Finally, a world of Doctor Who fans has seen the result of a very brave and controversial decision, unprecedented in the show’s 55-year history.
That’s right: in Sunday’s episode, for the first time ever, most characters on the show — including the lead — speak with broad Yorkshire accents.
Luckily, that trail was blazed by Game of Thrones, so hopefully most American audiences can understand what the hell this Sheffield crew is talking about.
Oh yes, and Jodie Whittaker just happens to be the first woman to play the Doctor. But judging by a packed house of fans at Madison Square Garden, where Whittaker and incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall watched and discussed her first episode live with New York Comic Con attendees, that part was not controversial in the slightest.
Rather it was cathartic, welcome, highly emotional, and, especially after this week, not one minute before time. As producer Matt Strevens pointed out, 83 percent of social media reactions to Whittaker’s appointment were positive.
“The angry voices can seem the loudest, but they’re not the most representative,” Whittaker said, casually dismissing the 17 percent. “I don’t let it get me down because it’s daft.”
After the episode screened, equal numbers of women and men lined up at the microphones, eager to be the first to welcome Whittaker to the Who family — and keen for any words of wisdom from the Doctor that would address a pervasive sense of injustice and powerlessness.
First Q: words of encouragement for women, given “all this”? Jodie: “We have a voice … We are flawed, soz, but we are. Perfection is not the aim. It’s too ironed out … we shouldn’t be clones.” Talks of “not just united sisterhood, united humanhood.”
— Chris Taylor (@FutureBoy) October 7, 2018
But there was little Whittaker could add to the general sense of catharsis from the episode itself. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was widely judged a character-focused triumph that both successfully rebooted the show and, as Chibnall says, “traced a golden thread back to 1963.” (He then gave a shout out to the brave BBC producer who launched the show way back then, 27-year-old Verity Lambert.)
The lineup of three companions (policewoman Yasmin, her old school friend Ryan, his step-grandfather Graham) was a deliberate callback to the 1963 TARDIS inhabitants. The plot was the most classic Whovian tale possible — aliens are up to no good on Earth (in this case, hunting humans for sport). An array of Brits are drawn in, one is killed, and the Doctor both pokes fun at the big bad alien and gives a righteous speech in defense of Earth.
The fact that the big battle took place atop a Sheffield crane from which, as a sign warned, “falling can cause death,” was also something of a callback. It recalled the death of the fourth Doctor, beloved, be-scarfed Tom Baker, who met an infamously ignominious end by falling from similar scaffolding.
This time, the Doctor survived her leap into the unknown. And her speech to “Tim Shaw” — a laughable name she adopted for a creepy alien who embeds the teeth of his victims in his face — stood as a manifesto for the show, and for us all.
“We’re all capable of the most incredible change,” she said. “We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”
Amen to that. Indeed, the overall impression Whittaker gave on screen was one of fearlessness, fierce intelligence and the gift of the gab — qualities that unite all the best portrayals of the Doctor.
Jodie on a question about copying other Doctors: “I came at this with fresh eyes … I’m using my instinct, and didn’t want to feel like I was nicking someone else’s mannerisms. But there are inevitable overlaps and traits.”
— Chris Taylor (@FutureBoy) October 7, 2018
Even the minority of fans who disliked her casting, the 17 percent, were represented. A character named Karl, a crane operator, keeps repeating phrases from an assertiveness training audiobook — he matters, he is important. Turns out he is, of course; he’s the designated human being hunted.
Other showrunners might have killed Karl off. His Star Wars equivalent, Kylo Ren, is a very on-the-nose portrait of privileged fandom. But Chibnall is determined to upend our expectations.
He does so at the end of the episode, too: we assume that Ryan will overcome his dyspraxia and learn to ride his bicycle, but it’s not that simple. (One Madison Square Garden fan who suffers from the same condition was enormously grateful for that.)
We assume that the new companions will end up on the lost TARDIS; instead, they and the Doctor are accidentally transported to the emptiness of space, clutching their throats. And there it ends, on the most promising Doctor Who cliffhanger in some time. At Madison Square Garden, they gave it a standing ovation.
Whatever happens next, it is safe to assume that the Doctor’s reactivated American fans are extremely here for it.
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