And there we go. Just like that a brave new era of Doctor Who is inaugurated and a shiny new Doctor baptised. What’s the bet that Chris Chibnall was gnawing his fingernails as The Woman Who Fell to Earth aired on Sunday? If he wasn’t, he should have been. There was an enormous amount riding on Chibnall’s first episode of Doctor Who as showrunner. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the most important episode of Doctor Who since The Eleventh Hour back in 2010 (if we don’t count The Day of the Doctor, which was also very important, but for a different reason).
It’s not just about whether or not the first female Doctor is destined to be the only female Doctor. It’s also about the continuing relevance of a show whose ratings have been on an unrelenting downward trajectory since David Tennant’s last season, and whether or not the Chibnall-Whittaker era will prove to be to the revived series what the McCoy era was to the classic series. I recently stated my thesis on this matter here, but to restate it again briefly: unless the show came back radically changed in an exciting new way — unless it emphatically puts the Doctor Who of 2005-2017 behind it — it will continue to lose viewers and can expect three seasons at most before it’s cancelled.
Perhaps a bleak way to start a review, by prophesying doom, devastation and cancellation, but how else to underline how important it was for the new regime to get this right?
Mercifully, Chibnall and co. appear to have got the message. There was plenty that was new and different about Doctor Who in this episode. Most conspicuously, a new Doctor, with a new gender. How did that go, then? Actually, maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve long reconciled myself with the fact that the Thirteenth Doctor is a woman, but I wasn’t particularly bothered by the Doctor’s new gender. I noticed it, sure, but I noticed it in the same way that I noticed that the Twelfth Doctor had a Scottish accent in Deep Breath or that the Eleventh Doctor looked like a twelve year-old who might start flossing at any moment in The Eleventh Hour. It helped, I think, that the script didn’t dwell on the fact of the Doctor’s gender reassignment, electing to mention it briefly for a moment of comic relief before moving on, the Doctor’s reaction to discovering that she’s a she indicating how we, the audience, should react: “this doesn’t make any difference to me, so it shouldn’t make any difference to you”.
Is it just time that’s made me make peace with the idea of a female Doctor? Maybe. But this is very much a “watch-this-space” matter, because it’s early days. We’re only one episode in. I’m trying to keep that in mind, too, as I try to avoid prematurely passing judgment on the Thirteenth Doctor herself. Because I’m tempted to dissent from what seems to be the universally positive reception to Whittaker’s Doctor. I know from what I’ve seen of Jodie Whittaker before that she’s an actress of exceptional talent, but here I felt like I was watching someone’s rather crude idea of what the Doctor was supposed to sound and act like. The Doctor’s dialogue felt forced, the attempts at humour and whimsy were lame, and, I hate to say it, but the whole performance felt wooden. That’s on Chibnall as writer as much as it’s on Whittaker, because, apart from a couple of very strong lines, the dialogue Whittaker was given sounded like it was jotted down on a hasty first draft and never rewritten.
Maybe what bothered me most about this first look at the Thirteenth Doctor is that the Doctor felt like she didn’t have any distinctive personality beyond “hearty, somewhat eccentric northern lass”. What we saw was a generic, “whacky” Doctor consciously drawing on Matt Smith and David Tennant. To the extent that this Doctor had any personality, she felt like a caricature of Matt Smith’s zany, whacky Doctor, in the sense that this Doctor felt rather like a one-dimensional comic relief character, which really jarred with the mature, serious tone of the rest of the episode. To make a contrast with Peter Capaldi’s first episode, what we saw in Deep Breath was almost too much personality. We got a very good idea of what the Twelfth Doctor was about in his first episode, which came as a shock to some of us given how different Capaldi’s Doctor was from the Doctor we’d grown used to.
Am I being too harsh? Maybe. As I said, these are my raw, first impressions and I’m withholding judgment until I’ve seen more of the Thirteenth Doctor. I’m trying to keep in mind that Capaldi’s Doctor, too, left me cold initially, before growing on me immensely over his three seasons on the screen. I felt the same about Peter Davison’s Doctor, though for a different reason: while Capaldi started strong and continued to perform strong until the end, evolving his character along the way, it took Davison three seasons to work out how he wanted to play his Doctor, and only started performing strongly when he finally did. Jodie Whittaker is more likely to follow the Davison route, starting weak and unformed but working out her character over time. If that’s the case, we can allow her some time to warm up and find her feet before we pass judgment on her – it’s the same courtesy we’d extend to any new incumbent.
It’s conventional for Doctor and companion introduction stories to be relatively light on plot and details, with the focus of the script directed resolutely upon introducing the new characters. As this episode’s predecessors, being episodes that introduced a new Doctor and new companions at the same time, both Rose and The Eleventh Hour were in this vein, both being scripts that would have flopped had they been ordinary, mid-season episodes. This script was nothing new, then, except that the plot of neither of those two episodes left me distinctly bored. The villain of the piece is notable for being the first Doctor Who monster with dozens of human teeth stuck into its face – which looked, admittedly, fairly creepy – but otherwise it was a generic, unremarkable Doctor Who alien and the plot a generic, unremarkable Doctor Who monster runaround. The whole, very lengthy middle bit of this episode was boring in a way neither Rose nor The Eleventh Hour managed to be. Not the best way to usher in a brave new era.
What was more interesting was how different, tonally, it all felt. Chibnall made the wise decision to bump the running time up to a full 60 minutes and, combined with expensive new camera lenses and widescreen format, it makes the show look and feel much more impressive and cinematic. The Broadchurch influence is apparent, too, because the story takes advantage of the newly filled-out running time to allow for some genuine scene-setting and build-up, almost as if we’re watching an actual, serious drama show. A lot of the scene-setting in the first half of the episode, like the sequences introducing Ryan, Yasmin and Graham and bringing them all together, is the kind of slow-burn story-building that we’ve had to miss out on with fast-paced 45-minute runarounds.
Speaking of our new companions, Ryan, Yasmin and Graham (and Grace) are all great, but I’m still not convinced that three companions maybe isn’t just one or two too many. With four people running around after the Doctor, we never really got to know any of them very well, even with the longer running time. And the script was inevitably forced to resort to the trick that was the favourite of writers in the Davison era of splitting up the characters to get at least a couple out of the Doctor’s way. I get why Chibnall has gone with a four-person Tardis team – to draw the focus away from the Doctor, specifically her gender – but he’s definitely set himself a challenge by giving himself four main characters to write for from episode one. Aside from anything else, though, it’s wonderful that Ryan, Yasmin and Graham have become the Doctor’s new companions by their accidental whisking-away by the Doctor, just like in the classic series (Tegan comes to mind). Let’s hope Series 11 follows the classic series in another way and keeps the companions on the Tardis full-time rather than, as Clara and the Ponds preferred, the Tardis being a kind of space-time Uber that they board for cheeky after-work and weekend leisure trips.
So, to come back to the challenge I set Doctor Who: has it changed enough to bring back viewers and ensure its survival? The answer is that, obviously, I don’t know. Anyone who says they know is being fatuous, because it’s impossible to know: only time and viewing figures will tell. But the other reason I don’t know is because, even if I had to make a prediction, it’s too hard to say. No doubt this is a different Doctor Who, but will casual viewers notice the difference (beyond the Thirteenth Doctor’s gender)? Is it different enough to tempt back viewers who abandoned the show long ago out of boredom? If I were to make a prediction based on this episode alone, my answer would be “no”. But after watching the remaining nine episodes of this series (and the “Coming Soon” trailer actually looks really exciting), my answer might yet be “yes”. So my answer, right now, is “I don’t know”.