“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield.”
Well, you do now. And she was utterly brilliant.
After a fleeting appearance at Christmas, we’ve had a ten-month wait to see Jodie Whittaker’s proper introduction as the Doctor. As well as a new incarnation, however, we’ve also got the start of a new era for the show, under the guidance of showrunner Chris (Broadchurch) Chibnall, and a move to a new night.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth had been as much of a jumping-on point for new viewers as 2005’s Rose, and in many ways it has many similarities, most notably a northern Doctor. Thanks to Christopher Eccleston’s masterful turn in the lead role, we no longer have the culture shock of an actor playing the Doctor who isn’t cut-glass BBC Received Pronunciation.
It also sees the series introducing a cast of supporting characters who are very much grounded and down-to-Earth, much as we saw with Rose Tyler’s home life thirteen years ago. In fact, Doctor Who is often at its best when blending the extraordinary with the ordinary. It has rarely done it more skilfully than here.
Chris Chibnall has excelled in creating compelling characters and settings with Broadchurch, so it was reassuring to see that he’d managed to do the same thing here, and jettisoning a lot of the baggage that comes with a long-running show, especially one which has more recently had a tendency to get wrapped up in its own continuity, sometimes at the expense of story.
This was the perfect opportunity to strip away all the boastfulness and eulogising about how legendary the Doctor had become, and take it back to basics: a traveller, who goes about overseeing fair play and justice, and having fun in the process. All the casual or curious viewer needed to know – regeneration, Sonic Screwdrivers, two hearts, etc. – is deftly covered, without needing reams of tiring, detailed and unnecessary exposition.
The supporting characters, just like the audience, get to learn about the Doctor as things unfold, which pleasingly takes the show all the way back to its origins, when the companions were very much at the forefront, having them as the filter through which we perceive the Doctor. Having a larger ensemble than recent years also doesn’t appear to be an issue, with Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) all having a decent slice of the action.
This relaunch of the show seeks to confound everyone’s expectations, starting with not having an opening title sequence for only the second time in the programme’s history (echoing what happened in the James Bond reboot, Casino Royale, by withholding the famous theme until the end). Considering that the last episode ended with the Doctor falling to Earth, Chibnall holds back on showing us what happens next by taking the time to introduce the people who will become the Doctor’s new best friends – Yasmin, Ryan and Graham. By taking this approach, we get to learn early on about who they are and how they connect to each other.
It’s a true testament to Chibnall’s skill that in only around 10 minutes of screen time, we get proper insight, and manage to form a real connection with each of them. In equal measure Gill, Cole and Walsh manage to infuse them with real heart and depth, turning them almost instantly into credible, believable and – above all – likeable characters.
Walsh’s Graham is in some ways rather reminiscent of another grandfather we saw on the show, during David Tennant’s era – Bernard Cribbins’ Wilfred Mott. Both added extra depth to a family setup, but Graham has the main difference of being married – the interplay between him and Sharon D. Clarke’s Grace (who we learn met when he was undergoing treatment for cancer) is a joy to behold, and they make such a lovable couple.
It therefore comes as a genuine gut punch when Grace ends up dying at the end of the episode, as there’s no prior indication she wouldn’t be a returning character. This goes towards confounding the audience’s expectations once more, as we learn the payoff of “the greatest women [he] ever met” who he referred to in his vlog at the episode’s opening isn’t actually the Doctor, but is instead Grace, his Nan. A beautiful bit of misdirection.
Since Doctor Who‘s return in 2005, the writers have tried to inject real emotional depth into the stories and characters, with varying degrees of success. However, The Woman Who Fell To Earth managed to take me from having a manic grin on my face for most of the episode to reducing me genuinely to tears at Grace’s demise, so it’s probably one of the most effective and successful examples of this type of modern storytelling in Who.
An extra dimension is introduced with the early revelation that Ryan has dyspraxia, as a main character with a disability isn’t something the show was touched on before. This helps to drive through the episode’s main theme of believing in yourself, and living up to your full potential by bettering yourself – we see this in Ryan, Graham, supporting character Karl (who later takes on a much greater significance in the plot), and finally the Doctor, who’s constantly feeling the call to become the person she’s meant to be, following her regeneration, and taking us along on the journey with her.
Jodie Whittaker has the doubly hard task of not only trying to make viewers warm to her as a new persona of the Doctor, but also trying to persuade the more sceptical elements that – for the first time – a female actor can succeed in a role which has been traditionally male for nearly 53 years. No mean feat, and certainly an unenviable task.
Thankfully, the script gives her a helping hand by not making a big deal about the character’s change of gender – a couple of almost throwaway lines tick the box of acknowledging the matter, while allowing the story to carry on under its own steam without having to struggle under the weight of being potentially overshadowed by what’s a major turning point for the programme.
It also helps Whittaker hit the ground running by landing her right in the middle of an adventure without the standard post-regenerative trauma. Much like Matt Smith’s opener in 2010, The Eleventh Hour, the Doctor doesn’t get chance to rest, and is pushed into a race against time, with the instinctive Doctorishness taking charge, while the individual characteristics slowly start to manifest as the story progresses.
Just like Matt Smith, Whittaker makes an immediate impact, and you don’t even register that the titular hero is now a woman, as she’s so busy winning you over with a manic charm and infectious energy that your focus is firmly on the character, not the gender. She even manages to carry off the heavier, sadder moments with aplomb, something which the previous incarnation struggled with during his first two seasons.
The additional 15 minutes we now have on every episode help to give a little more breathing room, as in previous series some of the stories have felt rushed or underdeveloped, whereas we have time to catch our breath and not miss the shift between emotional beats which this tale definitely needed. The relative simplicity and straightforwardness of the storyline – a hunter/prey situation, coupled with a lust for power – helps Whittaker by not giving the viewers too much to focus on, and thereby not drawing attention away from her, allowing her to lead from her entrance.
We also get to see the Doctor having to rely on her wits and intellect, spending the early part of the story without the obligatory Sonic Screwdriver, which has acted as a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card too many times. By showing us the proper core of the character, we also get to see a clear restatement of the Doctor’s moral code, which helps out anyone who’s new to the programme, and rebalances things for the regular watchers.
Chibnall also manages to not give us the pat resolution we’ve come to expect in Who, and confounds us once again, not only by deliberately not reuniting the Doctor with the TARDIS (and denying us out first glimpse of the interior), but also putting her and her new friends in jeopardy, while leaving her needing to get them back to Earth. In doing this, Chibnall yet again harkens back to the early years of the show, and respects its history, while still driving it forward in a new direction.
Perhaps the highest compliment which can be paid to Chibnall’s introductory episode in charge is that it felt like a drama, rather than just a sci-fi adventure or a children’s programme (or a mix of both). It all bodes very well for what we have to look forward to over the coming weeks, and makes me feel that the show is in more than capable hands.
Welcome back, Doctor. Because you *are* the Doctor. And long may you continue.
Doctor Who: Season 11 airs on Sundays on BBC One.