Thoughts on: The Tsuranga Conundrum

I haven’t seen Alien. I don’t know what happens in it, either. But lots of people are comparing The Tsuranga Conundrum to Alien, and because I haven’t seen it I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a good thing. From the fact that the comparison is being made, though, I can gather that Alien is probably about an alien that boards a human spacecraft in the 67th or maybe the 42nd or the 93rd Century and wreaks havoc, probably dramatically killing numerous people, while the human crew and passengers frantically try to steer the ship to safety. How did I go? I just looked up the plot on Wikipedia and I’m delighted to report that I’ve got it right – although it was the 22nd Century, not the 93rd.

I could guess the plot of the film everyone is comparing this episode to because it’s not exactly the most complex of storylines – nor particularly the most original. The base-under-siege-by-a-berserk-killer-alien-that’s-going-to-eat-us-all is a staple of the sci-fi genre. Doctor Who has done it a number of times before, in one form or another: there was 42 and The Impossible Planet and Flesh and Stone and Under the Lake and even Midnight. This is nothing new. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. There’s a Doctor Who reviewer I like reading whose benchmark for a good Doctor Who story is basically “something I’ve never seen before”. I’m with this reviewer insofar as I’d prefer to see Doctor Who do new, original things rather than persistently rehashing old ideas, but originality doth not by itself a good Doctor Who make (as Love and Monsters is testament), and unoriginality doth not by itself make bad Doctor Who.

And that’s more or less how I feel about The Tsuranga Conundrum. Not great, but not bad, either. It’s fun. It holds the attention for its 50 minutes’ running time. It’s another worthy addition to the Doctor Who canon. But, no, it doesn’t do anything especially interesting or important. No one’s going to remember The Tsuranga Conundrum or put it in a Top 10 list of anything (or Bottom 10, for that matter). And that’s okay. Not every Doctor Who story has to be Heaven Sent. It’s okay to be The Tsuranga Conundrum. There’s a place for the Tsuranga Conundrums and the Dinosaurs on a Spaceships and the Gridlocks of the Doctor Who canon. I love Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, by the way – I think it’s the best episode of Series 7 (which, to be fair, isn’t really saying much).

As the latest iteration on the base-under-siege genre, it was fine. It wasn’t a stellar exemplar of the genre, but it wasn’t a poor effort, either. I thought the episode was about to dip into an unrelenting downward trajectory when I saw that the alien from which the base was under siege was not the great, carnivorous, many-toothed beastie I thought we were about to see, but a rather cute, squeezable beastlet measuring about 1 foot high called a Pting. He reminded me of a mix between a toad and a Niffler from Harry Potter. Not particularly intimidating, and the sight of the Doctor edging cautiously towards what looked like a cute Japanese plush toy come alive was a bit comical, a bit killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“That’s no ordinary rabbit, that’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!”). Maybe the intern was given the task of designing this one.

But no matter — it did its job. It caused enough havoc and drama (mostly off-screen, it must be said) to make the characters’ impending doom pretty convincing. The best moments of this episode, though, weren’t the mayhem and the action, but the quieter character moments: there was Ryan reflecting, glassy-eyed, about his parents and his childhood to a captivated Yas. There was the Doctor fawning reverently over the antimatter generator, in the most Doctorish little passage I’ve seen from Whittaker yet. There was the Doctor suddenly being hit by Astos’s rebuke that she was being selfish and belligerent and not like the Doctor at all. There was Durkas and Ronan touchingly making up after losing the woman they both loved (insofar as a robot can love…) The character writing has consistently been the best aspect of this series, which should come as no surprise given that Chris Chibnall has already proven his chops as a master character writer (for a citation on this, I will never stop recommending Born and Bred – watch it!). Even the supporting characters have been consistently good, which is still the case this week – even the “synth robot” Ronan, General Eve Cicero’s partner (I guess, kind of like a 67th Century sexbot).

All I’ll say about Jodie Whittaker this week is that she’s getting better and better. She had more good moments in this episode than any yet – it’s just a shame the scripts are getting more and more ordinary. What I’m enjoying seeing from Whittaker, even if her Doctor isn’t dazzling me yet, is that she’s clearly having fun. The first few sequences of the Doctor staggering around on the ship after awakening from being blown to smithereens were great because Whittaker was clearly enjoying herself. It still feels strange to hear other characters address Whittaker as “Doctor”, but there’s no doubt she’s having fun, and when Whittaker is having fun, we’re having fun. And if Whittaker is having fun being the Doctor, she can only get better as time goes on.

Finally, while this episode was by no means bad, something I will take issue with is that we’re now halfway through Series 11 and we’re still being served up average to good-but-not-great scripts. My attitude towards The Tsuranga Conundrum is a good metaphor for the quality of the series so far: not great, but not bad; just fine. We’ve seen nothing so far that has made Series 11 worthwhile or that would make me look back on Series 11 with anything other than indifference. The Ghost Monument looked promising, but it did nothing more than whet the appetite. Series 11 so far hasn’t delivered the promised main course. If anything, it’s actually gone backwards – the last two episodes have been fine in themselves, but have felt the most like the Doctor Who this series is supposed to be getting away from so far. It’s not a great start to what was supposed to be a brave, exciting new era. This series isn’t generating excitement or reeling in couchloads of new viewers. And it matters because we’ve now reached the halfway point for this series. From next week we’re on the home stretch – Series 11 has five more episodes to get its act together.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Arachnids in the UK

Who remembers Kill the Moon? Cast your minds back to the heady days of Series 8, when much of the Doctor Who fanbase was still in shock from Peter Capaldi thundering down the camera as a raw, roughly-hewn Twelfth Doctor. The most memorable thing about that highly polarising episode, plonked right in the middle of Series 8, was that it was billed as an arachnid-riddled tribute to Philip Hinchcliffe, but ended up being more a live-action abortion debate in space which culminated in the Doctor and Clara dramatically breaking up. Although it was hated by many, I actually didn’t mind Kill the Moon, but what I was disappointed about was being cheated out of the nightmarish, Hinchcliffe-esque horror story we were promised. The spiders weren’t even that good.

That’s not something that can be said about Arachnids in the UK, although this one, too, indulges in what now appears to be the obligatory share of political commentary. These spiders were horrifying, a fitting tribute to the legacy of Philip Hinchcliffe. I don’t have insider knowledge about how the BBC spends its money, but it’s increasingly clear that the Beeb has flicked a bit more dosh Doctor Who’s way this year, because Series 11 has looked visibly more stunning than the Who we’re used to. Testament to this is how much more realistic and skin-crawlingly horrifying the CGI spiders in this episode were than the last time Doctor Who tried to scare us with eight-legged beasties. Frankly, it says something that the thing I found more unconvincing wasn’t gigantic spiders but the fact that the Doctor, Yasmin and the rest of them didn’t spend the entire episode alternately rooted, petrified, to the spot or running in the opposite direction screaming their heads off.

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It does seem like Chibnall has taken a conscious decision to dial up the creepiness this year. Even more gruesome than the spiders, actually, I thought, was Yas’s neighbour cocooned like an Egyptian mummy in cobwebs in her bed. Super freaky, and straight out of the horror writer’s playbook. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth we had a villain, looking like one of those disgusting characters out the front of ghost rides at funfairs, who plucked teeth from his victims and stuck them into his face as trophies.

This is something I’m totally on board with. Delighting in being scared and horrified is something that unites all ages of Doctor Who viewers, children and grown-ups alike. Adults really just want to be scared like children are. And Mary Whitehouse may have complained sanctimoniously in the seventies that Doctor Who’s monsters would traumatise children, but children love nothing more than being traumatised, as I learned from my encounters with several of them on Hallowe’en this year. I’m still traumatised by The Empty Child, and to this day I can’t look a gas mask in the face without coming over with a bad case of goose bumps, but watching The Empty Child as a frightened 10-year old started off in me an enduring love of Doctor Who and its scary monsters.

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Donald Trump was there, too, in the form of an obnoxious business magnate with high political ambitions called Robertson. Well, he wasn’t really a Donald Trump analogue, even though he was clearly supposed to be. At least, he wasn’t an analogue of the version of Trump we’re told to hate by the people on the telly. Trump is dim, blustering, erratic and bravado-driven, while Robertson was cunning, calculating, cold and ambitious. In other words, Trump is a Gryffindor while Robertson was a Slytherin. I actually think that Donald Trump is much shrewder than people give him credit for, but that’s a discussion for another day. Robertson, played by Chris Noth, was an entertaining presence in the episode nonetheless, even if his role in the episode as a stick to jab at stupid Americans with their guns and their capitalism and their misogyny and their Donald Trump was a bit – and this is the second week in a row I’m using this word – preachy.

By the way, what exactly was the point of the standoff between the Doctor and the American over shooting the spiders? I’m just a little confused about where the Doctor is at now with her opposition to using guns, because in this episode she wouldn’t countenance using guns to kill gigantic spiders that were about to go on a murderous rampage around Sheffield, and in The Ghost Monument she refused to use guns against killer robots. Robots. Has the Doctor’s opposition to using guns turned from something moral to something theological? Are guns now unclean to the Doctor, like pigs are to Jews and Muslims? Because that’s what it looks like.

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And it was never really explained to us when, and why, the Doctor added spiders, and presumably cockroaches and vermin, too, to her list of Living Creatures With Dignity Whose Lives Must Be Protected At All Costs. When it came to the Doctor staring down Robertson over shooting all the spiders, I was kind of on Robertson’s side. So, I suspect, was much of the audience. They’re spiders. I hate them. When I see them in my house I stamp on them – or, rather, spray them with bug spray because I’m too scared to go near them. But, really, I want an answer to this: how far does the Doctor’s principle of protecting life extend, and why?

I was surprised to learn that this was actually the first episode of the series that was filmed, because Whittaker looks more comfortable and fluent in the role than I’ve seen her yet – certainly much more so than in the series opener. It could just be that I’ve got used to watching Whittaker as the Doctor – or maybe I’m slowly coming round to this whole female Doctor business. The sequences in Yas’s apartment, with the Doctor acting endearingly awkward and weird in a normal social situation – very Matt Smith, in other words – were very good. I’m also coming round to the Scooby Gang arrangement this year – no doubt it’s hard writing for four main characters along with a handful of supporting characters each week, but, so far, miraculously, they’re pulling it off.

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On a final note, something that I will mention, but not necessarily criticise, is that this feels more like the Doctor Who of Steven Moffat than the brave new, mature, grown-up Who it briefly looked like we were getting in The Ghost Monument, which still remains, I think, the best episode of this series so far. The latest two episodes have conspicuously retreated back into familiar, comfortable Moffat territory. I say I’m not going to criticise this because they’ve been good episodes – this is a good episode (well, it was fine) – and comparing something to Steven Moffat’s work is by no means itself a criticism, coming from me (one of the few Moffat partisans who looks upon his era with undiluted approval), but weren’t we supposed to be doing something new from now on? Weren’t we supposed to be moving on from Moffat and radically reimagining Doctor Who? I’ve written at length about this theme so I won’t repeat myself yet again here, but I will simply point out that so far my warnings have been vindicated: from the 10.96 million who watched The Woman Who Fell to Earth, viewing figures have fallen to 6.43 million this week, only about a million or so above the average of Series 10. Changing the Doctor’s gender, by itself, is not enough to win back viewers.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Rosa

Last week I criticised The Ghost Monument – otherwise a good episode – for being, at times, patronising. I said, “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.” If Doctor Who last week was patronising, this week it was positively unctuous. If last week Doctor Who spoke rather transparently to the kids in the audience, this week it was basically a live-action adaptation of one of those edifying, good-citizen-making children’s storybooks about Inspirational Women Who Changed The World.

And, as they would say in Sheffield, there’s nowt wrong with that. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with Doctor Who pitching itself at children – it is a children’s show, even if I would prefer it to pitch itself at me – but there’s a right and a wrong way of doing it. There’s appealing to children and there’s being patronising. There’s speaking to children in language they understand and that’s meaningful to them, and there’s treating them like idiots. Children aren’t idiots, and they know when they’re being patronised. In entertainment terms, the elementary rule of “show, don’t tell” surely applies even more emphatically when making TV for children.

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This episode, thankfully, gets it right. I’ll admit – I think I would only be able to stomach one of these kinds of scripts per series. Because I’m a grown-up with grown-up tastes in television and I already know very well that racism ain’t it chief – I don’t need it to be preached at me every week. But for this series’ sole allowance of preachy, moralistic, right-on, “being-racist-is-bad” stories, it’s not a bad one. It certainly tackled the subject of racism much more powerfully than Doctor Who, or at least the modern series, has before. Taking us back to 1955 Alabama and showing us the full, incensing ugliness of racist attitudes in the era of segregation is a lot more confronting than the show’s previous limp efforts at showing us that racism is bad. Ryan getting biffed across the face by a pink-faced Southerner for having the temerity to speak to a white woman makes the point a great deal more forcefully than pantomime bad-guy Lord Sutcliffe calling Bill “this creature” in Thin Ice.

This and the other overt, confronting displays of racism in this episode will have the intended effect on the children who watched it, the way “you filthy little Mudblood” did on me when I was at that impressionable young age. And it says something that this episode made me genuinely fear for the safety of the diverse members of the Tardis team in a way I didn’t when it was Martha in Elizabethan England or Bill in Georgian London. And it’s worth pointing out that the way the Doctor and Graham seemed reluctant throughout the episode to directly confront the people’s racist attitudes shows how brave it was for Rosa Parks to do what she did. But it was also clever, if cynical writing: if the Doctor had, as the Doctor normally does, put the racists in their place, the power of what Rosa did at the end of the episode would have been diminished.

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The bad guy of this episode, too, was a thoughtful addition to the theme. I was a little disappointed when I realised that this wasn’t going to be the first pure historical since the Davison era, but Krasko being a time travelling white supremacist from the distant future who’s trying to avert the historical defeat of white supremacism by stopping Rosa Parks from protesting bus segregation is the only sci-fi intrusion that I will accept into what would otherwise be a long-awaited pure historical. Krasko was creepy for how familiar, how normal he was, how this villainous white supremacist could easily be your mate from work. He was creepy for how, it seems, the kind of skin-crawling racial supremacism we thought we left behind in 1955 is still festering in the minds of some in the distant future – and if it’s alive in the distant future, it’s alive today.

If it’s all just a bit on the preachy side, it’s still a great episode. It’s intriguing, there’s lots happening, lots of good dialogue, and the right characters get respectively blasted back to the distant past or honoured with Congressional Medals. I’m still trying to get used to the slower pace of Doctor Who now. I don’t know if it’s that I’m just used to the quicker pace that both Moffat and Davies liked to take things at, or that “slow-burn Doctor Who” is something that takes more practice to get right than Chibnall and his writers have had. Most likely it’s both. But it does feel like the script is struggling, at times, to fill in its running time, given the amount of calm talking and sneaking around they all do that we don’t usually get to see.

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If nothing else, though, the increased running time and the slower pace of episodes gives us more time to spend with the characters, and more time for the characters to spend talking to each other. That’s not a terrible trade-off. I think these companions are already better developed – and better written – than almost any of the modern series companions. Gareth Roberts (who wrote The Lodger, The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp) tweeted something I thought worth repeating: “Oh, and another thing. They all speak like normal people, not in smart-ass sassy writers room-ese.” It’s so true: I love Amy and Clara and Rose, but they look and sound like comic book characters next to Ryan and Graham. I don’t say next to Yasmin, too, because, even though Yasmin seems like a lovely person and a great addition to the Tardis team, unfortunately she hasn’t had very much to say or do yet. I hope that changes in the next few weeks, because she really does look like a promising character.

So my verdict on this one is basically that it’s a very good episode, but it’s the kind of thing I only want in moderation, by which I mean no more than one of these per series. Any more than that and I think I’d go off the whole thing. Let’s get back to some hard sci-fi adventuring next week, please. Oh, and you’ll notice that I didn’t do my weekly update on how the Female Doctor Project is going – that’s because there wasn’t really much to say this week. Jodie Whittaker continues to perform well, and she did some strong work this week, especially when she was facing off against Krasko, but she’s not dazzling me. I haven’t become enraptured by her yet. We’re still in “watch-this-space” territory.

Oh, and it’s brilliant, isn’t it, that we’re back to a misbehaving, capricious Tardis that spits out the Doctor and her companions at completely random places in space and time. This does actually feel very Hartnell era, and the show is all the better for it. Down with obedient Tardises and part-time companions, I say.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Ghost Monument

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Rating: 6/10.

Thirteen: my feelings about a female Doctor

It’s been nearly 36 hours since I learned the identity of our Thirteenth Doctor, and I think I’m now ready to write this. It’s taken me that long to process what happened yesterday and to work out how I felt about it. I’m still processing it, to be honest. I mean, I could have turned out a post quickly on the day of the announcement and probably attracted a lot more hits, but it would have been raw, emotional and full of uncooked, unformed and probably not entirely coherent thoughts. I’m someone who typically can’t be counted on for immediate reactions (which is why my reviews always take a day or two). Especially with something as big as this, I tend to need time to work out how I feel, and, now I’ve had that time, I think I’m now ready to put my thoughts into something approximating sober and considered form.

I didn’t want a female Doctor. I still don’t. You can read my thoughts on the matter in full here, but the tl;dr version is that I think of the Doctor as a man, and I have trouble accepting that an incarnation of the Doctor played by a female actor is the same character played by Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, David Tennant, Tom Baker and William Hartnell et al, a character I love. Jodie Whittaker is a fine actress—she’s a top choice for a female Doctor and I am confident she will acquit herself superlatively in the role. But that’s not the problem for me. The problem for me is that I feel that Doctor Who is a man, so a ‘female Doctor (Who)’ is a contradiction in terms. I felt that way before, and the announcement, even of an actress as fine as Jodie Whittaker, hasn’t changed how I feel.

The standard riposte to this sentiment is something along the lines of “the Doctor is a shapeshifting alien who has been canonically established as being able to change gender and race, so, no, the Doctor is not a man and your feelings are invalid”. Well, I’m sorry if “your feelings are invalid, deal with it” doesn’t convince me. I can’t just change my feelings or turn them off at will. That’s not how feelings work. Especially after I’ve watched thirteen regenerations of the Doctor as a man and have come to identify and connect with the character as a man. Throwing continuity at me isn’t going to going to make me suddenly shed my feelings about the character and accept a female Doctor—because remember this isn’t about the abstract question of the nature of Time Lord regeneration, this is about a character, a person, that I love. This isn’t about whether the Doctor can regenerate into a woman (we know and accept, now, that he can), it’s about whether I and so many other fans can accept that Jodie Whittaker is our favourite fictional character when that casting decision has taken away something fundamental to how we identify that character.

That in the previous sentence I used the pronoun ‘he’ instinctively to identify the Doctor, without even thinking about it, attests to the point I’m trying to make: I’m not going to be able to easily adjust to using ‘she’ or ‘they’ as instinctively and as comfortably as I currently use ‘he’. Please try to understand this.

The other riposte I’ve seen is the “this show is all about change, and that you don’t want a female Doctor shows you don’t understand this” argument. Okay, first, to nitpick, change is a central feature and theme of the show, but the show is not “about” change. When you’re trying to make your friends watch Doctor Who and they ask you what it’s about, your reply isn’t “it’s about change”, you typically explain that it’s about the adventures of a time-travelling alien and his friends. Invariably you identify the character of the Doctor as central when you’re explaining what the show is about.

And that’s important—even diehard female Doctor proponents would not deny that the character of the Doctor, not the abstract thematic idea of “change”, is the most important thing in Doctor Who. You simply could not have Doctor Who without the Doctor. So “change, my dears” is a justified argument when made against the idiotic, shrill Tennant fangirls (those that are still inexplicably around, anyway) who insist that David Tennant and only David Tennant can be the Doctor. But when a very sizeable proportion of the fandom are concerned that something fundamental to the character has been compromised too far for their tastes, “change” just doesn’t cut it as an argument, I’m afraid.

In any case, even if it is true that change is a central theme of the show, that doesn’t entail that any and all change is therefore necessarily good. Do I actually have to restate that fans are allowed to dislike things in the show – decisions made by the writers and producers? That fans are even allowed to dislike a Doctor? There were plenty of fans who turned off when Peter Capaldi was cast because “he’s old” (including the friend who first turned me onto Doctor Who)—something far more trivial than that the new Doctor has switched genders. I think those fans were missing out on what has been one of the greatest ever Doctors, but I respect that that’s entirely their prerogative if they don’t want to watch an old Doctor.

In any case, as fundamental as the theme of change is to the show, Doctor Who is a show as equally steeped in tradition. I’m not really sure how this is being ignored, if not outright denied. The Tardis, the phonebox, the-Daleks-and-the-Cybermen, toilet plungers, young female companions, Britishness, pacifism. I think even most female Doctor proponents would be reluctant to change any of those things. A US-centric (rather than British-centric) Doctor Who with an all-American Doctor Who cast? I think practically all female Doctor proponents would, rightly, reject that. Because Doctor Who is a British show. It doesn’t have to be British-centric, but it is, and we like it that way. And we don’t have to accept that Doctor Who turns all Midwestern accents and streets of Manhattan if we don’t want to.

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I think I’ve made my point. Admittedly that went on for a lot longer than I intended it to. But what I’ve been discussing up to here is my feelings about a female Doctor in the abstract. Ask me in the abstract: do I want a female Doctor? No. But, no matter what I want or feel, it isn’t abstract any more. Whether I like it or not, the Thirteenth Doctor is a woman. It’s reality. Jodie Whittaker will be listed after Peter Capaldi’s name in canonical lists of the Doctors from now until the end of time, and that can’t be changed.

So I think the best I can do is to continue to watch and hope that my mind is changed. I’m not going to stop watching. I love this show too much for that. In everything I’ve written about a female Doctor before now, I’ve repeatedly said that, while I didn’t want it to happen, I would try to keep an open mind and give a female Doctor a chance. I intend to keep that promise. I would like, by the end of Series 11, at least, to be prepared to take back everything I’ve written in this post before this paragraph. Because I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m not.

So what I want to say now to female Doctor proponents, particularly Chris Chibnall, is this. Okay, you’ve got your wish. Congratulations – I genuinely mean that, and I’m genuinely happy that you’re happy. It’s heartwarming to see that this is so meaningful to so many people. But don’t forget that we still exist, we who never wanted a female Doctor at all and still don’t want one, and that there are many of us. No doubt you’ve seen our tweets and our comments. Ignore the sexists and the bigots—I’m not speaking for them, and I don’t want them in our fandom any more than you do.

But as one of the many fans worried about a female Doctor, I want you to know that, for now, I’m game. I’m going to follow your lead on this. You’ve extolled the virtues and the promises of a female Doctor for so long, and now that we have one, I don’t really have a choice except to go along with it. Now that we have a female Doctor, I’m interested in seeing how it works out, and I’m willing to be won over. But I’m trusting you on this. This was your victory, and you led us into this.  So naturally I’m holding you responsible for how it works out. If a female Doctor succeeds and, as I hope, I warm to the change, I will graciously admit that you were right all along. But if it doesn’t, please try to be humble when I say “I told you so.”


Next time on Gallifreyan Ramblings: another female Doctor post. I feel like I need to say something about what has been happening in the fandom since Sunday’s announcement, because it’s not pretty, and, from a fandom perspective, it’s almost as noteworthy as the female Doctor news itself. I didn’t want to discuss that here because it’s probably going to be a lengthy discussion in its own right, and I didn’t want to detract from what I’m trying to say here. It does merit a post of its own, and I’ll try to have that one up in the following days.

By the way, read my original (pre-Jodie) female Doctor post for a fuller, more detached account of my thoughts on a female Doctor, if you’re interested.