Nearly fifteen months after the announcement of her casting, it was indeed about time for Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode as TV’s Doctor Who. Hers was also the start of a brand new era for the programme – new showrunner, writers, producers, composer. The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt to me the boldest relaunch of the show since its return in 2005, with a refreshing new approach to its cast of characters and some exciting, even unsettling, changes of style and tone. Exactly the shake-up it was due.
Though it’s hard to judge a Doctor from their first episode alone, but following a casting that prompted a min-revival of the historic debate amongst predominantly male fans as to whether or not women can act, this was a triumph for Jodie Whittaker. Her introduction isn’t fed to us in quite the show-stopping, blockbuster-y way that many other Doctors have enjoyed this century (looking at how we meet her companions, this is surely a deliberate choice). But the big moments are still there. Moments of heroic action, a big climactic speech, proudly asserting her identity and her morality. Fantastically inquisitive, often struggling to catch up with her own mind – and a lovely bit of childlike humour when she asks Yas (Mandip Gill) if they can have the lights and siren on in the police car.
Separated from the TARDIS for now, she is also forced into an Earthbound, practical mindset not properly seen since Jon Pertwee was having to make do with whatever technology our planet had to offer in the early 1970s. For me, the first time this Doctor felt like she was really discovering herself was the sequence where she makes her own sonic screwdriver (now with added Sheffield steel). Eight years on from another relaunch for the show, where Matt Smith gets given a new, ready-made one by the TARDIS (“Thanks, dear,” indeed), this was a brilliant distinction, and a welcome reminder after a long period of the Doctor seeming almost magical, that the character is a scientist – she’s hands-on, she builds, she is an inventor.
‘Down-to-Earth’ seems an apt phrase to describe this first episode, then, and it’s reflected in the companions too. This isn’t to say we didn’t believe Bill was real, or Donna, or Clara (sometimes), but over the years, we’ve been used to seeing characters who feel like big personalities to us from the off. There are broad brushstrokes, and we often meet them through the lens of their own perspective. Meeting three new friends at once, ours is much more of an outside eye, in spite of Ryan (Tosin Cole) communicating with us directly through a vlog, Our view of them seems more objective as we see multiple criss-crossing personal relationships slowly reveal themselves. We’re invested enough to continue, but I certainly feel after episode one that there’s much more to learn.
My biggest criticism of the episode is that one of those avenues is cut off before we have a chance to explore it. Grace’s (Sharon D Clarke) death felt to me a needless cruelty, inflicted on someone who brought the most sense of life and soul to proceedings (aside from maybe the Doctor herself). It’s her who really brings a love of adventure to a tense, often grim, story “Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” she asks Graham (Bradley Walsh). “Yes!” he replies.
Others more knowledgeable than me have questioned the underlying (perhaps unconsidered) politics of a story of white female empowerment culminating in the death of a black woman, but for my part, I felt cheated of a character I was so keen to see return periodically. Grace is given a good send off by her loved ones, and I have no doubt her loss will continue to have ramifications for Graham and Ryan, but is a character’s death really necessary to catalyse other relationships? And come to that, what of the other relationships that will now go unexamined?
A shame in an otherwise fantastic relaunch, yet it does also serve the grimmer tone that is struck at points in the episode. After a trailer and publicity that unanimously screamed action, adventure and fun, this episode had some surprisingly dark turns. There was something deeply unsettling in the brutality of the amusingly misnamed Tim Shaw/T’zim-Sha (Samuel Oakley), and the implied violence of maimed corpses – to say nothing of the evidence of this that he wears so proudly. It’s made more affecting by the profound sense of the real world in this story. Mundane details like the flavourless salad and kebabs being eaten by one of his victims make his violence that bit more visceral – especially after the more fantastical violence since the programme’s return.
Segun Akinola’s music amplifies this, too. Gone are the sentimentalist comforts of Murray Gold, and in their place is much greater emphasis on atmospheric drones, tension and dread abound. The updated music casts us into this new world of Doctor Who just as surely as the sumptuous changes to the programme’s cinematography. This can also be said of his new theme tune arrangement (to be heard in its proper place for the first time in tonight’s episode). For the first time this century, it speaks less of action and adventure, and more of the ethereal and the unknown. The result is by turns exciting and just a little bit frightening – quite right too.
All in all, this was a brilliant first step down a new path. I have my misgivings on one aspect, true, but in general I couldn’t be more excited by the fresh directions the show’s taking – at just the right time. Jodie Whittaker looks set to be a fantastic Doctor, I’m looking forward to visiting strange new worlds with her and her friends, and I’m quietly thrilled at having no idea what to expect next.