Director: Jamie Childs
Screenplay: Chris Chibnall
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Runtime: 63 Minutes
Series 11 - Episode 1
The first episode of any new Doctor’s tenure is going to arrive with a high level of scrutiny already attached to proceedings, with regular viewers scoping out the newer factors with the promise of more along the way, and the soft application of the episode’s gentler narrative existing as a platform for the central performer and a means of enticing new viewers in with a level playing field.
The Woman Who Fell to Earth arrives with more anticipation than has befitted the show in recent years, with the appointment of series writer and Broadchurch scribe Chris Chibnall to the position of showrunner, and the casting of Jodie Whittaker in the lead role as the first woman to take on the role of the immortal time travelling alien.
Following in tow with a pre-release marketing campaign that ignored almost all attention or discussion of characters, stories or traditionally iconic imagery or villains in favour of pushing to the forefront a new cast, new locations and a more colourful than usual visual pallet.
From the low-key introduction of one of our new central characters Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) delivering an expository vlog to the camera concerning his current situation, and a brisk rundown of the other main characters and their interconnected lives, the titular hero of the hour drops dramatically into the frame accompanied by the sting of the iconic theme tune – all is well.
Any concern regarding Whittaker´s casting can be swiftly put to the wayside. Whittaker is as joyful, energetic and wonderful to watch as she has ever been. Her enthusiasm for the role positively beaming out of her at ever pace and delivery. Few people could experience as much joy and wonder doing anything as Whittaker’s Doctor looks when examining a spoon.
It´s always hard or impossible to gauge exactly who this Doctor will be in the long run, or how she will choose to play them, but what we do glimpse is a far more immediately sympathetic character than the brooding and more nihilistic ‘alien’ qualities of Capaldi. Saddened by death, concerned for her new group of friends, with a ready eagerness to do right with a new hands-on approach as she constructs herself a new sonic screwdriver from scratch. Side note: the fact that she gets her clothes from a charity shop is perfect, but so far the most unrealistic thing about the show. How does a coat THAT nice end up there?
There’s also the relief that Chibnall 100% GETS the Doctor, with throwaway lines that feel as scatter-brained and loose as they do memorable and sharp with moral righteousness and simple truths (“Only idiots carry knives”). It mostly works, with a decent enough pace and good enough mystery structure even under the hindrance of that well-worn plot device of the botched regeneration that follows all new Doctors – although the build-up to the declaration of her name and the monologue about evolving that comes with it is a hell of a thing to watch.
It’s the newness that really comes as the most notable factor here, acting as a soft reset of the pieces more than a clearing of the board as with when Steven Moffat took over. The new score provided by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire alumnus Segun Akinola is teasingly minimalist and electronic, with the new theme playing out over the close something much closer to Delia Derbyshire’s earlier work than Murray Gold’s emotional brass and experimental bombast. The creative decision to shoot using Cooke and Angénieux anamorphic lenses in order to make the show look more cinematic certainly shows, with deep hues and a sharper balance of natural and artificial light.
But really, it’s the new companions and dynamics that we want to see, and they all come across as promising new figures with diverse backgrounds. Ryan Sinclair’s absent parents and suffering from dyspraxia come into play, as does his fractured dynamic with step-grandfather Graham O'Brien (Bradley Walsh), a Wilfred Mott type who’s relationship going forward is going to be fascinating to watch play out as they are flung together on intergalactic journeys.
Old school friend and training police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) tags along, and while she doesn’t get much to do this episode it's more flattering than the sad rug-pull that it was seeing Karen Gillan’s police getup being revealed to be little more than a kissogram.
It all hinges on a screenplay that puts character ahead of the plot, something that harks back to the Russel T. Davis days of the show. Even if the emotional punch of the ending doesn’t feel quite as defined given its short and packed runtime, it ends with an unexpected emotional turn from Walsh in the closing scenes and some fine reveals to influence character later on.
The plot itself is simple enough, with a hunter and prey storyline unfolding against a very northern Sheffield backdrop (which the screenplay revels in dipping itself in, stepped on kababs and all, “We don’t get aliens in Sheffield”). There’s also the playful belittling of the villain of the piece, a Predator alike with ritualistic intentions and a horrifying facial reveal under generic costuming.
As packed as the episode is, it gets across most of its ideas well with a promising of less serialised storytelling to come in a quest to locate the Doctor’s missing TARDIS. It’s an unconventional series opener from that perspective, but the change it beckons couldn’t be welcomed more. The series has needed a shakeup for some time, and new blood, new stories, new faces and a glorious new Doctor could be just the ticket to bringing this back to life.