I’ll start this piece with a confession: that in recent years I’ve fallen slightly out of love with Doctor Who. I liked Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, though I felt he was never as well served by the stories and scripts he had to deal with – new Who’s equivalent of Sylvester McCoy, perhaps? And the series never seemed to have a stable time on Saturday nights, having to accommodate a certain celebrity dance show. I’m an old-school Whovian: I like the sense of ritual involved in watching at the same time each week. Not for me this new-fangled time-shift nonsense (unless I really can’t avoid it). I’m sure that was one reason for the success of Doctor Who when it returned in 2005: that first season with Christopher Ecclestone re-established Who as a major reference point in the cultural imagination of British television viewers. And, other than one week to accommodate a football match or some such, it had a regular slot at 7 p.m.
But I’ve been looking forward to the Series 11 premiere more than at any time since Capaldi’s debut episode ‘Deep Breath’. The first episode of a new season is always something of an ‘event’ of course. Even more so when it’s a new Doctor. And more so again when it marks the beginning of a new ‘era’ of the series at the production level. The format of Doctor Who has always made it particularly amendable to periodic renewal and refreshing. This is one of the main reasons for its longevity and its ability to attract new audiences with each generation.
It’s interesting to compare how new Doctor Who has done this compared to the classic series. In the ‘old’ days there was usually some continuity between one production regime and the next. The supporting cast didn’t necessarily change when the Doctor did: Patrick Troughton’s Doctor inherited William Hartnell’s companions, for example, and Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah-Jane travelled with both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Pertwee’s debut season was the only time I can think of when the core production team and cast changed more or less at the same time, and even then there was continuity in the narrative by bringing back Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT from the late Troughton era. But new Who has been different: this is the second time there’s been a change of showrunner since 2005, and on each occasion it’s been a moment of ‘all change’ – an entirely new cast, a new arrangement of the theme music, and a makeover for the TARDIS (though it looks as if we’ll have to wait a while for a sight of the new time machine).
And Series 11 (or Series 37 for the purists) is also a landmark for Doctor Who in a very particular way. A ‘first’ in the series’ 55-year history. Unless you’ve been caught in the Time Vortex on the way back from Metebelis Three, you’ll know what I’m talking about. At long last – after years and years of speculation and debate – the producers of Doctor Who have finally taken the bold plunge that so many had advocated and so many others had feared …
… They cast an actor from Yorkshire as the Doctor.
The BBC has a statutory obligation, through its Royal Charter, to represent cultural diversity. Since its relaunch in 2005, Doctor Who has been at the heart of this strategy. We see it both at the level of production (the new series is produced in Cardiff under the corporation’s ‘Regions and Nations’ strategy) and in casting. New Who has been at pains to be inclusive in its casting: there have been significant parts for Black and Asian actors, both male and female, and the Doctor’s companions have ranged across the LGBT+ spectrum (even more so if we include the ‘adult’ spin-off Torchwood). It seems to me that only the most reactionary Blimps can really object to this: television drama – even fantasy drama – should reflect the societies in which it is produced and modern Britain is a very different place than it had been when the classic series premiered in 1963. And ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ can certainly be located in this cultural strategy. The new cast – including a young Black male, a young Asian woman and a middle-aged white guy – makes the most diverse group of companions in the series’ history.
And of course the new Doctor is also a woman.
A female Doctor isn’t really a new idea of course. It was mooted as long ago as the end of the Tom Baker ‘era’ when – no doubt mischievously – he hinted in a press conference that the next Doctor might be female. It became one of those fill-the-column-and-generate-some-letters-from-Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells regular features of the tabloid press in the 1980s. The Blimps choked on their cornflakes and protested that the Doctor couldn’t possibly be a woman because, because, because … Well, why not? We’ve had female Time Lords in the classic series. Romana had a higher class of degree than the Doctor. Chancellor Flavia demonstrated that women could reach the top even in the hierarchical social and political structure of Gallifrey. No narrative block to female advancement in the Whoniverse, then. Some argued that there was no textual evidence that a Time Lord could change sex when they regenerated – but the fact that it had never happened didn’t mean that it could never happen. For this we have Steven Moffat to thank. Moffat gave us the first female Doctor, in the form of Joanna Lumley, in the 1999 Children in Need skit ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’. ‘Not canon!’ shout the protestors. But who’s to determine what is and is not canon in a series that features time travel and parallel universes?
But why do it now? One reason that’s been advanced – again largely by the Blimps – is that the BBC is pandering to political correctness. Certainly there’s no doubt that the corporation has been under siege in recent years over the gender pay gap and the lack of representation for women in senior management. (Let’s remember for a moment, however, that the first producer of Doctor Who was a woman and the Controller of BBC1 who brought it back from the dead was also a woman: I mention this only to remind ourselves of the fact that institutional contexts can and do change.) And the absence of good roles for women in drama has been a recurring issue for some time. Chris Chibnall helped to challenge this in Broadchurch, and to that extent the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor is consistent with his previous work.
But my hunch is that the real reason for the move is something rather more basic: the ratings were declining and Doctor Who needed to do something different to renew itself once again. Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Time Lord had started off strongly but viewing figures tailed off in his second and third seasons. This includes both the overnight figures and the consolidated seven-day figures that take account of those who either recorded the show or watched it on demand. The consolidated figures had dipped below six million towards the end of Series 10 in 2017, significantly below the par figure of between seven to eight million since 2005. The overnight figures for ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ (8.2 million) suggest that the strategy has been successful at least in the short term: this was the highest overnight for a season premiere of new Who for ten years (‘Partners in Crime’ drew 8.4 million in 2008). Of course there might be other reasons for the strong showing, such as the new Sunday-evening slot. But it surely suggests that audiences – including die hard Who fans and casual viewers – were (a) not deterred by the idea of a female Doctor, and/or (b) were sufficiently curious about a female Doctor to tune in.
This explanation might, perhaps, suggest that the casting of a female Doctor is something less than the bold feminist statement claimed in some sections of the media. Whittaker is, after all, the thirteenth Doctor (discounting the War Doctor, who I’m still not sure about …) and in this sense Doctor Who is catching up with the times rather than in the vanguard. And, moreover, other than a few nice lines (‘It’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes’), the first episode didn’t really place that much emphasis on gender.
So what of the episode itself?
I’m sorry, but I was left feeling underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I actively disliked it. I just felt there was a lot wrong with it. For everything that I liked about it, such as the new arrangement of the music by Segun Abinola with its echoes of the original BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound, there were three or four things that I disliked. In no particular order:
- What happened to the title sequence? I want a title sequence – preferably at the start!
- The Stenza: is it just me, or was this a really dull monster for a series premiere? Back in the day we used to have Autons and Giant Robots. Even ‘Time and the Rani’ – hardly a classic – had Kate O’Mara!
- I don’t expect narrative plausibility from Doctor Who, and increasingly these days I don’t expect much in the way of narrative coherence, but wasn’t the Doctor’s casual revelation that she’d removed the DNA bombs a bit of a cheat?
- What was it with that Dallas/Dynasty-style cast list of forthcoming guest stars at the end?
These are all minor points in themselves of course. But there was a bigger issue for me, which was that the episode was narratively too crowded. As well as the new Doctor – arriving out of nowhere onto a Trans-Pennine train under attack by an alien – we had introductions for three new companions plus an important non-recurring character in Grace (an excellent performance by Sharon D. Clarke). All the new companions have great potential for development – this has been one of the strengths of new Who in comparison with the classic series where most companions seemed to exist in a vacuum with no lives of their own beyond the TARDIS – but introducing three back stories in a one-hour episode left them all a little under-developed. Compare it with, say, ‘Rose’ or ‘The Eleventh Hour’, where there was space to introduce the new companion in a more leisurely way. As it was I felt that Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) were better served than Yasmin (Mandip Gill) who had the least to do. I wonder whether, in this regard, Chibnall should have taken a leaf out of the classic series’ book. We’ve had multiple companion groups before, of course, but except in the very first episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’, they’ve not all been crammed into the same introductory episode. Adric, Nyssa and Tegan, for example, were phased in over successive stories during Series 18, with two of them becoming the main companions for most of the Peter Davison ‘era’.
And further, while I like the companions themselves, I do wonder whether the addition of a Buffy-esque ‘Scooby Gang’ is the right decision. By my reckoning there have been only two periods when the Doctor has had three regular travelling companions: at the very beginning and during Series 19. The original line-up reflected the BBC Drama Department’s thinking about what it called a ‘loyalty series’: each character was put there to appeal to a particular demographic group delineated by age and gender. It worked at the start, but the companions got reduced to two after ‘The Chase’ and stayed that way for the rest of the 1960s. Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were mostly single-companion Doctors (Series 12 excepted when Harry Sullivan tagged along). And the three-companion experiment during Peter Davison’s tenure didn’t last very long: producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward decided the TARDIS had become too crowded. The result was that the weakest character, Adric, got killed off at the end of ‘Earthshock’. We’re potentially heading for another crowded TARDIS, and finding space for all those companions plus the Doctor is going to prove challenging, I think.
And there’s another point. The presence of a Scooby Gang, all no doubt with their own character arcs to follow through, and all perhaps deserving their own ‘star’ episode, might suggest that the production team does not have sufficient faith in the ability of a female Doctor to carry the narrative. If so, wouldn’t that be undercutting the whole point of casting a woman in the first place? On the evidence of the first episode I wanted more of Jodie Whittaker, not less: she has the authority and gravitas needed for the Doctor; she has the energy not to need anyone else for the running-and-jumping and alien-fighting stuff; and she has just the right amount of oddball quirkiness that makes the character of the Doctor sympathetic yet different. I do hope that she’s not going to become just one of the gang in a show where she should be the star.
Time (in this case the next ten weeks) will tell.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History (I. B. Tauris, 2006; 2013).