“So today, I want to talk about the greatest woman I ever met…” — Ryan Sinclair
With that declaration begins a new era of Doctor Who, with a brand new cast and crew. This is always an exciting time for this series, particularly with regard to the folks calling the creative shots, because it affords rebirth, which is essential to the series’s long-term health. The ability for the show to change so drastically is one of its numerous charms and a big part of what makes it unique. What other series not only gets to do this, but is expected to? Only Doctor Who could feel this fresh and new in its 11th season (or its 37th, if that’s how you’re counting).
Chris Chibnall, showrunner and writer of this opening episode, wants viewers to think Ryan is speaking of the new Doctor, but as we find out later that isn’t the case. Much of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” isn’t as it immediately seems, and after viewing it, even the episode title works on more than one level, because the series feels more grounded than it has in a long time.
In quick succession we’re introduced to the people who at the end of the next ten weeks will feel like family. Ryan, (Tosin Cole) who is 19, tries and fails to ride a bike, with help and encouragement from his grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and her second husband Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh). Neither of the men in Grace’s life appears to be at ease with the other, and she’s caught in the middle. Across the industrial, working-class town of Sheffield, police rookie Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) breaks up a silly dispute between two women (the hammer in the windshield is a nice touch). These people all seem unusually average by Doctor Who companion standards.
Normally, the new companion has a spark that’s immediately obvious, but Chibnall plays his hand less obviously. These are complicated people with real issues. The idea that Ryan cannot ride a bike because he suffers from dyspraxia — a “coordination disorder,” as his Nan puts it — is the sort of thing that would seemingly disqualify a companion in past seasons of Doctor Who. Somewhere out there are similarly afflicted children who will come away from this episode beaming, feeling that their issues would not preclude them from TARDIS travel.
Likewise, we learn late in the game that Graham is in cancer remission, which is an even more shocking a development. This is the sort of real-life condition that Doctor Who has never made a part of its week-to-week fabric, and yet here is a man who’ll be traveling with the Doctor, seemingly on edge about everything in life because he almost lost his own. Grace is the character who most closely resembles the fearless, classic companion mold (she also shares the name of a previous companion), and in the end she pays for it with her life. Is Chibnall making a statement?
And then there’s Yas, who longs to do something different that will test her. She echoes the classic companion, but she’s the friend we get to know the least in this outing, since beyond going to primary school with Ryan, she’s not a direct part of the familial tapestry that weaves the other three together. This is fine, as we’ve got a whole season to learn the inner workings of this woman who appears to have already risen above her station in life. In any other era premiere recap it would feel a little strange to get this far in without having talked about the brand new Doctor, but maybe that’s a testament to the strength of the new friends and the dramatic potential of the heroes’ journeys they’re about to embark on.
The Doctor crashes through the roof of a train, improbably unhurt, and into the lives of these people. She springs into action, momentarily disabling a threatening alien creature with a dangling electric cable. The familiar thrum of the iconic theme tune accompanies the moment. Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor immediately — not just in her first episode, but in her first scene. How embarrassing a development for those who’ve been claiming for the last year that this will never work and that the series has been ruined. Hopefully they see the error of their hyperbolic ways, because any fan who watched this episode surely left it wanting more.
How exciting this episode must be for the people who’ve invested so much emotion in the idea of a female Doctor. Any new Doctor should feel somewhat like an answer to the Doctor previous, and this Doctor is loaded with positivity and light (which the world so desperately needs right now) versus the dark complexity of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. There’s been much talk from the production team of how this new incarnation of the series is all about inclusivity, and that’s most obvious in the Doctor herself. Unusually polite and without much of the pomp that often envelops the character, she affirms her friends’ notions and questions, never allowing any of them to feel lesser or unimportant. It’s difficult to imagine this Doctor whipping out that old chestnut “I’ll explain later.” Indeed, she seems keen on explaining as much as she can, in as efficient a manner possible.
“There’s this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die. And then…you’re born! It’s terrifying. Right now I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end. Hopefully. But I have to be, because you guys need help and if there’s one thing I’m certain of, when people need help, I never refuse! Right? This is gonna be fun!” — The Doctor
That speech brought tears to this grizzled vet’s eyes (directly following it with the Doctor forging her new sonic out of spoons and alien tech is a masterstroke). To redefine and rework the ideas this series has been playing with for over 50 years cannot be a simple task, and yet Chibnall (and Whittaker) make it seem effortless with words like these. It’s much too early to make sweeping declarations as to what this vision of Doctor Who is all about, but one thing that struck me hard was how uninterested Chibnall is in being witty for the sake of it. This isn’t a script crafted around one-liners and bon mots. It has moments of humor (such as the “Tim Shaw” gag), but they’re not the moments people will take away from this.
Instead, we’ll remember the humanism it’s steeped in, not just from the relatable central figures, but from the characters who dot the periphery, such as the ill-fated Rahul, who devoted his life to finding out what happened to his sister, or Karl the emotionally damaged crane worker who listens to self-help tapes, or even the nameless security guard who speaks sweetly to his grandchild moments before his untimely demise. This is unquestionably sci-fantasy from the man who brought us Broadchurch just as the last six seasons were from the man whose previous hit series was Coupling.
The alien plot around which the meat is crafted is a serviceable reworking of Predator, but Tim Shaw (Samuel Oatley) is unlikely to go down as one of the great villains. However, the teeth thing is unforgettably gag-inducing. Far more worthy of discussion are the gorgeous new photography and the fresh, otherworldly score from Segun Akinola. The early shot of Ryan, Graham and Grace up on top of the rocks overlooking the city looks like a painting of depth and colors. Likewise, the shot near the close with the Doctor watching Ryan’s attempts to master the bicycle. Murray Gold did an exemplary job orchestrating the soundtrack for the last ten seasons, but these atmospheric beats are much closer to what I always thought modern Doctor Who should sound like. The scratching sounds moving back and forth from left to right as Rahul’s van hauls the transport pod through Sheffield is especially effective and forebodingly alien.
The big finale atop the crane is a real crowd-pleaser (perhaps even more so knowing Whittaker did all of her own stunts) and the final 10 minutes seemingly set up the rest of the season. How long until we get to see the new TARDIS? I’d be fine extending the tease for a few more episodes as the time travelers chase the machine in the remains of the alien tech. How about that doozy of a cliffhanger? Fascinating choice for these people to be forced into this lifestyle rather than wanting to travel with the Doctor, as is typically the case. Will Chibnall bring back the cliffhanger on a weekly basis? Tune in next week to presumably see a proper opening credits sequence, which based on the closing here will be, I dare suggest, brilliant.