Doctor Who: 13th Doctor First Impressions

Just some quick and messy first impressions of the first two episodes of the new 13th Doctor.

I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on the new Doctor Who as if there aren’t 4000 hot takes all over the internet, professional reviewers from every major outlet, and probably more hours of YouTube uploaded talking about this subject than there are hours of all of Doctor Who combined. That being said, this will be a review of the first two episode together: The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument.

I thought they were both fine.

There we are, great review, everyone go home! No no no, let’s just try to break this down a little shall we.

The Story So Far…

I’ve never been a big fan of Chris Chibnall. I didn’t like his work on Torchwood, I don’t really care that much for Broadchurch, and frankly his Doctor Who episodes are all duds in my book with a mishmash of bad dialogue and rush job endings. That being said, he did an okay job with these two episodes. Both of these stories are a little boilerplate but the small-scale works for introducing us to many concepts including FOUR (read them and weap) new characters and honestly, the way these two episodes are constructed is one of the best jumping off points for people just getting into the whole Who!dom which is kind of a feat in itself.

In The Woman Who Fell to Earth we get a bit of motivation from everyone and personality glimpses and a story that works for the most part. It’s not the most complex or memorable episode but it does a good job sticking all the pieces together to make a cohesive enough story that is a fun little romp. The dialogue is fairly weak but strong acting out of the gate means the episode never really drags. The things that stick out here to me are mostly that killing Grace seems largely random and unnecessary which rubs me the wrong way but other than that I really enjoyed the episode on the whole.

Unfortunately this isn’t the case for the second episode where the “galactic race” trope raises more questions than it answers but not in a good way. The episode goes out of its way to give us an explanation for why everyone can talk to each other, but no one blinks at the fact that the planet is not where it’s supposed to be – a fact that is pointed out THREE TIMES as if it is setting something up (spoiler: it isn’t, or at least, it isn’t in this episode). Ghost Monument just kind of ends in a way that reminds me of Power of Three. It’s so finite and without flourish that you kind of wonder what the point was. The last five minutes after the race is concluded (when the TARDIS appears) is very satisfying BUT it’s largely unconnected from the first forty minutes of the episodes making me much more frustrated than satisfied about the whole ordeal.

We’re given a lot of chess pieces on the board during the second episode hinting at larger mysteries but its done in such a clumsy way that I worry they’ll all end up to be dead ends. One of the reasons people really liked Series 5 was because there were hints all along you could look back on but nothing was explicitly spelled out. I’m worried Chibnall is trying to follow too closely to the Moffat formula but missing the point. If the fact that a planet isn’t where its supposed to be isn’t interesting to the Doctor, I’m not really sure I’m going to be getting 100% on board with these stories.

The second episode has stronger dialogue but nothing that really grabbed me and while there were some interesting ideas there was a distinct problem of splitting action and dialogue that kind of made the episode drag towards the middle as characters would often stop to talk OR move instead of doing both at the same time. I also dislike when a character reads a long text in an episode instead of summarizing it (reading the scientist note takes up about 6x longer than we need). That may be a personal pet peeve though!

I liked the secondary characters, I liked the idea, but the execution here is sloppy! Despite really good acting from all parties, it isn’t enough to save a weak story. In terms of galactic race we’ve seen it done much better on Doctor Who before (Enlightenment comes to mind) and having a world abandoned by scientists who make lethal weapons is interesting but the set up to payoff ratio here was very low. Character development is also starting to worry me as no one really got pushed as a character in this episode and instead we developed two throw away characters but my hope is that next week things will kick in to gear there since we’ve got all our Doctor Who set up checklist done now that we’ve acquired the TARDIS again.

Costuming, Locations

Hello location scouts, how you doin’? Yes! I’m loving the locations so far. The first episode had a nice variety of locations and the construction and crane set was a really exciting departure from our usual parks, schools, and streets that we tend to get on Earth. The second episode gave us good atmospheric hallways and rooms that all looked varied but connected – no single hallway flooded the shots which is pretty impressive. Plus, we haven’t gone to a “desert planet” in a while so it was a good change and made me hopefully we’ll get more varied planets this go around.

I’m loving the costuming. Plenty of little thoughtful touches, even in making the cigar look alien. I actually liked the teeth-collecting alien in the first episode because it reminded me of the perfect blend of Doctor Who!ridiculous and serious. It’s just silly looking enough to not give kids nightmares which actually representing something scary. In the second episode, the things I loved the most was those interesting looking robots which were only vaguely human looking. They reminded me of Vorlons from Babylon 5 or the Judoon. 

Lights, Camera, Edit

So this season is actually shot on a different cameras (the Arri Alexa XT and Alex Mini if you’re curious) which gives the show a much different look and feel and honestly, a totally different texture. The look they’re going for is distinctly cinema and I think it’s largely working for me. We’re getting really vivid color and the lighting crew has done a fantastic job making the most of the new set up.

Many of the shots are really intensely lit so that we get dramatic, sweeping shadows that the Doctor can emerge from looking smug and powerful. We also get great set up shots like when the Doctor is crafting her sonic screwdriver and she looks positively mad scientist or running through the catacombs in the second episode with the shadows moving along the wall. Lots of reds in the first episode and stark yellow / oranges in the second bring out the playful pops of color to otherwise stark areas.

That being said some of the camera work, mainly in the second episode, frustrated me. Especially close up shots of the Doctor where the camera kept doing these puzzling traveling shots over the bridge of her nose? Or shooting Jodie from just the one angle across her chin. It’s possible these were just the best shots that made it to edit but it’s hard for me to accept that so I hope the later episodes work on how close ups are managed since we’re likely to get plenty of those.

Editing on the first episode was fine, editing on the second episode was a bit more sloppy. I wonder if this was just due to location problems (it looked like, from the credits, that they shot in South Africa which is very cool but could have meant a time crunch). I don’t think it’s anything to get worked up about but it’d be better to see more consistent products being churned out of the BBC’s flagship show.

Music

Oh boy. I can’t say that I liked Murray Gold all that much. He had a few good hits along the way (I am the Doctor comes immediately to mind) but for the most part he kept it simple, straight forward and always had a flare for these dramatic sweeping pieces that built tension in a way that would edge into your subconscious. It wasn’t that there was much to love or hate about his score but since he was the composer for all of modern Doctor Who, suffice it to say that when you think of Doctor Who soundscapes, you’re thinking of Gold’s work.

Segun Akinola is NOT Murray Gold. This isn’t a judgement on Akinola’s work but simply a face statement. In fact Akinola is so far away from Murray Gold’s sweeping opera-light scores that the music in The Woman Who Fell to Earth actually made me stop listening to the dialogue at points and pay attention to the very modern, almost Girl With The Dragon Tattoo-esque music. Music that gave me spy and hacker feelings. It went along with our modern setting and our alien using illicit technology and despite being mildly distracted by it the first time around, I adored it. I adored the idea of Doctor Who finally having different styles of composition to match the episodes.

The second episode certainly has more subdued music but still very fresh takes and no two pieces sound as if they’re overlapping or exhausting their welcome which is a complaint I have with Gold’s themes. Gold never really differentiated his pieces enough, instead they all kind of blend together because he uses the same leitmotifs over and over until they are bloody and beaten on the ground and you hate them.

Many moons ago, Doctor Who used to be pushing the envelope on TV in just about every way. So much so that in one serial, The Sea Devils, they used experimental music which gave the serial a very unique feeling and honestly made a fairly good episode absolutely unforgettable. I feel like those days are much closer to us now.

In fact, the music from these two episodes gave me nearly that same feeling of wild experimentation and new ideas being injected into something that had worn out its welcome. There was such a fresh thoughtfulness to it. The music was so varied and interesting and bright that I am actually pretty excited to see what next episodes score will sound like. As per usual, the opening theme is fantastic and I think the almost sinister, computer-generated take on the song makes it feel so unearthly that it feels new to me. Let’s just say I’m excited for the future of music in Doctor Who!

Companions

So far, Yaz has the short straw. I’m really enjoying all three of the new Team TARDIS and giving them all separate motivations is great but while Ryan and Gram have gotten a little more focus, they haven’t exactly gotten much either.

But, I am interested in all three of them.

Gram is the stand out so far with the easiest to relate to attitude and clearest motive. He wants to honor Grace’s desire to explore the world and help anyone he can. He also wants to connect with Ryan which gives us a nice family connection for the TARDIS but also starts him with a near-adversarial position to Ryan. I like Gram’s go get ’em attitude because it makes for a tension release level and he seems to ride the line of street smart but clueless which is a mix I always really like (a la Jamie or Donna).

I think Ryan needs a little more motive to stay in the TARDIS because at this point he doesn’t want to connect with Gram, he doesn’t have a lot of faith in himself, and he seems to largely just feel like “well okay, I’m here so I’m doing it but I don’t want to.” I think the Doctor is going to push him a lot which is great but hopefully in an episode or two he feels less resistant to being there or develops a connection to Gram that allows his presence to feel more natural. Ryan is giving me some early Rory and Liz Shaw vibes for now.

Yaz wants to be challenged and Team TARDIS is here to make that happen. I feel like Yaz could become a natural born leader and our scientist, smarty pants character (a la Nyssa or Martha) if given breathing room so I’m interested in what develops for her but at this point, she probably had a total of 15 lines between the two episodes so it’s really hard to tell.

The Doctor

Jodie’s take on the Doctor is somewhere between compassion and flippancy so far and I am kind of in love with it? Taking her notes from 12th Doctor, 13th starts off with an unbridled amount of empathy. I think this is a great take since 12th had just exited on a day that was filled with random gifts and kindness. Twice Upon A Time not only had no monster to fight but also the Doctor’s memories were given back to him as a gift AND everyone got to live just this once without any intervention from the Doctor needed, just random human compassion.

That being said, this is still the Doctor so when confronted with the idea of kill of be killed: the Doctor kills. “You did this to yourself” the Doctor tells Tzim-Sha before killing him in a manner that she, herself, had just described as both illegal and barbaric. So, not exactly as nice as she wants to believe. Not quite as reformed as she pretends to be. Same old Doctor underneath all those smiles. I’m happy that the “Am I a good man” question seems to have peeled away and the Doctor has decided that she’s going to help people when she can and not get bogged down in her mistakes.

In the second episode the Doctor is pretty much straight up the Doctor until the last scene when she thinks the TARDIS is gone and she loses hope for just a second which actually seems quite new. We haven’t really seen the Doctor faithless much so I wonder if we’re going to get more 9th Doctor-like flashes of sudden devastation from 13th along with this more thoughtful approach to other people. I’m not sure if I’m getting a good read on the character from these two episodes so far but I’m absolutely here for it.

For me the best character moment so far was easily the scene where she is making the sonic screwdriver. Caught between maniac glee and pure curious tinkering, but I also really enjoyed her “reassuring” Yaz they wouldn’t die as the spaceship was malfunctioning in the beginning of the episode right after explaining they were probably going to die to the pilot. This sort of two-faced immediate reversal is a very interesting take on a personality trait the Doctor has always had (see: 2nd Doctor and 7th Doctor especially).

Overall Impressions

Oh Doctor Who, I could never quit you. I am a little disappointed to see the Chibnall is the primary writer on the next few episodes also. I’m very concerned about dialogue and story pacing because it hasn’t been the strongest in these two episodes and if anything, it got much worse from first to second episode.

I know that Chibnall can plot out a whole series though so I’m trying to keep my faith high and I’m enjoying the performances and everything else that is happening around some of the weak stories so hopefully a few of them will hit that sweet spot. Nothing is 100% not working for me yet but a few more middling stories and I’ll start to feel like we have another Series 8 on our hands with no winners and no losers and nothing that really makes me want to run out and tell people to watch it. It’s a tough spot to be in writing for a show with 50+ years of episodes and 10 years of modern episodes but I know that there are still stories to explore and characters to love in this universe, and right now, I am enjoying the possibilities these two episodes have laid out.

Final Conclusion: Change my dear, and not a moment too soon!

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