Doctor Who S11 E1: “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” (BBC One)

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Trying very hard to avoid any spoilers

Things have been quiet of late at Taking The Short View Towers, but it was inevitable that the return of Doctor Who to our screens would be a wake-up call rallying us back into service. And so off we go into the autumn with a new season of Time Lord related reviews.

It’s certainly good to see the show back – about time, you could say – but you’ll quickly find that nothing is exactly like it was before. If the prospect of a new actor playing the title role isn’t enough, then hold on to your floppy hat and long scarf because this is where everything changes.

When analysing Doctor Who, it’s common to break it down it into eras determined by the lead actor; but when it comes to real change, it’s actually when a new Doctor arrives at the same time as a whole new production team that things really get shaken up. Consider 1970 when Jon Pertwee was joined by producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks in what was a reboot of the show in even the most modern sense; or Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes signing up with Tom Baker to augur in the show’s Golden Age in 1975. More recently, the show was again transformed when Steven Moffat’s brand new production team took over in 2010 from Russell T Davies who had himself led the successful 2005 reboot.

(In fact there’s an argument that it’s the producer, not the star, who is the single biggest factor in the tone of the show. John Nathan-Turner arrived in 1980, and even though Tom Baker stayed on for another year it was clear that the show itself had been completely reengineered. Baker didn’t much care for it and quickly moved on.)

Now it’s 2018, and we have an upheaval to match or possibly even exceed any in the show’s 55-year history. Yes, the most obvious change is the fact that the Doctor is now a woman, but in many ways that’s really quite a superficial, irrelevant detail because within minutes Jodie Whittaker has settled in and made the part her own. It’s genuinely hard to remember that she was a tall, angry white-haired Scotsman (with longer legs) only 30 minutes earlier in show time.

It’s the rest of the show that you might not recognise. New showrunner Chris Chibnall has gone over every part of Doctor Who and left not a stone unturned in the process. Some of the alterations are obvious – there’s a new title sequence although we didn’t actually get to see it in episode 1, and an update to the classic theme music by new composer Segun Akinola who takes over the reins from Murray Gold (who always seemed to attract the ire of a certain section of fandom for reasons I could never understand.) But a lot of the changes go far deeper and are less immediately obvious although no less significant: a brand new company providing the Visual FX for example, and a new aspect ratio to give everything a more cinematic quality akin to premium Netflix productions. The show even changes the day of the week that it is broadcast (from Saturday to Sunday) for good measure.

The first episode entitled “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” even dispenses with one of the show’s enduring icons, the police box-disguised Tardis – hopefully it’ll be back in the near future because it really is such a potent part of the series mythos that its absence is far more unnerving than the new appearance of the Doctor. However not even Chibnall can bring himself to do away with another of the show’s indispensable elements, the sonic screwdriver, even if the Doctor has to knock up a new model herself. With added Sheffield steel.

Sheffield itself is definitely a prominent guest character in the first episode, and is pleasingly different from the usual episodes set in London and/or filmed in south Wales. Naturally it’s the setting for an alien incursion for the newly regenerated Doctor to thwart, and it’s actually a surprisingly effective threat. I’d expected the first episode to be more about the new Doctor and her friends but there is a real sense of danger and darkness here, with a more substantial plot than I had been anticipating, even if at heart it’s not far off being a small screen riff on Predator with extra dentures. It also has a fair number of plot holes, such as what happens to the alien’s previous victims that are apparently still held prisoner in a semi-alive state on its home world, to which the Doctor appears curiously indifferent to following up.

But really, what we’re most interested in is the new cast, and here again Chibnall is determined to ring the changes by finally moving on from the tried-but-tired single companion format. Instead we get a large team consisting of warehouse worker Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole); his grandmother Grace O’Brien (Sharon D Clarke) and her second husband, retired bus driver Graham (Bradley Walsh); and trainee police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) who is an old school friend of Ryan’s. Cole gets the most screen in this episode and is certainly very good, while Walsh will quickly allay the fears of fans who only know him as a comedian and a game show host (one look at his turn in the Chibnall-helmed Law and Order: UK series would have already reassured them.) Gill is a bit sidelined here and yet to really make her mark, but an ebullient Clarke manages to pretty much steal the show.

The last time we had this many people at the Doctor’s side at any given time was the start of the 80s (it didn’t end well for poor Adric). However Chibnall points out that the original line-up of the show in 1963 also had four regulars, so you could see this new formulation as being a return to the show’s roots. In much the same way, Akinola’s aforementioned new theme tune appears to use a sampling of the original Delia Derbyshire arrangement of Ron Grainer’s music, augmented with a thoroughly modern drum and base backing. The end titles – seen only briefly – suggest a similar nod to those used by the show in the 60s and early 70s, all of which hints at Chibnall’s ‘back to the future’ approach to remaking the show for an audience in 2018.

The main objective of all these changes is to make the show feel as bold, dynamic and dizzyingly innovative as it did originally in 1963 and its modern return to the screens in 2005, while still holding true to the classic spirit and essential ethos of the show. The hope is to appeal to bigger and broader audiences after a period of declining ratings – argue amongst yourselves whether that’s an inevitable result of the rise of on-demand streaming, but don’t forget to also discuss and explain the conventional ratings successes of, for example, Broadchurch and Bodyguard.

So how does the first episode measure up against those ambitions? All these small incremental changes definitely add up, and for the first half of the hour-long episode it didn’t feel much like the series I remembered – but by no means in a bad way. Instead I was reminded of the low-budget British science fiction film Attack of the Block – perhaps because Whittaker was in that too, alongside future Star Wars lead John Boyega – and I say that as a compliment because I have a very high regard for that under-appreciated film.

The episode starts slowly with a focus on Ryan that gradually extends out to his family and friends, into whose lives the temporarily-amnesiac Doctor literally drops into. We mostly see her and the unfolding events through their eyes, and each is given time even at this early stage to develop as a properly rounded character possessed of their own problems and preoccupations. Ryan for example suffers from dyspraxia and is frustrated by being unable to ride a bike; he doesn’t get on with his step-grandfather Graham who has been battling cancer; and Yas is frustrated at being given petty jobs to do during her police training. Only Grace is happy about the spark of excitement and sense of possibility presented by the Doctor’s arrival on their doorstep, and she immediately rises to the occasion.

None of these traits feed in directly to the plot at hand, but they combine to give the characters a depth and substance that has all too often been missing from the show in recent years, in which anything not required by the current story has been squeezed out by lack of running time. Here’s there’s room to build up the part of marked man Karl (amusingly played by Jonny Dixon) and the haunted Rahul (Amit Shah) to the point where we really start to invest in what happens to them. A one-scene appearance for a security guard at a building site means that what happens next has real impact, although it’s still just a warm-up for a far more shocking turn of events toward the end of the episode.

The sense of a proper story with real characters worth spending time with is arguably the biggest change that Chibnall brings to the show. After the boisterous madcap energy of the Davies era, and the intricate ideas-driven run masterminded by Moffat, suddenly we have a show that is less interested in science fiction high concepts and non-stop running around, but rather simply wants to tell a solid, carefully-paced story with interesting characters at its heart. Hopefully that will appeal to a more mainstream audience that has become estranged from Doctor Who in recent years, but at the same time there’s no reason long-term fans should take against such an admirable intent.

The sense of being more down to earth extends to the main character in its new incarnation. The use of ‘doctor’ as a name doesn’t come into it until near the end, and when it does it’s somehow shocking to be reminded of it and snaps us back to the fact that this is Doctor Who and not some brand new, equally exciting new show. Up to this point Whittaker had been surprisingly less central than I had been expecting, which is no doubt intentional in order to establish the ensemble cast. After all, the character of the Doctor does rather take over the room when it is in full gear.

In “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, the Doctor is undergoing the usual post-regenerative trauma and can’t even remember her own name, asking at one point why someone is calling her “ma’am” because it hasn’t fully sunk in yet that she’s a woman this time around. That keeps her on the backfoot and continually improvising, but Whittaker wisely doesn’t overplay the comedy and instead establishes a light, impish sense of humour that is entirely her own. It is especially effective in mocking the villain of the week, whom she cheekily rechristens Tim Shaw after intentionally mishearing his more menacing proper alien name.

The idea of defining the 13th Doctor through her own unique sense of fun is a true delight, and at a stroke eliminates the one concern that I had had about the new lead actor. The fact that a woman was taking on the role never worried me – indeed, it’s long overdue – but I did fear that Whittaker was such a naturalistic, earnest actor used to dramatic roles of social realism that she wouldn’t have the expansive range and comedic expertise to be able to manage the more flippant side of the Doctor’s oversized personality. Christopher Eccleston had a similar background coming to the role in 2005, and to be honest – and I know I’m in the minority with this view – I never felt he got the hang of or was ever truly comfortable when required to portray the Doctor’s mad, alien-style lunacy. Of course he only had 13 episodes in the role and would probably have got there in the end – Eccleston is a fine actor, no question – but he never mastered it in the way that his successors did in just a couple of weeks.

I think part of the problem for him is that every Doctor since 1981 has been required to inject aspects of Tom Baker’s bug-eyed, manic style into the way they’ve played the role rather than been free to find a style that is fully their own. Even Peter Capaldi – who was a very different Doctor from that of David Tennant and Matt Smith – was clearly keenly aware of Baker’s enduring influence over the way the character has been seen and depicted ever since. But Whittaker doesn’t attempt to go down this route at all, at least not in the first episode, and instead crafts an approach that is entirely her own while still being true to the odd, quirky, super-smart and inspirational Doctor that we know and love. She adds to this an emotional openness that is new to the character, sticking around to support her new friends through tragedy long after the alien threat has been dealt with.

The 13th Doctor sees herself as a team player, then, rather than the big star turn. And that’s a really welcome change in the series, which in recent years had become focused on the titular Time Lord to an almost obsessive extent in a way that too often crowded out satisfying tales of fantastic worlds populated by interesting supporting characters. Chibnall appears to be aiming for a return to that old style of the Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee years while still making an absolutely up-to-the-minute, impressively slick, modern television series. If he pulls it off – and this first episode gives every indication that he can even if it’s still a work in progress – then it should be the start of a fantastic new era for the show.

Whatever else, one thing is for sure: Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. And we like her a lot.

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