Doctor Who: 11.01 The Woman Who Fell To Earth
The beauty of Doctor Who is that everything can change so much that it can both be the same show and something new entirely. That's part of its enduring legacy and why we're all excitedly watching its thirty seventh series (or eleven if you're going just by Nu Who standards). Change is a huge part of series eleven both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. From the showrunner, writers and composer down to all the cast, everyone involved is relatively new to the series and that brings something fresh and exciting to the show.
As I stated in my preview, The Woman Who Fell To Earth is both a fresh start and a welcome return for the show. Even fifteen minutes in, it feels distinctly different to the Moffat era, different again from Davies' show and the eras before that. The deep, emotionally engaging characterisation Chris Chibnall brought to Broadchurch is keenly felt here; the focus is primarily on the new companions who really feel developed to the point you know who they by the time the credits roll.
Family is a key theme; the episode opens with Tosin Cole's 19 year old Ryan Sinclair, a young man with a lot of heart and frustration as he attempts to overcome his difficulties with dyspraxia by attempting to ride a bike, guided by nan Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and her husband of three years Graham (Bradley Walsh). They are emotional core of the entire episode; Ryan has been raised by his Nan after his mother's death six years earlier, while Grace (a fantastic guest appearance by Clarke) is the courageous, strong woman guiding him while supporting her husband after his cancer treatment three years earlier. Grace's bond is the glue that holds them together, making the tragic events at the episode's end all the more hard to watch.
After Ryan throws his bike over the hill in frustration, he is left to find it while Grace and Graham take the train home. His encounter with a mysterious alien device in the woods, leads him to call the police and reunite with old school friend-turned strong willed trainee police officer Yasmin - Yaz - Khan (Mandip Gill). The former bond between them was a nice extra touch, building on them becoming fellow companions to the Doctor in future episodes. And while the alien device goes missing before Yaz can see it, a terrifying alien attack on the train Graham and Grace are on sets the stage for the debut of the new Doctor.
It's a full nine minutes before Jodie Whittaker makes her debut, Chibnall's focus so far being on the human cast that will follow her on her adventures. Director Jamie Childs really makes use of the train attack; locked doors, shadow and electricity revealing a frightening mass of cybernetic tentacles tearing it way through the carriage towards Graham, Grace and fellow passenger Carl (Jonny Dixon). And when the Doctor literally falls through the roof, Whittaker is a delight to behold. Confused, bewildered and still unsure of who she is post-regeneration, she none-the-less acts on instinct, fending the alien creature back and then immediately setting to work with Graham, Grace and Carl to solve the mystery. Ryan and Yaz arrive soon after and it was a delight to see the Thirteenth Doctor fielding questions, enthused by everyone's involvement as she tried to surmise what was actually happening.
The biggest difference between this Doctor and her predecessors is that she encourages that involvement, is willing to do whatever she can to help at a drop of a hat. This is a far cry from the early days of Twelfth Doctor and his 'pudding brain' comments and Whittaker is just infectious in the role, full of enthusiasm and passion as she fumbled from what thought too another, encouraging debate. There was an hint of Tennant's energy and love of humans with Smith's bumbling nature but really that comparison is very light. Whittaker really makes the role her own and leads without overshadowing the others. In Chibnall's Doctor Who, the human companions of the story feel just as essential. Oh and the fact that she's a woman is dealt with only so briefly, the Doctor only realising her gender when Maz calls her madam. It's not ignored but it's not a big deal either. She is the Doctor, like all the regenerations before her.
For a series that feel like it's going to have a lighter, warmer tone that the last few series, there's is a surprising amount of darkness in the alien threat; the Doctor and her four companions are infected with nasty DNA bombs while the alien device Ryan found is picked up by a young man seeking revenge after the loss of his sister years earlier. His death is rather grizzly; his face deep frozen and his jaw ripped off and tooth removed. Fortunately you don't see any of the nasty act but imagination is a great thing and when the alien hunter emerging from the device reveals his face later on - laced with human teeth trophies - it's a sign that there's still going to be plenty of darkness in Doctor Who.
Everyone gets a moment to shine; Graham recruits his bus driver colleagues to find out if anything strange has been happening in Sheffield, Grace reaches out to her fellow nurses on snapchat, Ryan trawls social media and Yaz attempts to glean information at the police station. It's not all successful, but it shows that each human character can be just as important as the Doctor and that's a nice message to give. While it might have been nice to have had at least one of the companions be from the past, future or non-human, the fact that they all come from a close Sheffield community adds to that sense of family and emotional grounding Chibnall is obviously going for.
Talking of Sheffield, Chibnall clearly has a love for the city too, using it as the playground for the episode. The Doctor even proudly uses Sheffield steel to create her own sonic screwdriver after the last one was lost or destroyed in the Christmas special. It's a great little scene, showing her at her most intuitive and imaginative as she uses all her skill and experience to craft it from scratch. It managed to add a sense of grounding and wonder to her character all at the same time.
The mystery itself continues to evolve, the Doctor's mind racing as she runs from one theory to another until the horrifying truth is revealed. The alien hunter Tim Shaw (or however it is pronounced - BTW I've got a mate called Tim Shaw and he's not from outer space) is using Earth as his hunting ground, taking teeth trophies as he hunts down his prey - poor Carl from the train. The Doctor is quick to call out his lack of morals and convictions; he cheated by using the tentacled device to find Carl when he's supposed to conduct the hunt without weapons. It's not a big end of the world threat, but I quite liked it; the mission becomes about saving one person and anyone else that gets in Tim Shaw's way.
Then we come to the final showdown on the cranes as Tim Shaw hunted Carl, a poor man who only wants to feel valued in life (though not I imagine as a human trophy). It adds a little grandeur to the episode which largely feels more grounded after the events on the train. The Doctor climbing across the frame to rescue Carl was an exciting moment, proudly announcing that she is the Doctor after searching for her name all episode. The reveal that she had placed the DNA bombs on the enemy was a clever little twist; she might have a somewhat sunnier disposition than her immediate predecessor, but she is still the Doctor and she can be ruthless when she needs to be. She has deep values too; there is disgust when Carl pushes Tim Shaw off the crane after she forces the alien into an ultimatum.
And then we have Grace. I'm not sure whether it was intentional, but Chibnall wrote her as the most engaging companion of the lot. Sharon D. Clarke had some real energy and grit to her; I would have loved to see her travels on the TARDIS. But perhaps that's the point. She dies trying to destroy the tentacled device Tim Shaw brought to Earth, leaving the episode on a somewhat tragic note. Carl lives but she dies; along with the three other victims, the scales don't quite balance out. The only small issue I had with this was that her death was sign-posted from the start. I could imagine Ryan and Yaz going off on adventures with the Doctor but not Graham, at least not without being led into it by Grace. Her absence in the limited publicity series eleven has had meant she was never going to make it past episode one.
In her death, Chibnall doesn't seem to be afraid to go dark when need be. The man who steals the device containing Tim Shaw was trying to revenge for his sister who was hunted down and taken years earlier. He dies seeking what he was looking for. Grace dies playing the hero. It makes me wonder if Chibnall will not give all his three companions a happy ending.
The hour running time is well served; the story is given time to breathe, from the character introductions, to the unravelling mystery of what is happening, the showdown on the crane and the final bittersweet moments after Grace's death. Like many, I didn't know enough about Bradley Walsh's acting abilities to know how good a companion he would be. After that eulogy at Grace's funeral, I was absolutely sold on Graham as a character. He will keep the show grounded, and yet through his dead wife, he was show courage and a thirst for life after his cancer. Ryan too is man trying to overcome his troubles and life with the Doctor will give him that confidence. Yaz feels a little less developed than the others, but I understand her passion, her wit and ability to get what needs to be done. From negotiating the disputing neighbours at the beginning to driving the crane at the end, she will get things done, whatever it takes to do so.
And that's a good place to end The Woman Who Fell To Earth. As an opening episode for a new Doctor, it is a little underplayed on the adventure stakes; apart from Whittaker's charm, I'm not yet getting that sense of wonder that the show will bring. But I believe in these characters and that's a key part of any series. I want to see what happens next and the cliff-hanger was certainly a doozy as the Doctor attempted to locate her missing TARDIS on an alien planet and ended up zapping her and her three companions into space. I would love it if Chibnall went really old school and ended each episode on a cliff-hanger for the next story.
And a final note on that theme tune in the end credits. Again, it really feels old school with the 60's Doctor Who vibe mixed with the thundering beats of the Tennant era. I'll need to listen to it more - and we'll finally get the title sequence next episode - but it certainly feels fresh and familiar, just like the episode. I wonder if the grounded nature of the episode will be for everyone; there's a greater focus so far on character over spectacle. But one thing is certain; Doctor Who has been reborn again and Jodie Whittaker looks like she's going to be brilliant as the Doctor.