Thomas Tyrrell casts a critical eye over the long-awaited landing of the new, female, Dr Who.
It’s been a long wait for this new series of Doctor Who, and as the day grew nearer my mind kept returning to Jodie Whittaker’s first lines as the Doctor, immediately after her regeneration in the Christmas special. Still in the mindset of Peter Capaldi’s relatively dour interpretation of the role, I’d expected her first words to be something like ‘Ooh, it’s a bit… different.’ Instead, her eyes lit up, a big grin spread across her face, and she went ‘Oh, brilliant!’
That reaction, that instant unaffected enthusiasm, came to represent everything I wanted from the new series. No-one wants the TARDIS to land in 15th Century Milan only for the Doctor to go ‘Ugh, patriarchy. Again.’ Equally, no-one wants to spend 45 minutes on a Sunday night plotting their next moves in the ensuing Twitter war. The debate over Whittaker’s casting, online and in the tabloids, got very toxic very quickly. The show responded with the announcement of a diverse cast of companions, and an amusingly on-the-nose advertising campaign that featured a literal exploding glass ceiling. To succeed, however, it needed to break out of the chatroom bunker mentality. It needed to be inclusive, compelling and, above all, brilliant.
And it succeeds. “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is brilliant television. Giving us much more of an ensemble show than we’ve previously seen in modern Who, it introduces and develops four vividly sketched characters —Ryan Sinclair, Yasmin Khan, and Ryan’s mixed-race grandparents, Graham and Grace O’Brien, before we even see Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor for the first time, crashing in through the roof of a train to save Graham and Grace from a menace which is best described as a flying electric spaghetti monster. She is instantly a delight, effortlessly authoritative, sure of herself, and every inch the hero. Peter Capaldi’s opening episode, “Deep Breath”, pushed the show’s boundaries by giving us a Doctor who might possibly be a murderer, setting the theme for a season where the Doctor constantly agonised over whether he was a good man or not. No doubts here: her first instinct is immediately to protect the innocent, to save lives, to work against the alien threat. She’s a good woman, no question, and a worthy inheritor of the sonic screwdriver.
Jodie Whittaker’s first episode is also the first under a new showrunner, with Chris Chibnall taking up the reins from Stephen Moffat, and there’s an immediate change in the aesthetic and the style of storytelling. Dedicated South Wales scenery-spotters will be delighted by the prominent appearance of Garth Hill, standing in for the Yorkshire Dales, but thereafter the scene mostly takes place in Sheffield at night, with lots of flaring arc lights, crackles of electricity, and gleaming wet tarmac and tile. It’s very different from the brightly coloured science-fairy-tale style Stephen Moffat developed, a kind of grungy aesthetic that frequently recalls Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), particularly in the slick black supercooled armour worn by the main villain, Tzim-Sha (frequently mispronounced as Tim Shaw, in one of the episode’s best jokes).
Peter Capaldi plucked his sonic screwdriver from the TARDIS console fully formed, like the sword from the stone; Jodie Whittaker forges hers from Sheffield steel and scrounged table spoons in a workshop montage. The two approaches say something about the storytelling of the episode. Even when he was pushing the limits of what the show could do, Stephen Moffat had a kind of mythical approach to narrative epitomised in the nicknames he gave to his companions: ‘the girl who waited’ for Amy Pond, ‘the impossible girl’ for Clara Oswald. Like its aesthetic, the storytelling in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is rougher and less polished, but in a way that feels revitalising rather than abrasive. Characters exist in relation to one another, not just in relation to the Doctor. We spend the first half hour or so unaware what relation Tzim-Sha and the flying electric spaghetti monster (or gatherer coil, as it turns out to be) have to one another. The Doctor’s initial guess, that Earth has become a battleground for two alien races, turns out to be a red herring. In fact, the gatherer coil is a scout for Tzim-Sha, detecting the human he must hunt down and take as a trophy in order to be named the leader of his race. His face, when we see it, is gruesomely speckled with the teeth of previous trophies claimed, instantly making him one of the most memorable parts of the episode, and he has an unusually interesting character as a leader not up to the grizzly standards of his warrior race, who must therefore cheat to pass his challenge. After the threat is vanquished, the back end of the episode is also a surprise, with the Doctor sticking around for a funeral she’d have usually missed in a Stephen Moffat script. It heralds a new focus on character also evident in the post-credit Coming Soon trailer, one of the few flops of the episode, which gives us a seemingly endless parade of future guest stars without a single monster or explosion. (What were they thinking?)
Introducing a new Doctor and a new production team, this episode provides a near-perfect balance of the strange and the familiar for long term fans and new comers alike. We don’t have a TARDIS or even a title sequence in this episode, but this is still Doctor Who, back on the screen and just as good as it has ever been.