“Lots to do and I’m working on it all!”
There’s such a temptation, in writing a review about a show with a freshened-up cast and new creative team, to see every single creative decision as some sort of declaration of purpose or sign of things to come. In fact, that temptation is so strong and so insidious that we were a bit tripped up going into this one, primarily because this episode, in which new Doctor Jodie Whittaker and new show runner Chris Chibnall both make their debuts, seemed far more interested in telling a story and making an effective introduction than laying the groundwork for the rest of the season.
Sure, it ended on a cliffhanger and looks to have established an ongoing arc about finding the TARDIS and getting the new companions back home without killing any more of them, but the true meat of the episode was turned over to making hasty introductions on the fly and throwing everyone straight into a somewhat standard Whovian mystery/adventure story told in a slightly more sophisticated style than we’re used to seeing.
Let’s tackle that last bit, because aside from the introduction of the new Doctor, it served as one of the fresher aspects of the new creative direction. Like we said, it’s remarkably easy to slip into making predictions or declarations about a new direction before we’ve received much information, but Chibnall, coming off the hit crime drama Broadchurch, brought a more earthbound, crime-procedural approach to the writing of this episode, and director Jamie Childs took that tone and ran with it all the way through. From trains to garages to construction sites – all barely lit night scenes with virtually no other signs of life in them – the settings and tone seemed almost entirely stripped from anything fantastical or overwrought. The universe wasn’t at stake. Even Earth was in no more danger than it usually is at any given moment. The enemy wasn’t an armada of invaders or killer cyborgs. It was one disgusting-faced loser-alien, cheating his way to hoped-for glory. The only true speech the Doctor gave (because he/she kinda has a history of giving them soon after they regenerate) was more personal in tone; about what it’s like to be the Doctor rather than why you should listen to the Doctor or fear the Doctor. Given how the episode ended, it’s clear we’re not remaining earthbound this season, but that low-key style – even the musical cues seemed almost non-existent after years of Murray Gold’s bombast – made for a smart little slap in the face to the audience to wake up and pay attention. This is new.
Now let’s talk about that introduction. In some ways, the new Doctor was a lot to take in (as a new Doctor should be) and in others, she very much felt like the same old character, trying on a new outfit. Under Jodie Whittaker’s brisk, common-sensical guidance, the new Doctor got to be nerdy and weird, techy and charismatic, irritating and fascinating. She takes control of situations, she’s okay with coming off odd and she’s hard to understand sometimes. She makes mistakes, changes course and tries something else. She builds things – brilliant things. She argues and cajoles and jokes and gasps. She delegates with gusto and sends her new team off with the utmost confidence in them. She’s delighted by the news of her new gender but barely gives it much consideration after the novelty wears off. Almost all of this feels like the Doctor, albeit a version with much of the bombast and pomposity stripped out of her. If you closed your eyes and listened to her lines being delivered in David Tennant’s or Matt Smith’s or Peter Capaldi’s voice, most of them could have worked as written. That’s actually a good thing, since every new Doctor has to convince the audience that they truly are the same character whose adventures they’ve been following. Whittaker, by virtue of being a history-making first female Doctor, had a much steeper hill to climb than most of the men who filled the role and she responded to the task by eschewing the climbing part and simply vaulting herself up that hill with charm and aplomb. If there was anything new to be found in her portrayal of the Doctor, it was a more empathetic and humanistic side; a doctor who learns her companions’ names instantly and thanks them tenderly when they offer to cover the body of a dead person; a doctor who constantly tells her companions how much she believes in them and how fun she finds their company; a Doctor who shares what it’s like to be her without melodrama or self-pity. Some of her rapid-speak reminded us of Smith and Tennant, but her joyous fascination with people reminded us very much of Christopher Eccleston’s ninth doctor.
What we have in the new Doctor is something akin to the character of Wonder Woman; a fantastical woman moving through the modern world completely untethered by any of the expectations or restrictions all other women have to negotiate and/or work to reject. And like the Amazon superhero, that separation from the experiences of most other women actually serves as a commentary on those experiences. Like Wonder Woman striding onto a battlefield and knocking away mortar shells without a second thought, The Doctor taking charge and barking orders; showing curiosity and exhibiting brilliance, confronting bullies and shouting her purpose – all while never once considering what anyone else might be thinking of her – is a revelatory and exciting thing to see.
The episode wasn’t perfect, however. We have no problem with a plot that came off fairly basic, but it suffered from also being a bit uninteresting and a bit confused. Between the tentacle creature, the giant blue frozen glowing Hershey’s kiss cocoon, the armored alien who is later revealed to be a dude with teeth glued to his face, it was all a bit much and a bit muddled for a debut episode in which so many characters are being introduced at once. A much more straightforward plot would’ve helped introduce the characters better and let them breathe.
As for the new characters, they’re all easy to like; especially the dearly departed Grace, whose death will hang over this team going forward. The new team has a fairly interesting dynamic; not so much because of its racial and age diversity, but because the three characters have existing, if tentative relationships with each other, which means they have some history but still have a lot to learn about the others. Add a character death, another character with survivor’s guilt, and a third character with a disability and a lot of resentment and there’s a lot of potential for drama going forward. Right now our fave of the new crew is Yaz and we really hope she and Ryan don’t embark on a romance. A true friendship would be so much more interesting. We can’t help but see the new companions as something of a commentary on previous Doctors and their penchant for pretty, perky 20-something girls in cute outfits.
But for the most part, this new version doesn’t seem interested in making a lot of fuss over the newly gendered Doctor and this is, to our way of thinking, the exact right way to go. Jodie Whittaker will leave this role some day and the likelihood of a man taking it over again after her seems pretty high. The point isn’t that the Doctor is now a woman. The point is that the Doctor is currently a woman. You can pay tribute to the historic nature of that development while also keeping the character on the same continuum of personality on which it has always existed. Chibnall and Whittaker look like they’ve got a perfectly good handle on this one. We can’t wait to see what they add to this character’s long and colorful history.