Doctor Who: 11-01 “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon…”
I often find it funny if you imagine just what certain characters between series of a show do during the real-time that passes between series. For poor Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, that is one long fall.
286 days later, and we’re finally here- Doctor Who Series 11 of the revived show. While Jodie has been falling post-regeneration from a white-haired Scotsman, there’s been change in almost every aspect of Doctor Who behind the scenes as well- new showrunner, new directors, new writers, new composer, and even brand new camera lenses. There’s been a palpable excitement in the air to finally see what new head honcho Chris Chibnall has been hiding behind the Great Wall of Secrets he’s put up to keep as many details un-spoiled as possible. What the first episode of Series 11, The Woman Who Fell To Earth (a nice little reference to the David Bowie starring The Man Who Fell To Earth) promises is a Doctor Who that is resolutely true to everything the show is about, a new reinvention that feels undeniably fresh but comfortably familiar. Everything that matters feels the same.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth centres mostly on the debut of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen, and as the first (actual, non-spoof) female Doctor it feels like a special event. Not because of the gender change, which I’m going to give about as much attention as the episode itself does (seconds). This feels like a bright new dawn for the show, one where every viewer possible is welcomed with open arms, where all of the key physical signifiers are dropped at the start, for now (sonic, TARDIS et. al) so it can focus on showing new viewers and reminding old ones just what the show is all about- hope, adventure, and the triumph of good against evil. It’s a shame how some are using this new dawn as a stick to beat outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat with however, especially considering the many seeds he lay in Series 10 to naturally lead towards a “female” (because let’s be serious, Time Lords don’t care about it and neither should we) incarnation.
And that’s all the time that needs to be spent on the issue, because Jodie Whittaker sparkles every second she’s on screen. Landing (or rather, crashing through a train carriage) after the TARDIS kicked her out (again), Jodie grabs your attention from the moment she arrives- which is a little bit into proceedings, building a nice bit of suspense for when she finally drops out of the sky, the new theme simmering away in the background. While The Woman Who Fell To Earth still has the usual post-regeneration story hallmarks including the aping of prior Doctors- Jodie gets to have great fun with that- from her first appearance Thirteen is in charge, asking questions and saving lives. After some of the eye-rolling trials Jodie has been put through in interviews asking questions of her validity as The Doctor, it’s superb to see.
It’s a little while before we even see Jodie crash through the train, as we first meet our new companions, starting with Tosin Cole’s Ryan Sinclair. Ryan has dyspraxia, and one of The Woman Who Fell To Earth’s first scenes see him attempting to overcome his co-ordination issues and finally ride a bike, which his vlog tells us is a bit embarrassing for him. It’s a lovely touch to lead us back into the show with an everyday struggle (and a condition which isn’t really represented much) after the bombastic events of the Series 10 finale and Christmas special. Frustrated with his failed attempts, he throws his bike over the peak he was riding- and discovers something very alien when recovering it.
The person responding to Ryan’s call to the police is the Doctor’s next new friend, Yazmin Khan, a police officer in probation training- Yaz for short. While Yaz doesn’t get as much focus as the rest of the cast this time around given the connections between Ryan, Graham and Grace, her first scene establishes her sense of command, confidence and desire for something more adventurous, which will undoubtedly make her a firm favourite with the new Doc. There’s a history between Yaz and Ryan, both attending the same primary school, and it’s nice to have a little connection like that in the new cast of characters.
Married couple Bradley Walsh’s Graham and Sharon D Clarke’s Grace O’Brien round out the new characters we focus on, with Grace stealing the show at times with her happy-go-lucky attitude and resourcefulness, always willing to dive head-first into the problem (“Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” she asks with a face of glee to Graham). It’s a real shock to see her die, as I presumed she’d be a recurring character, and it’s a cruel irony that it was Grace who was the real woman who fell to Earth of the title. As for Graham, it’ll be little surprise to anyone who managed to catch Bradley in Law and Order: UK, as he shines in the most moving scene of the episode giving a eulogy about his passed wife. He’s a bit cowardly and is clearly going to be the more level-headed member of the team, yet we easily sympathize with him.
The alien threat of the episode is a daft Predator-esque villain by the name of Tim Shaw (who is genuinely credited as that), who’s all breaking jaws and pulling teeth from his victims as he goes about his hunt. Really, though, he’s little more than a wall for Jodie and the gang to bounce off of, despite his suitably grotesque face-full-of-teeth design. The tone of The Woman Who Fell To Earth is rather sombre at points which gives off a rather Torchwood vibe, yet not overly so, which allows for a body count that allows both sad deaths (poor Dennis the security guard) and hilarious ones (the kebab throwing man had it coming!)
So while the villain may not be the most instantly memorable, the characters are, which is par for the course now when it comes to Chris Chibnall’s prior character work on the show (The Power of Three, despite a rushed finish, is excellent). From the humanist features like the bookends with Ryan to the little moments that make the world feel more lived-in such as Graham chatting to his old bus mates for info, it’s in these moments that the Chibnall Who feels the most refreshingly mixed between the old and new. That’s helped immensely by the brand new anamorphic lenses which give the show a wider, beautifully cinematic look with some stunning vistas (the shot of The Doctor watching Ryan attempt to ride his bike was particularly gorgeous) and this new style also benefits the tenser moments. New composer Segun Akinola fills the enormous shoes left by Murray Gold by going in the complete opposite direction, crafting a heady, atmospheric score that’s a far cry from the orchestral strains of Murray, yet hinting at something grander at the same time (see- the sonic montage, and Jodie’s speech). His reworking of the theme bringing back elements of the classic original was such a welcome sound.
This is undoubtedly Jodie’s episode though. From confidently telling Yaz that they’re friends now to assuming the role of leader instantly trying to calm people and asking questions, Thirteen is in control. And while moments like asking to put the police car lights/siren on and sticking a finger up her nose to ascertain data- what was that about being daffy and idiosyncratic?- are hilarious, it’s in the scenes where we see her step into her own that are chill-inducing. The madcap inventor montage as she fashions a brand new sonic screwdriver is likely to inspire many young girls and boys (will Thirteen be a bit of an inventor, then?) While she spends most of the runtime following that “call towards the truth”, wild hair flying, constantly telling others (and herself) that “it’ll be fine!” by the moment she stands defiantly against Tim Shaw (who she spends most of the time making fun of!), Thirteen has really earned that “I am the Doctor” moment. While we have yet to see Jodie fully bring out the darker side (though there were hints, some of that Peter Capaldi steel coming through during her face-off with Tim), Thirteen promises to be a bit dorky, always helping, resourceful, and that most important thing- not the first female Doctor, just The Doctor. It was a delight to see her in Peter’s old clothes so I’m almost disappointed she isn’t keeping them, but just tell me without lying that watching her select her costume- brilliantly, in a charity shop- didn’t make you smile. In fact I could not stop smiling every time Jodie was on screen- she’s absolutely magic. She’s The Doctor.
While The Woman Who Fell To Earth may not rank as highly as The Eleventh Hour when it comes to modern Doctor debuts (but what does?), it still completes the task that it set out to do- introduce Thirteen and her new friends, and get viewers invested in the new series ahead, with a confident start that showcases a Doctor Who that is different to what has come before- yet the same at heart, as a family drama everyone can get on board with and enjoy, laugh with, be scared at and be inspired by. They accomplish their goal in spades, with so much likeability, relatability and warmth in each of the new cast, with plenty to come from The Doctor and friends. I’m excited to see how the dynamic of Thirteen, Ryan, Yaz and Graham develops over the new series. Well, if they survive the vacuum of space obviously…