★★★ Jodie Whittaker is a winner in the new series of Doctor Who. Instantly engaging as the 13th Doctor, she radiates positive energy, fizzes with fun – how did she ever keep that so tightly bottled as anguished Beth Latimer in Broadchurch? She gives this 13-year-old – or 55-year-old – series the power-surge regeneration it needs.
I haven’t the slightest problem with the Doctor suddenly becoming a woman. I would have welcomed it years ago and remember going “Wow!” when Joanna Lumley became the Doctor all too briefly in 1999 in a Comic Relief spoof. I’d have gleefully followed her in the programme proper.
Landing slapbang (and remarkably unscathed) in the middle of a crisis, making friends fast, WhittakWho is a quirky, joyful adventurer. She exhibits none of the existential angst of her 21st-century predecessors. The Yorkshire accent is welcome, as is her youthful speech pattern, although I flinched at one lamentable instance of “I would of ”. For most of her debut episode she rocks Peter Capaldi’s tattered togs and in the closing moments even sells her own absurd costume. Clown Assistant’s First Day at the Circus it may be, but it’s also non-gender-specific gear that girl and boy cosplayers can emulate with a bit of effort.
We’re in a golden age of British TV and I’ve been glued lately to a lot of brilliant, very grown-up but preposterous dramas – Bodyguard, Killing Eve…
Doctor Who has always been preposterous so I’ve no qualms on that front, only that it remains distinctive enough in a field crowded with risk-taking mainstream attractions.
We’re in the hands of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, who made his name on Broadchurch (which had mixed fortunes). A few years back he penned some Doctor Whos I greatly enjoyed as well as some dire Torchwoods. I’m approaching the dawn of his era with an open mind and open heart. But before going in, there are three points that matter to me. Three hopes I have for series 11:
1) That it feels radically different from what has gone before. (It doesn’t.)
2) That it is still somehow recognisably Doctor Who. (It is.)
3) That it makes for good, no, excellent telly. (Time will tell.)
There’s been much guff about enhanced HD pictures and a change in widescreen ratio but the on-screen patina isn’t vastly different to my eyes and won’t be clocked by most viewers. There is no jaw-dropping chasm-leap in style or direction.
What does strike immediately is the simpler form of storytelling. The delicious complexity of many Steven Moffat episodes has been eschewed. Chibnall seems to be resetting to the familial milieu of the Russell T Davies era, aiming for relatable characters rooted in reality who don’t spout wisecracks. And as he told Radio Times readers, “If you’ve never seen Doctor Who before, the first episode this year is the perfect place to start.” He needs to draw in new viewers and bolster the show’s declining audience. So there’s the promise of baggage-free entry; a degree in Time Lord lore isn’t required.
Wrenching Doctor Who away from its Home Counties and South Wales heartlands to urban Sheffield and the gorgeous Peak District is well worth it. The story begins gently with: “Man Falling Off Bike in Yorkshire on a Sunday Night”. Last of the Summer Wine territory. But the mood soon shifts to an encounter with creepy alien artefacts, then terror on a train. A fine start, even if the pace slackens in the middle of this hour-long episode.
Certainly, Chibnall’s Who sounds different. There’s a doomy score by composer Segun Akinola. If only the series had braved this approach earlier. Now almost every Brit drama favours that electro-clang/judder/warble borrowed from Scandi noir. In the end credits, we also catch Akinola’s fresh take on the theme music, utilising elements of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop version from the 1960s. The original was always the most effective.
But there is no title sequence, no opening theme; the title is eventually displayed at the end: The Woman Who Fell to Earth. More accurately, it’s The Women Who Fell to Earth – the other being Grace, played by the magnificent Sharon D Clarke. An actress I’ve long admired, she was sensational as a seasoned hooker in The Life, a musical at Southwark Playhouse last year. I’d like to have seen more of Grace, but alas, she’s a goner, coming to rest on the ground in an elegant supine pose like so many before her in Doctor Who (see Jenna Coleman in The Snowmen and Tom Baker in long ago in Logopolis).
I had no doubts about Bradley Walsh’s abilities, having caught him in the odd episode of Law & Order: UK and as Danny Baldwin in Coronation Street. He brings humanity and humour to the role of Graham – and the only tangible note of pathos when delivering his eulogy for Grace.
The Doctor’s other new friends show promise but aren’t an instant sell like, say, Bill Potts was last year. Yaz is a probationary PC fed up of dealing with parking disputes; Ryan’s a bored warehouse worker with dyspraxia who can’t master his bike. Both are ripe for adventure with the Time Lord. Both actors look considerably older than 19. Tosin Cole is 26. Mandip Gill is 30.
There’s a tad too much mugging from subsidiary characters – the boggle-eyed guy who snares the alien pumpkin and the crane operator gibbering with vertigo. Both slot into a Venn diagram with Ryan as Young Men with Issues. I’m all for empowering women but does the corollary have to be the enfeebling of men? Boys need role models too.
Bye-bye Daleks and Cybermen for now. His Chibs has put them back in the toy box and this year promises all-new monsters. Will the Foes of the Week alarm the tiniest viewers? Well, I was disconcerted by the thrashing ball of tentacles in the train crash sequence – though it reminded me of the thrashing tentacles only four episodes ago in The Eaters of Light. “Tim Shaw”, latest in a long line of masked uglios, isn’t exactly pants-wettingly scary. Gross, I grant you. He breaks the jaws of his victims to take a tooth as a trophy. (In his galactic travels he’s evidently encountered a lot of mammals with good dentistry.) But with his Vader voice and passionless threats, Blue Tooth Man is a bit of bore really, poor dear. The denouement up among the cranes is not edge of the seat and I don’t really care who survives.
Fleeting thoughts. Surely a few weeks must pass between the night of the cranes and Grace’s funeral, so where has the Doctor been staying all that time? And why haven’t her new friends suggested earlier that she change her clothes? She must whiff to high heaven.
As a calling card, Chris Chibnall’s debut doesn’t have the zing of Russell T Davies’s reboot with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in 2005 or Steven Moffat’s takeover with Matt Smith in 2010. His trump card, though, is Jodie Whittaker and I’m more than ready to join her on some fresh adventures. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is less than enthralling but enjoyable hokum. I remain cautiously optimistic about Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who. I’ve already seen episode two and that is a step up.