Back Down To Earth
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer and Brit in Los Angeles, Robert Cave, takes a look at the first episode of the new Doctor Who season and the debut of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor…
The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Director: Jamie Childs
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Stars: Jodie Whittaker, Philip Abiodun, Hazel Atherton
And we finally get to see our first female Doctor. As some of the trails have stated, it is about time. Keeping a 55-year-old TV series fresh and exciting year after year is quite a task. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s approach to this problem appears to have been to run at it headlong, changing pretty much everything on both sides of the camera. He even recruited new composer Segun Akinola to replace Murray Gold, the man who has been behind all of the show’s music since it returned to our screens back in 2005. Thankfully, all these innovations really seem to work.
If any TV show, any piece of media, becomes too staid and predictable or comes to rely too heavily on its core fan base, its days are numbered. Like the Doctor, the show’s ongoing survival rests on its ability to regenerate and reinvigorate itself and its audience. Just swapping one male lead for another again wouldn’t really refresh the show. We’ve seen such regenerations many, many times before. I maintain it would have been a mistake and a massive missed opportunity not to have to cast another man in the title role, especially following canonical on screen evidence that Time Lords can change gender in the 2015 episode Hell Bent. Casting Jodie Whittaker, a woman who is a well-established film and TV star, is both new and newsworthy, two attributes that are key to the vitality of any series, especially one as old as Doctor Who. A female Doctor is an idea whose time has not only come, but is almost certainly long overdue.
More so than any episode since the series’ relaunch, this one goes out of its way to serve as a jumping on point for new fans and, by coincidence, I watched it with a friend who had never seen the show before. She’d heard about it, but had no clue as to any aspect of its history or lore. Watching through her eyes was quite an experience – especially as a phone call prompted her to miss the first 15 minutes. “Are they investigators?” she asked as the Doctor and her new best friends as they went about seeking more information on the seemingly alien creature following the incident on the train. Sort-of, I guess, but not really. This isn’t the X-Files or some police procedural, but these are the kinds of touchstones potential new fans have to grapple with as they work their way into the show’s narrative.
As a dyed-in-the-wool Doctor Who Magazine subscriber, I had more of the opposite problem: I knew which actors were down to become series regulars and as Sharon D Clarke’s Grace was not among them. This left me with a pretty good inkling that her character was not going to make it to the end of the episode. It is a testament to both Clarke’s acting and Chibnall’s writing that this extra-textual awareness didn’t detract from the emotional impact of her eventual demise. I liked Grace and didn’t want her to be written out so soon even though her continued presence would have made for the largest regular TARDIS crews in Doctor Who history. As it is, the Doctor’s new gang is bigger than it has been since the early 1980s and more ethnically diverse and inclusive than it has ever been before. Again, these moves are long overdue, particularly for a show as heavily invested in both the idea of travelling into the future and making the universe a better place.
Yes, the main monster, played by Samuel Oatley, might have seemed a little two-dimensional with its Predator-style hunting mission and a desire to achieve his aims through cheating rather than skill and hard work, but what kept me engaged were the performances of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and those of her whole new circle of best friends and travelling companions. I found them all very likable, especially Ryan Sinclair’s Tosin, a young man with dyspraxia who, understandably, gets frustrated at his condition but doesn’t let it stop him trying to help others.
Introducing so many new characters all in one go is a pretty formidable undertaking but for my money Chibnall pulled it off. Their relationships were believable and their backstories full of intriguing character beats that will no doubt be further explored in upcoming episodes. There were also plenty of fun moments, such as the Doctor assembling a new look at a local charity shop, although I was a little disappointed that the Time Lord was able to cobble together such a finely crafted sonic screwdriver in such a standard Earth workshop.
Someone I am hoping to see more of is Johnny Dixon’s Karl, the guy marked out as the monster’s main quarry. Karl’s decision to attack the defeated baddie seemed to warrant more consequences than a simple admonition from the Doctor. Will we see more of his character in the future?
And speaking of the future outside of the trailer highlighting the guest stars lined up for the reset of the season there were a few highly anticipated moments we didn’t get to see in this episode, particularly the show’s new opening titles and its new TARDIS interior. Indeed, the ending, with the Doctor and friends dumped in deep space without a capsule, suggests it may take some time for the Time Lord to be reunited with the time machine. Could this be an echo of Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor with all its transmat beams and Time Ring antics?
Regardless, I really enjoyed the Woman Who Fell to Earth. It was an effective introduction to the show’s new cast that left me wanting more and my friend intrigued enough to be open to the idea of watch more episodes. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Here’s a trailer for the next episode