Bringing Doctor Who out of the past

Reflections on the long-awaited return of our favourite Time Lord

Regeneration, one of Doctor Who’s most iconic plot ideas, bakes the theme of rebirth in the show’s very DNA, yet it is important to remember that when the show first started back in 1963, this was far from the case.

Just as rebirth – relaunching – is engrained in the show’s 55 year history, so is the challenge that faces each new lead-writer when their time comes to tell the audience what Doctor Who should mean to them.

The difficulty that faced writers in convincing viewers of Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor undoubtedly faced Chibnall in the case of Whittaker’s thirteenth. Although one episode may not have convinced me, I am certainly intrigued, and more importantly excited.

Whilst many aspects of the episode felt distinctly new (at least in the show’s modern history), from the grungier, blue-lit aesthetic to the inclusion of up to four companions, there was much that honored the show’s history. Composer Segun Akinola’s reworking of Ron Grainer’s iconic theme music is a gorgeously deferential new composition. Indeed, his score proved much more evocative of the classic series – with its soundscape of discordant bells and whooshing wind – than Murray Gold’s more bombastic scores ever did.

The episode’s ending, which left our four heroes stranded in deepest space after a botched teleport job, was also wholly reminiscent of the cliffhangers of classic ‘Who’.

It came off as a neat tribute to Tom Baker’s early seasons, where each story would link up with the next through a cliff-hanger. These cliff-hangers usually left our heroes displaced to a new location, and drew on the tradition of the ending of 1963’s first ever episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’.

But tradition aside, the episode had to stand out as an entertaining piece of television in its own right, regardless of the show’s history and the loyalty of its fans.

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It ultimately achieved this, even if the true direction of the series seems as-yet obscure. There’s room to explore each of our companions and their worlds further, but we still know little about them.

Ryan (Tosin Cole) proved the most compelling, perhaps because Chibnall gave him the most time to shine; his vlog acted as the structural focal point of the episode, itself a clever play on the expectations of the audience. Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) died early in the episode, but I imagine we will be feeling the repercussions of that particular incident as the series develops over the nine episodes still to come. Yaz (Mandip Gill) was likeable enough, even if the subtler nuances of her character remain to be seen, whilst Bradley Walsh’s Graham provided some well-placed comic relief without risking undermining the tone of the episode as a whole.

Jodie Whittaker’s performance was faultless. She was loveable, funny without being too silly or unbelievable, convincing when it came to the more moralizing lines, and ultimately
engaging in a way that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor struggled to achieve until a good few episodes into his tenure.

Her performance served as the moral and emotional anchor to the episode, fusing together its differing parts into a compelling and cohesive whole. Whittaker so completely filled the shoes of her predecessors that seeing her as the Doctor was unquestionable.

As far as the story is concerned, the data-gathering monster was a nice nod to contemporary anxieties, whilst the tooth-faced antagonist of the piece looked more as if he’d stepped of the set of a Hollywood film than the BBC’s studios in Cardiff…

On the whole, however, the episode was surely a success.

It wasn’t a masterpiece, and not nearly as exciting as Steven Moffatt and Matt Smith’s debut of 2010, ‘The Eleventh Hour’. But it did what it needed to do: portrayed a convincing
and exciting new universe for our new Doctor to inhabit (and made charity shopping for clothes just that little bit more epic too).

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Atop a crane over darkest Sheffield, Whittaker’s Doctor describes regeneration as follows: ‘There’s this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die, and then you’re born.’

In the same way. the show has been re-born, reinvigorated before our very eyes.

It’s an exciting time, especially after a period of somewhat sporadic quality and hiatus that marred the latter part of Moffatt’s tenure. Here’s hoping it’ll be a good one.