Some of what I said is still true, mind you. But sometime last year, Chibnall and the BBC decided to take a big, risky, move and let a woman take on the iconic role.
Now as the Thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker takes on the unenviable role of leading the show into a brave new era. And at the same time, showing a highly anxious audience (let’s not mince words here: there have been unpleasant things that were said about her) that the gender swap isn’t a big deal. That Doctor Who is still going to be the same old familiar show that we all love and, for some people, love to hate.
Doctor Who was a show that thrived on change. And this was exactly the change I needed to revive the spark DW was missing for a few seasons now.
I had few reservations, however: Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who track record had been spotty at best, with highly divisive episodes like 42 and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood in his resume. And let’s not get started on his Torchwood episodes. Also, as much as I loved Jodie Whittaker in Broadchurch and Attack The Block, she always played straight/serious roles. I’ve never seen her in anything comedic. I was personally leaning towards someone like Phoebe Waller-Bridge to be the first female Doctor. I am so glad that both my fears were assuaged with The Woman Who Fell to Earth.
Like the new Doctor cooking post-regeneration (read: trying to get a handle on what kind of person they are), early episodes in a showrunner and Doctor’s tenure tend to have an air of inconsistency about them. Everyone’s trying to get their bearings. It takes a couple of episodes before things click and everyone finds their stride.
This new era, however, bursts out of the gate fully-formed. It’s grinning, laughing, and confident – as if this new team has been doing this for years.
The new companions Yaz, Ryan, and Graham feel like real people. The script establishes motivations, faults, what holds them back – in what short time is afforded. Considering that this is the biggest TARDIS crew the show has had since the Peter Davison era in the 80’s, that’s amazing.
Yaz is a trainee cop who wants to prove herself, and show her supervisors that she’s ready for something bigger than parking disputes.
Ryan is suffering from dyspraxia, a motor skill disorder that brings him great shame. At 19 years old, he still cannot ride a bike due to his illness; and this strains his relationship with his grandmother Grace and her new husband Graham.
Graham, on the other hand, is a cancer survivor, his brush with death rendering him scared of the world. He looks on with envy as Grace happily runs headlong into danger, with a sense of gusto he only wishes he had.
This crew of broken people find danger in the small, sleepy city of Sheffield, when an alien incident has them cross paths with Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, fresh out of regeneration. They are absolutely not ready to deal with this.
But she’s the Doctor. She has to ensure the safety of her newfound friends. And it’s like the Doctor never left.
I’m getting a sense of who Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is this early on. She’s not just The Woman Doctor – she has the best of Tom Baker’s eccentricity, Chris Eccleston’s vulnerability, David Tennant’s wit, Matt Smith’s physicality, late-tenure Capaldi’s compassion. Plus a resourcefulness and willingness to get her hands dirty in a way that I’ve never seen in a Doctor before.
Going back to my point that this is a by-the-numbers introductory episode, you can’t blame Chibnall for that. A post-regeneration episode is going to bring in a whole lot of new viewers. The show has to establish the Doctor, establish the tone; and set the direction the showrunner wants – to essentially get all the newbies up to speed. This is Doctor Who 101. And you have to get the essence of the show in 40 minutes or less.
This isn’t anything like Moffat’s brilliant The Eleventh Hour, which is the best opening for any Doctor. That’s the de facto episode you show to anyone who needs to watch Doctor Who for the first time. However, The Woman Who Fell to Earth definitely surpasses Russel T. Davies’ Rose. And maybe even The Christmas Invasion.
The debt to the RTD era is clear – the Chibnall era so far is character-centered with believable characters who make you love them in the short time you get to know them.
Right now, this brave new era of Doctor Who might be unfamiliar and scary.
We have a female Doctor with a new and diverse crew tagging along; new lenses giving everything a more cinematic feel. And special effects that can give several big budget movies a run for their money.
Give The Woman Who Fell to Earth a watch. It’s a wonderful encapsulation of everything you love about Doctor Who. And it carries all the quirks and qualities of this show we all love. If you look past everything new about it, you’ll see that nothing’s changed. It still has the same two beating hearts that made this show special in the first place.
As the Thirteenth Doctor herself says: “Bit of adrenaline, dash of outrage; and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am, I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe.”
If that’s not the Doctor you know and love, I don’t know what you’ve been watching all this time.