Doctor Who #996: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

"Right? This is going to be fun."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.7 2018.

IN THIS ONE... The 13th Doctor meets future companions Ryan, Yas and Graham, and they fight a demented tooth fairy in Sheffield.

REVIEW: Well, this is certainly a more serious take on the show. After a dozen years under Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat, who for all their differences both produced the show as a bombastic and wacky superhero action comedy, it's a bit of a shock. And as with all change, it's going to take a little while to get used to, and some people aren't going to like it. And yet, we survived the move from Troughton to Pertwee, which I still say is the biggest tonal shift Doctor Who's ever had. I was wondering what Chibnall was going to bring to it, especially post-Broadchurch (his years on Torchwood were closer to the Who of the era). He's brought it back down to earth, and that title, which applies to both the Doctor and Grace in the episode, is also a broader statement. He's grounded the show (just as he's literally grounded the Doctor without a TARDIS). So it now has a less fanciful style, more subtle music, jokes unsupported by twinkly themes - are they falling flatter than usual, or are we just not used to the way they are delivered? There are bound to be growing pains, but I for one love the new look and sound of Doctor Who. It looks like a film. Huge vistas, almost everything shot on location (I imagine the train and the top of the cranes are builds), gorgeous lighting. We're not given opening credits yet (intriguing), but the new theme comes on when the Doctor shows up and can be heard at the very end. It sounds like an older arrangement, dark thrums and electronic winds. The score throughout is relatively light - I love a lot of Murray Gold's themes and own most of the CDs, but the episodes were smothered in obtrusive tunes at times - though there are some sweet cues as well. And Sheffield makes a huge change from Cardiff-as-London. There's a real sense of place, very much in the way that the fictional Broadchurch was brought to life. In line with all that, the acting is generally more naturalistic, and the way even day players are written gives them texture. The night guardsman talking to his granddaughter. The drunk dude picking tomatoes out of his salad. Just the type of bric-a-brac on people's desks. It all speaks to a more grounded reality. And the story itself will have lower stakes, one life (even a kind of rubbish one) as important as a whole world's.

So what about Jodie Whittaker, does she make a good Doctor? I've read someone say she is effortlessly kind and I've really taken to that phrase. After three series of Capaldi, a misanthropic Doctor (as many are), I like an empathetic take on the role. Look at Whittaker's more quiet moments, her silent and nonjudgmental understanding of Karl, for example, who doesn't want answers, or of Ryan frustrated that his dad doesn't show up to his Nan's funeral. How sorry she is that her erstwhile companions had to see a mutilated dead body. Her outrage at the villain's actions is where she shines best, I think. The Doctor has to be insolent, and she is. Love the way she purposefully mishears his name as Tim Shaw (it's something like Zhim Jaa, I'm not sure because the actor is hilariously credited AS "Tim Shaw"), how she undermines him at every turn, how she thinks his culture is "completely obscene". It's with the zany stuff that she's less sure-footed. The finger up the nose, for example. However, there are still some great bits that prove she can do it. The crazy sonic-building montage is particularly good (and expressly makes her an engineer, something the Doctor always is but isn't necessarily the focus, and it goes against the prejudice some hold about women), but there are others, like the reveal of her costume (bought from a thrift store because empty pockets, you know, and helps explain how eclectic it is). I also like her grimaces and expressions; here is a woman who is not at all self-conscious, which also goes against the stereotype. One bit of post-regeneration madcappery I noted was when she checked her pockets on the train. If Davies or Moffat had written the scene, there would have been, at the very least, a double-entendre there about there being something ELSE missing. A pleasant surprise, then, that Chibnall didn't go there. "I'm looking for a doctor" was about as metatextual and precious as it got. There's every indication that this Doctor will be flying by the seat of her pants too. She isn't suddenly able to draw the right conclusion, she has to update her assumptions as the clues mount up, and she cuts a lot of corners, whether it's a sparking sonic made from spoons ("it'll be alright") or throwing crane keys over to companions and letting them figure it out. She shares the load, and if such a relatively large cast is going to work, she will have to.

Speaking of the cast, the Doctor meets four people here, three of them moving forward. Right off the bat, some nice diversity, not just demographic, but with the realities at play (Ryan and his displexia. Graham in remission). Let's take them one by one. Ryan is the first face we see, and he is the prototypical companion. He has a dead end job, becomes an orphan over the course of the episode, and a small support system. Just look at his YouTube channel. 19 views speaks to his need for, but failure to, connect with others. He's always on social media. His neuro-disability is interesting and while it wasn't something I was familiar with, I know it connected with a lot of people. Time for some awareness, I think. He has the most potential. Yasmine is a young cop who sick of being sent on the easiest assignments, so this one night is perhaps more than she ever bargained for. Her relationship with Ryan is pretty frank and easy considering they haven't seen each other since primary school, but I like the chemistry. That moment when she's a little embarrassed at having done better for herself than he has, nice touch. And then there's Graham who from the publicity material I thought might be a Turlough-like antagonist, or at least a curmudgeon or some kind. After all, what is an older man doing with this lot? Nothing further from the truth. Just the sweetest man and an engaging actor. But yes, kind of an unwilling participant. They all have pre-existing relationships the show will be able to explore, but I also like how they are all manifestations of the episode's theme. The Doctor has this speech where she talks about our capacity to evolve and change while remaining true to ourselves, to respect who we were, but choose who we want to be. Obviously she's talking about herself and her change from Scotsman to Northerner, and in the context of the plot, it's what she wants Tim Shaw to do. But it's also about Ryan, who needs to overcome his disability and wants to be a mechanic. It's about Yas, who wants to be more than a glorified meter maid. It's about Graham and the promise he makes Grace and how to best use his second chance. It's about becoming a companion, really, because it's a life-changing experience.

As for the fourth character, the production was very good at keeping spoilers from leaking, with very little to go on in the teasers and trailers. And yet, we all knew going in that Grace wasn't in the regular cast. Such a positive presence, I held out hope that she would survive, just not go on the trip. Alas... But that she wasn't part of the marketing did seal her fate. Her death is still a touching moment, getting a promise from her husband not to be afraid without her, and leading into a heartfelt funeral. We don't get a lot of that in Doctor Who. People die and the TARDIS leaves before we see it take its toll. I just wish her death hadn't been so pointless. Because at that point, what did zapping the Lovecraftian coils achieve? Tim Shaw was already dispatched. But this is a crueler, perhaps more sadistic Whoniverse. Grace dies for nothing. The Predator/Tooth Fairy hybrid known as Tim Shaw kills everyone he meets just for the honor of putting their teeth in his face, even if they aren't the target of his hunt. I've seen many fans disturbed by this dark turn. I don't disagree. Judging from his work on Torchwood and Broadchurch, Chibnall is more "grimdark" than past showrunners in the modern era. A lot of these deaths were unnecessary, unless they were meant as a mission statement about this new phase of Who. And if that's what's going on, it may still be overkill. Indeed, will this tale get a happier ending down the line? Will the Doctor one day rescue the aliens' other trophies? I don't know, but if she's not allowed to, The Woman Who Fell to Earth will retain a rather bleak quality. We'll just have to wait and see what kind of tonal variations Chibnall can wring out of his refreshed format in future episodes... but look! The return of the weekly cliffhanger! (?)

THEORIES: Why mention the Doctor's lost family? What does this add to the introduction of the Doctor for old and new fans alike? Are we inexorably heading towards a reunion with Susan? And was she the last woman the Doctor bought clothes for? (Or was it Peri, cuz that could explain a few things.)

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The alien hunt plot is standard fare, but essentially there to hang the necessary introductions on. The episode looks gorgeous, sounds cool, and features an interesting and likable cast of characters, including an exciting new Doctor who's only just finding her footing. Or perhaps, we are.


Timothy S. Brannan said...

I enjoyed the hell out of this episode and really looking forward to this season.
Jodie is a fantastic Doctor and I am so very pleased we have her now.

snell said...

I think the most important part of the episode was, when Ryan kicks a defeated Tim Shaw off of the crane, the Doctor's "You had no right to do that!" A statement, perhaps, of Chibnall's intention to have the Doctor be a force in active opposition to the more "grimdark" universe. An emphasis of her kindness, even to the defeated enemy, and a contrast to the Tenth Doctor's debut ("no more second chances."

Siskoid said...

Yes, I like that. It's a little bit like what Star Trek Discovery achieved last year. It started from a very dark position, with fans screaming WHERE'S THE LIGHT WHERE'S THE FUN THIS ISN'T MY STAR TREK!!!!! and then slowly built up that light, until the characters were essentially the standard bearers for what Trek means, in stark opposition to the world around us which was more a mirror of our actually dark reality.

LiamKav said...

I'm going for "good, not great". Whittaker was a highlight. Her expressions, accent, and general mannerisms are all great. The companions also seem an interesting bunch, and it looks gorgeous.

Only real issues for me were that the threat was a bit forgettable, I'm still not sure exactly what Grace was doing and why she had to die, and the pacing seemed a touch slow in places. That might be something I have to get used to after 13 years of breakneck plotting, but Capaldi's debut was even longer and yet felt slightly shorter. And it's also not as good as "The Eleventh Hour" which is probably the gold standard of introductory episodes, but then I'm not sure anything will ever beat the Doctor beating the bad guy, then calling them back to give them a telling off whilst waking through a hologram of his previous self.

I also thought it was a bit less quotable than Doctor Who has been in the past, but again, that can be spun into a positive. The characters could end up seeming more like real people than quip machines. We'll see.

Overall though, I'm intrigued. Whilst I do suspect we'll look back in ten years time on the Moffat era and be astounded by how good it was, for now a change is needed and exciting.

Anonymous said...

Jodie was fantastic. I'm not crazy about her official costume, but what I really liked was her Mad Scientist At The Forge look. The goggles, apron, and leather gloves really need to come back. (This sounds like the makings of a sexual fetish but I promise it's not.)

One thing Chibnall excelled at was introducing us to the characters in a way that made us warm to them almost instantly. Contrast with, say, how much work it took to make us start caring about Rose or Mickey or Amy Pond or Rory: Chibnall could get us to feel comfortable with the entire main cast within seconds. By the way, I kind of fell in love with Grace and I am heartbroken that she's gone.

You've mentioned Jodie's kindness, and yeah, that's going to be central to the character and I like it. I also liked, after the funeral (I think that's when it was) there was a brief conversation where someone (Yaz?) asked whether it's like this all the time, with all the lies and so forth. I'm glad Chibnall gave some thought to how multiple poeple had been killed and there would certainly be questions, but rather than go into all that they should just mention the weight of the lies in passing. Yeah, I think Chibnall knows what he's doing.

Multiple thumbs up, bunches of them. As many thumbs as Tim Shaw has teeth on his face. Oh, Tim Shaw ... ? You suck. Yeah you heard me Tim Shaw! (Somewhere, there is someone named "Tim Shaw" who has no earthly idea why his name is trending and why people think he's a big stupid jerk.)

I was going to say that there's no show I'm going to enjoy more than "Doctor Who", but then last night's "Black Lightning" season opener came along and somehow managed to be even better than "Doctor Who". So consider this a recommendation on "Black Lightning", but also watch "Doctor Who" because both are looking to be exceptional. The new "Supergirl" season starts on Sunday too, and I am hopeful, but I get the feeling it's going to lag behind "Doctor Who" and "Black Lightning".

Siskoid said...

I'm late on all the superhero shows. Well, almost every show in existence except Doctor Who. It's really the only program I HAVE to see as it comes out.

Anonymous said...

There were only 13 episodes in season one of "Black Lightning", so I'm just sayin'.

LiamKav said...

One thing that struck me on a re-watch when they suggested taking the Doctor to A&E... "I never go anywhere that's just initials." She does know what her ship is called, doesn't she?

Siskoid said...

At the time, I thought it was a poke at UNIT, but you're right!


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