BBC1 continuity excitedly introduced the first in the new series of Doctor Who as ‘bigger and better than ever’ — presumably because the more accurate ‘bigger and better than it’s been for a bit’ doesn’t have quite the same punch. Still, Sunday’s programme was a definite, even exhilarating improvement on those of recent years. Since Chris Chibnall became the showrunner in 2018, thrills have taken a firm second place to solemn lectures on how the most dangerous monster of all is human prejudice. Yet at no stage here did the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) encounter some acknowledged hero of black and/or women’s history — and so allow us a self-satisfied bask in having risen above the bigotry of less enlightened times. Just like in its various pomps, it mingled spectacle, an impressive range of scary creatures and several memorable set-pieces with fast-paced, funny dialogue.
Granted, there was also a distinct feeling of a show with its back to the wall. Following July’s announcement that Chibnall (taking Whittaker with him) is leaving to make way for the messiah-like return of Russell T. Davies many Whovians are already looking forward to the bright new post-Chibnall future. But this rather overlooks the fact that the ancien régime has a series and three specials to go, with Davies not due to save the day until 2023. And in the meantime, it seems, Chibnall has resolved to come out fighting.
Certainly, from Sunday’s first scene onwards, he showed no sign of going gentle into that good night. The show began with the Doctor and Yaz (Mandip Gill) suspended upside down from a ‘gravity bar’ that in 79 seconds would drop them into a ‘boiling acid ocean’. Not that Karvanista, the creature responsible, was taking any chances. Prudently adopting a belt-and-braces approach, he’d also arranged for whatever planet they were on to be engulfed by ‘a nearby red star’.