When a television program lasts as long as Doctor Who, certain conventions appear across the decades and creative teams. In Who’s specific case, there may be no more indelible convention than the regeneration episode. Since 1966, when Patrick Troughton took over for William Hartnell, the show made the change in its lead performer an element of the plot thanks to stories in which the character recalibrates for the new star. These post-regeneration episodes became a major part of the show’s traditions and culture.
And with new executive producer Chris Chibnall promising extensive changes to the program, the debut episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” the season 11 debut of Doctor Who had to make a number of big statements — including, of course, introducing Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) as the first female Doctor — while also telling a post-regeneration tale. Did it hit the important points while charting its own territory? Let’s take a look at some of the ways the debut episode changed how a new Doctor is presented and remained the same as it did back in 1966.
In defiance of just about every episode of Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” aired without the legendary title sequence or theme music. In the continuing attempt to make the show feel different and special, Chibnall chose to run the nearly 90-minute debut without titles. Its absence was certainly palpable as at least two key shots in the first 15 minutes felt like the moment the title would appear. In terms of story, the lack of titles mirrored The Doctor’s partial amnesia and the notion that the regeneration was not complete.
There have been at least two instances in which the titles were altered for story purposes. The 50th Anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” reverted to the abbreviated sequence used in most of the 1963 premiere season while the 2015 episode “Sleep No More” reconfigured the titles to reflect the eerie story line. But going without titles entirely, almost not declaring itself as an episode of Doctor Who, certainly makes the statement Chibnall intended.
The titles will debut next week.
In one of the bigger structural changes to a regeneration episode, The Doctor is absent for a surprisingly long time. Typically, the new version of the character is at the forefront — often as their regeneration sets off the plot. But in the 10 minutes leading up to her falling from the sky, we’re first introduced to new major characters Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). The latter two are linked through Ryan — Yaz went to school with him, while Graham is married to Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Ryan’s nan — and those links become important as the show tries to ground the adventure more in the mundane reality of Sheffield than the fantastic worlds of The Doctor.
That collision of the mundane and the fantastic has been a major feature of the program since it returned in 2004, but it has rarely been felt so acutely in a regeneration story, mainly thanks to keeping The Doctor at bay in the opening scenes. Even in David Tennant’s debut episode, “The Christmas Invasion,” The Doctor’s absence as he recovers from regeneration in bed plays more to the fantastic elements of an alien invasion than the reality of the holidays in a council estate. But in some ways, Whittaker’s absence hearkens back to Doctor Who‘s 1963 premiere, in which The Doctor does not appear onscreen until the 12-minute mark of a 25-minute show.
And in keeping The Doctor offscreen for the first 10 minutes, writer Chris Chibnall sets up a different feel for the episode. While it is still about The Doctor trying to work out who she is, it is not the overriding theme of the episode. The evolving relationships of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham may even be more important in the long run than The Doctor’s post-regenerative trauma.
More often than not, The Doctor’s regeneration happens among his “companions” — or “friends” now for season 11. In that first 1966 regeneration story, maintaining continuity with the companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) was of utmost importance. It would help sell the idea that this new, younger man was the same person as the older, crotchety fellow the viewers loved; a story point reiterated in “The Christmas Invasion” and done in reverse in Peter Capaldi’s first story, “Deep Breath.” As that sense of continuity continued to be important, most post-regeneration stories feature the companion or companions acclimating to The Doctor’s new persona. Exceptions to the rule include Jon Petwee’s first story, “Spearhead from Space,” and Matt Smith’s debut in “The Eleventh Hour”; in both those cases, cast and crew changed entirely and both stories represented soft reboots of the program, which is also the case with “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” but the episode is still different, as it had the extremely unusual task of introducing three new characters who will travel with The Doctor.
In the show’s original 1963 form, it was a four-person cast with The Doctor (Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her school teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell), but in 1965, incoming producer Innis Lloyd decided three companions was too many and downsized by one. The cast further dwindled down to The Doctor and one companion in the 1970s. In 1982, an attempt was made to restore the TARDIS crew to four people, but it once again proved unwieldy as one of the companions often ended up kidnapped or incapacitated. In one case, a companion claimed she was too sick to leave the TARDIS and sat out most of the story.
In choosing three characters to travel with the Doctor, Chibnall and his team are making the bold claim that they can make a four-person TARDIS crew work. In theory, it shouldn’t be hard. Most genre shows feature five-to-seven regular cast members and a slew of recurring characters. But Doctor Who isn’t most shows. That said, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” goes out of its way to establish the characters and The Doctor’s keen awareness of their skills, which may be a recurring theme in companion introductions, but here, it feels more important than ever before.
In the middle of the episode, The Doctor gets fed up with missing her sonic screwdriver and fashions a new one out of parts found in a Sheffield garage. This is one of the largest departures from the format in terms of post-regeneration episodes.
Prior to 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour” a personalized screwdriver for the new Doctor was not a convention of the series. The original version of the prop — which debuted in 1968’s “Fury from the Deep” — was a simple penlight. A more idiosyncratic version appeared with Pertwee in 1970 (itself a prop from a feature film version of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds) and remained virtually unchanged throughout the rest of the Classic Series; though it was destroyed in a 1982 story and never replaced. It was recreated for the 1996 TV movie and finally redesigned for Christopher Eccleston’s debut in 2005. David Tennant used this version throughout his time on the show. After Matt Smith’s debut, the notion of personalized screwdrivers took hold, even if Peter Capaldi would not receive his until the end of his second season and use Smith’s screwdriver and a pair of sonic sunglasses in the interim.
But in both recent cases, the TARDIS fabricated the device, suggesting it was an extension of the TARDIS herself. In building the new screwdriver, The Doctor makes it both less magical and yet more fantastic. It is an instrument of an efficiently advanced science, but it can be made from ordinary objects. Which is a good thing as the TARDIS is missing.
In what may be the biggest departure in not just a post-regeneration episode, but the format itself, The Thirteenth Doctor debuted without the TARDIS. The legendary Type 40 TT Capsule has always been close to the Doctor, even during a time in the ’70s — or was it the ’80s? — when The Doctor was exiled on Earth and the ship was immobilized. The Doctor also loses the ship on occasion, but its disappearance is usually an aspect of the plot resolved by the end of the story and not a recurring plot thread.
But in another return to the program’s earliest days, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth’s” cliffhanger mirrors the way end of one story would lead right into the next, an aspect of the series which first debuted at the end of 1963’s “The Firemaker.” Landing on a planet with seemingly no radiation hazard, the Doctor, Susan, and their new companions prepare to leave the ship just as a radiation indicator tells the audience that the planet is red hot. The next week’s episode, “The Dead Planet” introduced the Daleks.
That level of story-to-story continuity waxed and waned over the following decades as the series changed from the tale of a mad alien trying to get two schoolteachers back to London into an endless tour of the cosmos. But considering this story convention returns just as Doctor Who welcomes three companions, we can’t help but wonder if The Doctor will once again lose control of the TARDIS all together, another aspect of the program’s original premise.
And that is assuming the new crew of friends even find the ship next week.
Speaking of next week, the 11th season of the revived Doctor Who brings the program to an entirely new night: Sunday. For most of its existence, the show was a Saturday evening tradition going back to its debut on November 23, 1963. In the 1980s, the BBC and producer John Nathan-Turner attempted a surprising change by airing the show twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The experiment was eventually abandoned as the show’s viewership declined. When Doctor Who returned in 2005, all responsible parties agreed Saturday was its natural home. Also, the BBC needed a Saturday night win at the time.
The Saturday night timeslot is less precious in the United States. For those who grew up with the Classic Series on public television stations, the program was more of a Saturday morning tradition or a special midnight ritual. When the New Series was initially picked up by the SciFi Channel, it premiered episodes on Friday evenings. BBC America chose the traditional Saturday slot when it took over U.S. broadcast of the series.
But now, Chibnall, the BBC, and BBC America all hope the move to Sundays will make Doctor Who the watercooler show on Monday mornings. Time will tell if this proves to be the case, because, as The Doctor might say, “it always does.”
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.