I liked The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It made me happy.
I cannot tell you for why. Almost every coherent criticism I can make of the Thirteenth Doctor’s entry into the annals of Whoviana is a negative one. The story is shaky and oddly irrelevant; the characterisation, especially of Thirteen herself, is limited to the broadest of brushstrokes; the Doctor’s newly-canonical queerness is simply brushed under the carpet; and a fascinating woman of colour gets fridged in favour of Bradley Walsh.
Of course, the episode is labouring under a considerable burden: not only is it the First Episode for a new Doctor, always a tricky thing to handle, it’s also the First Episode for the First Woman Doctor. And I think a lot of its problems stem from how scriptwriter and showrunner Chris Chibnall chooses to deal with this burden.
Which is, essentially, with as little fuss as possible. The Doctor’s transformation into Jodie Whittaker is treated with remarkably little fanfare, given how much Matt Smith went on about his chin in his first episode. The Doctor’s a woman: oh, okay. Moving on. Nothing to see here.
Except: that characterisation. I felt very much as if Whittaker spent much of the episode declaiming at people, especially this week’s Big Bad, a blue alien with other people’s teeth embedded in his skin intent on hunting down random humans. This was Whittaker Becoming the Doctor: saying Doctorish things to establish that despite being a woman, she can also be the Doctor. The script never openly acknowledges that the Doctor being female is radical, and yet it gives us a Doctor who has to reaffirm her identity and her right to that identity near-constantly. That’s partly why, I’d argue, the story is so weak (even by the standards of most First Episodes): the episode is working so hard to affirm Whittaker-as-Doctor that it overwhelms the actual plot.
Given all that invisible work the episode is doing, its unspoken awareness that Thirteen has to prove herself as the real Doctor, its surface disavowal that her gender is unimportant feels disingenuous. If it really doesn’t matter that Thirteen is a woman, why are you working so hard to avoid the question altogether? Why not tell us what the Doctor-in-aggregate’s pronouns are now? Why not have the Doctor revel in her new body, as the Doctor has revelled in new bodies before, when gender wasn’t even in question?
If gender isn’t important, why aren’t there any queer characters in an episode that’s clearly working hard at representing older people, people of colour (bearing in mind the aforementioned fridging incident), disabled people and working-class people?*
Okay, I swear, I didn’t mean to complain so much about this. Because, as I said, I just liked this episode. I liked watching Jodie Whittaker gleefully leaping about doing Doctorish things. I liked that the secondary characters were, like, real people with real jobs and lives and interests beyond the Doctor (oh, such a change from Moffat’s chesspiece companions!). I’m really looking forward to seeing the next episode, which will hopefully not be so burdened by needing to establish the First Woman Doctor. And it’s very possible that the points I’ve raised here are going to be addressed later in the series. And despite its flaws, this episode gestures at a Doctor Who that’s better and more interesting than anything Moffat ever came up with.
(the Weeping Angels are scary but wasted in a shallow mechanical episode, don’t @ me)
*To be clear: those forms of representation are obviously important, and it’s fantastic that these characters are intersectionally diverse: we have three people of colour who are also disabled, working-class, female and older in various combinations thereof. My point is: Chris Chibnall is clearly aware of the importance of intersectionality and diverse representation, which makes the lack of queer characters feel like a rather glaring omission.