Now this is more like it. I was worried, for a moment, that The Woman Who Fell to Earth was going to set the tone for the rest of the series. It’s not that that episode was rubbish – it was okay, as far as openers go – it’s just that it didn’t do anything especially interesting. It didn’t do anything that made me excited about the direction Doctor Who was being taken. But I needn’t have worried. I’m pleased to say that this week’s episode, The Ghost Monument, has roundly dispelled my fears. This is much, much closer to the Doctor Who I wanted to see this year – which means that it put a lot of clear blue water between itself and the Doctor Who of Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies and steered into exciting and heretofore uncharted expanses.
This is, really, a very different Doctor Who. I’m really happy to be typing those words, because a “really, very different Doctor Who” is what I wanted from Chris Chibnall’s new regime this year, and what Doctor Who itself desperately needed. It’s difficult for long-time fans to appreciate how far the show has come, because although it’s a visible shift from what the show was doing in Series 9 and 10, it isn’t a huge one. But I’d recommend watching something from Series 1 – say, Aliens of London – and The Ghost Monument back-to-back. You can discern how much the show has changed not only by how different it looks, but especially by how different it feels. This is a much more mature and grown-up Doctor Who. The characters are less cartoonish and more layered, the dialogue is more mature, the plotting is more thoughtful; most visibly, everything just looks so much more sumptuous, although budget has a lot to do with that. This feels closer to a show like Firefly than it does to early New Who – there’s a strong grounding in characters and relationships, but the sci-fi is gritty and serious. In a word, this Doctor Who is real to a greater extent than any version of the show has been yet.
I hoped I wasn’t getting ahead of myself with my excitement over this episode, but my impressions not only stood up but were reinforced by a rewatch. If this is any harbinger of the series ahead, then we’re surely in for an exciting eleventh series, and hopefully a twelfth and thirteenth after that. No doubt, there’s the possibility that this episode isn’t any indication of what lies ahead, but the series goes back to doing whatever it was doing in last week’s underwhelming opener. I really hope that isn’t the case.
The other thing that’s better in this episode is Jodie Whittaker and her Doctor. Last week I wasn’t convinced by a first look at a Thirteenth Doctor that came off as a somewhat cringey David Tennant tribute act. There are still bits of that left here, and it’s still jarring and cringey when she shifts into that mode. But the whole performance has been toned down, and she’s much the better for it. I noticed that Jodie Whittaker seems to be at her best in the role when she’s not trying too hard to play “the Doctor”, but just playing her lines the way she feels they ought to be played. She’s much, much more Doctorly when she’s just playing her natural game rather than trying to ape David Tennant or any other Doctor. She plays “feisty Yorkshirewoman” (which, I’m sure, is how Jodie Whittaker would describe herself) much better than she plays “manic and quirky”, or “David Tennant”.
That’s the other thing about Whittaker’s Doctor: that she’s the first female Doctor, so there are no precedents she can easily riff off. A female Doctor can’t not be played materially differently from a male Doctor – Whittaker has to forge her own path in this respect. I think she’s going about it the right way: rather than apologising for being a female Doctor and trying to be a male Doctor in women’s clothes, she’s embracing her femininity and making it part of her character. Sure, Whittaker’s Doctor is strong and assertive in the way that the male Doctors have always been, but she’s more emotionally present and open, especially in the way she interacts with her companions, in a way that none of the male Doctors have ever been, but in a way that women generally are but men aren’t. Unless you’re looking for it you might not notice it because Jodie Whittaker is a woman, but this is something very new and different, and very interesting, for the Doctor.
Finally, can we say a word about Chibnall’s superb character writing? I was sceptical when it was first revealed that the Doctor would have an entire Scooby Gang tagging along after her this season, but Chibnall really has excelled himself with the companions so far. Testament to this is that – although I haven’t visited Gallifrey Base yet – I can’t see how any fans could actively dislike any of these companions the way virtually every companion since Rose (bar Wilf) has had their own sizeable contingent of haters. And what’s interesting about at least two of these three companions is that they’re carrying around the emotion of Grace’s death last episode, emotion that, as we’ve seen, is clearly infecting their relationship and is bound to boil over at some point later in the series. That’s a bit more interesting than the Ten-Rose-Mickey love triangle in Series 2. Even the grizzled, battle-hardened side characters in this episode were highly memorable and thoughtfully put together, which should come as no surprise: character writing has always been what Chibnall excels at, as anyone who’s seen Broadchurch and Born and Bred would know.
If there’s a criticism I’d make of this episode, it’s that the Moral Lesson of the Week (“we’re stronger together”) is laid on just a bit too thick. I think maybe the Doctor scolded Epzo pointedly for his Randian outlook just one too many times, and delivered just one too many syrupy soliloquies about working together. It all felt a bit patronising. Maybe this is Chibnall’s feeble gesture towards the idea that Doctor Who is still for children, in arguably the most grown-up version of Doctor Who yet. I’m not opposed to Doctor Who pushing ethical or philosophical lessons, or even trying to appeal to children, but I don’t like feeling like I’m being patronised. Neither, for that matter, do children.
Oh, and the Tardis looks nice. Not at all what I was expecting, but I suppose I was expecting something a bit more like the Eleventh Doctor’s or the Twelfth Doctor’s Tardis, and I suppose it’s a bit difficult to do that without looking like you’re just riffing off Moffat’s Tardises. I suppose it fits what looks like it’s going to be the tone of this series though: it’s grittier and grungier and more alien. Bring it on.