Jodie Whittaker made her first full appearance as the Doctor on BBC One this evening. With spoilers aplenty, here’s our review of ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’…
If you feel just that little bit exhausted with the endless chatter around the Thirteenth Doctor’s gender, then imagine what it’s like to be Jodie Whittaker. On the press tour for series 11, day after day, she’s been faced with the same question in varying degrees of sensitivity about whether she’s right/valid/good enough for the role of the Doctor because she’s a woman. The fact that her full-length debut, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ takes literally eight seconds (we counted) to address this makes it doubly insulting and infuriating. Whittaker settled this non-issue months ago – and it was beyond a relief to see this new iteration of Doctor Who just crack on with it.
With a background in intelligent, charming drama, it’s no surprise that new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s first time at the wheel is firmly rooted in the lives of everyday folk. There are snatches of Broadchurch-like drama here and there – you can really imagine Olivia Colman’s DS Ellie Miller sarcastically presiding over the parking dispute at the beginning – and thanks to Chibnall’s smart casting it’s a world that feels instantly lived-in.
The opening scene of Ryan learning to ride a bike is a gorgeous touch and a lovely, poignant bookend for him and his grandparents. Treating Sheffield like a fourth companion is refreshing to say the least and the move away from London gives this revamped show both a clearer mind and the opportunity to spotlight the beauty of the Peaks through some expensive-looking lens flares.
That humanist flavour feels carried over from Chibnall’s earlier Doctor Who days, too; the reinforcement that teamwork makes the dream work is straight out of his Silurian two-parter and charming little moments like ‘ask a bus driver’ echo ‘The Power of Three’.
Like the majority of Chibnall’s Doctor Who offerings the sci-fi’s not as successful as the character interactions but it feels churlish to pick at ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ when Prisoner Zero and the Half-Face Man were hardly the gold standard for Who foes. That being said, what Tim Shaw had going for him was that extraordinary creature design.
Seldom does Doctor Who make me gasp quite like that but Shaw’s appearance was so repellent I actually missed a lot of key dialogue and had to rewind. So, while The Predator in Sheffield was hardly the most exhilarating of plots, monsters like Tim Shaw bode awfully well for the remainder of the series.
Regarding Jodie Whittaker’s turn as the Doctor her brilliance cannot be overstated. Her Doctor is this immediately magnetic presence, owning the stage the moment she appears. It’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine any woman other than Whittaker playing the first female Doctor, she’s pure magic. Her Doctor has the heart(s), the charisma and the irreverence we’ve come to love about the character – she feels right at home here.
What’s surprising about the Thirteenth Doctor, however, is the debt she pays to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, with her similar elastic expressions, rapid-fire rambling and capricious decision-making. It’s a relatively minor quibble but I’m not sure the script had the one-liners to back up the Tennant-ish zaniness, though Whittaker’s effortless charm made up for it in more ways than one. She’s a gifted actor and spending an hour with her a week in any capacity – not least as the Doctor – is a treat itself.
As her shiny new companions, Graham, Ryan, Yaz and Grace are all you could ask for – smart, reliable, kind and useful – and it helps that they’re played by an extraordinary group of actors. It’s hard not to resent Chris Chibnall for killing off Grace, particularly as he’s somewhat shot himself in the foot by jettisoning Sharon D. Clarke, an actress who brought such an undeniable spark to proceedings. Clarke was the standout for me and injected so much life into Grace, the funny and wise nan from Sheffield who helped her nephew learn to ride a bike, dyspraxia be damned. She will be sorely missed.
As Graham, Bradley Walsh nicely underplays things, there’s a real warmth and compassion to him and I can’t wait to see how his relationship with Ryan plays out. There’s strong work, too, on the part of Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill, and it’s going to be a joy to see how this fledgling gang of friends bond over the next ten episodes.
This new ensemble feel to the show does immediate wonders and it’s interesting that the joint efforts of everyone deprives Whittaker of a ‘I’m the Doctor, I’m here to save the day’ speech. She gets something similar but there’s a humility to the Thirteenth Doctor that’s impossible not to dig – and besides, saving the day as a group is really apt for the prevailing mood of 2018.
It’s not the total knock-out we all hoped it would be but ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ is a terrific palate cleanser and a real breath of fresh air for Doctor Who (it’s not a cliché when it’s true). There’s an awful lot of hope to found in its quietly optimistic spirit, and in the supremely capable hands of Whittaker, Chibnall, Gill, Cole, Walsh and company, it’s difficult not to feel that bit giddy about the weeks ahead.
Doctor Who continues next week with ‘The Ghost Monument’ on BBC One at 6:55pm.