You may be hearing things like the following in Doctor Who fan circles over the coming days; ‘Jodie Whittaker is brilliant’, ’Jodie Whittaker is born to play the Doctor,’ ‘Jodie Whittaker will bring in new audience members,’ and ’the show feels new.’
The reason you’re going to be reading these repeated phrases ad infinitum is because they’re true. Jodie Whittaker’s new Doctor has just landed in the latest Doctor Who season opener “The Woman Who Fell To Earth.” This is the 13th season opener if you count Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccelston’s 2005 debut as season one… or the 39th season opener if you count the entire 55 year history of the series as a whole. As much as I love Doctor Who, I had some doubt as to whether it could ever feel truly fresh again.
Well, I was wrong.
Jodie Whittaker is a shot of pure adrenaline to the show, and I really enjoy her take on the character. At various conventions, I’ve seen enough female fans cosplaying as the Doctor to know that a female Doctor could work. Whittaker’s Doctor has finally made it so… spectacularly so, in fact.
**** BIGGER ON THE INSIDE SPOILERS! ****
We see a young man, Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) recording a moving YouTube video tribute to a woman who changed his life…
We then see Ryan in aworking to overcome his dyspraxia by learning to ride a bicycle out in open fields surrounding suburban Sheffield. His beloved grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and her new husband Graham (Bradley Walsh) are urging him on, and despite their sympathy and best efforts, unwittingly causing him embarrassment. In frustration, he tosses the bike into a cluster of trees. Going to retrieve it, he stumbles across a large alien object, which resembles a giant blue Hershey’s Kiss (not kidding). Ryan calls the police, and a frustrated young officer (and former schoolmate) Yasmin “Yas” Khan (Mandip Gill) arrives at the scene.
Meanwhile, Grace and Graham are on a train going home, when the train is suddenly stopped by a tentacled intruder and a mysterious blond woman (Whittaker, making her entrance with great aplomb) who seems to know how all about how to deal with such things, despite her frustrating, post-regenerative amnesia.
The five soon begin to form a team, each using their unique strengths (social media networking, ‘asking a bus driver,’ etc) combined with the Doctor’s building skills (“I’m good at building things…I think”) to stop this invading alien menace, which has infected each of the five with tiny ‘DNA bombs’ planted in their shoulders, should they interfere.
The alien menace this time is a savage alien hunter, (not too unlike the “Predator”) is incongruously referred to by a slight mispronunciation of its name as “Tim Shaw” (Samuel Oatley). Tim Shaw has a face adorned with human teeth (not unlike the sheer ugliness of bearskin rugs, teeth necklaces, and other kill trophies in our culture) and preys upon seemingly random targeted humans in a barbaric ritual hunt designed to help his ascension to his planet’s leadership.
After putting together a new sonic screwdriver made entirely from Earth elements (such as good ol’ “Sheffield steel”), the Doctor has her sonic, her companions, and is slowly becoming her ‘new self.’
The Doctor triumphs over the alien hunter by using its own information gathering creatures against it (as well as its own DNA bombs), but there is a tragic and heartbreaking human cost…
… it turns out the title of the episode (“The Woman Who Fell To Earth”) doesn’t just refer to the Doctor; it also refers to Grace, who is killed when she falls to her death in a final confrontation at a construction site. Later on, we see a simple church service funeral, which is something we don’t see often in “Doctor Who” (if ever). Such a moment makes the fantasy of the whole thing seem a lot more grounded. Hearing the tearful Graham and Ryan speak of the woman they both loved also makes Grace’s loss hurt like hell.
The story is bookended with Ryan finishing his earlier YouTube tribute about a ‘special woman’ in his life. We assumed he was talking about the Doctor, but we now realize it was a video eulogy to his beloved nan. It’s an eloquent summation of a character we barely knew, but immediately loved.
A final coda has the newly minted (and freshly attired) Doctor saying goodbye to Ryan, Yasmin and Graham, as she tries to lock onto her missing Tardis. She seems to target its location and is zapped into space…along with her three new friends.
Summing it up.
All of the online praise you may soon read of Whittaker’s Doctor is heartily earned, but there should be as large a cheering section for new showrunner/writer Chris Chibnall, as well as new companions Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Sharon D. Clarke (oh, how it hurt when her character died…). It’s a great ensemble right out of the box.
This new season, even in subtle ways such as its slightly grittier cinematography and more grounded perspective, really feels like a fourth pilot of the series; the first three being the original 1963 pilot (“Unearthly Child”), the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie and the 2005 Eccleston revival (“Rose”). The beauty of this ‘fourth pilot’ is that no prior foreknowledge of “Doctor Who” is required, and new viewers can jump right in.
The one-two punch of new talent both in front of and behind the camera make it all seem brand-new again, and that’s a very tall order, considering the 55-year history of this series. Once again, a big round of applause to Jodie Whittaker, her new companions, and to new showrunner Chris Chibnall. Well done!
Looking very forward to this new (in every way) season of “Doctor Who.”