Travelling through space and time to Sheffield, England, The National, sat for an exclusive first look at the opening episode of the all-new Doctor Who series. Afterwards, we had a chat with the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, her new companions, and show writer Chris Chibnall. Here are six things we learnt.
1. Jodie Whittaker will be a brilliant Doctor
Crash landing into the first episode, The Woman Who Fell To Earth, just as a train appears to be under alien attack, Whittaker imbues this age-old fantasy character with equal amounts of energy, humour, emotion, action and total bafflement as she tries to work out who she is, where she is and where she's come from.
“Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman,” she tells her new companions, in a nice nod to Peter Capaldi’s previous reign as the Time Lord. “It’s fun and playful and I got a lot of space to fizz around,” says Whittaker.
She also did all of her own stunts; the climax of the episode finds her hundreds of metres above Sheffield, trying to save someone’s life. “The Doctor doesn’t physically have any outlandish, otherworldly skills,” she explains. “So having the faith to do what she does in that episode is really euphoric.”
2. The new Doctor Who will find a fresh audience
Not a reboot or more of a refresh? Chibnall's decision not to shackle this series with the folklore, storylines and well known characters of the past is a good one: this is an inclusive, youthful Doctor Who series featuring self-contained episodes that anyone should be able to dip into. That we don't even see the Tardis in episode one may slightly concern die-hard Whovians, but generally, Chibnall (and Whittaker) play tribute to the past without burdening themselves with it. "I hope it demonstrates everything people have come to love about Doctor Who – there's fun, monsters, action, adventure, great characters and an amazing Doctor," says Chibnall.
3. The new show channels some of the spirit of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise
You'd expect, for a new show announcing a new Doctor, for Whittaker to make an immediate splash. But she's not even in it for the first ten minutes – instead The Woman Who Fell To Earth establishes the characters and fascinating backstories of the people who will become her companions; Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). And this Doctor Who is very much an ensemble piece, as Walsh explains. "I was speaking to Chris Chibnall before I signed on, and he said to me, 'let's go Star Trek, think of it as Captain Kirk and the gang'. That sold it to me, I was in."
Gill adds: “Having different age ranges, backgrounds and sexes in that ensemble allows so many other viewers to join in on the show. Everyone will have someone to relate to.”
4. It has the look of a show for the Netflix generation
The first episode is very firmly set in and around Sheffield – Chibnall says he wanted to ground the Doctor in a home – and the vertigo-inducing tracking shots over the city reveal that this is a very cinematic Doctor Who, born of the pressure put on any series these days by the high television production values of Netflix.
"What we've tried to do is show the range of what Doctor Who can do visually, emotionally and geographically," says Chibnall, and to that end, the second episode was shot in the desert in South Africa. The director of that instalment, Mark Tondera, worked on the television series Gotham and Bradley Walsh says he was blown away by the filmic feel of the shoot. "It's pretty impressive, like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia or something," he says.
5. The Doctor delegates
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor can still solve crises in dazzlingly inventive style, but the new ensemble feel to the show means she also asks her companions to go off and use their skills and strengths for the common good – which means there are plenty of occasions where the action is propelled along by someone other than the main star.
There’s a palpable chemistry between all four members of the cast, perhaps engendered by this more collaborative approach. “We’re lucky that we’ve got a lead actress who is wonderful to be around, leads from the front, is funny, kind and generous in her performance,” says Walsh.
6. A female Doctor just isn’t an issue
Other than that quip about previously being a white-haired Scotsman, there are barely any references to the sex of the Doctor whatsoever – and of course nor should there be. What is so impressive about Whittaker’s performance is that she plays the Doctor with such energy, passion and humanity that it feels totally ridiculous that it’s taken this long for a female Time Lord. She absolutely owns the role.
“These people who are worried about a female doctor, unfortunately they may have to understand that there might be a female prime minister one day, a female engineer, a female pilot … those days may come,” jokes Walsh. As the show’s tag-line cleverly puts it: “Doctor Who: It’s about time.”
Doctor Who is broadcast exclusively on OSN’s BBC First HD channel on Sunday October 7 at 11.45pm