Doctor Who episode 857: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (7/10/2018)
‘I’m sorry you all had to see this.’ The 13th Doctor and Chris Chibnall arrive with an hour-long episode that’s the 21st Century show’s third big relaunch. Like The Eleventh Hour and Deep Breath, its main job is to sell the audience on the new lead. That she’s the first woman Doctor isn’t quite as much of a gamble as it would have been even in 2014 because the previous few series had presented both Missy and the Time Lord General undergoing sex-change regeneration – an idea floated every time there was a recast since Tom Baker left. By 2017, it already felt like only a matter of time before it was ‘time for a lady’. And here we are.
The viewing figures of 11 million were the biggest since the 50th anniversary specials – suggesting a lot of people who’d been drifting away from the series since then were intrigued enough to tune in and check out Jodie Whittaker’s debut. On that basis alone, it’s a massively successful first night. What they got is both a bit surprising, and exactly what you might expect from Chibnall. The surprise is how clean a break this is: Chibnall could have used Kate Stewart, a character he introduced in The Power of Three, to help smooth the transition like Moffat used the Paternosters in Deep Breath. Instead, he goes for The Eleventh Hour, with a whole new cast, no returning monsters and not even a new title sequence or TARDIS interior. It’s incredibly stripped back, barring the inevitable costume selection and the fun sequence of building a new sonic screwdriver.
Where it follows more obviously from Chibnall’s previous episodes is the large “fam” and the focus on character relationships. It really reminds me of The Hungry Earth with Tony and Nasreen’s love story and the presence of Tony’s family echoed in Grace and Graham’s grandparenting of Ryan. On top of that there’s the mix of lush hillsides and grimy industrial settings, and masked aliens hunting humans. There’s a hint of Broadchurch, too, both in the casting of Whittaker, and in the police procedural elements that provide Yaz’s route into the story. And note Yaz knows Ryan and Grace from her schooldays, suggesting a Broadchurch style community.
The X factor is the new Doctor. From what we see here, she’s the most straightforward version yet. She has a tendency to explain what she’s doing or thinking, and to give little homilies like, ‘We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.’ As performed by Whittaker, these can risk coming across like morals of the week – although as Ted Lasso shows, they could be masking a deeper and more complex inner life. The only hint of that here is in a short scene of Ryan and the Doctor bonding at Grace’s funeral. The takeaway is that the new Doctor is nice, which is at least an advance on “possibly murderous crank” we got from Deep Breath. But as yet, there’s none of the sardonicism of the fifth Doctor or the swagger of the 10th, the occasional Scouse sharpness of the eight, or the Mancunian prickle of the ninth.
In short, I wasn’t instantly convinced by the 13th Doctor, particularly when she swaps the tatters of the 12th Doctor for a very over-designed, JNT style costume (that looks nothing like the thrown-together charity shop clothes it claims to be: a cosmic bag lady, in a distressed version of her reveal costume, would have been a much better look). But then, I wasn’t instantly sold on the 10th either and that turned out well. More worrying, the new “fam” is very underdeveloped – pushing the JNT analogy, Yaz introduces herself as, ‘Yasmin Khan. Yaz to my friends’ which is perilously close to ‘Melanie-known-as-Mel’. Yaz is a probationer police officer, and conscientious. Ryan has dyspraxia and disapproves of Graham. Graham had cancer and is played by TV’s Bradley Walsh. Weirdly, Grace is the most vivid of them, and she’s dead by the end of the episode. Still, I like them so far and I’m happy to see more of them.
As did a fair chunk of that 11 million audience. Nine million stuck around for the following week to see how the Doctor and her new friends were going to get out of that cliffhanger – even after a truly baffling ‘Coming Up’ trailer that exchanges exciting clips of future episodes for a list of actors which, I guess, at least proves Andy Pryor has been earning his money.
Next Time: The Ghost Monument
“Andy Pryor has been earning his money”
Andy Pryor *always* earns his money.
I *like* 13 because she’s nice. It’s mystifying to me why people want their main characters to be arrogant and obnoxious (eg. Doc Martin, Sherlock, Anne Robinson, Simon Cowell, the sixth, tenth and twelfth Doctors…). Those characters are popular so I acknowledge it’s something people do want. But just for a little while, I got to spend my relaxing fantasy time with someone who’s pleasant to be around, is a good role-model and has respectful manners.
(I enjoy this blog very much, by the way.)