Doctor Who Series 11, Episode 1: The Woman Who Fell to Earth Review

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Doctor Who Season 11: a new step into a brave new world or a stumble backwards? Image owned by the BBC, source: http://www.doctorwhonews.net/2018/09/series-11-new-images-and-infomation.html

Part of me really wasn’t sure I was going to write a review of the newest season of Doctor Who.

In all honesty, my relationship with the show is as varied and complicated as one could expect from any science fiction show that is over 50 years old. After continued disappointment from the latest instalments of the show, I was wondering whether I should just give up and admit that maybe Doctor Who wasn’t a fandom for me anymore and I didn’t want to review something that I didn’t care about or no longer had any strong personal interest in.

This issue was doubly compounded because of the conclusion to last year’s Christmas episode and Steven Moffat’s run as head-writer on Doctor Who. I wish I was talking about the horrible writing, the nonsensical plot and the absolute waste of the talented Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. Instead, I am referring to the decision that has set Britain and a vast majority of the internet on fire for the past few months: Jodie Whittaker being cast as the thirteenth Doctor.

Talking about Doctor Who, even just an attempt to skim the surface of the fandom at the moment, ultimately brings up this recent casting decision and peoples opinions about it, so much so that I’ve honestly spent the last few minutes trying to think of how to start this review knowing that I would at some point need to address the elephant in the room: my stance on Jodie Whittaker, or, for that matter, any woman playing the doctor.

And all that makes me think is how sad this situation is.

It’s sad that in the ‘geek’ community, as of late, a community famous for many years on being ‘the outcast’, there has been a schism growing. A steady divide has developed between an entitled old-guard, who whine when Luke is actually a character instead of a heroic fantasy and complain about SJWs ruining everything, and the PC crowd, complaining that Peter Parker in Homecoming should have been Miles Morales because it somehow would have made the best Spider-man film better, and over-reacting over most things.

For me, an individual who considers himself a fence sitter because real world politics are big and scary and every comment said will make someone angry, the whole development just makes me feel sad.

Now, I understand politics run as an undercurrent in all faculties of our life. Times are always changing, views of the old and new are constantly coming into conflict, and people have differing opinions, due to our upbringing, heritage or simply just personal taste.

But I don’t watch Doctor Who to discuss politics.

It’s a children’s show about an alien in a police box fighting salt and pepper shakers with their clan of sidekicks. I just want to be entertained.

So, with all that said, I’m wisely going to get into the review proper by doing exactly as new headwriter Chris Chibnall has done and completely side-step commenting on the issue as much as possible until absolutely necessary. An opinion on Jodie Whittaker, sadly, is the main reason a lot of people will be reading this review for but I’m going to start off by talking about the actual episode itself before finally wading into that quagmire of that discussion.

The Woman That Fell to Earth features the Doctor crash-landing onto earth in the midst of an intense mystery in the middle of Sheffield. A strange creature attacking humans on a train, strange mushrooms appearing in the woods and a whole host of humans caught in the crossfire, sounds like your standard day for the Doctor. With no Tardis, no screwdriver and post-regeneration fatigue, it’s up to our new heroine to work out what’s going on and save the day…if she can remember how.

Simply put, The Woman That Fell to Earth is a great little episode and a solid introduction to a new production of Doctor Who. It’s a grounded story, aided by our three new companions who will be joining Jodie Whittaker in the Tardis for this season. Tosin Cole is Ryan Sinclair, a warehouse worker with dyspraxia still desperately learning how to ride a bike, Bradley Walsh is Graham O’Brien, Ryan’s put-upon step-grandfather struggling to connect and recovering from past trauma and Mandip Gill is Yazmin Khan, a trainee police officer desperately wanting more from her life than dealing with parking disputes.

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Our new cast from left to right: Yazmin, Ryan, The Doctor, Graham and Sharon D. Clarke as Grace. Image owned by the BBC, source: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2018-10-06/doctor-who-s11-cast/

Ryan, Graham and Yazmin are really given great bits of character in this episode and their actors do a fantastic job at making them likeable. Chibnall does an excellent job at balancing the three with a good script, giving them all just enough development to be interesting: Yazmin’s ambitious nature, Graham’s old school ways (‘always ask a bus driver’) and past-cancer scare and Ryan’s dyspraxia and natural intelligence. The three characters have a good introduction here and do a great job making the program seem ‘real’, which is strange because, personally, it feels like this is the most improved in quality Doctor Who has been in a long time.

I will freely admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of Steven Moffat’s run as Doctor Who’s show-runner. Under his watch, the plot-lines got more ambitious and the sci-fi more prominent, but the quality of the episodes themselves began to slip and more and more. Despite trying to seem mature with sexual jokes and almost adult humour, the sci-fi became silly to the point of being cartoony in some places with any sense of tension slipping away due to Moffat’s way of writing the Doctor as a perfect being.

Even with a few gleaming jewels within the mess from other writers, the last few seasons with Capaldi failed to rekindle any strong enthusiasm in my heart for the program, hence why I was willing to quit the series.

Which I am now glad I didn’t do.

Chris Chibnall starts his run on Doctor Who strong. Despite a bad list of individual written episodes before this point, Chibnall gives us a fantastically paced character driven story with an alien menace of a villain that fully returns Doctor Who to a more realistic setting. At least four people die in the episode, four. I’m pretty sure that’s more than all of Moffat’s run in its entirety and it speaks of a maturity and a dedication to drama from the production team. The camera work and props bring back a thriller element to Doctor Who that really has been missing for a while from the series.

Is it a perfect episode or even the perfect starting episode?

No, not really. The villain becomes lacklustre when he takes off his mask and there are a few logical jumps and loose ends (the Doctor builds her new screwdriver out of a mechanic’s garage, AWESOME but a bit ridiculous even in a series such as this), but the episode is a fun-ride and a return to basics that the series desperately needed. There have a varied cast of characters with interesting interpersonal dynamics to explore, a more grounded feel of adventurous sci-fi with good pacing and a great use of a limited budget with good actors.

And, of course, a brilliant Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker takes the part of the Doctor in her entirety, a fact helped by the fact that almost all of her lines are clearly written from the point of view of the Doctor as a character, rather than considering the fact the Doctor is now a woman. In a Steven Moffat written season, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see double entendres and horrible sexual banter everywhere. Chibnall, however, just gets on with it and Jodie takes to the role like a duck to water.

Like it or not, Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and she’s a really good one.

Admittedly, I was one of the few fans initially worried when Jodie’s casting was initially unveiled. I worried BBC had caved into political correctness for the sake of political correctness. I also didn’t want to see the Doctor changed in any way to suit a new agenda, commenting on ‘an improvement’ or being the victim of sexist jokes at her own expense because I felt it went against everything the Doctor as a character stood for: being inclusive.

There was a lot of fear, trepidation and a tiny bit of fan over-reaction.

But such is the same with any regeneration and my approach to the regeneration and the idea of a female Doctor is the same approach a lot of fans usually have to change: I’m willing to give this a chance but please don’t mess this up.

And to my relief, Jodie has paved the way for a bright new future for the series.

To conclude, The Woman who fell to Earth is a great start for the series. It’s uncertain at this point if Chris Chibnall has the showrunning skill to run the overarching series plot better than Moffat did (though, admittedly, most people could probably run it better in my honest opinion), but this first episode is a solid entry into the canon and a great set-up for whats to come: great characters, fun adventure and a decent element of intrigue and horror to help hold our attention through a rather average villain and a few hiccups.

The Woman that fell to Earth: 4/5

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