We’ve been waiting for this one for a long time now.
Last July, Jodie Whittaker was announced as the Thirteenth Doctor and the world went nuts as Doctor Who made one of the biggest developments in its 50+ year history. While we glimpsed her at the end of the 2017 Christmas special, it’s taken this long for us to finally get the chance to see what Whittaker’s made of. But did “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” land on her feet, or fall flat on her face?
In terms of the actress’ performance, we can safely say that the season 11 premiere makes clear that Whittaker was a terrific piece of casting. There’s a case to be made that every Doctor is cast as a reaction away from their predecessor, and you can definitely see that on display in this episode. While Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was characterized by his curmudgeonly nature, the Thirteenth Doctor is warm, caring and charming to a fault.
Whittaker nails the Doctor’s stream-of-consciousness dialogue, too, and makes nimble work of all the exposition she has to deliver. In the future, it’d be fascinating to see the Time Lord’s indignation and anger come to the fore a touch more as she confronts her enemies, but if the intention was to prove to audiences that this woman is the same person as the eccentric, loveable, heroic man who’s been on our screens for over half a century, then that was achieved with flying colors.
Despite all the attention being on Whittaker, though, this episode is really an ensemble piece, as we spend a lot of time with the Doctor’s new friends, too, all of whom acquit themselves well. Right now, the audience identification figure is Tosin Cole’s Ryan, whose family tragedies and struggle to overcome his dyspraxia make him easy to sympathize with and root for. Doctor Who‘s never had a companion with a medical condition such as this, so it’s a welcome step towards a TARDIS with at least one person for everyone to relate to, much as showrunner Chris Chibnall has said was his intention.
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As for the rest, we have Bradley Walsh and Sharon D. Clarke as Graham and Grace, Ryan’s gran and her second husband. Walsh is most known as a game show host in the UK, so it’s easy to forget he’s also a gifted actor, which he reminds us of here with his surprisingly touching performance as a man much less courageous than his force-of-nature wife. Mandip Gill’s also likeable as Yaz, but in this hour there wasn’t as much to latch onto as the others in terms of her character, beyond her desire to be recognized for her talents in the police force.
What would Doctor Who be without a monster to face, though? As you might expect, with a new Time Lord and a fresh supporting cast to introduce, the villain of the week takes a backseat, but the idea that this alien hunter – memorably nicknamed “Tim Shaw” by the Doctor – wears the teeth of its victims as trophies is a neat bit of kid-friendly gore. Sure, its scheme to come to Earth to hunt humans for sport is borrowed from Predator, but the concept’s never been used in this particular sci-fi franchise before.
As headline-grabbing as the casting of Whittaker was, arguably the more significant change to Doctor Who is the handover from longtime producer Steven Moffat to his replacement Chibnall, which brings a whole new temperament and style to the series. After years of Moffat’s labyrinthine plotting and overtly comedic dialogue, it’s refreshing to have a very straightforward story and an emphasis on personal drama. Truth be told, Chibnall’s previous Who scripts aren’t typically considered fan favorites, but this is easily his best one yet. That said, the momentum does slide in places and certain scenes feel somewhat overlong. It’s worth remembering that this was a special hour-length opener, though, so the problem likely won’t continue.
At least the whole thing’s held together with a strong theme of change on a personal level. Much as the Doctor herself’s discovering who she is now after her regeneration, the rest of the cast also experience a growth of character. Most notably, we see Ryan pushing through his coordination issues and Graham becoming braver. The fact that the plot revolves around a supposed nobody with low self-esteem adds an inspiring edge to the narrative, too. That said, killing off a truly endearing character in Grace does end things on a somber mood that the subsequent peril-filled cliffhanger doesn’t quite snap you out of.
Even if the script is patchy in places, the other areas of production are firing on all cylinders. We’ve previously heard that the BBC had forked out for new cameras for the show and these seem to have paid off, as the premiere has a cinematic scope and sense of visual flair to it which really makes the mundane Northern English setting pop. Props to director Jamie Childs, too. It’s no wonder he’s returning for a handful more episodes this season.
Last but not least, composer Segun Akinola had his work cut out for him replacing Murray Gold, who worked on the series from 2005 to 2017, but his subtle, synth-y score is excellent. And his revamp of the classic theme that plays over the closing credits is to die for – a perfect distillation of what makes the original 60s version so otherwordly.
All in all, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” succeeds as a statement of intent for this brand new era of Doctor Who, telling us that it’s going to be easily accessible, gorgeous to look at and listen to, all about the character drama and brought to life with a lead actress who has a lot of energy. In terms of comparing it to past Who, it’s not a flawless season opener, but it does a terrific job of making us excited for the rest of Doctor No. 13’s tenure.
Jodie Whittaker makes an energetic and entertaining debut in a solid season opener that succeeds as a statement of intent for this brand new era of Doctor Who.