It’s October 7th, 2018. Calvin Harris and Sam Smith are at number one with “Promises,” with Marshmello/Bastille, Kanye West/Lil Pum, Silk City/Dua Lipa, and Rita Ora also charting. Since Peter Capaldi and David Bradley regenerated, the US government briefly shut down despite Republican control of Congress and the Presidency, Kay Goldsworthy became the first female Archbishop in the Anglican Communion, a school shooting happened in Parkland, Florida, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met in Singapore, the first ever meeting between leaders of the two countries, noted actress Meghan Markle married an unemployed socialite, Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, and a Swedish student named Greta Thunberg began a school strike to protest Climate change.
On television, meanwhile, The Woman Who Fell To Earth. The most important thing to realize about this is just how much everyone desperately wanted it to work. For all the noise about people not liking the idea of a female Doctor, nearly eleven million people tuned in to watch this, only the third time Doctor Who has ever managed to be the top-rated show on television for the week. For all that would happen down the road, this was a piece of television that went out to a large and sympathetic audience. Rewatching it five years later, you can still see that sense of optimism—that hope that it could all work out. Those of us familiar with Chibnall’s ouvre were largely more pessimistic, but you can go look at my review at the time and see the way in which it remained hopeful, finding the good points to seize onto. It’s not that nobody wished this era malice from the start, but the people who did were all misogynistic fucks who should be ignored on principle. The rest of us were rooting for it.
This, of course, made the result all the more crushing, and knowing what we do, it’s easy to look at this and see the flaws that would soon come to define the Chibnall era. But there’s a whole era of stories that don’t have this aura of hope and anticipated progress in which to discuss those flaws. Everyone always praises this project for its determined focus on the historical context of episodes, so let’s play to our old school strengths and peer into the shockingly distant world of 2018 and see what this was, on its own terms, such as they are.
Within the modern series, after all, a new Doctor episode is a mission statement. Not quite a manifesto—they generally have too much to do in order to pull that off—but a mission statement—a declaration of aesthetics. Rose made it clear that this was a modern post-Buffy bit of genre television with a clear eye on the history of Doctor Who. The Christmas Invasion, by focusing on everything it wasn’t changing before finally slotting David Tennant into place, declared its continuity with its hit predecessor series. The Eleventh Hour declared change, establishing the nocturnal fairy tale that would serve as Moffat’s aesthetic brand. Deep Breath pointed towards something more complex and troubled. So what does The Woman Who Fell To Earth declare that it’s going to be?
The most obvious answer is simply a back to basics approach. This is somewhat disingenuous, given that this was also what The Pilot had offered a year and a half earlier (although mission statements don’t have to be entirely honest), and that Series Ten had spent much of its time swimming against the tide of expectations of what late Moffat entailed. Moffat, everyone knew, was complicated, timey-wimey, and hopelessly convoluted. So Chibnall would be simple: an alien invasion in the tenth largest urban area in the UK. A bit of plainspoken Sheffield steel, as it were—good old-fashioned Doctor Who that everyone could enjoy.
We could, if we wanted, spin out a political interpretation here—the way in which a back to basics approach rooted in a romanticized vision of British industry is a Brexit fantasy, perhaps. Heck, I could even throw in a joke about how Boris Johnson had a south Asian female cop as his sidekick too, which would only be slightly complicated by the fact that we’re still nine months out from the Johnson government. Sure, the sorts of tiresome asshats on GallifreyBase who accused me of arguing that Earthshock caused the Falklands War would have a field day, but they all ended up going #NotMyDoctor anyway, so fuck ‘em.
But that, of course, points to the problem with that logic. It’s difficult to argue for a straightforwardly Brexit Britain reading of a television show that’s being so ostentatious about its commitment to diversity as this. The marketing was trumpeting the forward-looking decision to cast a woman in the lead role, with the venerable “It’s About Time” slogan rolled out with a new shade of meaning. One of the trailers literally featured a glass ceiling shattering. Likewise, the clear focus on racial diversity in the larger companion team, and for that matter the active effort put into getting women and BIPOC writers and directors, all speak to a show that is very much eager to be viewed progressively. Again, we’re going to have lots of time later to unpack the ways in which the show is and isn’t progressive, and yes, even the fucking Tories are capable of superficial diversity—see my earlier Priti Patel joke, or, for that matter, see Rishi Sunak. But the fact remains that the cache of fans vocally upset about the Chibnall era’s overt “wokeness” have a point, which is that under the most superficial reading—and it would soon be clear there was no other—the show was very, very invested in the audience thinking that it was a hip, progressive show.
And look, I don’t want to deny that there’s real and concrete good to be had here. We all remember that video of the young girl exploding with joy at the news of Jodie Whittaker’s casting. That stuff matters. It matters that a huge swath of people who never got to imagine themselves as the Doctor were explicitly invited to now. It matters that Yaz is the first south Asian companion, addressing a massive and conspicuous gap in the show’s representation. It matters that Ryan is disabled. There were genuine and legitimate pleasures to be had in the surface delights of Chibnall’s diverse casting. Yes, there are limits to the approach of superficial diversity and they’re going to be vividly exposed soon enough, but those limits don’t erase the fact that even superficial diversity reaps benefits. And there are plenty of people who do not value deeper readings into their television, who have no interest in reading blogs like this, and who were unphased by most of the subsequent flaws of the Chibnall era, retaining only knowledge of that diversity. If the secret to alchemy is material social progress, widespread media illiteracy sometimes makes for easy wins.
So we’ve got traditionalist Doctor Who with diverse casting. That’s a clear enough premise, one should think. And past that, it’s difficult to ask too much from this episode. The decision to go with a large TARDIS crew—and to have a decoy companion—means that there are five characters to establish within an hour long time slot while still having a big adventure. Setting aside the Doctor for the moment, the obvious highest priority here is Grace. Since this is structured around the fake out over who the titular woman is and since there aren’t going to be any more significant opportunities to flesh out Grace, she has to get the bulk of the focus here—we’ve got to know her well enough to care when she dies, after all. Since Graham is the hinge connecting her and Ryan, and since Bradley Walsh is the biggest name here, he gets the next largest share of characterization. This obviously shortchanges Yaz and Ryan, who are left with some vague deployment of tropes to stand in for characterization. Yaz is a cop who believes she can do more than is asked and expected of her! Ryan is disabled and trying to get his life together! It’s not a lot to go on, but fine—we’ve got nine more episodes, obviously we’re going to circle back and do some proper characterization on both of them eventually, right? (Imagine that last sentence superimposed over Natalie Portman’s face from Attack of the Clones.)
As for the Doctor, Chibnall minimizes the post-regeneration trauma angle, giving her some light amnesia and a single passing out sequence but otherwise having her get on with being the Doctor. This enables Whittaker to simply pick her performance, and she does, hitting the character she’ll play right off the bat with one the shortest bedding in periods of any Doctor to date. This is a double-edged sword, but the down sides will play out later, when the limits of what’s established here become apparent. Here it pays off handsomely, with an assured performance when it counts. For all that this episode went out to a tremendous amount of good will, there were absolutely people waiting to pounce on any misstep. Whittaker nailing her performance on the first try obviously didn’t prevent people from asserting that she couldn’t play the Doctor, but it at least made them fight an uphill battle. AI scores are a flawed mechanism to be sure, but it’s not a surprise that this came in at 83—the highest of the Chibnall era, and broadly in line with what Series Ten was getting the year before. It’s exactly what it sets out to be: the popular image of what Doctor Who is, done straight up, but with a girl. Tautological success: it’s tautologically successful!
All of which is to say that in spite of how bad things would eventually get in the Chibnall era, things started optimistically enough. With knowledge of what the eventual flaws would be, sure, you can find antecedents here. The choice of centering the Doctor’s morality on “fair play” and the curious fact that she objects more to the fact that Tzim-Sha is cheating at his human hunting exercise than to the fact that he’s hunting humans are worrisome. So are the various ways in which the script doesn’t quite cohere—Rahul and his warehouse show up out of nowhere in the plot and seem to mostly exist so as to give the Doctor somewhere to build a sonic screwdriver—odd given that Ryan wants to be a mechanic and could readily have provided such a location. But this list is nitpicking with knowledge of the sorts of decisions that would become endemic to the era. None of it stands out as particularly bothersome watching the episode on its own, as a debut.
Nevertheless, it is worth being clear about how and why this works, which is to say that it aims low and more or less gets there. This isn’t an episode with a heck of a lot to say. It’s aiming at being an entertaining spectacle that hits some formula-prescribed emotional beats at the end. It’s tempting to say that you could build a good era from this, but that’s not quite true, because there’s not actually anything here to build off of. Nobody has any needs that are served by traveling with the Doctor, not least because they don’t even mean to be traveling with her at present. There’s no arc. There’s no hook. There’s a competent hourlong runaround Sheffield at night while hitting some standard Doctor Who beats. It’s no more a good foundation than a trailer is, and accomplishes many of the same goals.
And that is, perhaps, the problem behind the surface level successes of this story. It’s a perfectly adequate mid-season filler story—an Empress of Mars, The Vampires of Venice, or 42. But it’s positioned not only as a series premiere in an era of television where there’s an awful lot riding on premieres, but as an era premiere, and an era premiere when an absolutely massive number of eyes were turned to the program—more than any non-special episode had ever gotten in the modern era. And with all of the pressure in the world, Chibnall wheeled out an episode that praising would involve making favorable comparisons to Knock Knock, The Curse of the Black Spot, and Fear Her.
Yes, season premiers are often lighter, fluffier affairs. But I can’t help thinking back to The Eleventh Hour, and to the behind the scenes footage on Doctor Who Confidential when Moffat opened the table read by noting that this was the most important and high pressure hour of television that any of them were ever going to make in their careers. The Woman Who Fell To Earth simply doesn’t feel like Chibnall had a similar speech. It doesn’t feel like something where everyone involved is going hell for leather to make the best piece of television they possibly can. On a day when the Chibnall era needed to show its best face, it mustered a rousing “fine.” What would follow, with the pressure off, can hardly be called a surprise.