The Woman who Fell to Earth: some unwelcome opinions

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:

And now, I’m off to read those reviews myself!

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14 responses to “The Woman who Fell to Earth: some unwelcome opinions

  1. I thought it was an alright episode (like the RTD episodes with a lot of bang, not a lot of plot), and an about on-par new doctor episode (remember David Tennants? That was pretty silly.) It did seem a little heavy handed – the bit with “WHO _ARE_ YOU?” was amusingly delivered, but instead of having a good “oh yes, I’m THE DOCTOR!”, they did the drone video dive and her “I’m the doctor, and ” .. where the speach was really the justification for having a woman actor. Go watch that clip again .. you can do it again, differently, and respectively to your past sort of bit. That seemed a little too much on the nose, to me.

    But, I’m certainly very excited for Doc Jody; theres a lot of fun they _could_ have, and DW is about the only show they could really pull this stunt off; I hope you do use this for fun and keep it as passionate and heartfelt as always, but without making it a big stink ‘look at me!’ .. and the first episode was good, that way .. only what, two “I’m a girl” gags.

    I think you’ve nailed it, about character traits. I really like The Doctor, for being chillike yet very old and tired, a reluctant but ever energetic joyous hero. A hero who does not use guns, but uses his mind and heart. I’m hopeful JW realizes and can pull off this, or something better and different .. and I think she can.

    Can Chibnell, though?

  2. Aonghus Fallon

    I’d pretty much agree with you on all counts (including Wonder Woman – I actually think the big screen depiction of women was more progressive in the Seventies than it is now) – although I haven’t actually seen the new Doctor Who yet.

    I remember somebody once explaining the difficulties of being a progressive tyrant (they were talking about Saddam Hussein, of all people) – you want to make your country as progressive as possible, as progressive countries are generally productive countries. Only you’re a tyrant.

    I guess I’m drawing a tenuous analogy re the nature of much popular culture (specifically the sort of popular culture that started out in the Sixties) and how there is an inherent contradiction at work. You have an iconic character, although some aspects of how that icon is depicted are questionable, as it reflects the values of the time. But any attempts to change that icon fundamentally alter what it is.

  3. Yes, I tend to agree that the episode is going to be slightly overrated just because of the unique circumstances, and first episodes (Rose and Unearthly Child aside, which are very special cases) have a different sort of job to do – a bit akin to Christmas episodes in a way.
    So it was never likely to be a stone-cold “classic” but it was equally unlikely to be a stinker – well, OK, Twin Dilemma rather undermines that argument!

    I enjoyed it more on a rewatch, although the issue with Grace was even more pronounced; I thought Whittaker’s performance was more nuanced than I initially gave it credit and I think she’s got a good handle on what she wants to do with the part (writers permitting, of course.)

    But hey, I’ve long since accepted that I’m not a Doctor Who fan, because I actually like the show…

  4. “But hey, I’ve long since accepted that I’m not a Doctor Who fan, because I actually like the show…”
    —> *snorts coffee*

  5. As a right-on Guardian reading leftie, I have to say I don’t see the argument that the Doctor couldn’t be played by a woman as any different to the argument that the Area Manager vacancy for the Hartlepool office couldn’t go to a woman. Anything else just seems special pleading.

    So it never has before. What does that prove? And if it knocks down some silly, confining gender stereotypes so much the better. To think anything else means Whittaker could never have had the chance to play a role most people think she’s good in. It’s not an exercise in quotas, it’s opening yourself up to talent.
     
    And if she is good in the role, doesn’t that just prove those contra arguments were false? As Jeff says the episode contains very little fanfare about the gender swap. There’s even a piece of faux continuity to suggest in a previous incarnation she was a woman.
     
    In short, I’d rather this had just happened and seemed unremarkable rather than become a political football. On the other hand, now it has become a political football I’m hoping it lands squarely in the opposition’s net. If it pisses those Comisgaters off without even trying, so much the better.
     
    I’m not even sure “a comical lack of empathy” is an enduring feature of the Doctor. Would it apply to Troughton or Davison?
     
    With ‘Wonder Woman’, perhaps being a DC film gave it a lower bar. But I think it succeeded not by making some old comic character an internet meme for feminism but by being true to that character. Diana always was intended as a role model for girls who also sported a somewhat skimpy costume. (Different, but not that different, to your description.) She’s given a convincing, credible character. Which scarcely fits the Just Do The Empowered Woman thing.
     
    The selling point of an icon may be that it has some unchanging essence that defies time. But Icons get to be icons by looking that way, not by being that way. There’s not one instance of things working that way in practice. Not even with religious icons.
     
    This much I’ll agree. Never become your enemies through fighting them. The Comicsgate “Keep Things White and Male” campaign is essentially about accountancy, the more ‘keeps’ they have the better they think they’re faring in some war of attrition. We shouldn’t be drawn into their checklist thinking. We should be saying to them “the modern world is already diverse. You lost before you got started. Get over it.”

  6. Aonghus Fallon

    I do think there is a quantitive difference though, Gavin – ie, between, say, replacing a male Area manager with a female Area manager (where gender isn’t and shouldn’t be an issue) and trying to reinvent a tv character. There is one school of thought that might argue that Dr. Who character is an intrinsically male character and that changing the gender fundamentally alters what the character is supposed to be about (the disillusioned fan) but – speaking as somebody who has a largely neutral attitude towards Doctor Who (if it comes up on the TV, I’ll watch it) – I just think maybe popular culture needs to invent some new characters instead of endlessly configuring familiar characters that were very much of their time to the point of unrecognisability.

  7. I’ve never watched Dr. Who. Ever. But I wonder where the line is really drawn when it come to altering historical and fictive people, characters, or gods, and if some people are more sensitive to it than others.

    What would happen if we had a white Kunta Kinte, a black, female Thor, or an asian portraying Martin Luther King?

  8. Just watched it, and I find you a bit alarmist.

    I found the episode to be pretty good. Nothing groundbreaking, that’s for sure, but it’s a first episode. It does a good job of (re-)establishing the character of the Doctor (and maybe some recurring cast?) as well as telling us what the series is about.

    I didn’t care too much about the memory loss gimmick, but at least it wasn’t as awful as Peter Capaldi’s. But then again, while I liked Matt Smith’s triumphant debut, it’s not unfair to say it’s also a bit cheesy.

    Actually, while we’re talking of firsts, this one reminded me of Christopher Eccleston’s debut, down to the industrial setting. I actually enjoyed that too. I thought the cinematography on this thing wasn’t half bad, good mood setting.

    We’ll see about the Doctor’s character, something I’m also curious about. Right now she strikes me as more down-to-earth and “capable” than the previous incarnations.

    I personally didn’t see any issue with the Doctor being a woman beforehand, although I’m at least as wary as you are from the kind of crowd that pushes that very hard. My perspective is quite unlike yours in that the Doctor’s zany and energetic personality can actually be quite androgynous.

    Previous incarnations did add nice masculine touches: Eccleston’s angry, frayed nerve sensibility, Smith’s gravitas and Capaldi’s anti-conformism. I’m hoping we can get something similar, but feminine, this time.

  9. Oh, and I’m actually going to miss Murray Gold, his music is part of the DNA of the series for me (never saw the old ones). But there is space for something different. We’ll see if I’m going to miss him by season’s end.

    And that space special effect at the end was awful.

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  11. I’m still very strongly of the opinion that, regardless of who’s Who and who wrote the script, Who would be immeasurably improved by using Mankind’s groovy ’70s disco version of the theme tune. I mean the full 7-minute club mix. At both ends of the programme.

    Though this would’ve been used to best effect in the classic 25-minute cliff-hanger episodes.

    Not because I dislike Who, of course, just that the disco version of the theme tune is so… well, groovy. And it would really annoy people.

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