A slow-burning opening episode that sets up an exciting new era and the first female Doctor!
‘It’s About Time’!
The slogan that has been promoting the eleventh series of the rebooted Doctor Who also reflects the mood of some fans before watching ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’. It’s been eight years since a new showrunner was at the helm, and critical change was needed as the show was slowly becoming a self-referential joke too smart for its own good under Steven Moffat. Now, with the arrival of new showrunner Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch, Torchwood etc) and a whole new production team, that change has finally come to fruition and along with it the first female Doctor, a host of friends (not companions anymore), a new look, and most importantly, a brand new identity with this curtain-raiser set in Sheffield that introduces us to an exciting new era.
This is not a comedic Saturday night family tea-time romp and rather a Sunday night drama for children that would normally be found on Netflix. Firstly, the show looks stunning. The anamorphic lenses which the cameras were filmed on gives it a cinematic quality never seen before. It looks miles away from the low-budgeted Eccleston period and can be compared to other sci-fi series like Lost in Space or Star Trek Discovery. New composer Segun Akinola has also changed the soundscape, moving away from the lavish orchestral arrangements that Murray Gold became renowned for. Instead, its replaced by ambient electronic sounds and a techno score containing tinges of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein from Stranger Things or Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow from Ex Machina, demonstrating an eerie quality which was very effective.
Also, for an opening episode, the storyline had an element of maturity. For example, one of the new friends Ryan Sinclair (played charismatically by Tosin Cole) has the co-ordination disorder of dyspraxia and writer Chibnall handles it perfectly – not undermining him but showing us that its a part of who he is. However with this maturity comes a sparsity of the humour that Doctor Who thrives on as a family-friendly show. There were moments in this episode which felt reminiscent of Chibnall’s previous show Broadchurch, and I wonder how younger viewers might handle this tonal shift. It’s definitely darker than ‘fish fingers and custard’ and whilst Chibnall masters the emotional side, its whether he can find the right balance between drama and humour that will be questioned by many fans afterwards. I suspect, hopefully, this will be found by the end of the series but right now, this new sense of serious grit needs some getting used to.
What doesn’t need getting used to is one aspect everyone all tuned in for: Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. Although she doesn’t pop up until ten minutes in, I enjoyed this first proper look at her immensely and am thoroughly looking forward to getting to know her over the new few weeks. She has the energetic playfulness David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was renowned for, but also an added tenderness which humanises it all. A crucial factor in her success is that after a few minutes, there is no questioning of her gender and you soon accept her as The Doctor, hopefully putting a stop to all the criticisms about whether a shapeshifting alien should be female or not. Another terrific piece of casting was Bradley Walsh as Graham, one of the rare pieces of comic relief but also a dependable dramatic. Without giving anything away, there is a moment that requires some poignancy and his efforts left me with a slight tear in my eye.
With regards to the other friend, Yasmin, first impressions are a bit thin but it’s not her fault as this episode requires a huge amount of world-building. I expect her character to be explored more over the coming weeks but at the moment, I don’t feel as invested in her as I do in terms of Ryan and Graham. Also, the main storyline is a classic throwaway opening which was expected but I think Chibnall places more emphasis on establishing characters rather than fighting monsters here. It’s a beautifully designed creature but cliche is written all over it so it’s doubtful that it will be remembered in years to come.
However, despite a few gripes, and some sorely missed bits which are promised to be reintroduced next episode, this is a highly promising beginning for a new year of adventuring across time and space. It’s going to be radically different, with the most changes since Tennant regenerated, but on the basis of the confidence that this opener delivers, I can’t wait to see what happens over the next nine weeks.
Doctor Who continues next Sunday on BBC One. All previous episodes can be viewed on BBC iPlayer.