OCT 7, 2018: DOCTOR WHO: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
The Doctor Is In! Like the television series itself, this review is a much belated house call to Doctor Who fans. By the time my review is posted, there will be no less than THREE new episodes with Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor (sorry, Whovians, I’ve only seen the first episode, so that’s all we’re covering today) and well over a year since I last blogged a film or television review of any kind. So what prompted the end of this long hiatus? When a sci-fi franchise makes a major shakeup after 50+ years on television, people are bound to notice. Doctor Who demands a response from “the fans”, so having stuck with the franchise for over a decade in my own right, it’s time to chime in.
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” cannot be analyzed without first addressing the glass-shattering element in the TARDIS now. Namely: it’s the WOMAN that fell to earth (and not 1976 David Bowie movie, of course). Since 1963, Doctor Who has always been played a male actor. When Jodie Whittaker’s casting was first announced, my initial reaction was sadness. This is not because I’m not some mean nasty misogynist pig who thinks only guys should play the lead in an action-adventure franchise, but because Doctor Who was suffering from some serious burnout and franchise fatigue at the time, and the attempt to swap the character’s gender at that particular place and time came across as a desperate attempt to create “buzz”. The nature of Doctor Who itself (the character is a time-traveling alien who can regenerate every cell in his body after suffering a fatal injury) makes it easy to have an “in-universe” event occur that turns the Doctor female, but the fact the role had been played a man since its inception – and had no less than 13 different men in the title role over the years – meant the timing of the whole new “Female time lord saga” is awkward since the character is pretty much solidified in viewers heads as a male figure, and now just amounts to sheer political correctness. To maintain credibility of the franchise, there would have to be some serious attempt to justify this radical change with the lead role. Why, for example, weren’t at least half the previous incarnations of the Doctor female, if there was a random 50/50 chance the Doctor could regenerate as a woman at ANY time in the past? For me, plot holes like that meant that Doctor Who had serious problems getting this revamp off the ground.
The lead up to the new Doctor’s debut likewise had a lot of the issues that have plagued other long-running sci-fi franchises trying to stay “relevant”. The marketing for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor was very reminiscent of the Ghostbusters “reboot” (e.g. if you say ANYTHING negative about the new version, it’s obviously because you’re sexist and hate women!) As a male viewer, this type of emotional blackmail essentially has a lot of critics walking on eggshells in the era of the #MeToo movement. I firmly believe that the “Ghostbusters” reboot, despite the fact that the overall consensus was that it was mediocre – got mildly “positive” reviews from professional critics simply because they were afraid of being called misogynist pigs if they said anything negative about the film overall. There seems to be a trend in modern society that film and television producers will try to shield themselves from criticism simply by changing a character to be female, gay, an ethnic minority, etc., etc., and then pat themselves on the back for doing so, regardless of whether it works or fits the storyline. As I noted prior to my review, this basically means I really cannot give an honest assessment of the new Doctor without my review being tainted by people questioning my exterior motives. In short, trying to assess Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor essentially amounts to a no-win scenario.
So, with that long rant out the way… what DID I think of the new nuWho?
I actually LIKED it.
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was a decent and well written episode. In any case, it was certainly better than the last couple of Capaldi episodes that I had seen, and it was watchable. This may not seem like much, but given that I boycotted the final season of his run (after they replaced Clara with an ugly woman with afro named ‘Bill’ and triggered me since MY name is Bill) it was a good start. Given all the trepidation going into the episode, the end results were a pleasant surprise. Also, unlike the “WTF?” reaction I had Star Trek Discovery’s pilot, this episode at least felt recognizably like a real Doctor Who episode. I watched the episode twice in order to take everything in, and of course, waited 2 weeks to review it, so I could let the whole thing sink in and not have some rash or knee-jerk reaction to what I had just witnessed on screen.
Of course, the fact that I overall “liked” the episode doesn’t mean it was a standout story or didn’t suffer from severe flaws. On the contrary, my response was fairly lukewarm precisely because “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was far from the best stuff in the Doctor Who franchise. The initial bizarre sci-fi mystery of a giant blue Hershey’s Kiss shaped thing landing in Sheffield basically de-evolved into what another critic called a “rip-off of the film Predator 2”, and looking back in the episode in hindsight, that is probably a good assessment. What seemed to be a compelling and very complex sci-fi story at first was ultimately very anti-climatic and cliché.
Worse, perhaps the weakest element of this episode was the Doctor herself! (and disclaimer, this is NOT because she was a woman, whether you believe me or not). This episode was perhaps the first time in Doctor Who history where the strongest parts of the episode were BEFORE we met the new Doctor – the opening of the story introduced us to some very interesting new characters and sucked the audience into learning their struggles (one particular stand out moment was the one character’s frustrations at simply not being able to learn how to ride a bicycle despite the fact he was a grown adult) but about 15 minutes into the story, this got sidetracked by Jodie Whittaker showing up and conveying she is the new Doctor by doing a lame copycat performance of David Tennant (the usual “wacky” stuff where the Doctor shows up in a dramatic entrance to SAVE THE DAY and starts spouting “cool” quips about wimply-wobbly timey-wimey stuff that comes across as forced). I don’t interpret this as “bad” acting from Jodie, but simply the fact that for the last decade, Doctor Who writers have been unable to get away from the “Look! David Tennant is so hip and silly!” mold of writing the lead character. Matt Smith likewise came across as a David Tennant clone in his debut (though to be honest, he really OWNED the role from the minute he was on screen and sold it much better than Jodie, though he probably had the best premiere episode of any modern Doctor). Peter Capaldi was so different from the previous two actors that it was initially thought he’d be a real no-nonsense, badass version of the character. Sadly, that never materialized, and the writers couldn’t figure out what to do with his Doctor the first season, and eventually gave up, gave him hipster sunglasses and a guitar, and decided he should be a “wacky and silly and cool” David Tennant/Matt Smith type Doctor as well, which didn’t work for him at all (and works even less when Jodie Whittaker is playing the part). In my opinion, nuWho really ceased to be worth watching at that point. And now, sadly, despite the gender swap, the Who writers just can’t seem to get away from the same old tired template. Many naysayers of the new version of Doctor Who were worried that the new show would be too much of a departure from what we’ve known, but in reality, the biggest problem is the opposite situation – the producers hiding behind their “landmark casting” can’t disguise the fact that they’re still giving us the same stale material from the last decade. Perhaps instead of focusing on a woman in the lead, a better shakeup would be to have a few female writers, directors, and producers on staff.
Still, the fact that “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was mercilessly free of political correctness and lame “the Doctor has boobs now!” jokes was refreshing. I did also see one glimmer of potential with the new female incarnation of the character towards the end of the episode where one character was paralyzed by a fear of heights and Jodie’s Doctor persuaded him to jump towards her, saying “I know you can do this, I have confidence in you”, and infused the character with a nurturing, feminine side that was really the only time I could her being a unique version of the Doctor in her own right, and not “Jodie Whittaker playing David Tennant’s Doctor”. Doctor Who should really look towards franchises like Westworld and Planet of the Apes of how to totally reinvent a decades-long sci-fi saga and stay true to its core concepts, and then they might be able to give us something truly wonderful instead of just passable entertainment. Since it’s a regeneration story, I also tend to cut them a little slack, since regeneration stories tend to always show the new Doctor a little “off” from their “normal” self, and are NOT typical of how the “new Doctor” will be. However, even a more unique Jodie Whittaker Doctor won’t solve the problem of just bland and predictable writing. The best potential here is actually with the intriguing concept of three new companions, and FINALLY having a male companion in modern Doctor Who whose role on the show is NOT “boyfriend of the cute girl who travels with the Doctor”. Overall, this was perhaps the best script I’ve seen from new Doctor Who producer Chris Chinball. The problem is that it simply wasn’t enough. His past scripts have been underwhelming and this is not an exception to that rule. Doctor Who has lost a lot of regular reviewers in recent years, and this episode simply does not “sell me” on the idea that I “need to” come back as a regular viewer, or that Doctor Who will be fun and exciting again. Can Doctor Who truly be “great again” (sorry to invoke a cringeworthy Donald Trump phrase) or is it perhaps best left in the past?
** 1/2 out of ****