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.
There is, I think, something a little strange about this episode.
Or rather, not strange, not exactly – unfamiliar. Consciously and deliberately so. That, admittedly, isn’t entirely surprising, given that this is the first episode of Doctor Who after a huge change both in front of and behind the camera. If it wasn’t different, it’d be something of a missed opportunity.
But then it’s not just that it’s different. Consider, after all, The Eleventh Hour, which is the most obvious point of comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth. For all the changes made in that episode, from the obvious ones down, it still felt like a version of Doctor Who we were all basically familiar with. With The Woman Who Fell to Earth, there’s something that is, like I said, a little strange and unfamiliar.
Take the way this episode strips back all the usual hallmarks of the programme. No sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no theme tune or opening credits. There’s an obvious logic to it, foregrounding the characters and giving them some space to develop, essentially building the show around them – we start with Ryan’s direct address to camera, then crash the Doctor into their world. It’s neatly done, a clever way to introduce us to the new cast of characters, and immediately foregrounds this era’s priorities.
Even then, though, it’s not just as simple as a shake up in the iconography: the style is different, not just the substance. The pacing, the music, the sense of humour – it’s undeniably the same show, yes, but the subtleties to the shift in approach are vast in their impact. (The change in the sense of humour is an interesting one actually, because, if nothing else, it probably should’ve been expected; Karl’s self-validating refrain of “someone wants me” in the face of an alien hunter who wants him as a prize isn’t a million miles away from how Broadchurch used to follow cliffhangers with a long, sweeping shot of actual cliffs.) So, for all that The Woman Who Fell to Earth is easily recognisable, there’s also something just a little discomforting about it, a little strange, something that’s difficult to entirely work out.
Certainly, I found that to be the case. I enjoyed it, definitely, even outside the basic “it’s Doctor Who and I always love it” of it all – but there was something about it I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something I didn’t quite get. The second time around, though, I understood it better, and I enjoyed it more – and I’m looking forward to next week, to becoming more familiar with the grammar of this version of Doctor Who, to learning to love it.
Worth discussing, then, is the characters – like I said above, there’s an obvious attempt to foreground them here, and they’re certainly the most interesting part of the episode.
(And, as a quick aside, I don’t think this is a particular departure from previous iterations of Doctor Who – you’re not going to catch me proselytising about bus drivers vs Impossible Girls, or whatever – but I would argue it’s a bit more overt here. If nothing else, The Woman Who Fell to Earth holds back the Doctor’s first appearance much longer than Rose or The Eleventh Hour did.)
As an introductory piece, it works. There’s obviously limitations, because in an hour you’re not going to be able to flesh everyone out – Yaz is suffering from this the most at the moment – but as a starting point, there’s clear potential. They all take to their roles well (I love Bradley Walsh and will not hear a word against him, thank you), forgiving the occasional rough patch, and they’re each endearing in their own ways; there’s also, of course, a lot to appreciate in the way the ensemble has been built, from their existing connections to one another and the diversity between them. Indeed, in terms of the latter there’s a lot to admire; this is the sort of thing Doctor Who should always be doing, and I’m glad that it’s doing it now.
What’s interesting, though, is the way they all feel built around the Doctor, not just each other. There’s plenty of subtle parallels between them together – everyone’s already commented on how the episode positions Grace as a Doctor analogue, from the YouTube video to her job to the title of the episode, but it’s similarly true of the others. We learn that Ryan wants to be a mechanic; this is one of the first episodes in a long time that emphasises the Doctor building things, with that extended sequence of her creating the new sonic screwdriver. Graham is a bus driver, so it’s not difficult to construct a parallel between that and the TARDIS. And that line about “sorting out fair play across the universe” isn’t a million miles away from Yaz sorting out the parking dispute at the beginning, is it? (Absolutely dreading the inevitable police discourse that’s going to erupt when Yaz comments on the TARDIS being a “police box” tonight, though, damn.) In any case, though, it’s easy to see how they’re all going to gel together as a group, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this ensemble forms around the Doctor.
Speaking of – as if I’d forget – there’s the Doctor. Who is, of course, wonderful. That’s not a surprise, particularly; Jodie Whittaker has pretty consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in, and as expected that still holds true. She’s charming and idiosyncratic and fun, and just generally a joy to watch. There’s a couple of rough moments, true, but even then “rough moments” feels like overstating it a bit – it’s the same ‘roughness’ you see at the start of every Doctor’s tenure, during that time before the part is being written to their performance entirely. That’s the sort of thing that’s going to iron out soon enough, and when so much of it is absolutely pitch perfect, why worry?
There are bits that don’t work in the episode as a whole, admittedly. Fewer than I thought since rewatching it – like I said, some of the differences did trip me up a bit – but a couple all the same.
I wasn’t, admittedly, entirely keen on Tim Shaw (I’m certain I’ve heard that joke before?) – I know, of course, that these episodes aren’t the ones that tend to have, or even really should have, particularly deep or interesting monsters, but even so, a character straight out of 90s Star Trek is a little lame. The teeth was an interesting quirk, certainly, but even so – I’d have liked something a little bit more visually or conceptually engaging. Not even necessarily more complex – the Autons worked because of how simple they were – but perhaps just a little bit more interesting. Speaking of Tim Shaw, actually, the final resoluation felt a little messy – from that clunky line about “sorting out fair play” to “you had no right”, it doesn’t quite work. Particularly in the case of the latter; it’s an obvious call back to Tennant’s first episode, but doesn’t quite work conceptually here. If nothing else, poor Karl lashing out at Tim Shaw after the Doctor already tricked Tim into detonating the DNA bombs (which is hardly fair play!) doesn’t really make that much of a difference – it’s not really obvious what character point “you had no right” is meant to be making, not in the same way “no second chances, I’m that sort of a man” did all those years ago.
One that I am actually less inclined to criticise the episode for is the fridging of Grace – contrary to my usual stance, since that’s typically one of my biggest bugbears when it comes to television drama. No, in this case, while it did manage to be both deeply lazy and eminently predictable, I’m thinking it’s best to hold off on criticism, at least for the time being. At the moment, I’m convinced we’ve not quite seen the last of Grace – but perhaps that’s wishful thinking, motivated only by how engaging Sharon D. Clarke’s performance was, and my own hope that Doctor Who wouldn’t make such a dull move in this episode, of all episodes. (It’s particularly disappointing, I think, coming after the Moffat era, where deconstructing fridging and providing ‘better’ narratives for the Doctor-analogue characters was something of a recurring theme; if this does turn out to be as simple as looked, then yeah, it’s very much deserving of critique.)
Ultimately, then? Sure, there’s flaws – the direction is a little choppy and underwhelming at times, some of the character beats don’t quite land, Tim Shaw is a bit naff – but in the end, they don’t matter too much. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is, if nothing else, an entertaining and engaging piece of television, and a fine start to an era that’s obviously bursting with potential.
And Jodie Whittaker really is pretty brilliant.