Friday 19 October 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x01 - The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Doctor Who 11x01 - The Woman That Fell to Earth

Doctor Who has returned to television screens once again, and this time it's a debut that could give even the 2005 revival a run for its money in terms of anticipation. The show that's built itself on change continues to grow as it welcomes Jodie Whittaker, the 13th Doctor and the first woman in the 55 year old role. That isn't the only new thing the show's 11th series has to offer either, as it also brings along a new head writer in the form of Chris Chibnall, new companions, a new TARDIS, a new logo, a new episode running time and even a new airdate as it moves from Saturday evenings to Sunday for the first time since its revival. That's a lot of changes, and these changes have brought about a lot of discussion - both for better and for worse. But amidst all the speculation and damnation, there was one message that was clear - no one knew exactly what these changes would bring until we saw them in action. Series 11 kicks off with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, a special 65 minute episode to welcome in this new era.

Present day Sheffield. When Ryan Sinclair comes across some strange lights and interacts with them, a mysterious blue pod appears. After calling the police he meets up with PC Yasmin Khan, an old friend of his from school. Meanwhile Ryan's grandmother Grace and her husband Graham find themselves trapped on a train with a tentacled orb of electricity. They're only saved when a newly regenerated Doctor comes crashing through the train, missing her TARDIS and not a full idea of just who she is. But the four humans but their trust in the strange woman - taking them on an adventure that reveals both a sinister game and an alien invader.

There are plenty of ways in which this new series of Doctor Who immediately felt brand new but right from the get-go the overall feel of The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a big giveaway. This modern iteration of the series have never shied away from a big budget where it was warranted, but this is perhaps the first time Doctor Who has felt positively cinematic. Jamie Child's directing style takes the series to new heights, delivering a neon-lit adventure primarily taking place over a night time Sheffield. And by that it actually means Sheffield as well, as even taking Doctor Who outside of a very obvious (at least for a Welsh person) Cardiff for even only a few scenes makes a huge difference. A more subdued score from new composer Segun Akinola also gives the series a whole new aura, and one which was much needed after over a decade of Murray Gold's strong yet often overpowering composition.

But the burning question on everyone's minds is of course going to be the Doctor herself. Even in the regular bout of post-regeneration amnesia Whittaker already manages to bring her own qualities to the Doctor, opting for an incarnation bursting with energy both in speech and motion. While this approach is similar to the likes of Tennant or Smith, but its a personality type that fits both Whittaker and this incarnation of the Doctor to a tee. The 13th Doctor also showed off her ingenuity early on with the frankly brilliant creation of her "Swiss Army Sonic" (complete with added Sheffield steel), which adds a little more credence to its seemingly slapdash design with an excellent bit of story significance. And for all the ranting and all the doubting that has plagued the internet since Whittaker's casting back last year - the Doctor's gender certainly does not matter. She is still recognisably the same character in every sense of the imagination, and true to its word the episode only makes a point of addressing it in places where it feels natural. "Don’t be scared. All of this is new to you, and new can be scary." This line may ring true for a lot of people, but Jodie in the the role is anything but.

Along with the Doctor comes a whole host of new companions, finally giving the show the ensemble setup it's been demanding for decades. Certainly periods like the Doctor/Rose/Jack or Doctor/Amy/Rory dynamic shouldn't be ignored, but even then there it was always a case of having primary and secondary companions. For the first time we have a series where each companion has equal billing, where hopefully none will be more important than the other. That isn't quite true for this episode though, with Ryan arguably taking centre stage and his family ties to both Grace and Graham reinforcing this. The dyspraxia element to his character is a bold move that doesn't come across as heavy-handed, providing a unique starting point to the character that makes him relatable to a new section of the audience and will add more significance to his growth during his travels with the Doctor. Bradley Walsh also puts in a great performance as Graham, and the idea of him as the exasperated old man on these travels through time and space is certainly appealing. It's a shame that Yasmin feels a bit like the odd one out because of the way the relationships have been set up, but it was wise for the show not to set it up as a completely family affair and Mandip Gill gives just as strong a performance as the others. It is however a crying shame that this may be the last we see of Rose, who bursted with such energy that she would have been perfect as part of the new TARDIS crew. That said if the episode needed an element of tragedy to bring the cast together then this was a good way to do it, giving the story some vital emotional weight.

The story itself was fairly standard Doctor Who fare, taking a leaf out of Predator's book as the ferocious Tzim-Sha (or "Tim Shaw" if you'd prefer) comes to Earth as part of a ritual hunt. Causing several fairly gruesome deaths for the sake of something so inconsequential Doctor Who gets off to a pretty dark start in terms of tone as well as lighting, but it's important to differentiate this from episodes that were needlessly dark for the sake of it such as Death in Heaven. It's the correct feel of the Doctor bringing hope to a dangerous situation, complete with the right level of humour the Doctor should be injecting into it. For a series that's supposedly going to be devoid of both classic monsters and returning foes Tzim-Sha isn't the kind of adversary fans are going to be clamouring to see again, but does the job as a one-off adversary a new Doctor is able to test their mettle on.

Of course the episode wasn't completely flawless. The over advertising of the companions in the lead up to this new series meant that it was abundantly obvious something was going to happen to Grace eventually, so the the build up to her death was somewhat marred by viewer expectation leading up to it. And while the whole teeth-stealing aspect to Tzim-Sha was a good bit of Who horror from a idea standpoint, the actual reveal of an alien who's covered his face in teeth came across as pretty silly. Even the Doctor's final admonishment of Karl, who (quite rightfully) kicked an alien hunting him off a crane didn't feel right. Both because it was a comment that felt like it came out of nowhere and never went anywhere afterwards. But ultimately these felt like minor complaints in what was otherwise such a brilliant episode. Like the new Doctor introductory episodes that have come before it, the emphasis was the characters. It's hard to have a truly complex alien storyline when proper character introductions are more important, and the episode did everything right in that regard.

An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, Power of the Daleks, Rose - these are some of the most important episodes of Doctor Who ever produced when it comes to sheer significance. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a story that more than deserves to be added to that list. This new era of Doctor Who has crash landed in perfect form, crafting an adventure that feels brand new while capturing that all important Who feel. Jodie Whittaker's 13th Doctor has already created a strong impression while in the midst of post-regeneration madness, so expectations will be high as she eases into her own incarnation in The Ghost Monument. Doctor Who is back, and it's about time.

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