Doctor Who series 11 episode 1 spoiler-free review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Jodie Whittaker impresses as the leader of a new Doctor Who gang in a premiere that takes the show in a slightly new direction...

The TARDIS just about lands. Frazzled, but intact. Inside, for the first time since last Christmas, we see Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, stepping through a massive collection of bras, knocking over make-up containers and a pile of thick, miserable, monthly fashion magazines. She presses stop on the DVD, frustrated that she won’t get through her regular evening viewing of Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason. Guzzling a Mirage and lemonade, she quickly pops into the bathroom for half an hour to freshen up, and she emerges.

All those haters on the internet had it absolutely bang on. Who knew?

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Meanwhile, back in our reality, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is a bundle of energy, in a full debut episode that picks up on the same day as Peter Capaldi’s swansong, Twice Upon A Time. Funny, compassionate and ready for a massive leap of faith when required, she’s the core part of a new group of travellers through time and space. What’s more, she headlines, but doesn’t dominate, a marked change in Doctor Who.

You’ve got Chris Chibnall to thank for that. A man who’s written stories for the show that have enjoyed a mixed reception over the past decade, here he gets to define his take on what the foundation of Doctor Who should be. There’s no dashing out of the gates. There’s the slow burn of someone who knows his way around TV drama, taking time to introduce a compelling bunch of characters. By the end of the opening hour, it’s clear that every character matters to Chibnall, and his writing is absolutely at his strongest when introducing us to the new faces.

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Each gets space. Toisin Cole’s Ryan, Mandip Gill’s Yasmin, and Bradley Walsh’s Graham are all patiently set up in an opening episode that’s geographically rooted firmly in Sheffield (a city that also wraps itself permanently into the DNA of the show too). There’s real pathos for them too, in ways I don’t want to spoil. I will say that Chibnall fully understands the audience this show goes to, particularly those not necessarily having an easy time of life, and he deals with one or two things in a surprising, brilliant, head-on way. I loved that he did that.

And then there’s Jodie Whittaker. Brief version: heck, yes.

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Longer version? She’s going through the traditional ‘a bit troubled after a regeneration’ time, but the episode doesn’t overegg that (in fact, the costume selection moment is brief). Her natural comedic touch shines through too, although the tone of the episode is a contrast from Who as we’ve seen it the past few years. There’s no fast passage of dialogue to get out of a corner, the jokes count is down, the chronology – and this is basing it one episode – is a lot more straightforward to follow. Chibnall, more than any episode since Rose, has given newer viewers a very natural stepping-on point for the show, with a bunch of characters I found myself warming to very quickly.

What really impresses about Jodie Whittaker, and there’s a lot here, is her generosity. She’s very much a part of an ensemble, a performer who doesn’t need the limelight in every shot, and as such, whilst the leader of the gang, an actor who can be part of a group. The sense of an 80s movie gang with a leader. Loved that.

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The traditional Doctor Who elements are there. There’s a foe, of course, and a bit of a mystery for Whittaker and her gang to get to the bottom of, and quite a good one. Some nice design work, too, but again, I’m skating a little too close to spoilers if I go much further. I don’t think, as new Doctor episodes go, we’re quite at the level of David Tennant throwing satsumas on Christmas Day. But also, much like The Eleventh Hour, this is really some achievement, given how much it introduces and sets up – at what feels like quite a restrained pace – and how it alters the tone and feel of Doctor Who in doing so.

Credit to director Jamie Childs. and also for the decision to shoot so much of the episode outside (it looked bloody cold, too). There are some really quite terrific exterior shots, and when it’s time for action, things never look too digital. In fact, there’s some stunt work that’s anything but.

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If the aim of The Woman Who Fell To Earth was to introduce new characters, relaunch the show again and start to take it off in a slightly different direction, then it’s very much mission accomplished. Where it goes next? Well, it leaves threads and no shortage of them. But this is a quietly confident start rather than an eruption, that may take a little readjustment. I for one think it’s worth it. A really promising start.

And yeah, she’s ace.

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Personal note: just over 11 years since I founded the site, this is my last ever Doctor Who review for Den Of Geek. You can follow whatever mischief I get up to on Twitter @simonbrew if you wish. Please continue to keep the comments civilised, and I hand the mantle of Who reviews over to new faces. I wish them, and you all, the best.