Doctor Who series 11: The Woman Who Fell To Earth review

The series 11 premiere finds Doctor Who in rude health. Spoilers ahead in our review of Jodie Whittaker's debut as the Doctor...

Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker Sonic Screwdriver
Photo: BBC Pictures

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

11.1 The Woman Who Fell To Earth

It feels like we’ve been waiting for this for a very long time. So much had been written – both good and bad – about this series of Doctor Who before Messrs Moffat and Capaldi had even left the building. Much of it before new Doctor Jodie Whittaker had filmed a single line of dialogue. A new showrunner, a whole new TARDIS team, a new composer and even a new transmission day – some believed that series eleven (or season thirty-seven, if you want to be accurate about it) would be completely different to what had come before.

Except it isn’t, really. Because of course it isn’t. There are a number of differences which we’ll come to, but they’re largely superficial ones. At its core, The Woman Who Fell To Earth is simply the latest instalment of post-2005 Doctor Who – a pacy adventure which sees the same old Doctor surrounded by contemporary humans as they protect the Earth (or at least, part of Britain) from an alien threat. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Of course, the main attraction here is the new Doctor. Jodie Whittaker, in case you’ve been trapped in a time eddy for the past year, is the first woman to play the role (outside of parodies and alternate-universe tales, before you write in). And honestly, that’s as much as I’m going to mention that fact here, because it’s pretty much irrelevant to the episode – a line in her first scene and a joke about having to buy women’s clothing near the end, and the show moves on.

Whittaker certainly makes an impact in her opening scene – quite literally, as she falls through the roof of the train and meets her new companions. The script cleverly wastes no time in having her do some proper ‘Doctor business’ – fending off an alien, casually dismissing a death in favour of the mystery at hand and persuading police officer Yas not to call for reinforcements. Whittaker shines pretty quickly in these scenes, and has every bit of the quiet intensity of her predecessors.

Unfortunately, this is then followed by half an hour of that old favourite, ‘post-regenerative trauma’, which has the new Doctor fizzing with energy, but not much else. It’s quite one-note, the Doctor chattering away but saying little of interest, with no real sense of character to fall back on. This is hardly new, and at least this Doctor isn’t relegated to spending too much time in bed a la David Tennant or Jon Pertwee, but these periods are often detrimental to the show. Colin Baker, for instance, suffered greatly through his own violent post-regenerative imbalance being the only impression viewers received of his Doctor before going off air for nine months.

Given how much Chris Chibnall has talked about wanting this series to be filled with fresh elements, it’s a shame he felt he couldn’t just have the new Doctor appear to the others having already sorted out her issues. Because when the Doctor finally does appear atop that crane, Whittaker absolutely nails her confrontation with Tim Shaw (a lovely bit of business, that – and Whittaker clearly enjoying casually undermining the villain at every turn). It’s too early to tell what her Doctor will be like as the series continues, but this episode lays solid foundations for Whittaker to build on.

The plot brings Team TARDIS together surprisingly quickly, thanks in part to some unexpected connections. I owe a public apology to the person who, some months back, speculated that Bradley Walsh’s Graham would play a similar role to fan favourite Wilfred Mott… ‘How old do you think he is?!’ I asked. Yet here he is, playing the grandfather-by-marriage of Tosin Cole’s Ryan, a relationship which isn’t played upon too heavily here but opens up some interesting dramatic possibilities going forward, especially considering this episode’s climax.

As has been the case so many times since 2005, any cries of stunt casting are quickly forgotten with Walsh, as Graham is so far removed from the ebulient host of The Chase that you’d be forgiven for not realising they’re the same person. In fact, he’s by far the most subdued of the team, and every bit the reluctant traveller. However, he’s a lot more than just the cowardly comic relief; there are a few moments when Graham borders on being rather unpleasant, particularly in his treatment of Ryan. It’s to Walsh’s credit that he still comes across as a sympathetic character, and it’s hard not to feel for him by the episode’s end.

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Tosin Cole as Ryan is the first face we see on screen thanks to some slightly clunky expositional vlogging, a dramatic device which feels like it’s past its sell-by date at this point. The Woman Who Fell To Earth is constructed as his story, and for a while it looks like he might be the ‘main’ companion (Who among us didn’t think he was going to come face to face with the Doctor when wandering around the clearing in which Whittaker filmed her reveal?). But this series is being heavily promoted as an ensemble piece, and sure enough Ryan soon falls into line. Once again, there’s great potential for Ryan – Tosin Cole brings a charm and vulnerability to this underdog who doesn’t let his dyspraxia define him, and who’s determined not to let it hold him back.

The final member of the team is Mandip Gill’s Yasmin, a former schoolmate of Ryan (given that their actors are thirty and twenty-six years old respectively, it’s not easy to buy into these characters only being nineteen, but this is a show about a time-travelling alien, so we’ll let it pass) and now a probationary police officer. As the one character outside of Ryan’s family unit, and as the authority character necessarily undercut by the Doctor, we perhaps don’t get as much from Yasmin as the others in this episode, but she’s likable, engaging and eminently capable.

Chris Chibnall’s script puts a real emphasis on characterisation, in a way that we haven’t seen in Doctor Who since the Russell T Davies era. Aspects like Ryan’s dyspraxia and Graham’s cancer may not factor into the story particularly, but they give the characters a depth that the likes of Amy Pond and Clara never had – these feel like real people, plunged into the Doctor’s chaos. Even the bit-players, like Karl with his self-help tapes or the security guard talking to his mute granddaughter, are loaded with reasons why we should care about their fates.

All of this comes at a price, however, and that’s the story. The problem isn’t that the plot is simplistic; better stories than this have come out of less, and there are at least a few mysteries to be solved here. The problem is that the plot is… clumsy. For one thing, as efficiently as the TARDIS team are brought together, the device used to keep them together is excruciatingly baffling –  the DNA bombs are a gleefully gruesome context, but why use them? Or rather, why aren’t they detonated straight away if the intention is to make sure there are no witnesses?

The questions mount up. How did the Predator come to Earth to take that man’s sister if they didn’t have permission until Ryan gave it? Why is the Doctor so utterly uninterested in the fact that the Stenza’s victims are held in stasis “on the cusp between life and death” when this surely suggests there’s a chance of saving them? And, most importantly… How did the titular woman survive her fall to Earth? Perhaps we’ll get our answer to that last one when the Doctor catches up with the TARDIS, but with the cast and crew emphasising a move away from serialisation, it’s hard to be sure that they’ll go back to resolve that one.

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Where the story does succeed is in its final act, and the tragic rug-pull that comes from the death of Grace, played by Sharon D Clarke. In many ways, Grace is the heart of the episode; she’s exuberant, comforting and the one member of the initial group who seems genuinely thrilled to be along for the ride, with a carefree attitude to life that will make many – myself included – rather envious. Of course we knew she wouldn’t be travelling with the Doctor, which is a great pity in itself – I’d happily have taken her in place of one of the others – but Clarke was announced as a recurring presence in the series, so it’s an absolute shock when she’s killed off.

At this point, we don’t know whether her recurring status was a bit of mischievous misdirection from the production team or a spoiler for future episodes – it seems unlikely this death will be reversed, but ask the likes of Shaun Dingwall or Jenna Coleman and they’ll tell you that character death doesn’t necessarily mean the end of an actor’s Doctor Who journey. What’s absolutely certain is that Graham and Ryan’s loss will be felt for some time to come, both by the characters and the audience.

The death puts the top on an unusually sombre and grounded start to the series, but it’s not devoid of humour – Jodie Whittaker clearly has comic chops, and Bradley Walsh does get a few good laughs in. While slow to start, it’s also a pacey bit of television from the moment the Doctor appears through to Grace’s final scenes.

While his motivations and methodology might be questionable, Tim Shaw of the Stenza sets a reasonably high bar for alien antagonists in a series where we’ve been continually promised no returning villains. The metal Predator suit is menacing in itself, but the villain’s face is wonderfully grotesque, with the face full of teeth an effective bit of body horror. Whether there would be much to gain from a visit to the Stenza homeworld is debatable – culturally they sound like any one of a number of warlike sci-fi races at this point – but Tim Shaw makes for a memorable one-off foe.

In fact, visually everything about this episode is a marked step up from what we’ve had previously. From the beautiful Sheffield sunset to the inexplicably windy starscape at the episode’s end, the direction of this episode brings a scale and feel to the series that we’ve never seen before. Even the episode’s ropiest visual – the flying spaghetti monster that briefly evoked worrying memories of Chloe Webber’s scribble monster from 2006 fan-favourite episode Fear Her – is a noticeable step up from the previous series.

Last, but definitely not least, is the music. New composer Segun Akinola makes his mark after thirteen years of Murray Gold’s bombastic tunes with a score which is confident yet understated. There are hints at something grander, like during the sonic screwdriver montage, but for the most part Akinola is happy to let his music become part of the ensemble. The minimalist approach is reflected in Akinola’s version of the theme tune, which sticks heavily to the original but adds just enough to freshen it up.

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And that just about sums The Woman Who Fell To Earth  up in a nutshell. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s a refresh rather than a reboot, and will hopefully serve to allay many of the more understandable reservations people have about so much change happening at once. Doctor Who has always thrived on change, and based on the first episode it seems to be in rude health – let’s just hope that, now we’ve gotten to know Team TARDIS, their adventures prove to be worthy of their talents.

When he’s not pondering the canonicity of Bradley Walsh’s 2008 game show My Little Soldier, Pete can be found online trying his hand at most forms of content and hoping something sticks. You can follow him on Twitter @petedtrenchard.