Fun fact for you dear reader. Did you know that fear of the number 13 is a recognised phobia called Triskaidekaphobia dating back to 1911? Whilst I don’t have this fear it is ironic that this latest incarnation would be the one, creating the greatest division in recent times amongst fans, even more than the decision to have Peter Capaldi cast as an older Doctor. By deciding to create the first female incarnation of the role it has seemed, if you believe the hype, that it would either make or break Doctor Who fandom and the programme. Last Saturday we finally saw the fruits of Chris Chibnall’s year-long planning with the anticipated debut of Jodie Whittaker. Was it worth the wait?
Well, what I am reminded of with debut episodes is just how difficult it is to write a successful one. The audience level of expectation is so high and each showrunner does want to do things slightly differently. The Woman who fell to Earth is a jumping on point much like “Rose” or “The Pilot” for the general viewer. The story itself isn’t that complicated. There is no series arc introduced just a straightforward alien encounter for a group of ordinary people in a northern town. We are introduced through the eyes of these normal people to the new Doctor. Chris Chibnall has wisely stuck to what he has learnt from writing Broadchurch, namely lots of interaction between his characters and gone down the RTD route with a crash course introduction to not only one but three new companions in the same episode and leaving the entrance of the doctor until later. This approach demands a lot of the audience to be able to connect and like these people within a short space of time. This is a risky ploy however as you do need to have to also ensure you an interesting enough premise to engage your audience. I’m not sure if this approach was entirely successful as the episode didn’t start by hitting the ground running. It was all a bit leisurely and domestic, a strange set-up as we saw Ryan trying to master a bike and failing. I did wonder initially was I watching Doctor Who or something else completely different. I can’t help here making comparisons here to the episode ‘Rose’ where we learnt in less than three minutes using the ‘show don’t tell’ approach about Rose’s work life, boyfriend and mum with hardly any dialogue. It is only when she goes down to the basement her first line of dialogue is heard actually looking for the missing Wilson and the story of the Autons begins. It’s a much more efficient way of showing us things and just getting on with the adventure.
But Chris Chibnall has his roots in building up to events and developing the emotional drama. So, it’s a low-key start, concentrating on the ordinary human aspects of this world as we are introduced to new companion Ryan vlogging at his computer. We are drawn in as he talks about someone important to him, but is it who we think? Tosin Cole is very promising as Ryan, opening the episode and probably my favourite companion out of the three. He teases an ‘important woman’ and so the story starts with Ryan, his Nan Grace and step-grandfather Graham. Bradley Walsh as Graham is interesting as the relationship with Ryan hints at further tensions to be explored. There is a lot of time spent on the companions and I can see how Chibbers is trying to make us care for the characters of his world but I felt the episode did attempt to introduce too many secondary characters. Some were just not that interesting such as the man that took the transport pod, looking for answers about his sister. He was so sketchily written that I felt distanced from his story and it was only padding to fill 65 minutes.
I did find some of the character dialogue clunky and expositional, obviously so, at times, such as why Ryan can’t master a bike revealed when his Nan mentions his dyspraxia, or Yas moaning to her superior wanting to be more challenged in her role. It was a shame because it felt shoe-horned in. The introduction of Yas was probably the weakest debut of the three companions as her links to the others are weaker. A nice enough girl but I found her a bit beige. Eve Myles also played a policewoman, Gwen Cooper in Torchwood and Eve felt far more real and convincing. Saying that it is only the first episode so there is plenty of time for development as Mandip had a minor role really compared to the others.
The one character I did like immensely, who can return anytime, and who provided some welcome comic relief was Karl, played by Johnny Dixon. One of my favourite scenes is when the 13th Doctor is trying to persuade Karl to jump from his crane to her crane and he is willing himself to do it. The self-affirmations he used were very funny, and yes, I have said stuff like that to myself. He was totally relatable to me. I mean wouldn’t your instinct be to also just run off after the first sign of really weird stuff happening on a train? Self-preservation kicks in as he’s not as brave as the others and more worried about being late for his job working for his dad’s company. A lovely contrast to the gung-ho zest of Grace. Ah, now Grace, a larger than life character, aiming to be brave like the Doctor and ironically, she is the woman who fell to Earth and dies whereas the Doctor is the woman who fell to Earth and lives. Chris Chibnall has been thinking this through. The death of Grace and the funeral, whilst bringing a sad moment into the story, didn’t really touch me though. I think if I’m honest if you are going to kill a character it has to feel earned and cared about. What I mean by that is; if her death had happened in episode 8 or 9 where we knew more about Ryan and Graham then the impact of her death would have felt greater to us as an audience because of their grief. Killing her when we hardly know her or the others becomes a short-term win opening up new doors for exploring Ryan and Graham but its ripple left me unaffected. Saying that I felt Graham’s speech at the funeral about how he should have been the one to go. Cancer is not a discriminator of age or gender.
Do I sound too negative I don’t mean to be …? there are a lot of positives. I’ll be honest with you on the first watch I did originally think that I wouldn’t be watching this episode much again due to the rather unexpectedly depressing feeling it left me with. It wasn’t a light-toned romp as we have become used to It was a darker more gritty episode than I expected but the man has written Torchwood and Broad church so why was I surprised. But a second watch and I’ve decided this episode was actually ‘deliciously dark and dour’. No burping bins or wind passing aliens here! It is a fresh start, new minted and unfamiliar to Doctor Who fans. The direction by Jamie Childs is polished and I really enjoyed the contrast of the city and the peaks. As much as the dark colours on my TV were difficult to view at times (cheap tv!) it was great that they shot most of the story at night and the dark was used so effectively to tell the story. I loved the look of Sheffield at night and the incidental music by Segun Akinola has an eerie 1980’sci-fi film quality. The sparking gathering electrical coil on the train looked fantastic in the dark and when surveying the city later and the incidental music at this point was top notch as the orb blasted everyone with an energy bolt. I get a sense that Chris Chibnall, or is it Jamie Childs is a film and TV buff because I got vibes of the X Files, Terminator, Predator, even Bladerunner in the visuals through the episode. When we see “Tim Shaw” the dark does actually enable the Stenza to look impressive especially the moment he unveils his face adorned with the trophies of victim’s teeth. As a villain, the Stenza serve their purpose, a predator trolling the city. They aren’t out to conquer the world just use it for sport but it allows the Doctor’s protective champion side to be brought to the fore.
So, onto the big question of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor. Does she succeed? The character does feel different because the Doctor is female. Is it strange to say that? I know it is addressed fairly quickly when Yas addresses her as madam and it isn’t spoken about again but there is that quintessentially female thing of trying clothes on in a shop in a changing room. How girly! and there seems to be a more sympathetic softer element to Jodie’s character. I was a little dismayed that we get hardly any explanation of how she survives crashing through the roof of the train without injuries but I suppose it is post-regeneration energy that keeps her alive. Surprisingly her ‘friends’ aren’t fazed by the prospect of meeting an alien just unbelieving that it would ever land there. Jodie doesn’t appear until about nine minutes into the story and I have wondered if that was a good decision. Steven Moffat when he was introducing Matt Smith put him at the centre of ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and Matt had such great comic timing that we really got to know a curious zany kind Doctor who very quickly stamped his “Doctory” authority in the first episode. Jodie doesn’t have that down yet. She bounced around like Tigger in this episode. She did the fast-talking shouty thing, like Tennant hopefully just her ‘fizzing’ in post-regeneration. I hope she calms down a little as the series progresses but I liked her bravery. The jump to save Karl was amazing! There is a childish joy in her reactions and her curiosity. I want to learn to make a sonic Swiss army knife with her. I really enjoyed her quieter scenes such as with Graham after the funeral. I don’t get a sense yet of who Jodie’s doctor will be but it looks promising. She is so different from the 12th Doctor who I loved and yet I see flashes of something similar to the past. The story also gave us a team “Doctor” as the 13th doctor surrounded herself with other people being without her Tardis. Having such a large number of people around Jodie for the moment does foster a group ensemble feel to the programme and I hope it’s not to hide her incarnation because she should be the leading lady. She’s Alan Sugar, not the apprentice! I get a sense that all of our team though are still finding their way. I am very curious to see how she is written by the other new writers this series. Meanwhile, little girls (and big girls) have a new hero to worship and adore. Viva Doctor Who!
I am valued. I am special. A decent start 7/10.
What did you think of the first episode? Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk!
Join me next week for the next episode review of “The Ghost Monument”.