By Andrew A Smith
Two veteran genre shows aired their latest season premieres Oct. 7, to (mostly) positive reviews. That’s critical, because both Doctor Who and The Walking Dead are undergoing soft reboots.
The older of the two is the veteran BBC program (or “programme,” I should say) Doctor Who. It began airing in 1963, and Whittaker is the 14th actor to play the lead role. (Important note: One Doctor, played by John Hurt, did not call himself Doctor, so Whittaker is officially referred to as the 13th. Some Who fans are split on that terminology, so it’s probably best not to bring it up.)
On other TV shows, replacing the lead actor is a calamity. But on Doctor Who it’s a feature, built into the show’s premise. As all good Whovians know, The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who routinely regenerates into new bodies, so when William Hartnell morphed into Patrick Troughton in 1966, it was the start of a grand tradition.
Which brings us to Whittaker, the first woman to play the Doctor. And there’s a new showrunner as well, Chris Chibnall, creator of the British crime series Broadchurch, which starred Whittaker and David Tennant, who played the Doctor from 2005 to 2010.
So BBC held a celebration. The series premiere was simulcast in the US, all over the United Kingdom and at New York Comic-Con, with British personality Maude Garrett hosting a pre-show party in Brooklyn and a post-show discussion with three prominent Whovians. Interspersed among the commercials were snippets of the Doctor Who panel at NYCC.
Then there was the show itself. Fresh, fast-moving and new-viewer friendly, it attracted 1.37 million viewers in the US, and a whopping 8.2 million in the UK. The prime-time rerun in the show’s regular timeslot added another half million, rendering a total that is near-record for the series.
And if any of those eyeballs were attached to new viewers, they were rewarded for their curiosity. When the new Doctor appears – literally falling into a train car from space – her regeneration leaves her disoriented and “fizzing” a bit inside, with her memory coming back piecemeal. So her new companions – three this time – are the audience’s POV in learning the Time Lord mythology as the Doctor re-discovers it herself.
The Doctor is initially without her trusty multi-purpose tool, the Sonic Screwdriver – so she has to make one in a South Yorkshire factory (“with added Sheffield steel”), and describes it as she does. “It’s more of a Sonic Swiss Army knife,” she says, “only without the knife, because only idiots carry knives.”
She defines her mission statement, not once, but twice. “I’m the Doctor,” she says early in the episode. “When people need help, I never refuse.” And later, “I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play through the universe!”
The transition from male to female is taken in stride – and humour. When told she’s a woman, Whittaker replies earnestly, “Am I? Does it suit? ... Sorry, half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.” Shopping for a new outfit is played for laughs, and her selection is a something of cross between a children’s TV host and Robin Williams on Mork & Mindy.
Critical reception has been overwhelmingly positive in both the US and UK, and you can’t throw a screwdriver on the Internet without hitting a Jodie Whittaker interview. That was reflected in the after-party as well.
“I’ve never been as excited for a season of Doctor Who as I am right now, in this moment,” said Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. “I cannot wait to see what she does. Her comedic timing is flawless ... I cannot wait for the next episode.”
“This is the best time to start watching Doctor Who,” echoed Garrett. And she may be right.
The UK’s Titan Comics has been publishing Doctor Who miniseries for years, mostly of Doctors 9-12, which are then collected in trade paperbacks. Titan launched a new series Sept. 27 with Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor #0, a 72-page special with short, never-before-seen adventures of the previous 13 Doctors (including the non-Doctor, John Hurt) as the new incarnation remembers them. Like the TV show, it serves as an introduction to the Who mythology for beginners and new adventure for the vets.
Meanwhile, the other major season premiere Oct. 7 – Season 9 of The Walking Dead – launched to similar numbers. But that’s not a good thing for the AMC juggernaut.
Like the undead walkers on the show, ratings have been slowly decomposing. The Season 9 premiere drew only 6.08 million, down from 11.44 for the Season 8 premiere. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the 6.08 million “made for the series’ smallest total audience since midway through Season 2.”
It should be noted that these numbers don’t count whoever signed up for AMC Premiere, the network’s streaming service, and watched the show 24 hours earlier. AMC doesn’t release those numbers, so maybe that’s where all the missing eyeballs went.
Or maybe the soft reset of the series has less appeal. Season 9 opens a year and a half after the war with Negan, which closed Season 8. Titled A New World, the episode finds the five communities – Alexandria, Hilltop, The Kingdom, Sanctuary and Seaside – largely at peace. The 21st century is falling away, with bridges collapsing, roadways broken up by plant growth and horses replacing gas-driven vehicles. This New World is agrarian, as the simple struggle to survive has largely been won, and the emphasis now is on sustainable farming.
There are still zombies, of course, but the threat is manageable. The major threat to the new world order is internal divisions, as resentful Hilltoppers feed the Saviours, whose crops have failed. A leadership struggle at Hilltop ends in a stunning climax, which demonstrates better than words how Maggie’s leadership differs from Rick’s.
That brings up the infamous Spoiler Warning, so if you haven’t seen the episode, skip the next three paragraphs.
While we never see Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), he is referenced throughout the 90-minute premiere. In the final episode of Season 8, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) decided to incarcerate Negan in Alexandria, instead of executing him, as a sign of progress to a better world. His continued existence is a burr under the saddle for both Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Daryl (Norman Reedus). Maggie won’t even visit Alexandria.
In the season premiere, we learn the oily and unctuous Gregory (Xander Berkeley) has lost a Hilltop leadership election to Maggie – and it doesn’t sit well with him. He gets a grieving father drunk, convinces him it’s Maggie’s fault that his son has died, and sets an ambush. It fails, as does Gregory’s later personal attempt with a knife (in the comics he uses poison).
“You can’t even murder someone right!” huffs Maggie, as she defeats him. And then, that night, has him executed by public hanging! And if that’s what Maggie does to someone who failed an assassination attempt, you can just imagine what she wants to do to Negan, who successfully assassinated her husband.
There was some more action elsewhere in the episode – a set-piece with a glass floor over zombies springs to mind – but the show seems to have veered into interpersonal drama more than action-adventure. And if there’s something critics like, it’s drama.
“In a welcome change for this series, that narrative frisson offers some intriguing possibilities,” said the AV Club review. “The best episode in years,” crowed Forbes.com. OK, Mashable called it “mostly boring,” and there’s certainly room to criticise this overly-long and talky episode. But overall, critics seemed pleased.
The final judgment will come from the viewers. Will Jodie Whittaker be embraced by Whovians at large? Will a Western with zombies find favour with Walking Dead fans? If nothing else, Sunday nights will give audiences a lot to talk about on Monday morning. – TNS
PREMIER: It’s back to horses and wooden houses on The Walking Dead, starring Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, right, and Danai Gurira as Michonne.
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