For a show that has been going for 54 years, with 14 actors having taken on the title role, Doctor Who can often feel like it doesn’t really want anything to change. The same four or five monsters are always guaranteed to appear and no matter who plays the Doctor, the same quick wit and attitude carry through.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Doctor Who still has to be Doctor Who at the end of the day. Every era of the show has certainly had its distinct flairs: Patrick Troughton was the first to bring a childish sense of wonder and fun, and Peter Capaldi balanced that with a grave, almost sinister persona. But the underlying formula remains the same no matter what, as does the overall aesthetic and atmosphere.
It has seemed to me in the past that the show has actually been resistant to any kind of huge change. Not least of which is the fact that, until this year, every actor to play the Doctor has been a white British guy (most of them with some bizarre haircut). It’s the sort of thing that isn’t a problem until you notice it, but once you do notice it you can’t help but wonder why they wouldn’t expand their casting pool. After the last few years, it’s become remarkably clear that the show is really in need of a breath of fresh air.
That breath of fresh air has finally come. Last year it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever take the role, would be replacing Peter Capaldi for the new season. Even better, head writer Steven Moffat would be being replaced by Chris Chibnall (best known for writing Broadchurch).
This is great news all around. I’ve loved Capaldi’s time on the show, but his Doctor has had a pretty solid character arc and I think it’s probably the right time for him to step down. Steven Moffat’s departure is very welcome and much less upsetting; while he’s been responsible for some of the greatest episodes of the show, he’s also responsible for a huge amount of plot holes, character inconsistencies and outright terrible ideas. Doctor Who has always been hit-and-miss (and I say that as one of its biggest fans), but Moffat’s overall impact on the show has not been for the better. He didn’t really change things when he took over, but he emphasized the flaws. It’s time for change.
Based on the first episode of Chibnall’s run, that change has finally arrived and it is spectacular. ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’, our first proper introduction to both the Thirteenth Doctor and the group of people she’ll be adventuring with, also introduces a whole new style for the show. It looks far more cinematic, having been shot in widescreen with stellar visual effects (the episode’s alien, who wears the teeth of his murdered victims on his skin like war paint, is one of the coolest, most horrifying ideas to ever grace the show). But what’s even more impressive is the heightened emotional depth of this new show: three of the four new characters are a family. First we meet Ryan (Tosin Cole), a teenager with dyspraxia whose mother (Sharon D Clarke) and stepfather (Bradley Walsh) are trying to teach him to ride a bike. When Ryan discovers a bizarre alien pod, P.C Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) get enlisted too.
It has been a very long time since such a large group travelled with the Doctor. The different energy that brings to the show is very welcome. The quippy, quick wit that defined previous Doctors’ interactions with his companions is out, replaced instead with people who look out for one another (and the occasional gem of step-fatherly wisdom). Neither is necessarily better, but the former has been the case for almost the entirety of the show. Change is good.
That’s to say nothing of Jodie Whittaker herself. One episode isn’t enough to judge a Doctor by; every incarnation starts off as a kind of blank-slate version of the character, and their personality comes out over the course of a season or two. While Whittaker has yet to put her personal stamp on the role, her initial impact has been hugely positive. The high energy and can-do attitude of more recent incarnations is still there, but there’s also a softness being hinted at that only Matt Smith’s Doctor has really nailed in the past. Even so, there’s a fierceness burning through in one scene in particular. I won’t spoil the moment, but the event that causes that fierceness to shine through is incredibly interesting. Whoever this Doctor turns out to be, I’m already loving Whittaker’s potential.
I haven’t spoken much about the episode itself. That’s mostly because there isn’t much to say and, honestly, I’m fine with that. The plot is basic but it’s exactly what it needs to be: alien crash lands on Earth, threatens some innocent people and then the Doctor stops them. It’s actually refreshing; Moffat’s era would constantly ruin standalone episodes with scenes that allude to whatever grand scheme the season is building towards, except they’d become far too convoluted and never pay off well. Chibnall has been open previously about wanting episodes to stand on their own and I’m in full support of that. There’s a cliffhanger here, but it’s a cliffhanger that’ll be dealt with pretty quickly, for reasons that are obvious if you’ve seen them.
The bottom line here is that a LOT has changed. The pace, look, feel, and even dialogue are worlds apart from where the show was just last year. Casting a female actor to play the Doctor isn’t a radical change (no matter how angry the choice has made a lot of bigots), but it’s symbolic of Chibnall’s commitment to making the show his own. This could be a game-changing season of Doctor Who which, over half a century down the line, is something remarkable in and of itself.