For the first time in history, Doctor Who premiered on a Sunday night in the BBC one tea-time slot with a female doctor at its helm. Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode as The Doctor drew in an average audience of 8.2 million, more viewers than that of Capaldi, Smith or Tennant. According to figures released by reporter Robin Parker, 235,000 more girls under the age of sixteen tuned in to watch the premiere, compared with last years series opener, suggesting that Whittaker has a broader appeal than her predecessor.
When I was seven I developed a healthy obsession with the now retired channel BBC Three, where I stumbled upon Russel T. Davies revival of Doctor Who. Over the following decade, I like many fans gradually gained an insight into the formula for a memorable episode. It could be argued that the sci-fi drama thrives when the ordinary meets the extraordinary; for example Carey Mulligan’s iconic episode ‘Blink’ or Sarah Jane Smith’s return in ‘School Reunion’. Hence, Chibnall set himself up for success with an episode based in Sheffield. To give a brief overview of the episode without giving anything too crucial away – this is the age of spoiler alerts after all – The Doctor finds herself on a broken down train minus her name and her TARDIS, with an unlikely bunch in Sheffield. Oh, and there’s a guy called ‘Tim Shaw’ who has a thing for teeth.
‘The Woman Who Fell From Earth’ felt both unlike any episode of Doctor Who before it (both the title sequence and Tardis were absent), and yet was the closest the show has felt to its true essence in years. I personally don’t think any Doctor’s first episode will beat the Series 5 opener ‘The Eleventh Hour’ in which we were first introduced to Matt Smith hanging from a moving Tardis amid chaos. The story of Amy Pond’s ‘raggedy doctor’ who enjoyed fish-fingers and custard, captured the hearts of children and adults worldwide. But Jodie Whittaker faced a greater challenge than any of her predecessors precisely because she is a woman. Doctor Who is fundamentally about accepting change as a positive process, as The Doctor said herself ‘we’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next”. Yet the thirteenth doctor had only sixty minutes to prove to fans, and the patriarchy, that a woman could do the job just as well, if not better. And by the looks of the social media response, she did just that.
Considering the emphasis that the latter part of Steven Moffat’s tenure placed on the concept of time lords changing gender and race, Thirteen proves that the Doctor goes beyond gender boundaries. That being said, it would be wrong of viewers to completely ignore the Doctor’s new female form – it only took us 55 years to get here.
No one has had such a clean slate to work with since Matt Smith was cast as the Eleventh Doctor at the same time as Steven Moffat was appointed head writer. There is currently no template to work around, so the possibilities are endless just like the universe. I hope that Chibnall and Whittaker’s pre-existing relationship from Broadchurch, is only going to strengthen and work to the show’ s advantage.
Chris Chibnall’s tone as lead writer is distinctive, a far cry from the work of Russel T Davies or Steven Moffat, although tone is difficult to comment on after only one episode in a series consisting entirely of stand alone episodes. This narratorial decision, in conjunction with the use of anamorphic lenses create a cinematic experience for the viewers as they travel through time and space from the comfort of their own homes.
Doctor Who continues every Sunday night on BBC One.
Featured image credit:© BBC/ Sophie Mutevelian