Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”

[Contains big spoilers for the above Doctor Who episode. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should do that first. Not just because of this blog post, but because you really should see it, ideally right now.]

I’m 24 years old and I can’t ride a bike.

Perhaps stereotypically of autistic people, my hand-eye co-ordination leaves a lot to be desired, and I never graduated from stabilisers. It’s never been a problem – even during the years I spent in Oxford, where cyclists seem to outnumber vehicles – but it was always something I’d shy away from talking about. Everyone else learned to ride a bike at a young age, I thought, and if I admit I still haven’t, they’ll all laugh me out of the room. I thought I was the only one.

Yet within minutes of Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) arriving on our screens, his fellow dyspraxic people (and us neurodivergent cousins!) were sharing the same story in public online spaces as if it were a badge of honour.

This is just one example of the power of representation. It might seem trivial to some, especially if you’re used to seeing people like you as fully-fledged characters, but it really does have a big impact. For me, like many female Who fans, this also explains why Jodie Whittaker’s new incarnation of the Doctor gives me all the feelings – feelings I can’t quite articulate. It’s been days since the Thirteenth Doctor’s proper debut, and over a year since she first pulled back her hood and revealed her new face to the world, and still the best I can come up with is “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place”. (You might have noticed I say that a lot. It’s shorthand for that joy.)

I was also lucky enough to be able to watch The Woman Who Fell To Earth with Oxford Doctor Who Society and experience a very crowded room suddenly falling silent – I got to share in the anticipation, the excitement, the goosebumps. Frankly, they could have put anything on screen and I’d have loved it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to try very hard.

Through Ryan’s YouTube-framed introduction, we were still given the “companion’s eyes” perspective I thought might be lacking given the larger ensemble this series. We then meet an array of characters who all work brilliantly. There’s Yasmin (Mandip Gill), “Yaz to my friends”, a trainee police officer desperate to experience more than just parking disputes, and a large part of one of the Doctor’s first interactions (“I’m calling you Yaz, ’cause we’re friends now”). Then there’s Grace (Sharon D Clarke), Ryan’s adventure-hungry grandmother, and her second husband Graham (Bradley Walsh), whose fraught relationship with his step-grandson will hopefully improve over the course of the series. Walsh’s character largely plays the role of the sensible, rational human who’s more concerned about keeping safe than keeping aliens at bay, often to comedic effect: “Why is she running at another alien?! … Now you’re ALL running at it!”. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this reminded me of Rory Williams and his dismay at “actual aliens of death” in The Eleventh Hour.) At this point, you may be wondering why one of these characters is conspicuously absent from the promotion around “the Doctor’s new friends” – more on that later, but it’s probably exactly why you think it is.

Before long, they’re all joined by a strange woman crash-landing into a train near Sheffield – and instantly, she’s the Doctor. (“Don’t panic! Not the end of the world. Well, it COULD be the end of the world, but one thing at a time.”) This is where my thoughts turn back into “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place” again, because she just is, she’s just there, being the Doctor, whether a handful of naysayers like it or not. And to top it all off, we’re treated to a few unexpected seconds of the new Doctor Who theme.

There are big changes off-screen as well as on, and I particularly enjoyed Segun Akinola’s more electronic soundtrack. As promised by incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall, the overall look of the show is more cinematic, albeit visually darker than I’d expected from the series promotion.

As with most post-regeneration episodes, the Doctor is still finding her feet and suffering the physical after-effects. However, in contrast to The Christmas Invasion and Deep Breath, in which David Tennant and Peter Capaldi respectively spend most of the episode in pyjamas, this Doctor’s collapse is kept brief, allowing us to see more of Whittaker in action. Instead, the change is marked by her vivid descriptions of how regeneration feels: “Every cell in my body burning… There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am”. We see the new Doctor forge herself a brand new sonic screwdriver – “Swiss Army sonic with a touch of Sheffield steel” – again with an excellent soundtrack which could turn out to be the Thirteenth Doctor’s theme.

You’d be forgiven for overlooking the main villainous threat amongst all these new protagonists, but the tooth-stealing Stenza credited as Tim Shaw added to the unexpectedly dark undertones. Brutally murdering a couple of characters we’d just warmed up to along the way, his target is Karl – another unlikely action hero, whose calming affirmations include a nice line of subtle foreshadowing: “Somebody out there wants me”. It’s worth noting that some interpreted Karl’s relaxation tapes and affirmations as mocking, but I read it as endearing – he might be terrified and wish he was anywhere else, but he is special, he is valued, and he will achieve his goals, even when those goals suddenly involve escaping a bloodthirsty alien. There’s a lot crammed into this scene – the Doctor’s leap across the cranes is on a par with her powerful “I’m the Doctor” moment – and while Tim Shaw is largely handwaved away, there’s still one last gut-punch in store…

In hindsight, introducing then immediately killing off a female character to further the backstory of the two male companions feels out of step with the generally progressive direction of the new series. Still, Grace’s death highlights some important things about how the other characters are written – notably, rather than running off into her next adventure, this Doctor stays for the consequences of the previous one, supporting her new friends through the funeral. And secondly – thank goodness – Ryan isn’t suddenly able to ride a bike through willpower alone. Earlier in the episode, a brief and unimportant stumble on the crane ladder shows Chibnall isn’t just going to forget Ryan’s dyspraxia when convenient; the overall effect is that Ryan is and always will be the way he is, and that’s okay, even if he doesn’t yet see that for himself.

After the Doctor chooses her new outfit, The Woman Who Fell To Earth goes out on a high. The final shots, in the vacuum of space, are so beautiful that it took me a few seconds to realise they actually depicted a catastrophic failure. Then, finally, the new theme! With the original melody line, and the middle eight! We’re left with more still to look forward to – the title sequence, the TARDIS, and that slightly strange roll-call of actors all help to persuade the many curious new viewers to come back next week.

Of course, every episode has its flaws – Yaz was a little sidelined in amongst the barrage of introductions, Grace’s death was fairly predictable, the threat was seemingly defeated off-screen and ends with a rushed judgement of Karl which goes nowhere – but in the moment of broadcast, none of these things particularly mattered. For me, this episode was about character introductions and, again, all the feelings. The Doctor’s “Hi! Us again!” with her new friends in tow, the Doctor waving around her new sonic, the Doctor discovering her identity anew, the Doctor talking about how she carries her lost family with her, the Doctor’s now-already-familiar new outfit… The Doctor has well and truly arrived, and apparently pretty much everything she says or does still gives me that burst of excitement.

There are a few throwaway references to the Doctor’s new gender (“It’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes…”), but it’s largely ignored; in-universe, it doesn’t matter, and rightly so. In our universe as viewers, though, it really does matter. On Sunday night, millions of women felt the sadly unfamiliar delight of seeing themselves in the hero. Young children of all genders are seeing a woman take charge, seeing a woman be strange and goofy and funny and still be taken seriously as a leader, and in time that will have real-world consequences.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and the world might not be a completely wonderful place yet, but she’s given many of its inhabitants a much-needed injection of hope.



The Many and Varied Perks of Autistic Special Interests

A recent study by Rachel Grove et al, presented earlier this year at INSAR, found a link between autistic “special interests” (no, I don’t love that phrase either, but it’s the accepted term for what the standard “interest” just can’t capture) and higher subjective well-being amongst autistic adults. The above graph (photo credit @YesWeJon) shows the huge range of special interests found in this project alone, and despite the stereotypes, it’s so much broader than just maths and trains. (Although, more on trains later…)

For autistic people, this won’t come as a surprise. This week, I’ve been reading Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism (edited by Barb Cook and Dr. Michelle Garnett), a collection by and (primarily) for autistic women dealing with all the highs and lows of life on the spectrum. It covers a LOT – and when so much is focused on children, it’s incredibly eye-opening to read about topics like ageing and parenting – but I particularly related to Christine Jenkins and Renata Jurkévythz’s chapter on intense interests. Apparently, it’s more common for autistic women to have several of these at the same time, and the pair outline the different roles and functions that their all-consuming passions  – gaming, animals, music – have played in their lives. And the evening after I read about their interests, I had reason to think about the different roles of my own…

“Sim-u-la-tion The-o-ry…”

I slowly said the words out loud, knowing I’d soon get very acquainted with them. I was waiting for my train, a normal Thursday evening, except for the tiny matter of Muse announcing their new album details. Sorry, did I say tiny? I meant “the most exciting news in the entire world ever”. New song The Dark Side was also released with the pre-order and I, as ever, had to Know It Immediately. Admittedly, “knowing it immediately” was easier when I was 14 in my bedroom with MSN and Radio 1 than it is when I’m 24 and trying to navigate station wi-fi, but there I was, watching the same video twice, holding my earphones in, trying not to bounce around too much in the middle of St Pancras. I knew I’d be spending tomorrow telling my MP3 player to skip back every few minutes.

This is special interest logic. This is (one form of) sheer autistic delight. When it feels like everything else is changing, this is a constant, something I still have in common with that awkward teen sulking to Muscle Museum after another long day of Year 9, and that’s reassuring. Besides, it’s nice to know I  can at least handle change better than most major comments sections!

If I’ve got Muse on shuffle, things are either very good (probably because I’ve got Muse on shuffle), or very bad (or at least they were until I put Muse on shuffle). At this point, they’re familiar enough to be a sort of musical comfort blanket and exciting enough to be a distraction from whatever else is going on. Sometimes, that’s the difference between a meltdown and, well, not a meltdown.

“All of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will… Where do you want to start?”

It’s been over two years since I left Oxford, and I still constantly go on about Oxford Doctor Who Society.

Doctor Who also became a special interest in my school years, but it was at university that it really came into its own as a social tool – when I lived in college, “What did you think of the new episode?” was practically a standard conversation opener. Then there was WhoSoc – what they don’t tell you about infodumping is that some people genuinely want to listen and will even respond with a bigger and better infodump of their own. I generally enjoyed the structured nature of student societies, and WhoSoc’s “we’ll start by watching Doctor Who, then there’s the option of more general chat that can bounce off what we’ve just seen” helped forge friendships that continue today, albeit with the help of social media. If standard conversation doesn’t feel like an option, perhaps because I’ve got overloaded or because all small talk is hitting the giant weather panic button, liveblogging a Doctor Who episode for friends is a “safe” (and fun!) way to socialise.

Something those friends are probably tired of hearing me say at this point is “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place”. Essentially, this is shorthand for “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, I’m more excited about it than I can describe, and it must be true that everything will be okay and the world will keep turning because we need to get to autumn when her first series starts”. Again, I find myself handling change better than most major comments sections, and to have our first female Doctor is massive – when the time comes for the fourteenth Doctor I’ll actually enjoy all the speculation without getting dragged down by the same old tired arguments, and just imagine the children (of any gender) growing up with this as the norm for once… It’s basically just an instant feel-good button, which is handy to have!

“Hornchurch. Ickenham. Hainault…”

This is Jay Foreman’s Every Tube Station Song, and if you’ve managed to escape me showing you this already, you should watch it now. Go on. I’ll wait.

Surely at least part of you wants to memorise it too?

Until I happened to click this recommendation on my YouTube sidebar last year, I’d never really been interested in trains, but before long I felt slightly guilty for becoming the stereotype. Cue a document of Tube stations I’d been to, a spring discovering Geoff Marshall’s YouTube channel and a summer glued to All The Stations, accidentally spending ages researching the history and the details, Tube-map-themed-everything… Oops, I accidentally stumbled across a special interest.

The London Underground interest could perhaps be considered my most “productive”, because it means I can commute to work in London. On paper, the Tube isn’t exactly a great fit for me – the heat, the noise, the heat, the crowds, the heat – but I’m not exactly the only autistic person to really like trains, and the little strategies I and others pick up almost unthinkingly has become an interest in itself. (Writing this guide for autistic first-time Tube users was my idea of a fun post-dissertation project!)

That said, my current commute gives me the choice of Tube or Thameslink, and when the heatwave hit (more on that here), I avoided the Underground entirely. This was sensible, but it was also the first time I’d ever “fallen out” with a special interest, and with all things Tube-related giving me a twinge of anxiety rather than excitement, I was worried it wouldn’t return. It was some time after I thought the “danger” had gone before I went back – one stop as I briefly passed through London. Then a diverted morning commute taking the air-conditioned S-Stock lines to Moorgate and changing to the Northern line from there (the Moorgate Manoeuvre, my All-The-Stations-addled brain called it), then a full morning commute, then the same process for evenings, until I eventually completed an uneventful Northern line evening commute, about 8 weeks after my previous one. The switch had flipped back – it’s the Thameslink route that’s the risky novelty again now! – and my main motivation for it was missing that absolute joy that was still somewhere in those tunnels.

Sometimes, autistic special interests form careers. Sometimes, they help build key skills in other areas. Sometimes, they don’t, and that’s okay too – neurotypical people can have fun hobbies without always being “productive”, and so can we! For me, special interests are a major perk of being autistic – each one is a little bit different, and even if one is a little less active for the moment, before long it comes back around with a bang. Much like Muse’s album cycles, thinking about it…

Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time

(Contains spoilers for Twice Upon A Time, this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special)

This Christmas, Doctor Who fans were treated to not one, not two, but three Doctors. Before the much-anticipated regeneration into Jodie Whittaker at the end of Twice Upon A Time, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finds himself teaming up with the First Doctor (brought to life by David Bradley, who previously played original actor William Hartnell in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time) at the site of his first ever regeneration.  I really enjoyed the framing of the episode in original footage from the end of Hartnell’s era (The Tenth Planet, 1966) in a nod to the show’s history which also provides helpful context for younger viewers or those not familiar with the classic series.

The Doctors are faced with various puzzles – time itself freezing in place, the appearance of a World War One captain (Mark Gatiss) removed from his own timeline, and the mysterious activities of Testimony – but ultimately, their biggest threat is themselves. The Twelfth Doctor is tasked with convincing his predecessor to live on and regenerate to preserve his impact on the universe – and, in turn, convince himself to do the same. It was particularly interesting to see the younger Doctor grapple with the conflicting facets of his future legacy, “[serving] at the pleasure of the human race” on the one hand, “the Doctor of war” on the other. Along those lines, one of my highlights of the episode is a conversation between the First Doctor and returning companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) about why good triumphs over evil, with the former not yet realising his own contribution to “putting everything right when it goes wrong”, neatly summing up what the Doctor means to so many people.

Of course, two Doctors also means two TARDISes, with the First Doctor’s TARDIS demonstrating how the current TARDIS has changed inside and out over the decades, and his reaction to the modern TARDIS provides the opportunity for back-and-forth quips between the Doctors – especially juxtaposed with the Captain’s more standard “bigger on the inside” response, although I did also laugh at the 1914 character questioningly clutching a VHS tape! The same applies to the Twelfth Doctor’s use of not only sonic sunglasses but the now-familiar sonic screwdriver, not used until 1968 (Fury From The Deep) by the Second Doctor.

It has to be said, however, that the First Doctor’s recurring remarks about female companions and cleaning were significantly less funny and felt very forced and unnecessary. It’s worth noting that the First Doctor is only an “old man from the 1960s” from our perspective as viewers of a fictional TV show, while in the Doctor Who universe he’s a time-travelling alien who just happened to live in 1960s London for a while, and wouldn’t have so easily picked up attitudes of the time. It really isn’t representative of that Doctor’s era, and it’s a shame to think this might put younger women off watching the classic series or damage its reputation generally. I also would have preferred the older Doctor to challenge this directly rather than resorting to distraction and “you can’t say that” (which seems to imply “because it’s not allowed” rather than “because it’s wrong”) – Bill’s reactions are slightly better, but it shouldn’t have to be her job alone to defend herself.

That aside, there were other much better executed nods to the Doctor’s past, including heavy use of music from previous episodes and series (personally, I was particularly excited to hear the theme from Doomsday crop up). The brief return of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was predicted by many and thankfully used to advance the plot, resulting in a much less “shoehorned” feel than Amy Pond’s similar cameo in the previous regeneration story (2013’s The Time of the Doctor). Slightly more (pleasantly) surprising was the appearance of Nardole (Matt Lucas), making Twice Upon A Time his third Christmas special – not bad for a secondary companion in only one full series! The biggest shock of all, though, has to be the return of Rusty the Dalek-hating Dalek (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) from the Twelfth Doctor’s second episode Into The Dalek – it’s certainly a curveball, with even hardcore fans having virtually forgotten about the one-off character, but it’s done well and nicely bookends Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who. It’s quite a risk for a Christmas special, watched by many casual viewers who do not usually follow the show, to be so reliant on continuity, but for the most part the various references are at least explained.

While watching on Christmas Day I was beginning to think this wasn’t a particularly Christmassy special, so perhaps I should have seen the twist in the Captain’s tale coming. The scenes of the Christmas Armistice are incredibly touching, as is the Captain’s horror at discovering his war becomes known as World War One and his concern for the family left behind. It’s true that in an episode already laden with continuity references, it doesn’t exactly take a genius fan to guess which family this military character belongs to, but it doesn’t really need to be a surprise – the focus remains on one doomed man’s love for his children, and that emotion works just as well for casual viewers and newer fans who don’t pick up on the classic reference.

Finally, there’s That Regeneration, and I’m very grateful to whoever decided the full scene should be posted on the official Doctor Who YouTube channel because I keep coming back to watch it. The Twelfth Doctor has a knack for long speeches and this is no exception, with Peter Capaldi doing a great job of summing up the Doctor’s past and looking to the future, even if I did spent most of the time looking at my watch and waiting impatiently for what was to come…

Regeneration episodes always show frustrating little of the new Doctor, but the arrival of the thirteenth incarnation is at least slower-paced than that of her predecessor and allows for powerful details – the ring falling off, the camera showing viewers the TARDIS through the Doctor’s new eyes, the face that says it all. Jodie Whittaker has arrived. And, inevitably, she’s thrown straight into peril. Personally, I’m not reading too much into the now traditional TARDIS crash – it will hopefully persuade Christmas viewers to stay tuned for the next series, but I doubt the Doctor will be without her TARDIS for longer than an episode. The whole set-up greatly reminds me of Matt Smith’s 2010 debut in The Eleventh Hour, also the introduction of Steven Moffat as showrunner, which hopefully means the Thirteenth Doctor – along with incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall and a host of new companions – will hit the ground running.

…Is it time for series 11 yet?

thirteen regeneration