Now, after over a year of build-up (or at least the 9-10 months since Whittaker first appeared in the 2017 Christmas special) we’re finally getting to see what sort of show Doctor Who is choosing to be this time around – and based on the first episode, it’s a show that’s both easy to recognise as the Doctor Who we know and love and the fresh new take on the formula that’s been sorely needed.
Simply put, Doctor Who has never looked better, from some visually-arresting locations – the most scenic areas of Sheffield get a good showing – all the way to the special effects from new VFX team Double Negative. The series premiere is a feast for the eyes, basically, and a credit to director Jamie Childs (who also directed Jodie Whittaker’s secret reveal video in 2017).
But of course, Doctor Who is more than the aesthetics, and beyond any whizz-bang technical changes The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a great showcase for the series’ new companions (now usually called “The Doctor’s friends” or “the Tardis team” by the production team), each of whom begins a small personal journey by the end of the episode.
Probably the most high-profile name among the cast is The Chase presenter and showbiz veteran Bradley Walsh as Graham, an ex-bus driver who has a fractious relationship with his step-grandson – Tosin Cole’s Ryan Sinclair – and a loving partnership with his wife Grace, played by recurring series actor Sharon D Clarke with affecting warmth and humour.
In contrast to Walsh’s bombastic TV persona, Graham is a quiet man often pulled along by the desires of others, and it’s an impressively restrained performance that promises plenty of interesting stories in the weeks to come – though perhaps because of that, his role feels a little more limited this time around.
By contrast, Mandip Gill’s forthright junior police officer Yaz is positively gagging for adventure, bored by her duties dealing with parking offences (amusingly, her backstory is similar to the rabbit hero of animated movie Zootopia) and regularly demanding more from her superiors. No prizes for guessing what happens when her boss finally assigns her to one of the weirder calls they get one night…
And then there’s Cole’s Ryan Sinclair, a warehouse worker and wannabe mechanic whose struggles with dyspraxia (a co-ordination disorder) cause him endless frustration and indirectly lead him into extraterrestrial trouble.
Slightly surprisingly, Ryan’s story is front and centre from the beginning of the episode (Walsh and Gill are important, but less central), and his relatable struggles – he’s more concerned about finally learning to ride a bike than saving the world, at least to begin with – epitomise the sort of grounded Doctor Who story that new series boss Chris Chibnall has previously done so well (see 2012’s The Power of Three).
In fact, generally speaking, throughout the episode the stakes feel smaller and more human than we’ve become used to during increasingly epic Who stories, and overall I’d say the reduced focus is a positive change – especially when the main point of the episode is in meeting one of the most exciting Doctors the series has seen in years.
Yes, now we’re into the meat of it – the episode’s introduction of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, aka the real reason most people are probably reading this review in the first place, and the true highlight of The Woman Who Fell to Earth.
From her first appearance in the story (which comes a bit later than you might expect), there’s no question – Jodie Whittaker IS the Doctor, owning the role like she’s been playing it for years and avoiding the sort of self-doubt we saw during the early days of Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord.
Bursting with energy, intensely moral and a little distracted, she’s eminently convincing as the continuation of every Doctor we’ve seen thus far while still breaking in new quirks. And while her gender change does briefly come up (she makes reference to having been “a white-haired Scotsman” just half an hour before her new team meet her), it’s actually surprising how little you notice or even think about the fact that the new Doctor is a woman this time around.
It just feels like an irrelevant piece of trivia – like the colour of her hair – as you join the familiar figure of the Doctor for yet another year of sci-fi exploring, and that’s exactly how it should be. By the end of the hour, you’ll definitely be desperate for more adventures with this strange woman from the stars.
As an episode of Doctor Who, The Woman Who Fell to Earth isn’t perfect. As often happens with introductory episodes the actual story – which we won’t go into too much detail about here, save that it involves an alien incursion into Sheffield – feels a little thin, sacrificed at the expense of introducing an unusually large cast of regulars (some of whom, as mentioned above, get less to do than others).
Elsewhere, a few of the jokes (mainly focused on Whittaker getting used to her new incarnation) and lines of dialogue fall a bit flat, and on the whole it’s definitely a less witty and quotable version of Who than we might have seen during the years of former showrunner Steven Moffat.
But generally speaking, this extended episode is an impressive introduction to Chris Chibnall’s new vision and Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor that creates truly organic, grounded interpersonal dynamics between the characters (the way that the Tardis team is thrown together feels believable, particularly by the end of the episode) and promises real dramatic stakes in the weeks to come.
Personally, I didn’t think it quite matched Matt Smith’s 2010 opening episode The Eleventh Hour – another feature-length story that introduced a new Doctor and production team, and the closest direct comparison to this episode – but overall The Woman Who Fell To Earth should be a relief for anyone with any concerns about what to expect from the new series. It’s fun, heartfelt and full of life, just like the new Time Lord at the heart(s) of it.
The Doctor is in, and it’s about time.
Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth airs on BBC1 at 6:45pm on Sunday 7 October
This article was originally published on 27 September 2018