Doctor Who – Season 11 Episode 1
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth”
Doctor Who returns with a new series, a new face, a new gender and new companions with a new problem for the Doctor to deal with as she tries to get used to the changes that come with a new regeneration.
Regeneration episodes are always difficult for this show as so many things have to be thrown into a single episode. The most important thing to get right is the introduction to a new Doctor. Typically these episodes have the personality of the new incarnation in flux as their personality settles down into what it will be from now on but while this is happening it should still be made clear that this new face is the same character audiences have been watching for over 50 years at this point. It’s difficult to do and takes a lot of time.
Another thing the episode needs to do is supply an entertaining and broadly satisfying adventure in keeping with audience expectations of the show which is difficult when the episode features a large scale introduction. In this case a whole new set of companions need to be introduced as well so there is a lot to cover in such a short period of time.
The main question to answer is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to do and the answer as far as I’m concerned is that for the most part it does. There are some niggles here and there but on the whole this was a very enjoyable episode of television that starts this new season off on a really positive note.
Jodie Whittaker takes to the role of the Doctor wonderfully. As with all the regeneration episodes I’ve seen her personality is somewhat in flux but the core characteristics that define the Doctor are all there such as the thirst for adventure and the unflinching desire to help those in need. Even when she has no idea who she is there is an awareness of her purpose and the instinct to solve a problem is as overpowering as ever. Whittaker is confident, magnetic and unflinchingly likeable while being filled with infectious enthusiasm that makes her such a joy to watch. Exactly what her Doctor will turn out to be is still an unknown but based on this she will almost certainly be a good one. Thankfully the episode treats her gender as a complete non issue which is absolutely the right thing to do as she is simply another incarnation of the Doctor and Whittaker is already well on her way to putting her own stamp on such an iconic role. I do find her a little too quippy but that’s a personal issue I have with many of the Doctors and is more down to the writing than her performance.
This Doctor has three companions who will accompany her throughout the season. Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin Khan -or Yas- (Mandip Gil) and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) are all introduced here and inform the plot in different ways. For now their personalities aren’t hugely developed but there is plenty of time over the course of the season to do this. Yas stands out for me so far as she wants to be more than what she is and feels that she is meant for more exciting things than her life currently gives her. Our introduction to her is when she is solving a menial dispute over a parking space that she doesn’t feel needs the presence of a police officer. From here she seems to crave more excitement in her life which means that she’s ideally placed to see the universe and be involved in things she considers to be worth her time.
Ryan is so far lacking in confidence as shown by the frustration attached to his inability to ride a bike at the age of 19. Dialogue reveals that he has Dyspraxia which affects his coordination and informs a lot of the self doubt that holds him back. Refreshingly his Dyspraxia isn’t part of the plot nor is it treated as a barrier to the rest of his life that he needs to overcome. It’s simply something that he has and has learned to live with to a certain degree. I fully expect it to be used as a way to heighten tension in future episode when his coordination fails at a crucial moment and as long as it isn’t overused then it’ll be a natural part of his character. Like Yas he wants to be more than he is and is encouraged by the opportunities that the Doctor literally falling into his life brings him.
Graham is very different from the other two companions and different from any companion that has been on the show since the 2005 revival. The most obvious thing is that he’s older than anyone else the Doctor has travelled with since the 2005 return which isn’t outwardly important though it does make for a notable change in the way the overall setup. He is certainly the most reluctant of the companions with many of the protests about the Doctor’s madcap ideas coming from him. So far he seems to be the voice of reason amidst the chaos that is the Doctor and her ability to sweep everyone up in her madness which should add something important to the group dynamic. The end of the episode has all of the companions reluctantly swept up in another adventure but it’ll be interesting to see what motivates him to carry on despite his considerable reservations about putting himself in danger.
One likely motivation is to seek adventure in honour of Grace (Sharon O’Brien); his wife who tragically dies as a result of her efforts to help the Doctor. She isn’t the first death in this episode but certainly the most signifiant as she has an important connection to both Graham and Ryan. Early on it’s established that Graham wants Ryan to think of him as a Grandfather and Ryan is reluctant to do this presumably out of devotion to his dead Grandfather. Their relationship has every opportunity to develop now that they both suffer from the shared loss with Graham effectively being the only family he has left. Ryan has suffered a great deal of loss in his life with the recent death of his mother and now the loss of his Grandmother so he will either be drawn to bonding with Graham or drift further apart from him. Either way there’s a lot of scope for their relationship to develop.
The death of Grace was certainly a surprise and I think the BBC could have manipulated the marketing to make it appear that she would be a full time companion to make her death more of a surprise as it was somewhat predictable knowing that she wouldn’t be joining the Doctor on her adventures though that isn’t the fault of the episode as she was clearly supposed to be a worthy companion who meets her end while helping the Doctor. It shows the other companions how dangerous this life is and gives the adventure actual stakes that set it apart from simply being a fun distraction to an otherwise mundane life.
How it deals with the threat is where the episode falters somewhat. The mystery of the alien threat is built wonderfully with the early part of the episode focused on the companions encountering something strange and terrifying. It takes a while for the Doctor to show up which was a brave decision for a regeneration episode. Her introduction was great with her literally dropping right into the action and there’s an excellent sense of urgency at that point keeping the momentum of the episode going.
Problems start to show up when the questions raised at the beginning of the episode are answered. The villain, Tim Shaw -not his real name- (Samuel Oatley) is both imposing and intimidating with excellent design work on the make-up and prosthetics but his motivations were very underwhelming. He explains that he is on Earth to hunt so that he can take a trophy back to his people to prove that he should lead them but he isn’t hunting anyone in particular and the episode doesn’t do enough to make the audience care about whether his target, Karl (Jonny Dixon) lives or dies. More time spent with him might have helped here or more streamlined storytelling by having one of the new companions be the Tim Shaw’s target. Either way the villain’s motivation is flimsy and falls apart when scrutinised to any degree.
There is also an odd moment when Karl kicks him off a crane and the Doctor tells him that he had no right to do that without any follow up. I was reminded of the Matt Smith era when he would chastise Humans for having what he considered to be skewed morality so it feels like a further conversation about why Karl had no right to do that was missing from the episode. Perhaps if these elements hadn’t been included in a post regeneration episode then there might have been more time for this but it doesn’t really excuse making this part more flimsy. Having a simpler villain narrative would have been a lot better as the attempt at some degree of complexity doesn’t hold up.
I found the ending of the episode really compelling despite the fact that they should have all instantly died when being transported into the vacuum of space. Having the second adventure be something that they are all forced into rather than ending with the Doctor’s appeal to take them on adventures is a nice idea as it continues the randomness that defined this episode. It removes an element of control from the Doctor as she is completely unaware of where she’s going or what comes next.
A strong and confident opening to the new series with an excellent performance from Jodie Whittaker who completely owns the role immediately. The new companions are all interesting in their own way with a dynamic that should make for compelling viewing in the coming episodes. There are some weaknesses such as the attempt at depth where the villain motivations are concerned but it doesn’t detract too much from the urgency and excitement that otherwise defines this inaugural episode.
- Jodie Whittaker’s confident and engaging performance
- a strong sense of urgency carrying the episode
- lost of potential with the companions and their dynamics
- the villain motivation making very little sense when any thought is applied to it
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