This week saw the return of perennial favorite British science-fiction series Doctor Who, with a brand new actor in the (sort-of) titular role and a new man running the show. One of those I’m excited for. The other I’m sort of dreading.
I’m excited for Jodie Whittaker as the 13th (depending on how you count, I guess) incarnation of the Doctor. Even beyond the unavoidable fact that she’s the first woman to be cast in the role – and I don’t intend to diminish the importance of that, it is genuinely important and great that millions of little girls will have a Doctor who looks a bit more like them – Whittaker is a great actor. And, just as importantly for the role of the Doctor, she’s able to be a great actor even when she’s not working with top-notch material. The instant I heard who they’d cast I knew that they’d made a terrific choice.
However, the change in Doctors coincides with a change in showrunner: series veteran Steven Moffatt is handing off the reins to Chris Chibnall, who has written a handful of Doctor Who episodes in the past, and who was showrunner on Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, as well as the creator and showrunner of murder mystery Broadchurch. On paper that sounds like a pretty worthy resume for a Who showrunner, but my experience with his work has left me…more than a little anxious. Torchwood was disastrous from day one, and although Broadchurch does a pretty good job of imitating a good mystery show for most of its first season, the first season ends on an odd note and the second season onward is downright terrible. As for the Doctor Who scripts Chibnall has penned, I only have affection for the series three episode 42, which has kind of a fun gimmick despite not being particularly deep. The others range from bizarre (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which spends an inordinate amount of time on guest stars and scarce little on the titular dinosaurs, and which also features the Doctor murdering someone in unusually cold blood as its climax) to dull (The Power of Three, which is just a pointlessly convoluted buildup to a pun so lame you might miss it altogether) to awful (The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, the only outright bad pair of episodes in the otherwise strong fifth series).
Now, Steven Moffatt had many faults as a showrunner, and I can’t fault people for being excited for his departure from the series. For more details on that, watch this great hour and a half video about why his Sherlock Holmes adaptation (simply titled Sherlock) is trash, which touches on his tenure with Doctor Who, and also discusses more generally his bad tendencies when given free reign and unlimited scope*. Moffatt is great at writing self-contained stories, but give him too much rope and he hurriedly fastens it into a noose. He’s also weirdly sexist, in an ALL WOMEN ARE QUEENS sort of way, and once you notice this pattern in his writing, it’s hard to not notice it in all his writing, even the standalone episodes that don’t come across as particularly sexist in isolation.
So I understand why people are excited for a new set of hands on the reins. But man, Chibnall…his track record is so bad that it never occurred to me that he’d even be in the running for the role. I’d love to be proven wrong about this, but well…while this first episode is mostly fine, there are some parts about it that are giving me anxiety for the future.
First off, let’s be clear: Jodie Whittaker killed it in her premiere episode. From the moment she enters the scene, she projects exactly the right energy, charisma, and sense of wonderment. It feels like the role she was born to play; she feels much more comfortable in the role than David Tennant did in his first episode as the Doctor, and as much as I love Peter Capaldi, it took him almost a full half a series before he felt as natural in the part as Whittaker already does.
Sharon Clarke also did a fantastically charismatic job in the role of companion Ryan Sinclair’s grandmother. I do love a fearless grandma.Unfortunately, this winds up being a source of considerable frustration as well.
Beyond that, the story was perfectly functional. I have quibbles with it, as you’ll soon see, but none of them are fatal. Mandip Gill’s introductory scene as Yasmin Kahn, in particular, was a fairly efficient way to introduce her, as well as make clear why she’s dissatisfied with the current state of her career. The rest of the episode doesn’t follow up on this much, but it succeeded in building a connection with the character. There were some good bits of humor here and there, especially where the hapless crane operator’s role is concerned. And the villain of the piece, although he’s a bit generic, has at least got a memorable trophy-gathering scheme. Overall? It’s fine. It’s not going to blow the doors off, but it’s fine. As the first episode of a new Doctor’s run, it’s no The Eleventh Hour, but it sure kicks the shit out of Deep Breath and The Christmas Invasion. It’s…fine.
So, what was the deal with the lights in the wood that Ryan touched, summoning the transport pod? It happens, and then gets brought up as if it meant that Ryan had caused an alien invasion, and then it turns out that’s not the case (the villain was coming here anyway, they come here all the time apparently), and then it’s never addressed again? What was the point of this?
Why did the script place so much emphasis on the fact that the villain was cheating at the little contest he’d come here to perform, and then have no payoff for that? The Doctor kept pointing it out, and you would expect that to mean that she’d wind up using that fact to trick him into defeating himself, or something similar, and nothing of the sort occurred.
What was even the point of bringing up the possibility that the two aliens might be about to start a war with each other, if that assumption doesn’t affect any characters’ behaviors or plot events?
Why does the Doctor talk about the villain taking ‘teeth’, when she only knows about one victim and has no way of knowing if it’s a pattern or not?
None of these points are major problems with the episode, but they’re all baffling inclusions; story cul-de-sacs and incongruous details that really ought to have been pared off of the script.
I am deeply, deeply annoyed that they killed off Ryan’s lovely grandmother, and did it in such a half-assed way. She didn’t even go out accomplishing anything! The threat had already been dealt with when she ran face-first into a pile of electric tentacles! My annoyance is twofold: first, because this kind of cheap tragedy is classic Chibnall, and second, because I so enjoyed Sharon Clarke’s performance and would be very much enjoyed having her as a recurring character, if not an actual companion. It just feels like a pointless waste.
On another note, look. I know that sometimes there’s not really a way around just having your villain monologue for a bit and explain their plan. But the scene with the villain on the rooftop in which the villain painstakingly explains everything about his species, his role in their society, and his plans is nearly five solid minutes long. There must have been a more graceful way to do this. If you need extra time to do it in, I’ve identified a bunch of pointless nonsense you could cut for it. And also, the scene where the guy is just walking around throwing salad at things and then gets murdered by the alien, for no reason? Cut that, put it towards something more useful.
This episode looks awful. Like, just awful. In every scene, the colours look so muted.
And what’s up with all the selective focus?
Why is almost every shot in this episode in selective focus? This one’s particularly bad; the cars in the background are an important element of the scene!
Selective focus is a wonderful tool, when used…well, selectively. But if you overuse it, it makes all your scene look muddy.
Also, why is everything lit like there’s one guy standing off to the side with a kerosene lantern?
The scene below looks just awful. Did nobody in set design notice that they’ve filled the background with objects that are too close to Tosin Cole’s skin tone?
Everything just looks so boring.
Even the stock footage is boring! This is the dullest stock footage used in the history of the series!
Now, you may point out that this episode takes place at night, in industrial settings, and the look of the episode reflects that. I don’t buy it. Here, watch this scene, from an episode where the presence of darkness is considerably more important as a story element.
Even with the lower-quality video, look at how much the colours pop. Look at how much of the scene is in focus, except at moments when the director wants us to focus only on the Doctor and what he has to say. Look at how much better it looks than this visual trainwreck of an episode.
What’s worse is that watching the clip show of future episodes (which, instead of acting like a traditional trailer, is…a series of headshots of guest stars from future episodes?), I see a lot of the same visual problems cropping up in them. This makes me worried that this desaturated, poorly lit, endlessly blurry look is just…the look of the new Doctor Who. And I very much won’t be happy if that turns out to be the case.
So…that’s the first episode of the new Who. It’s not bad. But it doesn’t fill me with confidence in Chibnall’s ability to overcome his worst tendencies. I really hope Jodie Whittaker’s going to get the quality of writing and production that she deserves. But I’m not confident in it.
* I don’t agree with everything Harris Bomberguy says about Moffatt’s run on Who; in particular, I actually think his last two series were improvements on what came before, and I think claiming that Moffatt left the show in a worse state than how he found it requires ignoring just how dire of a state his predecessor had left it in. Seriously, Journey’s End and The End of Time were unforgivably bad.