The world is about to be very unfair to you.
Though, to be fair, the world has always had a tendency to be terribly unfair to the newly appointed Doctor –it was ready to criticize Matt Smith for his young age after fan-favorite David Tennant put away his Sonic Screwdriver, and it was cruel to Peter Capaldi precisely because of the opposite when Matt Smith took off his bowtie. We knew they weren’t going to be merciful to you, Thirteen, because the minute Jodie Whittaker’s name took over Peter Capaldi’s, the general reaction was anything but kind.
But, oh, Thirteen, you were absolutely brilliant.
‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’, Doctor Who‘s eleventh season premiere presenting Whittaker as our favorite television Doctor, was rather unkind and unfair to the incredibly talented cast that lead its story. It’s not necessarily that the characters are underdeveloped or not likable. They’re likable, they absolutely are. And it’s not that the alien monster of the week wasn’t interesting –his storyline was somewhat understandable and compelling despite the tooth-y appearance.
It’s that, well, Chris Chibnall hasn’t really written Science-Fiction before, has he?
The episode had all the ingredients that make a great Doctor Who hour, but their mix wasn’t magically blended. It introduced a new Doctor, which is never an easy feat to accomplish –much less when this new Doctor is exceptionally different from the other twelve and a half we’ve seen through the years–, and neither is introducing a new companion –much less three new companions. But it’s not impossible. Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davis have done so before, after all. But Chibnall seems to struggle ever so slightly with how exactly he fits into the mix.
He promised a very new Who, one that was much more cinematographic and dramatic, one that almost reinvented the show. It’s as if, with The Doctor’s speech about change and it being good and necessary, Chibnall was trying to prove to us –and maybe even to himself– that this new revamped version of Doctor Who was natural and what we needed. It was as if it was his presentation letter to tell us that Moffat and T. Davis’s eras were behind us, and that we were looking at an almost entirely different show.
New is good. Change is good. But, well, as The Doctor says so herself, you need to stay true to who you are, to who you were.
‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ forgets to do that, at times.
The episode falls flat at moments because of one single important fact: it relies far too much on the drama of it all, and seems to forget, for a second, that this is, after all, a show about a time traveling alien with two hearts and a rather terrible sense of fashion.
Although, fairly enough, this new costume is arguable one of the best the Doctor has ever worn.
But besides that, Chibnall isn’t accustomed to writing about aliens. The episode is character-driven and dramatically powered, yes. It hits the right notes to make our hearts swell with tragedy and a profound sense of sadness when a charming, brave woman we’ve only just met –unsurprisingly– falls to her untimely death. It does everything perfectly so that, within the last ten minutes, we ache for the characters and their sorrows; so that we can’t help but sigh compassionately when we realize Ryan’s YouTube blog about “the most amazing woman he’s ever met” isn’t about the Doctor, but about his grandmother.
But it’s also an episode in which we can’t help but go back to Broadchurch, Chibnall’s other creative child, because it looks and sounds so much more like a family drama than a Sci-Fi show about hope and wonder and adventures.
The characters aren’t to blame. Ryan, of course, is pretty solid. He’s a teenager who struggles to fit in and feels inadequate because of his physical condition, but fights to overcome it no matter what. We get him, we understand him. We, why don’t we say it, like him. And his childhood friend Yaz is the exact definition of a strong female character who is stuck in a job where she’s undermined and where she knows she can do better. She’s fast, she’s clever, and she’s brave.
But both Ryan and Yaz are missing one key factor that was present in all other companions, one very important detail that Chibnall is frantically trying to find yet never quite manages to get to: they’re missing a spark. They need a tint of humor, of quirkiness, of je ne sais quoi that makes them go from likable and interesting to worthy and awe-inspiring companions we wish we could be. Graham, on the other hand, does have exactly that –that quirky tone that makes him lovable and funny and rather innocent– but he’s used a little too much as an attempt at comic relief than anything else.
None of that, of course, is the actors’ fault. They’re all brilliant, they’re all on point, and they elevate the characters despite how little they’re given to work with. Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh exceed expectations and prove why they were cast in such important roles. But we can’t help but miss the witty banter and clever dialogue that both T. Davis and Moffat had badly accustomed us to throughout ten years.
But, oh, Thirteen. You were absolutely beautiful.
Jodie Whittaker does it. She does it. She nails the performance. She is undeniably and irrefutably, absolutely, 150% The Doctor. From the moment she falls through the train and speaks her first lines, we know there is nothing different about her. She is still The Doctor we know –fast-paced, quirky, incredibly clever, kind, and, of course, just a tiny bit mad. Her physical appearance, as we already knew, is never an excuse or a “despite.” It’s just a fact, like Matt Smith’s chin or Peter Capaldi’s Scottish accent. She’s a woman, yes, and she’s still The Doctor.
And she is an amazing Doctor.
Truly. Words can’t really explain how unbelievably brilliant she is in the role. She’s goosebump-raising good.
And it is, after all, her episode. It’s written for her, for her to shine, to glow in a role that people are still going to dispute her. The episode is built for her to prove that she is unequivocally The Doctor. And she does it. She proves it –not that she had to, of course, but she does so.
This is Thirteen.
This is you, Thirteen. You are already a memorable Doctor and it’s only your first episode.
But oh, Thirteen, the world is about to be very unfair to you.
Because you’re brilliant. You built your own Sonic Screwdriver –“Sonic Swiss Army Knife”, I guess it is now–, you taught us about change, and about hope. Your speech about helping whoever needs help even though you’re “only a traveler” spells out the very essence of who The Doctor is supposed to be. Your much-deserved “I am The Doctor” moment is breathtaking, to say the least.
And despite it all, we still want –we still need— to see you shine at what you do best. We need to see you run, we need to see you be ahead of everyone else, we need to see you be compassionate to alien races and fight hard to avoid changing the past. We need to see you be The Doctor.
We’ll give you time, of course. An episode isn’t enough to judge you or even crucify you. We will stick with you through the stories and root for you to become The Doctor we all know you can be. The Doctor you already, on many levels, are.
So the world is about to be very unkind to you, Thirteen. But the world –and the universe– has never been kind to The Doctor.
Keep proving to us we should be.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC One and BBCAmerica.