This story in a nutshell: ‘We don’t get aliens in Sheffield…’
Right, This Is Going to be Fun: ‘There’s a moment when you’re sure you’re about to die…and then you’re born again...’ Literally falling into the action from the sky, Whittaker’s Doctor makes an immediate impression by simply being so much fun. Whilst there are a lot of efforts to make her a little quirky, she really doesn’t need the help because she brings a cheeky, snappy energy to the part that makes your eyes draw to her and never want to leave her. Yep, that’s the Doctor alright. Davison was also ‘looking for a Doctor’ in Castrovalva, a nice touch. When half an hour ago you were a white-haired Scotsman and now you’re a beautiful blonde with nothing in your pockets I’m guessing you would be a little frazzled upstairs. I liked very much how empathetic she was to all of her new companions; whether it’s watching Ryan ride his bike, letting Graham have his moment of disbelief that she is an alien or apologising to them all for having to witness a grisly murder. There’s a gentleness to her character that doesn’t come from her gender but from her nature. Matt Smith had it too, so did Davison. When she’s asking how everybody knows each other it’s almost like the Doctor is actually selecting her new friends to travel with. Even when the Doctor is a little uncertain of who she is I was confident that Whittaker was absolutely sure she should be playing this role. She’s effortlessly confident and I love that. It’s a far cry from the first half of Capaldi’s opener where he was a raving madman. If you want to point at one scene where you say ‘yeah, that’s the Doctor’ it’s when she throws across the curtain declaring ‘this is gonna be fun!’ and sets to work assembling a sonic screwdriver from old bits of toot. The whole sequence is a delight, especially her reaction to the already malfunctioning sonic screwdriver. That’s the point where I realised just how gorgeous this Doctor was going to be. Her ‘get behind me now’ is the moment she really takes charge of her troupe, doing the Hartnell thing of confronting the alien menace head on by standing in its way. She’s a Doctor who will have a plan by the time she reaches her destination. How she undermines serious moments with irreverent humour is almost Troughtonesque, and I love how it isn’t overplayed (like so much of Matt Smith’s could be). I didn’t even need the ‘I am the Doctor’ moment, but I understand that is practically a rite of passage now. It feels very right on for the Doctor to be purchasing her new outfit from a charity shop in Sheffield. How gloriously unromantic. It’s a glorious costume too; hotchpotch yet practical, stylish and yet complete without style. It’s unique to this Doctor and she looks glorious in it.
Ryan: Surprisingly this turns out to be Ryan’s episode more than anyone and he was the character and actor I knew the least about going in and to be honest he was the character and actor I was most impressed with leaving the episode. It’s not because he is imbued with particularly complex characterisation but what Tosin Cole does with the part is quite magnificent. He’s relatable from the off, speaking directly out of the screen to the audience, a man who isn’t afraid to talk about his feelings. I felt a bond with him immediately and there were no missteps throughout the episode that made me question that. A sweet guy with a huge heart and a love for his grandmother, he reminded me very much of my partner. The whole ‘I can’t yet ride a bike angle’ might be a little forced if it weren’t for the skill of three actors making those scenes really count. Dyspraxia is a fascinating condition that I knew little about (way to go Doctor Who, still teaching me knew things after all these years) and it means we are automatically on Ryan’s side. I think he is going to be one to watch throughout the series, not only because Cole is so damn cute (sorry but I do have blood pumping through my veins) but also because I think his condition is going to be relevant and a worthy obstacle in the future. Mickey was a loser you really wanted to prove himself, Jack was hyper confident and Rory was the dork you wanted to get the girl. I liked Ryan because he was gentle without ever losing the sense that he was a bloke.
Yazz: Immediately authoritative but in quite a reserved way, making Yaz an officer in training is a great idea because it gives her skills that will be useful in her adventures but she still has an awful lot to learn. I love the accent, it’s great to have a more regional slant to the show. She’s somebody who thinks she is capable of more, who wants to be tested. Be careful what you ask for, Yaz.
Graham: Bradley Walsh could so easily overplay the whole ‘man trying to get his adopted grandson to accept him’ angle but instead gives a much more considered performance than even I was expecting. Weirdly since the announcement of all of the cast it was Walsh’s name that excited me the most because he strikes me as a man very akin to Catherine Tate, who is known for a particular line of entertainment who would probably surprise everybody in Doctor Who. I was not wrong. He doesn’t bring that showbiz attitude with him at all but instead grounds his character entirely in reality. He’s a reliably solid presence in the episode, a kind and serious man who is trying to understand quietly all the weird things that are going on around him. He strikes me a little bit of the typical bloke with his football scarf and love of a pint and that is exactly the sort of character we have never seen travel in the TARDIS before. It’s almost what my Dad would be like as a Doctor Who companion, except Graham is far more likeable than my Pops could ever be. His relationship with Grace anchors the episode; she’s a bit cheeky, very sweet and completely in control. Their relationship is unforced and I was waiting throughout for the inevitable loss because I knew there were only three companions in this new series and not four. His speech at Grace’s funeral is the first genuinely moving moment in Doctor Who in a long time, probably since Wilf tried to give the Doctor the gun in The End of Time.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s gonna kill us!’ ‘It could have done that already.’
‘We can evolve but still stay true to who we are’ – a really important line to all the naysayers.
‘It’s been a long time since I’ve bought women’s clothes.’
The Good: A huge shout out to the stunning cinematography, which is the best the show has ever scene with some stunning landscapes brought into focus and expert camerawork with a wide lens that isn’t a afraid of drinking it all in. The score is also fresh and relevant, lacking the overdone vocals or melodramatic stings of Gold and instead giving this opening episode a contemporary, down to earth feel. I think I would like a little more bombast down the line but as an episode that is trying to connect with a modern audience again, it really does its job in grounding the piece. The offscreen deaths make this perfect entertainment for all the family. Doctor Who has always excelled at graphic offscreen deaths (go watch The Greatest Show in the Galaxy for some really terrific examples) and The Woman Who Fell to Earth continues in that tradition. We don’t even need to be told how horrid the corpses are, the implication is nasty enough. The cod-Predator knock off was a little obvious until he took his mask off to show the grotesque array of teeth stuck in his head from his victims’ mouths. That was a brilliantly gruesome moment. Chibnall remembers to give his extraneous characters little moments to make them people; I particularly liked Karl from the train who just wants to get to work and feel valued. Doctor Who loves a bit of spectacle for no reason these days. There’s literally no reason at all why Karl should be a crane driver accept to provide a tasty looking set piece at the climax but fortunately it means we get to lots of fun things at crazy heights. It’s a good thing that he wasn’t a lollipop man. Imagine how exciting the denouement would have been then. Huge kudos for the character led coda, which took these characters that we have gotten to know over an hour and broke our hearts a little. I realised how much I had been made to care. Big thumbs up for the cliffhanger too.
The Bad: The plot basically. However, I don’t feel I can be too hard at this junction because, like Rose, the plot was just there to service the characters and provide a bit of jeopardy. The idea of two alien races using Earth as a battleground is a really exciting one but we don’t get to see that reach anywhere near it’s potential here (that was done far more effectively in Doomsday). The quirky science fiction elements are just an excuse to bring these people together and see how they react to the situation. So, I’ll give Chibnall a pass, this time. But the next time he pens an episode these characters will be very well established I’m looking for something with much more substance. Grace’s murder was signposted by the writing and the direction so in the end I was waiting for that moment rather than shocked by it.
The Shallow Bit: Whittaker with her blonde Rachel cut and dishevelled clothes is a beautiful and bold statement for the show. She’s stunning.
Result: Massively enjoyable for the most part, even if it is a little thin on plot. The big shout out is for Whittaker’s Doctor, the news of which was greeted with national interest. The simple fact of the matter is that she’s a delight. Easing herself into the role confidently, effortlessly connecting the audience (well, to me, because I am the audience for the purpose of these reviews) with moments silliness and authority and assembling a bright new team to join her on her adventures. Would you just look at how much of this review I have spent talking about the characters and if there is one thing I’ve really missed in the previous 6 seasons it is relatable people whose adventures I want to share. I got a sense of the Sarah Jane Adventures at times with its focus on characters, Bradley Walsh and Predator stand in and an increased sense of fun. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense at all, there were plenty of things Doctor Who could do to learn from its CBCC sibling. The dialogue is much more functional and less stylised than we are used to; Moffat’s wit was both a strength and weakness because whilst his characters spoke pure quotes it meant that they rarely sounded natural whereas Chibnall’s dialogue is less memorable but much more realistic. I think that was Davies’ biggest strength, he could marry both things (quotability and realism). There simply isn’t much story here to speak of but is merely dressing in order to bring these characters together into a functioning unit and on those terms it does its job very well. It’s like somebody has taken a musty old cellar that is obsessed with relics (I don’t mean Capaldi but rather the obsession in the shows recent past with celebrating its continuity) and opened the windows and let in sunlight and fresh air. With a refreshing new Doctor and a warm family to travel the universe with and what looks like a serial developing, the show has gone back to its roots but brought itself bang up to date. It’s a promising approach and I’m left really excited for next weeks spectacular. The plot itself is worthy of a 7 but I’m inclined to be kinder because this lays out its characters in an engaging way (the extra time was devoted to them and the episode was all the better for it) and with some pleasing aesthetic improvements. Doctor Who is about people again: 8/10