The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Story No. 303 Let's get a shift on!
Production Code Series 11, Episode 1
Dates October 7, 2018

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Chris Chibnall Directed by Jamie Childs
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle

Synopsis: Multiple aliens have crashed into a train in Sheffield.


A Review by Aristide Twain 30/7/19

The Woman Who Fell To Earth is bookended by an utterly obnoxious trope, namely a clumsily sentimental, vague monologue which you think is about one thing (the Doctor's arrival), when actually it's about this other thing which the viewer couldn't possibly have guessed in advance (Grace's demise), so all it really does is mock the reader for not knowing how the story is going to go when the writers do. Ha-ha-ha. Oh dear. It's also done as a YouTube vlog, and, really, does anyone like it when Doctor Who tries to be 'down with the kids' like so?

So it's fair to say that this episode got on my nerve in the very first shot. Fortunately, it proceeded to build up a nice atmosphere and mystery. The Doctor is withheld just long enough, allowing us to get invested in the alien tomfoolery without the latest iteration of our favorite Time Lord stealing the show. We also get reasonably invested in our companions-to-be (the sad thing is that we never will be more invested in them in Series 11 than the level of investment reached at the end of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, but that is neither here nor there), so that's nice enough. Bradley Walsh is instantly lovable as Graham; Mandip Gill demonstrates appropriate pluck as Yasmin Khan (whose introductory scene is hilarious); and Tosin Cole is, for now, tolerable as Ryan, because it is appropriate that Ryan be vaguely exasperated in this particular episode.

Then the Thirteenth Doctor gets here and starts being all regeneration-dizzy and quippy and Doctorish, and she almost (almost) succeed in distracting us from the fact that half the tension of the previous episode's cliffhanger has been quietly ignored. The Doctor survives the fall as a matter of course, because... eh? I mean, a fan can work out that this is probably another "first few hours of the regeneration cycle" thing from The Christmas Invasion, but if you were going to use that bit of technobabble as a cop-out, why even build the idea up in the first place? Chibnall? Have you thought this through? (No, of course he hasn't. Chibnall isn't always bad, contrary to what his haters would have you believe, but he is not at all good at thinking things through.)

Jodie Whittaker's Doctor makes a fairly good first impression, at any rate. It's no better or worse than many a Doctor's debut. She is aggressively sold to us as "the fun, whimsical one", taking the childlike aspects of Troughton and Tennant and making them the soul of the characterization whilst avoiding any of the coarser or more serious bits. Now, I love whimsy in my Who (speaking of which, the fact that the Stenza get about by means of giant purple turnips is delightful), but the "no tougher side" thing is is going to bite Series 11 in the backside later, because the problem with the Thirteenth Doctor's characterization is thus that it's direly one-note. But in the small dose of a single episode, it doesn't even begin to have time to wear down its welcome. She's a lot of fun to watch bouncing about, is what I'm saying.

Once we've gotten a feel for the Doctor, the episode circles back around to the alien mystery, and... ah, well, about that. It's, of course, the classical flipside of having too good a setup; namely that it's very hard to fulfill the audience's expectations. It's a credit to the episode that it did get our hopes up even though Chris Chibnall is writing, but the resolution has all the classic Chris Chibnall problems: there are too many ideas in there, some of them good, some of them bad, but none of them followed all the way through; and soapy human drama is tacked on garishly to make you care, without even beginning to connect to the alien bits on a thematic level. Samuel Oatley's T'zim Sha is at least a fairly imposing villain; as one-shot Doctor-debut villains go, he's a notch below the Half-Face Man from Deep Breath, but better than Prisoner Zero in The Eleventh Hour and, I would say, slightly better than the Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion, who are, I think, his closest relatives.

What else? Segun Akinola does his 'amospheric sound mix' thing, which can't help but feel a little thin after the melodic inventiveness of Murray Gold; yes, Gold could sometimes be a bit too loud and pompous, but give me brash over mediocre, any day. But it's never distracting. His version of the Doctor Who theme is a bit of a miss, though; it's trying to be the Derbyshire Theme with more oomph, but it fails to have any actual oomph, instead feeling like somebody took the Derbyshire Theme, fattened it up and forced it to run a marathon anyway. It's heaving and puffing, with the rhythm all wrong.

The visuals Series 11 are extremely lush, very much what one expected after Meet the Thirteenth Doctor and the vividly colorful ad campaign (ah, would that Series 11 had kept this up all the way through). Director Jamie Childs, whom we had to thank for the aforementioned minisode, does not disappoint.

Uhm... oh, I should say something about the "political correctness" thing, shouldn't I? Series 11 haters make too big a deal of it; there's no evil social justice crusade in here or any other such nonsense. But looking at the line-up, there is no denying that the Master's quip from The Sound of Drums about the Doctor's companions "ticking every demographic box" has never been truer: we've got an older cancer-survivor, a lower-class black-skinned young man, and a female police officer of Pakistani descent (whom we'll later learn is a muslim)... not to mention the female Doctor, obviously.

When the Master made his quip, it was obviously a villainous taunt, because it is obviously not Martha and Jack's raison d'etre to be black and LGBTQ+. These were organically part of their characters. With 'Team TARDIS', I am less convinced that they weren't created from a much more dishonest mindset of "How can we achieve maximum representation? We'll think up personalities and justifications why they all know each other, later."

Still, The Woman Who Fell To Earth is as solid a debut as you could possibly have expected from Chris Chibnall. Let's be thankful for that.

First Impressions by Niall Jones 9/6/21

The Woman Who Fell to Earth belongs to a very small group of Doctor Who stories, in which a new crew has to introduce a new Doctor and new companions. This is clearly a big ask - and a big risk - as audiences come to the episode with high expectations, but without being invested in any of the characters. Fortunately, The Woman Who Fell to Earth is largely successful. Chris Chibnall eschews the stylishness and manic pacing of Rose and the formal creativity of The Eleventh Hour to tell a straightforward but enjoyable story about an alien incursion in Sheffield.

Despite the hype surrounding Jodie Whittaker's casting as the first female Doctor, she does not appear in the episode until around ten minutes in. Instead, the opening scenes provide the audience with glimpses into the everyday lives of her soon-to-be companions. This is a good move, as it succinctly establishes their characters and allows the audience to see how they are affected by the arrival of the Doctor. By the time the Doctor does appear, viewers already have a good sense of who Ryan, Graham and Yaz are.

Although they are quite different characters, both Ryan and Yaz are shown to be frustrated by the current state of their lives. Ryan is stuck in a job he hates and has a sometimes testy relationship with Graham, who has recently married his grandmother, Grace; Yaz, meanwhile, is a probationary police officer, but is frustrated by the uninteresting nature of the cases she is assigned to. Whereas Yaz is traditional companion material - confident and unafraid to face danger - Ryan is presented as a very normal, slightly grumpy teenager. Although this makes his character authentic and believable, it unfortunately means that much of his dialogue is banal and uninspiring - 'I've found stuff' is hardly the most exciting line to have appeared in Doctor Who.

Like his grandson, Graham also contrasts with the traditional companion type. This is not just because he is an older man. Warmly played by Bradley Walsh, Graham is a wonderfully down to earth character who asks sensible, but rarely asked questions, such as whether running towards a dangerous alien is actually a good idea.

The absence of the Doctor in the first part of the episode makes her appearance all the more exciting. Arriving with a bang, she immediately finds herself in the middle of the action and spends much of the episode seemingly powered by adrenaline. Although Jodie Whittaker's performance is charismatic and likable, there are no defining moments for her Doctor in the episode, nor much of a sense of what makes her character unique. This is not necessarily an issue at this stage of the series - after all, the character of the Doctor can sometimes take time to develop (Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor is a case in point) - but it will become an issue later in her run. Despite this, she does have some good scenes. The scene in which she makes a sonic screwdriver out of assorted pieces of scrap is particularly enjoyable, especially the moment when she holds up a spoon and looks at it as though it holds all the secrets of the universe. It's a weirdly stirring moment that exhibits the Doctor's resourcefulness, while also capturing the joyful absurdity that underpins Doctor Who.

Facing the Doctor is Tzim-Sha, a warrior of the Stenza, who has come to Earth to capture a random human as part of a trophy hunting ritual. Although he is an interesting adversary with a brutal modus operandi, there are some issues with how he is presented in the episode. The first of these is his appearance. When we initially see Tzim-Sha, his face is covered by a mask, which gives him a slightly ant-like appearance. Being an unknown, almost unseen threat, he comes across as a menacing figure, an effect that is enhanced by his deep voice. Once we see Tzim-Sha's face, however, much of this menace is lost. His habit of tearing out his victims' teeth and wearing them as trophies should be horrific, but, in reality, it makes him look slightly absurd. Matters are not helped by the Doctor's insistence on calling him Tim Shaw, which makes it difficult for the audience to take him seriously as a villain.

The race to stop Tzim-Sha from capturing his target takes place against the backdrop of twenty-first-century Sheffield. The city is an atmospheric presence, often shown in semi-darkness. Its industrial heritage is also foregrounded, with trains, warehouses and cranes being significant locations in the episode. At one point, the Doctor even makes a reference to Sheffield steel. Sheffield not only makes a welcome change from the more frequent London settings, but also grounds the episode in a mundane, believable world, which contrasts with the story's science-fiction elements.

Despite its many positive features, however, The Woman Who Fell to Earth fails in one significant area. Whereas other similar stories, such as Spearhead From Space and Rose, set the tone for the eras that followed, much of The Woman Who Fell to Earth's promise fizzles out over the course of Series 11. Although a number of subsequent episodes also take place in Sheffield, the relationship between the companions' home life and their adventures in the TARDIS is hazily defined. For example, although Yaz's family are introduced in Arachnids in the UK, they rarely play a significant role in proceedings, in contrast to the relatives of earlier companions, such as Jackie Tyler and Wilfred Mott. It is also disappointing that Yaz's work as a police officer is given such little prominence in later episodes. The question of the Thirteenth Doctor's character is also largely ignored in Series 11, before being addressed in a convoluted and literal way in Series 12.

Nevertheless, the issues that arise later in the series should not detract from the good work done by its opener. Overall, The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a solid, though not spectacular, introduction to Jodie Whittaker's Doctor and her new companions.