the director was trying to hide the problem with the shot, but surely there was a safety barrier that would have prevented anyone from jumping from either direction, at least without climbing up onto it first. A running jump looked impossible.
Speaking of impossible things, the creation of the new sonic from bits and bobs lying around in a workshop is fun but silly (although not quite Pertwee silly). The “Tim Shaw” joke was fabulous, but he seemed to be wearing only human teeth, which doesn’t quite fit with his modus operandi. It also has been established that the Doctor is virtually indestructible post-regen, but it would have been useful to have explained within the episode itself how exactly the cliffhanger to the end of the previous episode of the Doctor falling from the sky is resolved by her just falling to her death and then not dying. I also had to groan a bit when the Doctor changed into her awful new outfit. Even Capaldi’s tattered threads were better than that. I suppose we’ll get used to it.
In fact, we’ll get used to it all. The new music, direction, widescreen, modern approach, three companions, female Doctor. In fact, I’m used to that last one already. RP
The view from across the pond:
As our friends here at the Junkyard know, Doctor Who has always been a very personal journey for me. For the premiere of Jodie Whattaker as the Doctor, I was lucky enough to see it with some 500 other fans in Madison Square Garden as part of the NY Comic Con experience, with Jodie Whittaker, Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens in attendance.
Is it wrong to be enjoying this?
The sound system in MSG is fantastic. Clock chimes akin to Big Ben began counting up. 1… 2…3… and on 13, the crowd went wild. The little child that lives in my soul was ecstatic doing flips. I was so excited. The cinematic feel was amazing, especially over some of the landscape shots. The outdoor areas were sprawling and beautiful. I do think the episode was a little too dark though. I think it would have been even more impressive in daylight. I was also bummed that the TARDIS was not seen yet, which was a bit of a letdown even if I knew that was going to be the case. And I am dying to hear the actual opening theme. But when you have an experience like a season premiere with a Comic Con crowd, it’s hard not to be carried by the excitement and ignore those minor things. There was just so much to enjoy.
The villain: Tzim-Sha was a violent creature and the teeth extractions were brutal but he made a memorable villain. While I think it would scare some of the kids in my family, I still think they would enjoy it.
The cast: they were spectacular. Bradley Walsh as Graham is great. The relationship he has with Ryan as a step-grandparent, is difficult and his outburst with Ryan is believable. I love how Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) tempers that. She was such an asset to the whole story. Mandip Gill as Yasmin plays her part with authority as well as compassion. When Ryan climbs a ladder, her in-charge attitude gives way to genuine concern. And Tosin Cole as Ryan comes off as flawed, but capable. He is already proving to be a complex, multifaceted character.
And this is where being in a ComiCon crowd added to the experience because during the Q&A session, a brave audience member brought up the fact that she knew she’d have “representation as a woman” in the form of Jodie and Mandip, but she never expected to have representation by Ryan’s character who suffers from a coordination disorder called Dyspraxia. Chris Chibnall explained that this will remain a part of the character with which he will have to cope throughout the season. (Chib’s took inspiration from his own nephew who has the disease. See what I mean about those heartfelt, personal moments? Doctor Who has always been like that for me. The right words at the right time.)
But what of Jodie? What of The Woman Who Fell to Earth?
Of the woman part, thankfully, they make very little of it. There’s a single moment which we’ve all seen in the First Look. The only other line a friend of mine caught was “It’s been a long time since I’ve bought women’s clothing”. But that doesn’t say “worn”! We know the Doctor has been male since his first incarnation now (“The orginal you might say”,Twice upon a Time) so this merely says “bought” which one must assume he would buy for his granddaughter, at the very least. Other than that, the Doctor’s gender remains “the Doctor” and it’s perfect.
The episode itself is as much a love letter to the past as it is an acknowledgement of moving forward and Jodie embodies it perfectly. She expresses it like this:
Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine, in the end. Hopefully. But I have to be, because you guys need help and if there is one thing I’m certain of, when people need help, I never refuse.
The beauty of that dialogue is that it’s not just the Doctor, but Jodie as an actress taking on a magical, wonderful role that will change her life. She has to trust herself to know how to make the character work. Plus, she has to get it right because we, the fans, are counting on her. And she won’t let us down.
This episode carries all the excitement of Matt Smith’s first story too. The Doctor does have a brief “regeneration nap” but it gets interrupted and like Smith, she’s all manic and action. After an iconic leap to save the day, and with the right alignment of adrenaline, outrage and panic, she delivers the next defining speech about the character, the show, and what we all carry with us:
We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.
Yeah, that’s about the size of it. Jodie will choose who the Doctor will be. She describes herself as “Sorting out fair play throughout the universe.” And she tells her friends at the end “I’m just a traveler. Sometimes I see things that need fixing; I do what I can.” These are the traits that define our hero, and she’s the latest incarnation.
The funeral scene was beautiful, unexpected and I have to draw attention to it for a personal reason. On the way home from NYCC, I received a text: one of my best and dearest friends lost his wife, also a dear friend, on Sunday after nearly three year battle with cancer. She’s at peace now, but for my friend and his family, it’s going to be a tough haul. When I got home I told my wife; I was beat from a long day and from really sad news. So she offered to watch the episode with me before I called it a night. And during that second viewing, the magic of the series hit me once more. When the Doctor is asked about family, the Doctor says she lost them to which Ryan asks how she copes with that, the Doctor imparts this wisdom:
I carry them with me. What they would’ve thought and said and done. I make them a part of who I am. So even though they are gone from the world, they are never gone from me.
I can vouch for that. It’s how it is for me since my dad passed and how it will be for my friend and his family. So this post is for Ada; another incredible woman.
Doctor Who is an amazing show, full of hope, inspiration, inclusivity and heroism. I’ve said it so many times before, there is no better hero in all of fiction. The episode leaves us hanging… in space… and I can’t wait to see what comes next. As for this reviewer, I’m sold: Jodie Whittaker is The Doctor.
Right… this is gonna be fun!
Read next in the Junkyard… The Ghost Monument