I just found time to watch Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode as the new Doctor. It would seem churlish not to put down a few thoughts about it while it’s fresh in my mind, and before reading what others have said. So here goes.
You can put me down as one of those who was initially unconvinced by the idea of a female Doctor. I sort of hesitate even to mention this, because I fear it’s become one of those things that it’s not really possible to have a rational conversation about: a lot of people will just tune out and move on.
But here are the reservations I had, for both of you who are still with me.
First of all, I have little patience with the growing crowds of right-on Guardian-reading leftie luvvies who wanted a female Doctor just because they wanted to score a political point. We’ve been through this process for the last few castings, with increasingly strident calls. I’ve been unable to rid myself of the thought that the majority of those people don’t care about Doctor Who at all, and won’t actually watch it. (The pandering subtitle “It’s about time” did nothing to ease this fear.)
By the way, I suspect much the same thing is going on with most of the people calling for a black James Bond, though I find that idea much more natural — as indeed I would have a black or Asian Doctor, provided he was a British black or Asian Doctor.
More fundamentally, perhaps — and bear with me as I try to navigate around this — the traits that have always defined the Doctor are stereotypically male ones: impulsiveness, curiosity, physical courage, recklessness, a certain nerdy kind of intelligence, a comical lack of empathy. Now of course I am not saying that all men have these characteristics or that all women lack them. But it remains the case that they are stereotypically male. So there’s a tough question for a female Doctor: is she to retain those characteristics and so be a “tomboy” Doctor? Or to take on more stereotypically female characteristics and so remake the fundamental core of the character? Arguably either approach could be made to work; but both are difficult. The latter is the more interesting challenge of the two, but also the one most prone to end up with a character who is not the Doctor, and so a show that is not really Doctor Who.
So that’s my backdrop: the reasons I didn’t want a female Doctor.
How, then, did the actual episode pan out?
Eh, it was OK.
One welcome change was a new composer: Murray Gold, who has been ubiquitous in New Who until this series, is not a subtle composer, and his music has often not served the show well, telling us what to feel instead of drawing us in. Segun Akinola’s music is very different, much more a matter of subtle sound design than of big orchestral sweeps, and it’ll be interesting to see how he makes it work across what we assume will be very different episodes.
Less welcome is Chris Chibnall’s script. He’s never been among my favourite Doctor Who writers — though, to be fair, he did write the pretty good two-parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood — and his work on the dreadful Torchwood has always been very poor. For Whittaker’s first outing, Chibnall gives us an absolutely by-the-numbers story of an alien coming to Earth for a hunt, and a rather ponderous Doctor-figuring-out-who-she-is B-story that feels for all the world like a re-tread of early Capaldi. (I liked the policewoman, though, and I hope she comes back.)
And this is unfortunate, because it makes it very hard to evaluate Whittaker’s performance. She wasn’t great, but then she didn’t have a lot to work with. We can hope that the work of better writers will give her more scope, but since the writers are apparently still TBA, that’s a flimsy hope to cling to. And then there’s the oddity that arguably the single greatest moment in Matt Smith’s tenure — telling Alaya “I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart. So don’t insult me” — came in a Chibnall episode. Is that a good line? Maybe it’s not, and Smith just sells it. At any rate, there was always, in his best work, a sense of a deeply weary and aged man lurking just below the cheery exterior; so far, I’m not seeing anything like that in Whittaker’s performance.
But then I’m ashamed to remember how unenthusiastic I was about Matt Smith in his own debut. What a dumb, unperceptive critic I was. So you never know: maybe Whittaker will pick up the role and run with it as Smith did, and win me over. I hope she does.
But I suspect we’re going to run into Wonder Woman syndrome. You remember that, right? The DCEU put out an only-OK film — not in the same league as the better MCU offerings — but it got stellar reviews because people were desperate to like a superhero film with a female lead. Wonder Woman somehow got glossed as a feminist statement even though it amounted to a super-babe running around in her underwear punching people. It became a film that was difficult to have a rational opinion about. (I’m gambling that enough time has passed now that I can say this; and I’m really hoping that they finally make the Black Widow film happen, and that it’s as awesome as MCU can make ’em.)
To summarise: Whittaker might make this work, and she does after all have a reasonably low bar to get over, relative to the progressively siller Capaldi era. But at this stage I can’t see how she’s going to touch the heights that Matt Smith regularly reached. And get off my damn lawn.
To finish, here are links to other reviews, which I have avoided reading up till now to avoid predisposing my own opinions, but written by people whose opinions on Doctor Who I usually find fascinating, even when I disagree with them:
- Doctor Who: A Review, by Andrew Rilstone.
- DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH’, by Gavin Burrows.
- Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth, by Andrew Hickey.
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth Review, by Elizabeth Sandifer.
And now, I’m off to read those reviews myself!