Whittaker shines in Who debut

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When Jodie Whittaker fell onto our TV screens on the 7th of October, she instantly glimmered with the familiar spark of the Doctor. Whilst not all were pleased – some citing “cheesy” writing and somewhat unoriginal villains – the episode was undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser. Indeed, it had a very large crowd to please: 8.2 million overnight viewers, the highest for a series opener since the iconic David Tennant took the role in 2005. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s first effort seems to have done the impossible, satisfying die-hard fans and new audiences alike. Crucially, Whittaker’s initial naysayers seem to be growing fewer in number, and the days when a female doctor was predicted to be a death knell for the series are long gone.

It may, however, be too soon to be heralding the return of the “golden age” of the 2005-2010 era. The glasses of said period’s die-hard fans can be so tinted that they often fail to see some pretty major flaws – cheesy writing is nothing new to Doctor Who. Whittaker’s already-iconic “I’m the Doctor” moment came several episodes earlier than her predecessor Capaldi’s, and the traditional Who theme blared as she made her entrance. Previous writer Moffat had arguably forgotten how to please the fans, and Chibnall has certainly done that. But fan-pleasing moments do not a full ten-episode series make.

Every layer of sheen has been applied, but for some this was not enough.

The crown jewels in The Woman Who Fell to Earth were undoubtedly the supporting cast – Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and – surprisingly to many – Bradley Walsh all delivered stellar performances. Crucially, audiences were left already caring about their characters, with the relationship between youthful Ryan, caring grandmother Grace, and shunned step-grandad Graham bringing a tear to the eyes of many when the episode reached its emotional climax. With a potential new audience, and even the Doctor taking on a more human persona, it might be best for Chibnall to keep it human. Sci-fi can be at its best when, like the original Star Trek series, it tells profoundly personal stories against the vast backdrop of intergalactic adventure, rather than making everything about the latter. Moffat’s critics will not hesitate to remind fans of his inability to sustain an arc – but to see a Doctor being flung around the universe on standalone adventures, with the lives of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham as the only common thread, is an exciting prospect.

The whole thing was beautifully shot, and the new score brimming with excitement. Every layer of sheen has been applied, but for some this was not enough. To many, the “I’m the Doctor” spiel (along with yet another explanation of how the Sonic Screwdriver works) is getting old, the Doctor making jokes about the pronunciation of the villain’s name (“Tzim-Sha!” “Tim Shaw?”) felt more like a weird sci-fi Morecambe and Wise than the return of the country’s favourite time traveller. It could be the case that the “clunky” writing was nothing more than an attempt to woo uninitiated viewers – but, if Chibnall maintains the same frenetic yet expositional tone for the next nine episodes (plus the Christmas special) it could get tiresome quickly.

It is very easy to fall into one extreme or the other when it comes to Whittaker’s debut. Some grinned their way through the episode, overcome with childish glee. Others: not so much. Cynics and zealots alike, though, should go into this series with caution. If the viewing figures stay high, and if Chibnall delivers on his promises of a fresh start, this could be the beginning of an exciting new era for Doctor Who.

Photograph: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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