Thirteen. This is the most new Doctor Who has been in thirteen years. New Doctor, new companions. New producer. New directors. New theme arrangement. New composer. Where do I start?
New doctor. We’ve seen a little of Whittaker in that 60 second teaser and her “brilliant” in (the far from brilliant) Twice Upon a Time. But now we get a full 60 minutes of her, and it’s a joy. Whittaker’s Doctor is in the clownish Troughton tradition (last seen in the Matt Smith era) and her comic timing is superb: the Doctor smiling at a spoon is my favourite moment in the episode. But her seriousness and compassion is evident in the absolute respect she gives her ‘friends’, once she’s decided to have them (“I’m calling you Yaz because we’re friends now”). She is the Doctor, right from the very beginning.
The story itself has is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the sci-fi plot strand is weak and ill-thought out. Its primary purpose seems to be to support a monster that is not so much creepy as just plain nightmare-inducingly nasty. The deaths and the teeth pulling will be keeping children awake even if the alien himself is completely forgettable (what was he called again?) Though I did have a guilty snigger at the guy whose last words were “eat my salad, halloween”. That led to some unevenness in the storytelling that seemed to be amplified by a director who seemed less comfortable with the special effects stuff that the more seasoned Doctor Who team just departed.
Also what about the cliffhanger from Twice Upon a Time? It’s not just an extraordinary co-incidence that the Doctor lands on this train during an alien attack – but that it’s sufficient to break her fall. She’s definitely fallen further than from the Pharos Project radio telescope, which turned her into Peter Davison. Here she just hops up. (I guess it must be all that regeneration energy – after all, if it can grow a new hand…)
The character stuff, though, was superb. The opening was very strong: there’s something immediately engaging about caring grandparents teaching a 19 year old to ride a bike. The darkened train is the most creepy thing about the episode (being locked in a train with no power for lights and doors is quite an unsettling experience!). I’ll overlook all the continuity goofs with the train (and the plain nonsense: “it could be live” electrified 3rd rail in Sheffield? Yaz and Ryan climbing up from track level through the driver’s window? etc. etc).
The companions? Well, before we come to the companions – and with an appropriate spoiler warning, although it’s a safe assumption you’ve watched the episode if you’re reading this – Grace (surely a nod to The Movie there?) is the one we know, from the pre-publicity, won’t make it, the one who doesn’t travel with the Doctor. Yet if we didn’t, she’d be the one I’d most like to see as the Doctor’s companion. Let’s count the ways she’s brilliant… She’s totally devoted to Ryan (helping him ride his bike), her transparent delight in her relationship with Graham (“He can’t keep his hands off me love”), her genuine bravery (especially in contrast to Graham’s caution: “Where are you going love?”) and, the most companion-ey quality of all, as she rushes in to face the danger and save the world: “Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” Oh, why couldn’t Grace have been the one to travel with the Doctor?
I was somewhat underwhelmed by Ryan Sinclair – a petulant teenager and underachiever, but good natured and genuine enough. Of the three companion actors, Bradley Walsh was the only one I knew of before, having been impressed by him in Law & Order, and he’s good – but he does spend most of the episode overshadowed by Grace, his moment only coming when he bids her farewell in a moving eulogy. It’s Mandip Gill’s Yasmin Khan who is most interesting companion for me – it’s a lovely performance, and since I’m still not sure about having such a crowded team, she’s the one I’m hoping the Doctor hangs on to… But I do think they’re excellent together. There’s a lovely dynamic between them, and scenes such as the one where they drink tea on Graham’s front step just have a wonderful feel to them. All four actors radiate a sense of comfortable companionship already.
Incidentally, it’s quite an interesting and effective dynamic with the three companions already knowing each other – something I don’t think has happened for 55 years. That’s not the only nod to An Unearthly Child given that the three of them also become involuntary time travellers. Then, besides the Troughtonesque and Smithesque feel to Whittaker’s performance and her physicality, there are also echoes of The Mind Robber (the cliffhanger) and Eleventh Hour (remembering she’s the Doctor facing an enemy on top of a very high structure).
I can’t comment on the new TARDIS interior because, if there is one, we haven’t seen it. There’s a new sonic – disappointing, since almost her first line is “no sonic” – a state of affairs that would have been welcome had it been sustained for a few more episodes. The new costume is no surprise, although I was delighted that they went to find it in a charity shop. (Also, again, the comfortable friendship between Ryan and Yaz is beautifully played in the scene). The music, after over a decade of the wonderful Murray Gold, hasn’t yet grabbed me. The new theme is growing on me (first reaction: why is the baseline being played on dustbin lids – and, more importantly – why is it OUT OF SYNC?). The slower pace is a surprise, but if you’re going back to pay homage to the Derbyshire original, it’s impressive to come up with something that takes those sounds and does something distinctive enough to avoid sounding like a pale imitation (such as theme introduced on the Paul McGann audios that was so unpopular Big Finish had to can it). I do like it, and although we didn’t get to see the opening theme these week, what appeared behind the credits looked like an equally impressive tribute to the work of Bernard Lodge.
Finally there’s the rather odd roll-call of future guest stars – rather than the more traditional trailer – most of whom were unknown to me (Bond actors Art Malik and Alan Cumming aside). But then… the last name… Chris Noth – one of Bradley Walsh’s counterparts on the original Law & Order! What an extraordinarily exciting piece of casting!
As an episode of Doctor Who this isn’t going to eclipse any other recent Doctor debuts, it’s certainly not the greatest episode in itself, but there are many reasons to look forward to the rest of the series (as well as Noth), not least of which is how absolutely perfectly brilliant Whittaker is. Roll on Saturday. I mean Sunday. (Damn, that’s still going to take some getting used to.)