Last night 8.2 million people tuned in to watch The Woman Who Fell To Earth, Jodie Whittaker’s first proper outing as the Thirteenth Doctor. Judging by social media reviews, most of them liked it a lot! So did I. With an updated look and feel, a talented and diverse supporting cast and a monster that has given at least three children I know of nightmares, TWWFTE is a reassuringly fresh start to a series that some have argued was beginning to go stale. The series 11 opener is basically Doctor Who Does Predator – an alien hunter sent to Earth to prove himself worthy of leadership back ‘ome. It isn’t a groundbreaking plot, but then these new Doctor debut episodes rarely have the alien threat front and centre. They’re usually all about introducing the new Doctor. Here, we have a new Doctor, a new team of companions, a new look and feel, new music from a new composer, and a new direction from new showrunners. So a thin plot should be the least of anyone’s worries.
What we get is a wonderful, dark, exciting, breakneck adventure set in rainy Sheffield over the course of 24 hours. The Thirteenth Doctor arrives just in time to set things right, with a little help. Her companions here are lovely. Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) is a young police officer bored of mediating parking disputes, craving something more interesting and more challenging. She doesn’t get all that much to do in this opening episode, though. She’s brought into the story as an outsider to the mystery. I’m looking forward to seeing her get more to do as the series goes on. The alien menace plot here belongs to fellow companions Ryan (Tosin Cole) and his Nan, Grace (Sharon D Clarke) and husband Graham (Bradley Walsh). Ryan accidentally invites tooth-faced villain Tzim-Sha (“Tim Shaw?!”) to use Earth as a proving ground and spends the rest of the night helping to take that invite back. Ryan is very lovable. I’m not properly qualified to say whether the subplot surrounding his dyspraxia is handled well, but I’m hearing those who share the condition are happy with the representation. We couldn’t have asked for a more promising TARDIS Team.
A word on Ryan’s grandparents: Graham is wonderful. He’s reluctant to believe in aliens, wary about rushing into danger but never refuses to assist. He’s going to be a hit with viewers for sure, especially given the heartbreaking backstory he has. You see, Grace – his wife, Ryan’s Nan – was his chemotherapy nurse when he was suffering from cancer. They fell in love and got married. He thought his days were numbered, but is now in remission. (SPOILER WARNING) When Grace dies at the end of this episode Graham is left feeling as though it should’ve been him who died, not her. His eulogy in the church at Grace’s funeral made the country cry. He’s the heart, here.
Then there’s the Thirteenth Doctor herself! A lot has been written (mostly by arseholes) about the danger/fear of a female Doctor. Within seconds of her falling through a train ceiling, any fears evaporated. She IS the Doctor. More encouraging than those to come before her; less “come with me if you want to live” more “can you give me a hand keeping us all alive?” and it works so well. She’s softer, almost childlike (“can we have the flashing lights on?” she asks Yaz while riding in her police car. When she’s told no… well, my one-year-old son has a similar “disappointed face”) and every moral we’ve ever seen the Doctor hold dear is present in her every action. I love the scrapyard nature of her plan, too. She made her sonic screwdriver, rather than having it gifted by the TARDIS, from Sheffield Steel and an alien crystal. She made a transporter from a car battery, a microwave and half an alien landing pod. She’s brilliant. And her gender, put bluntly, goes almost unmentioned and is entirely irrelevant. She’s just the Doctor.
That’s not to say things are perfect. As I’ve mentioned, with such a big supporting cast some people have less to do than others, which means we get to know some other companions better than them. This is something that’ll work itself out episode to episode. I’ve heard that each companion has episodes that centre around them, going forward. Tonight was mostly a Ryan episode. And plotwise we were in coincidence city: Ryan is riding a bike on a hill, throws his bike in temper into the forest, goes to get it and accidentally invited an alien to land. Later, that alien’s bloodhound-like search-bot thing crashes the train that Ryan’s grandparents happen to be on because the alien’s target is also on sharing the carriage. Ryan calls the police, bringing Yaz in, who both race to the train to investigate, putting them all in danger and bringing our companions together. Then, just as they’re all about to die, the Doctor just happens to fall through the roof of the very carriage they’re all in. It’s “convenient situational plotting 101” and I’m happy to ignore it because the overall product is just so much fun. Also, I felt that Grace’s death was sudden and jarring. Did she fall from high enough to die from the fall? Or was she hit by the blast? Minor niggles which, in the grand scheme of things, are par for the course when it comes to Doctor Who.
No TARDIS this week, which led to a mindbending cliffhanger that sees our heroes floating in deep space. I bet the TARDIS will save them all, materialising around them and dragging them off on another adventure. I can’t wait.
I loved The Woman Who Fell To Earth and I’m in love with our new cast of characters already. Jodie Whittaker makes a sensational Doctor. The show looks like a movie – sumptuousness oozes from the screen, helped along by a welcomingly unintrusive score from new composer Segun Akinola. His new arrangement of the theme tune is wonderful, new and old all at once, but where the hell was the opening title sequence?! Surely they haven’t ditched that for good? I suppose we’ll see next week. I never had doubts about the new series, really. Chibnall is a capable showrunner and I trust him. But it’s nice to finally know that I was right not to worry. Doctor Who is born again. It’s about time!