Friday, June 21, 2024

A Promising New Start with the Thirteenth Doctor

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After many long months of waiting, Series 11 of Doctor Who is here and Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. Before I get into any sort of spoilers: if you ever considered watching Doctor Who but was intimidated by the 55 years of history, 270+ stories (800+ episodes) and many different eras, well, this is your chance. Chris Chibnall, our new showrunner has stated several times that this series is intended as a jumping on point for anyone unfamiliar with the show. Based on “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” he’s absolutely right. This feels like a fresh start while also still capturing the essence of Doctor Who, with all its sci-fi, wacky Britishness, and human core. This is the best chance to get introduced since “The Eleventh Hour”—heck, it might even be the best chance since “Rose” in 2005. Go watch Thirteen’s debut now while you can still avoid spoilers.

Doctor No. 13 – They’re a woman now!

And now for the spoilers. Although this is a review for the first episode itself, I feel like the most talked about aspect of it is Jodie Whittaker herself and the first impressions we got from the Thirteenth Doctor. Yes, the Doctor is played by a woman now and the cultural, as well as in-universe significance of that is not to be underestimated. But for now, she’s just the Doctor and she plays that role perfectly. From her falling to Sheffield to a beautiful explanation of what regeneration feels like and right up to the first time she says “I’m the Doctor,” Whittaker embraces every aspect of the character.

Her physical comedy offers a lighter side to an otherwise quite dark episode, reminding us of previous incarnations like Tom Baker’s Number Four or Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. But make no mistake, Whittaker’s Thirteen is her own character. She balances references to other incarnations and new facets of the Doctor’s personality just as well as the episode does overall. She’s the Doctor not just because she says so and we hear the iconic theme when she appears; she’s the Doctor because she embodies all the qualities that we love in this Time Lord. She seems simultaneously ancient and childish, she’s eternally impressed by the smallest of details and yet is the only one to get the bigger picture. She has her downright rude moments, like erasing everything from Ryan’s phone, but she saves the day because she will always help those in need.

It’s important to consider that though this was Thirteen’s first episode and therefore the first impression we’ll carry with us for the rest of her run, a regeneration episode is always just the beginning. Like she said herself, she’s still changing and everything is new to her, too. She’s going to grow into the role of the Doctor—both Thirteen the character and Whittaker as an actor. As far as debuts go, this was a strong one that only makes me more excited for what’s to come. We’re going to get to see Thirteen find herself and further the legacy of the Doctor, and I for one cannot wait for that.

Companions, friends, Sheffielders all around

The first thing I noticed about this new era of Chibnall was the relatively late introduction of the Doctor herself. The buzz around the new series was mainly centered around this new female Doctor, and yet we don’t follow immediately from where “Twice Upon a Time” ended. The reason why I said this might be the best starting point since “Rose” and not “The Eleventh Hour” is because the latter did pick up from “The End of Time” as the Doctor regenerated and only got to our new companion, Amy Pond, later. This, in a way, set the tone for Steven Moffat’s era as showrunner: first and foremost the focus is on the Doctor(s) themselves.

Here, though, all three of the Doctor’s new traveling companions are introduced before she is. Or friends, as the Doctor herself calls them and as the promotional material has been calling them. Just the fact that we have a whole TARDIS team of four now—for the first time since Nyssa left Team Five back in 1983—is a huge deal. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” does a decent job of introducing Ryan, Graham, and Yasmin and fleshing them all out in a short amount of time.

It came as a surprise that the friends almost all know each other. Yaz and Ryan went to the same school and Graham is the second husband of Grace, aka Ryan’s nan. This gives the team an interesting dynamic where Yaz and Ryan will see different sides to each other, Ryan and Graham will inevitably grow closer and finally call each other family, and perhaps there will be a few surprises with the Yaz-Graham relationship as well. And that’s not to mention the Doctor herself, who’s bound to challenge all of them in ways they’d never thought possible.

There’s going to be plenty of opportunities to talk about the three of them in the upcoming weeks and I’m hopeful that we’ll get more character-focused episodes. That being said, some initial thoughts:

Ryan’s dyspraxia was handled well and I loved his vlog being the framing device. He seems like he’s still trying to find his place in the world but is probably the most like the Doctor in many ways.

Yaz wants more from the world in the Rose Tyler kind of way and it looks like the Doctor will be the one to introduce her to what’s out there. She might fall victim to idolizing the Doctor a little too much but at the same time seems like the type to call her out when needed.

Graham is going to be the least happy about the accidental abduction that happens but could probably use an adventure just as much as the younger companions. He’s a more grounded character who seems like the oldest of the bunch and that could provide a nice contrast to the Doctor, who’s so ancient at this point that I doubt even she knows.

Series 11 is going to have no two-parter and all of the episodes are going to be more or less standalones, we know that, but hopefully this doesn’t mean that the characters will hardly evolve. This episode was a promising introduction to the Doctor and her new friends and some intriguing arcs have already been set up. In fact, this what I enjoyed most about the episode: characters and their bonds.

Monster of the week and the case of fridging

Now that the characters are down, let’s talk about the episode itself. And by that I mean let’s talk about other characters in the episode, like Grace and our villain of the week, “Tim Shaw.” It is here with these two where “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” becomes less impressive. Don’t get me wrong, Grace was a genuinely interesting character with a lovely relationship with both Ryan and Graham, and it looked like she would make an amazing companion to the Doctor. Shame it was pretty obvious from the start that she wasn’t destined to ever see the TARDIS.

The problem with Grace is her predictable and rather unnecessary death. We knew she wasn’t going to make it because, unlike the other three friends Thirteen makes, she was missing from all the promotional material. We knew it and it still got to me, but probably not in the way that Chris Chibnall wanted. Her funeral and the way Ryan talked about her were emotional scenes and I was sad to see her potential wasted, but the death itself felt cheap. It would be nice to say she died saving others but she didn’t need to die. The Doctor could probably have dealt with the Gathering Coil, so while Grace’s sacrifice was a grandiose gesture, it ultimately feels puzzling. Of course, the real reason why she had to die was so Team TARDIS wouldn’t get overcrowded, and, more importantly, so that the focus would be on Ryan’s and Graham’s grief and their eventual bonding over it. Not cool, Doctor Who, not cool.

The other, less problematic issue was the villain himself. Tzim-Sha was sufficiently scary and presented a real threat, and I loved the way the Doctor handled the situation. He wasn’t a particularly memorable or unique monster of the week, though. Not that the best monster should come first. I expect the series to produce some more nuanced villains as the episodes go by. That’s why part of me appreciates the fact that it’s going to be all new monsters in Series 11; there’s only so many twists you can do on the same old Dalek story after all. Part of me is also sorry that we won’t see Thirteen battle some old foes just yet, but I suppose we might get some of that in a later season. “Tim Shaw” wasn’t the best start but a worthy first enemy for Thirteen. Plus, his presence resulted in “Eat my salad, Halloween.” Only the very best from the BBC.

Tim Shaw?

A New Hope

“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is a good start to a fresh new era and though I’m still only cautiously optimistic, I might just be truly excited about new Doctor Who episodes for the first time in five years. Jodie Whittaker as Thirteen is a delight to watch and she shatters any doubts anyone might have had about her Doctor. The characters are the overall strongpoint of the episode, with not just the Doctor but the companions and friends also getting a good introduction. Although the perspective has shifted so that not everyone is from London (or Cardiff) but rather Sheffield, this is still very much Doctor Who and a new, promising version of it. It’s too early to say what the whole series will be like, but the first episode builds a strong foundation.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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