October 08, 2018 15:59:01
(Warning: this article contains mild spoilers for Doctor Who season 11 episode 1: The Woman Who Fell To Earth.)
The new season of Doctor Who kicks off with a teenager named Ryan who suffers from Dyspraxia. I didn’t know what that was either, but as we sweep across the rolling hills above Sheffield, England, we see the teen being cheered on by his grandmother and step-grandfather as he takes a deep breath and attempts to ride a bike.
Dyspraxia, it turns out, affects your reflexes and coordination. Ryan crashes, over and over; finally, in a fit of rage, he flings the bike into the woods. He’s not going to play this game anymore.
When he goes to retrieve the bike, he stumbles into the first thread of a labyrinthine Doctor Who plot, and by pulling it, he sets the entire season in motion.
If there’s a more apt metaphor for seizing the reins of a show and throwing the rules out altogether, I can’t rightly think of one.
So. We have a new showrunner — Chris Chibnall, of Broadchurch fame — and a new Doctor, in Jodie Whittaker (another Broadchurch alumnus).
Speaking to ABC ahead of her Season 11 debut (Episode 1 airs on ABC TV at 5:55pm Monday evening), Whittaker said that it was Chibnall who encouraged her to bring her own take on the Doctor to the audition.
“The wonderful thing is, working with someone like Chris, is he’s an incredibly detailed writer … and from the audition he guided me in the right direction. But he eventually said … bring what you think [about the character] to this audition room. And what I felt was right at the time — and what proceeded to be the direction that I went in — was this fizzing-with-energy, this childlike wonder, this hopefulness.”
Whittaker’s take on her character is in fact informed by another doctor and icon of the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Doc Brown, of Back to the Future.
“When I started to think about the character, I did think about how much as a kid I loved Doc Brown … What I loved about him was [he has] this extraordinary brain, and this enthusiasm and this love of learning and [sense of] chaos.
“Even though the character was quite old, but you never felt that age — you only felt the youthful energy coming from him.”
This energy is palpable in The Woman Who Fell To Earth.
After Ryan touches a mysterious hovering light in the woods and summons what looks like a giant Martian marshmallow, he calls the cops — and is sent a young, nervous, keen officer by the name of Yaz, who he went to school with. Eventually the marshmallow goes missing, and Ryan’s grandparents, Grace and Graham, appear, and we’ve got a crew of four likeable, complex characters backed into a corner by an alien threat.
It is at this point that Whittaker’s Doctor crashes into view — literally. And from her opening lines onwards, we’re treated to this new spin on a classic. (Even before opening credits, the show title, a reference to a sci-fi classic that also has an association with David Bowie, feels like a casual gesture to the Doctor’s gender flip. After all, in a world where aliens cavort and time travel is possible, why shouldn’t this be within the realm of possibility?)
Our new Doctor is frantic but competent, verbose but not arrogant, a far cry from both of previous showrunner Steven Moffat’s Doctors (who were often wildly inept or curmudgeonly in equal measure).
“When I kind of approach things personally, I fidget all the time, I don’t sit still. I’m jumping from subject to subject, and it can be exhausting to be in my company!”
“And I thought, you know what? Show that to them, and hopefully it’ll work for the Doctor! So I’ve been probably the most method actor I’ve ever been!”
So does that mean Whittaker is just playing herself as the Doctor?
“Well, no!” she demurs. “There’s no way I have the vocabulary the Doctor has, or the hindsight, or that kind of ability to always see the good.
“[But] what I so love about the role is it’s incredibly mercurial, so there’s no rules! You can bring something new to every scenario — and as an actor, that’s incredibly liberating. It’s never boring, and it’s never repetitive.”
One of the criticisms levelled at Doctor Who for the past five or so years is just that: occasionally, it gets a tad formulaic — or, while attempting to avoid formulaic monsters and threats, it gets too untethered.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth, by contrast, has something Doctor Who hasn’t had for a while: a strong, distinct sense of place. Sheffield feels real. Partially because it is real, but also because of how sumptuously it is shot. The scope and ambition of the cinematography is downright cinematic, meaning even a showdown with a bad guy and The Doctor in a grimy, foggy laneway at night feels heavy with, for lack of a better word, realness.
This realness is reflected in the Doctor, too, and in her new gang of companions. Because the Doctor is so befuddled from her regeneration, because she’s wheeling about and doesn’t even know who she is yet (it’s a joy to watch Whittaker fizzle and buck against amnesia), she has to rely on her band of new mates.
Two aliens are facing off against each other in the streets of Sheffield and the body count is rising, and with The Doctor not in her right mind and her new comrades struggling to keep up, their chances aren’t looking too crash hot. It is, in short, a cracker of an episode. Dark, clean, clear-eyed and focussed, and it ends on a hell of a cliffhanger.
The best part? You can tell Whittaker is having a hell of a time.
“Am I enjoying myself? Oh my god, yes. It’s absolutely brilliant! And I think, you know, I didn’t deserve the job if I wasn’t gonna have fun.”
Paul Verhoeven is the host of Doctor Who podcast The Doctor Is In.
October 08, 2018 15:30:24