By Derek May:
Sunday night’s premiere of the eleventh season (under the NuWho count) of Doctor Who may have been one of the most-anticipated in the entirety of its 55-year run. It wasn’t just the fact that we haven’t had a new DW episode in almost a year. It’s not even the fact that the much-divisive (and derided) previous showrunner, Steven Moffat, has finally given up the center seat to newcomer Chris Chibnall, and expectations of breathing fresh life (and proper sense) into the show are being giddily anticipated. And no, it’s not even the new sonic screwdriver.
You know what it is.
After five decades and 12 (technically 14) previous male incarnations, the Doctor is finally a woman.
The announcement of Jodie Whittaker in the role caused a frenzy of reaction across the interwebs. As you might expect from certain keyboard cowboys, there was some initial backlash, but luckily the petulant naysayers were drowned out by the overwhelming excitement of devotees, feminists, and fans itching for a clean slate.
And it’s not like the groundwork for gender-fluidity amongst the Timelords hadn’t been laid for quite a while now. One of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries, The Master, has been played by actress Michelle Gomez for the past few years. The Big Finish Audio productions have alluded to, or outright shown, these changes in other characters long before. And there have been a number of varied hints sprinkled throughout the live-action series.
The question was not “if,” but “when.” And that time has finally come.
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is all in all a typical DW episode in structure and tone, and that’s not a bad thing. Chibnall obviously gets the material, understanding the interplay between the Doctor and her would-be companions, the delicate balance between horror and humor, and the twinkle of childish wonder while dealing with intriguing mysteries and terrifying alien threats. But there’s definitely an updated sensibility to the show. Visually, it has a far-more cinematic look and vibrance, a bit more daring in its composition and palette. But most importantly, the rage-inducing contrivances and emotional manipulation that Moffat was so vilified for (including very much by me!) is drastically reduced in favor a more cohesive, emotionally satisfying storyline.
But let’s get to the hearts of it here: how did Whittaker manage in her debut? To my mind, excellent.
Unlike the confusion felt by the Doctor herself as she struggles with post-regeneration pangs and somewhat scrambled mental faculties, Whittaker jumps into the role as if she’d been playing it for years. The Doctor is defined by his/her intelligence, ingenuity, humor, compassion, and steadfast resolve to help those in need. And all of this was clearly revealed in this new incarnation. As the Doctor is want to do, Whittaker bounces between these varied and conflicting states of being at a moment’s notice with nary a beat missed. She exudes enough leadership and confidence that the small group of humans caught in her wake have few qualms about deferring to her expertise and guidance. She commands without force, directs without anger, and charms with that breezy Doctor enthusiasm. As such, Whittaker does not play a female version of the Doctor, she simply plays the Doctor.
And that’s exactly how it should be. While the change in gender is obviously acknowledged by everyone, it is mentioned in passing, and moved on from. Gender is a fact to be noted and, essentially, dismissed. Had it been otherwise, it would be clear that Chibnall and company were going for a gimmick rather than a substantive renewal. They chose the right path, and fans can now rest assured that we’re having those same old wonderful adventures with the Doctor and her companions that have kept the franchise going for so long.
That being said, some risks were definitely taken. We see a far more racially diverse group in those who follow the Doctor. We have characters of African, Indian, and Anglo decent, a mix of genders, and a blended-race family. And though the characters obviously have history together and occasionally some tense relationships that can lead to some nicely dramatic interactions in the future, none of the conflict seems based on racial divides. But at the risk of including a bit of a spoiler, their most bold move may have been killing off a fairly major new character, the glue that held that delicately tethered ensemble together, leaving a vacuum for the Doctor herself to most likely fill. It was also a nice twist at the end that the group was forced along as companions rather than the usual overt desire or temptation. All of this should lead to some wonderfully delicious developments this season.
All that said, I did have a few minor quibbles. The choice to “destroy” the TARDIS upon 12’s regeneration into 13 felt artificial. The number of times the Doctor has regenerated there without major incident shows its destruction is certainly not a given but more a plot contrivance to strand the Doctor without her most stalwart companion. While the hunt for the missing TARDIS and the Doctor’s need to find alternative forms of transport do certainly provide plenty of fodder for upcoming stories, I just can’t help but wish they’d gone about it differently. But hey, given that it happened under Moffat’s watch, I’ll chalk that one up as a final nail in that coffin.
Secondly, I’ve just gotta say, I’m not a fan of the Doctor’s new screwdriver. Wasn’t keen on the design when I first saw the images, but I was holding out til I saw it in context. Understanding now that she made it herself out of parts lying around, it’s more understandable, but I’m still not enthused. I have no issue with Doctor making her own sonic, she’s certainly capable enough to do it. But making one from Earth-bound 21st-Century parts, in so short a timeframe, just rubs me the wrong way. It may because it smells too much of a Moffat contrivance, and I’m so wary of any whiff of such a return that I’m immediately gun-shy.
Ultimately, these are the minor equivocations of a storytelling geek, and they were nowhere near enough to ruin my enjoyment of the episode or Whittaker’s performance. But with this new beginning, I really want to leave as much of the vestiges of the Moffat era behind as humanly (and inhumanly) possible. We recently re-watched the 4 seasons under Russell T Davies, and it was heartbreaking to see how good the show was under his reign. I’m chomping at the bit to see what Chibnall brings to the table, and if this first episode is any indication, the series is certainly in good hands. Only time will ultimately tell, but I’ll certainly be tuning in eagerly to see what adventures lie ahead.