Jodie Whittaker has made her full debut as The Doctor in an episode of her own, and guess what? That’s right, just as after her two word initial appearance last year, the universe didn’t end! Not on either side of the TV screen.
Haters gonna hate. That’s a given, unfortunately.
But for the rest of us, those willing to give Ms. Whittaker and the show’s writers a chance, it was quite the satisfying experience.
I’m not about to declare “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” the greatest episode ever. Not even the greatest debut of a new Doctor.
But it handled all the expected set pieces for an introductory episode–The Doctor’s confusion, the unveiling of the new costume and key props, and the first signs of the character’s personality–smoothly. Better still, the episode’s story worked as a story, without gaping plot holes or random non sequiturs dropped in solely to move the story along.
And, best of all, did not rely on old, familiar–one might even say “tired”–villains. We’ve reached the point where bringing in the Daleks or Cybermen comes off as a sign that the writers don’t think their story can stand on its own. I’d love to get through the whole first Whittaker season without seeing any character we’ve encountered before.
But let’s back up to those set pieces for a moment.
There was a real potential for disaster in how The Doctor’s confusion about settling into a new body was handled. Focusing on the change of sex would have yanked the viewer right out of the story and made the episode all about that. Too soon. Save it for later, if ever. Looking at the reaction of old companions, villains, or (inevitably) Doctors could be fun and educational. But not yet. The writers acknowledge the change with a single joke near the beginning, another near the end, and leave it at that. Instead, we got a focus on things almost every viewer can relate to personally: memory loss, missing possessions (that “Where’s my wallet” panic everyone’s felt), and even a bit of the “OMG, I’ve got a test, and I’ve never even been to the class!” horrors. High marks.
The prop and costume reveals are taking a fair amount of flak. I’ve seen a lot of ridicule over The Doctor assembling her new sonic screwdriver out of local, twenty-first century components, none of which would even fit into the final product. Come on, people, you’re willing to accept the Tardis being bigger on the inside than the outside, but not the sonic screwdriver? (That said, I did like the suggestion someone made online, that the actual mechanism is a big block of electronics that The Doctor has to wear like a backpack, and the handheld bit of gear is just the remote. It’d be a great alternative to the joke they actually went with. But I digress.) And at least nobody is objecting to the actual look of the device–unlike the costume, which is, I completely agree, unattractive.
But I think the people complaining about it are missing the point. It’s a very unisex outfit–equally unflattering on men and women–that emphasizes that The Doctor doesn’t see sex as relevant to her mission. And it’s also a very clear signal that the writers don’t see the new Doctor as being at all about sex appeal. None of the previous incarnations have been–we’ve never seen a Doctor use sex to influence other characters or move the story along–and this one won’t be either.
And then there’s the emergence of The Doctor’s new personality and approach to solving crises. It’s clear that Ms. Whittaker’s Doctor will fall toward the frenetic end of the spectrum. As somebody who grew up with Tom Baker’s portrayal, I say “Bring on the frenzy!”
But, that said, it’s also obvious that she’s going to explicit about promoting compromise and choice, rather than conflict-driven, all-or-nothing victory. I’ve seen several commentators suggest that this is a sop to traditional gender roles (the old “female equals nurturing” fallacy) and it might be true to an extent.
Really, though, The Doctor has always been about making choices, trying to understand, and reaching accommodation with the “enemy”. Sure, it’s often been buried under fisticuffs, car chases, and us-versus-them paranoia, but it’s been there, right back to the first season and the Daleks’ first appearance.
If this year’s new Doctor had been male and delivered the same speech at the climax of the first episode, nobody would have blinked or called it a radical departure. It’s perfectly in tune with the spirit of the character.
Kudos a third time.
It could all still fall apart. But that’s true of any show. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, and all that. But I’m encouraged. Ms. Whittaker is off to a good start, and I’m looking forward to seeing where–and when–she goes from here.