Doctor Who, at its core, is a show about change. Since 1963, there have been 13 actors to take on the role of the titular Doctor, each bringing his or her own tint and flavour to the Gallifreyan. It is a ‘role of roles’, one without any predefined attributes or patterns beyond their inherent drive for good and peace in the universe. There have been several controversial casting choices (regenerations within the show) — David Tennant, an unknown, following Christopher Eccleston only a year into the revived show’s tenure? Matt Smith, only 26 at the time of casting, playing the 907-year-old Doctor? But few have been as divisive as Jodie Whittaker.
The Doctor’s gender shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately, it does, and the BBC here played into their reputation for so-called ‘agenda pushing’ — a female timelord, for some, was simply too much change. There were fears that the 13th Doctor would be expressly written with a smug, self-satisfied air that can often surround progressive casting. But the Doctor isn’t a male (or human) character, and these fears are abated as quickly as Jodie appears onscreen. This isn’t the female Doctor, this is the Doctor – smart, funny, driven and alien.
It is a wonder so much of this upcoming season was successfully concealed, as leaks and early reveals became a fixture of the previous showrunner’s (Steven Moffat) run. Aside from a somewhat out of place ‘coming soon’ trailer showcasing guest actors for this season at the end of this episode, we are none the wiser for what’s to come this season – and that gives the show an air of uncertainty that lacked throughout the entire 12th Doctor’s era.
Our first episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, opens a new era for the show. The cinematography is fresh and modern, the lighting and effects — a skilled mix of both CGI and practical — feel grounded and real in a way Doctor Who never has. This doesn’t feel like a silly family show, it feels like a truly big-budget production happy to stand at odds with the BBC’s recent output in the forms of Bodyguard and Killing Eve. It used to be that this show needed some warnings attached when introducing friends or family – -“Trust me, it’s great, the cheesy effects and lo-fi feel add to it!” — but no more. At least, beyond it starring an alien who travels through time and space. This feels like a show the BBC respects and is finally being given the budget and production it deserves; perhaps less of a shock when one remembers this is the BBC’s biggest export internationally.
Our new companions, forming the first multi-companion TARDIS team in years, are human in ways Moffat’s companions never were. While Clara felt like a walking plot device and Bill little more than a representative token, these are three-dimensional people with flaws and imperfections. Ryan suffers from dyspraxia and has an uneasy relationship with Graham — his Nan’s second husband — who has overcome his own battle with cancer. Yasmin is a fresh-faced police officer, eager to prove her worth. Insecurities are worn on their sleeves here — Ryan effectively summons this episodes threat by accident — and it adds to a sense of consequence that previous eras have shied away from.
It’s true that the Doctor is an (at least) 2,000-year-old alien from a race and people vastly more advanced than our own, but the show’s tendency to treat them as an infallible god at times quickly robs many episodes of tension or threat. Graham, most notably, feels he is living on borrowed time – his sombre view that he should have succumbed to his cancer, and his wife be the one alive at the episode’s close, is hauntingly unsettling in the face of the Doctor, whose own relationship with death is much more abstract. As 13 puts it, during regeneration, it feels as if she’s just about to die — and then she’s born.
13 offers a more open and analytical approach to regeneration than other new Doctor stories have. While it’s obvious the Doctor hasn’t finished ‘cooking’ when first regenerated, 13 offers some fascinating insights into the process. She is guided towards a finalised version of herself, and must learn to lean into and trust her new instincts. The episode resonates these themes: Yasmin must trust herself despite her superior’s indifference, Ryan must persevere in the face of his disability. It is a show full of people facing change and challenge — and what’s new can often be frightening, as the Doctor is only too aware.
And there’s reason to be afraid. This episode introduces us to a brand new alien, mockingly referred to as Tim Shaw by the Doctor, whose grotesque collection and display of teeth felt vivid and unsettling in a manner simply not present in Moffat’s era. The notable death count was another much-missed return, and lends actual threat to the situation: both 11 and 12’s eras were defined by deaths that never stuck, and 9 and 10’s shied away from ever showing blood. 13’s feels imposing and threatening amongst its contemporaries, and will hopefully bring back the tradition of children watching episodes from behind their sofa.
The plot isn’t the most unique in the show’s history, but it didn’t need to be. This is most importantly 13 and her companion’s introduction, wrapped around an interesting and well-paced mystery; it’s a story that fleshes these people out and gives us an insight into where these characters may grow and develop over the coming series. It’s as conventional as a story of this sort can be — I half expected an in-universe joke at the similarities to Predator, but that’s not a detraction. Both 10 and 11 had rather blasé, simplistic foes for their first adventures, and too convoluted a foe would steal development from these characters. At no point does the hour runtime outstay its welcome: I was wishing it wouldn’t end when it did, a true marker of success.
Quite simply, enough cannot be said about Jodie’s performance here. She immediately commands presence on screen and her acting chops are beyond doubt. Her previous efforts in productions such as Black Mirror, Attack the Block and Broadchurch each offered insights into her adaptive and relatable screen presence — there is an innate drawing in of one’s attention to her. The 13th Doctor is warm and inviting, she draws you in and seems determined to get the best from everyone she meets. We see sides of her previous selves all throughout her — the ‘no second chances’ attitude of 10, the fondness for tinkering of 3; she is an amalgamation of the past with hints of the excitement to come. An in-universe speech about honouring one’s past while moving on and changing is the bow on top, neither too self-aware nor unsure of itself. There is no ‘warming up’ period here; she simply is the Doctor, and any long-time (or new) fans of the show should be very excited. Chris Chibnall has immediately proven himself an excellent choice as showrunner.
Doctor Who is back with a bang. Or should that be a vwoorp vwoorp?