❉ We Are Cult’s Kara Dennison reviews the Thirteenth Doctor’s debut. Let’s get a shift on!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that regeneration episodes are an absolute bear to write. There’s a lot to get done in a scandalously short amount of time, and the difficulty increases the more new elements are in play. Stories like Deep Breath and The Christmas Invasion had a partial safety net of a familiar companion and an established writer and style, and even The Eleventh Hour could lean on the fact that the new showrunner had had some degree of influence on the previous era’s feel.
So coming into The Woman Who Fell to Earth, I knew that the team had a huge task ahead of them. The situation of a new writer — not new to Who but not necessarily of the same clique as previous years — a new Doctor, and three new companions meant there were a lot of chainsaws to juggle. The question was not going to be if they were all kept in the air, since regeneration episodes are never flawless simply because of their difficulty level. Rather, it would be a question of how many stayed up and which limbs they were willing to sacrifice.
The press lead-up to the series was, for what it’s worth, not especially indicative of what to expect, at least in the first episode. Where heavy emphasis was put on the Doctor’s new gender and how wonderful it was in social media, the episode itself treated the change with about as much gravitas as an accent or hairstyle swap. Save for a few style-based musings and the occasional colloquial “darling” from her associates, we were left to get to know Whitaker’s Thirteenth Doctor as a personality rather than a gender.
That normalization leaves Whitaker free to sparkle once she gets her feet. It’s difficult to gauge a Doctor completely in their first episode, but what we see of this Doctor’s persona is promising. Her ‘regeneration crisis’ was one of the show’s more understated ones, manifesting largely as a series of memory lapses in the midst of trying to go about her business. Once she’s got her wits about her, 13 comes off as the older sibling who somehow manages to get left in charge by the grownups, even though all the other kids know they’re the biggest troublemaker of the bunch. There’s friendly concern and heroics mixed in, of course, but this Doctor has largely abandoned any pretense of being a ‘Lonely God’ and seems intent on enjoying her first regeneration in quite a while free of Gallifreyan heartache.
The introduction of a trio of companions all at once was worrying; fortunately, the introduction of a full Team TARDIS was largely streamlined by having them all acquainted in some way or other. That said, there were a few draggy moments of dialogue where playing long-winded catch-up served as exposition. The same could have been accomplished, and given our new actors more to do, with some slightly more ‘show don’t tell’ dialogue.
Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair made an admirable linchpin for the gathering of the quartet, serving as both inadvertent troublemaker and character arc kicker-offer. Mandip Gill’s Yaz was dependable and interesting, with indications of her desire to do Something More clearly prepping her for some evolution later this season.
Bradley Walsh as Graham was a bit of a mixed bag, but I don’t believe anything is at fault for that save for rewrites and reshoots. For the most part he’s wonderful as that unsung hero of any ensemble cast, Guy Who Didn’t Ask for Any of This. But there are times when he comes across as shockingly harsh in a way that doesn’t quite fit what we see most of the time. Whether because of reshoots or an incoming character arc, those moments didn’t stop Graham from being quite likable indeed.
As for the writing itself, tweaked or otherwise, it was… fine. It wasn’t glowing Hugo-level stuff, but it hasn’t dropped the bottom out, either. As mentioned earlier, the safest thing to aim for in a regeneration episode is getting the job done. And this does that, with a very basic single-alien threat solved by standoff and sleight-of-hand. The villain is an odd cross between Predator and the Tooth Child from Candle Cove, and while Tim Shaw is unlikely to go down in history as a memorable Doctor Who baddie any more than Patient Zero did, he served a purpose.
Now for the bit everyone’s been wondering about: how different is Chibnall’s era? The answer is tricky: it’s both very different and not terribly different at all.
This premiere episode began with no intro sequence (only the second occurrence of this in the show’s history) and maintained a fairly down-to-earth style until the arrival of the Doctor — and even held onto it a bit more than usual then. It’s understandable for this episode: Ryan, Yaz, and Graham aren’t in the Doctor’s world yet. We’re brought into a normal world fraught with normal human issues, then whisked away into the science-fantasy of life with the Doctor.
Beyond that, though, The Woman Who Fell to Earth is still Doctor Who, just with a serious whimsy reduction from recent years. Glib patter is toned down, though humor isn’t eliminated. There are no catchphrases or witty ripostes. Really, the alterations are largely cosmetic and fall into a ‘your mileage may vary’ category, despite the fact that they will likely be held up as objectively better or worse by some. Chibnall’s Who isn’t more or less Who… it’s just tonally different.
What it comes down to, really, is motivation. Is Team Chibnall motivated to make their Doctor Who, or are they motivated to make a Doctor Who that’s as different from the last era as possible? The two may not turn out to be all that different in practice. But — bringing the ‘older sibling’ comparison back around — the difference in motivation is the same as a younger brother striving to be himself vs. trying to not be his older brother. One is self-motivated, internal, focused on constant personal re-assessment and growth. The other is being so busy looking over your shoulder as you make course changes that you don’t think to look at where you’re actually heading. Right now, The Woman Who Fell to Earth could easily be indicative of either tactic, and it will take a second and even third episode to discover what’s going on.
To some, simply not being the last guy may well be enough to satisfy, or to boycott. Personally, I’m hopeful that Chibnall and co. look forward rather than backward as they create this new era. They have a solid cast with good chemistry, a promising Doctor, and a fan base that is ready to watch. How they approach the shaping of their era will decide whether this new season is a shot in the arm or a shot in the foot.
The Woman Who Fell to Earth was a serviceable regeneration episode, with pretty much the amount of hits and misses that one would expect of an episode that’s by its nature a to-do list of exposition. There were iconic Doctor-y moments, there were likable characters, and there’s a promise of adventure to come. Jodie Whitaker is well cast and clearly ready for whatever the show throws at her. My hope is that it throws her good things.
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, interviewer, and over-analyser of geek entertainment. In March 2018, she conducted Peter Capaldi’s first public interview since leaving Doctor Who. She can currently be read in The Black Archive #21: Heaven Sent from Obverse Books. Find more of her work at karadennison.com or on her Twitter @RubyCosmos.