Being Sheffield-born, and now living just outside that city in the glorious Yorkshire countryside, it’s a little difficult separating out my thoughts about Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Doctor in last night’s opening episode of the new series of Doctor Who from the general glow of wonderful Yorkshireness which pervaded the whole thing.
But only slightly.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, with the jadedness that comes from watching the show since 1963 and picking holes in it to some degree for most of that time, there were things in the story I didn’t like. I mean, just how many aliens are there who have Earth in their map books? And is it really possible to construct Gallifreyan technology from bits and pieces found in an abandoned workshop in Sheffield?
But there’s going to be nitpicking about anything that we love so much. If the show wasn’t adored so deeply by so many, it would hardly be criticised at all - there are dozens of television series and films and books which don’t stir us enough to raise any ire at all. Overall, what this episode left me with was the same sense of invigoration and optimism which I felt after watching Patrick Troughton settle into the role 'The Power of the Daleks' in the 60s, or when Jon Pertwee escaped from the hospital in 'Spearhead from Space' in 1970, or when Tom Baker sat up in UNIT headquarters in 1974 in his debut story, 'Robot'. After that, in my opinion, new regenerations got a bit dodgy - most new Doctors didn’t resonate with me in the same way.
Tennant resonated in 2005 - and I know that there are already comparisons being made between his interpretation of the role and Whittaker’s. Smith did it in 2010. But Capaldi missed a beat with me: I think I understand all the artistic reasons why he was cast, and I know that he was passionate about the show himself, but it took me years to warm to him. But as soon as Whittaker appeared in last night’s episode I found myself smiling - a daft smile that never really left my goggle-eyed face. I was nervous - would she be able to command the same sense of depth which the best Doctors are able to do? It’s been said that Tennant could change tone on a sixpence, with great dramatic effect - something which Smith also mastered - and last night’s ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ didn’t give Whittaker much opportunity for that - but would there be that ‘Doctor’ undercurrent, that gravitas, that rippling of ancient wisdom beneath a cheery exterior which leaves one feeling that one is in safe hands whatever is going on?
I’ll wait and see more before I definitively answer that, but I know that when she leapt from one crane to the next towards the end of the story, I actually gasped and felt it - I’d already started to care, in other words.
I hope Chibnall can keep the flavour of this first episode going. The main positives, apart from the Doctor, included the sense that we are dealing with real people in real situations for the first time since Russell T. Davies. One of the most effective things that Doctor Who can do - and needs to do, if it is to succeed as fiction - is to ‘ground’ the viewer in a recognisable tableaux. If the audience doesn’t gravitate towards the companions in particular, seeing themselves portrayed there with normal human problems, concerns and reactions, then when things start getting spacey and timey-wimey, the thing is doomed. It becomes, as it has been in recent years, a kind of cartoon in which anything can happen and usually does, and when it does, it happens to two-dimensional caricatures about whom we care very little. One of Davies’ strengths was that people like Rose Tyler really existed and we all knew someone like Donna Troy. Their reactions became, if not our own, close enough to ours to engender actual emotional responses in us. That connection was lost early on in the Moffat era, which, while it produced some great yarns, failed almost every time on the emotional ticket.
With Yasmin and Ryan and Graham we are back with recognisably real people. That’s restored one of the pillars which supports a successful Who.
I’m writing a book about that pillar and the rest of the pillars which together ensure that Who is high rating and worthwhile. If these things are eroded away, TV ratings fall and the series as a whole can run into serious trouble. Last night we saw two foundations - recognisably real companions and a cultural milieu that resonates with that of the viewer - handled well. The remaining bedrock is how the Doctor is dealt with as a character, given that there are seven character archetypes from which to choose. So far, so good on that one.
For the first time in a long time, I am looking forward to the rest of the series.