It’s rare that a show has the chance to reinvent itself as often as Doctor Who does. Thanks to the very nature of the regeneration process, the show can change everything when its newest star is introduced. That goes double for ‘The Woman who Fell to Earth’, the first episode in the show’s almost 55-year history to feature a female Time Lord, and the first episode with new showrunner and head writer Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch) as well as a new production crew. In fact, we didn’t even get a new title sequence to feast our eyes on, and we were only shown brief glimpses at a new theme song by Segun Akinola. Instead, we got to focus on plot, and most-importantly atmosphere, which this series opener had in spades. Because Doctor Who is now a show that has something to prove in the light of its naysayers, and whilst there are some bumps along the way, it’s a hopeful start for what could be a new era for the show.
“Right now I’m a stranger to myself” – The Doctor.
First off let’s get this out the way. Jodie Whittaker (Attack the Block, Adult Life Skills) slips right into the role of The Doctor the same way all of her previous incarnations have. She’s confident and bristles with an energy that’s like a midway point between David Tennant and Matt Smith’s first outings. An individual physicality is needed within the episode, as The Doctor traverses throughout the entire ordeal in the clothing worn throughout Peter Capaldi’s final outing ‘Twice Upon a Time’, and Whittaker is more than up for the challenge. There’s no mention of any previous outings to overtake the importance of what’s going on here. In fact. it reminded me of a common complaint of Capaldi’s first series (despite his greatness); Whittaker has nothing to fall back on, no old foes, no flashbacks, no TARDIS and not even a screwdriver until halfway through the ordeal, and she makes it look effortless.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For the first fifteen minutes of the episode we’re slowly introduced to the barrage of new characters; anxious, dyspraxic vlogger Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and his traditional step-grandfather Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) serve as a meaty paring. Add onto that Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), a trainee police officer eager to prove herself, and you’ve got another interesting choice, harkening back to the likes of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). Immediately the new cinematic look of the show is noticeable, and the choice to film on Cooke and Angénieux anamorphic lenses works wonders on the show’s visual style. Colours are deeper and backdrops are vast, lens flares bounce across the screen and make the darkness…well, darker. It’s a more filmic presentation style that compliments the grounded world building on show. This self-contained story set in Sheffield seems like the most intimate introduction to The Doctor we’ve ever had, and when the intergalactic presence finally does show up, it has a larger effect thanks to the juxtaposition.
Speaking of which, first time Doctor Who director Jamie Childs brings a knowledge of tension and mastery of camerwork to the episode, particularly within a sequence involving Graham and his wife/Ryan’s grandmother Grace aboard a broken down train that’s been disturbed by an alien presence. Slow tracking shots and excellent cinematography craft genuine suspense that isn’t let down by some marvelous visual effects work too. For an electrical orb of tentacles (hey, just go with it) travels down the carriage planting tracker bombs in its victims, only to be scared away by The Doctor, who’s recently fallen after a breakdown of the TARDIS during the latest regeneration (without harm, no less, that post-regeneration strength sure is something).
It wasn’t all computer generated wizardry though. Ryan stumbles upon a large alien pod within the woods, freezing cold to the touch that attracts the attention of a local mechanic with dark previous experiences associated with the cocoon. Of course, when the pod opens and the episode’s antagonist is revealed to be Tzim Sha or ‘Tim Shaw’, a member of the Stenza warrior race hunting down a chosen human to be his sacrifice to his people, we begin to realise that the plot is, at best, serviceable and mostly exists as an introductory story for all of the show’s new elements.
As a consequence of trying to fit so much in, a lot of components feel undercooked unfortunately. For example, the prospect of three new companions (four for this episode) means that things are continuously crowded, and whilst they all seem to have their own personalities none of them get a chance to really shine. One of my main worries of Chibnall as head writer was that I’ve never really taken a shine to any of his previous episodes of Who (‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, ‘42’, ‘The Power of Three’), and it’s unfortunate that I continue to carry this worry after the episode. Whilst the worldbuilding and grounded nature of the story is applaudable, there’s very little to advance the plot forward and nothing feels urgent- there’s no real stakes for any of the characters here (well, arguably one but we’ll get to that). As a result Tzim fails to intimidate, which is a shame because the reveal of his appearance under the mask, with a face compiled of his victims’ teeth, is a particular highlight of the episode and a cool visual for an antagonist.
After crafting a new sonic screwdriver in the deceased mechanic’s workshop, the action soon transfers to a construction sight as the Stenza makes his move towards his target, a crane driver named Dean. Whilst Doctor Who definitely doesn’t enjoy the popularity it once did and is surely no longer the BBC’s golden child, it’s remarkable the sense of the scale the show was able to achieve across the climactic sequence atop a series of cranes at night time, as The Doctor jumps from one to the other in order to confront the warrior and save Dean. Simple techniques such as camera placement go a long way in creating genuine spectacle rarely seen in teatime television, and I’m glad the show retains that same sense of excitement, even if the story and writing still take a little to be desired. For example, as The Doctor is revealed to have swapped over the ticking-time bomb trackers offscreen, we’re left feeling robbed of a final confrontation, as if we’ve been swindled with a deus ex machina; this is something Who fans are no stranger to. Sometimes being the smartest alien in the room doesn’t make for great visual entertainment.
Grace’s death at the hands of the bio-weapon orb from earlier feels unearned too, a cheap shot made to force some characterisation for both Graham and Ryan. We’ve barely spent any time with this character and yet we’re asked to feel devastation at her demise, which even feels glossed over despite a touching speech from Bradley Walsh’s Graham at her funeral in a moment that lets the show breathe across its bumper 65-minute premiere runtime. Hopefully this emotionality will transfer over the 10-episode series, as the relationship between Ryan and his grandfather strengthens as they inevitably face death regularly throughout the rest of the series. It’s interesting to note too that Yasmin seems to be the most sensible of the group, even as The Doctor flutters across unintelligible mumblings and ramblings of information. The dynamic offers up some nice opportunities to explore, which is good for a series that apparently isn’t going to contain any real series arcs and will instead focus on relationships.
Overall, Doctor Who still seems to be in good health. It’s a different ship for sure but all the base pieces are there. Whittaker is eclectic and spontaneous onscreen, though lacks the sense of power and danger to seem like a threat to her enemies. If Chibnall can construct a strong premise for his first alien planet next week, and give The Doctor a chance to breathe then I’ll feel a lot better about the show’s future, because at the moment we’ve been given a small, well-told story that serves as a good jumping-on point for newcomers to the show.
We do need to have a word though if we don’t have a title sequence and introduction to the TARDIS next week…