Doctor Who (Modern): S11E01 “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

Series 11
Directed by Jamie Childs
Written by Chris Chibnall

Welcome back to another season of the modern era of Doctor Who.  I will be starting up weekly reviews here, but ever since this site started, I’ve been doing reviews of the classic era episodes off and on and I have reached into the Second Doctor’s era with “The Mind Robber“.  Having just recently watched another Second Doctor serial however in “The Invasion” with presaged a new era and a changed format for the show, it feels only appropriate to start a new one in NuWho as well.

There’s a lot of changes to be had this season. We’ll start with the most obvious one. For the 13th time (well technically the 14th time), we have a new Doctor! Jodie Whittaker
made a brief appearance at the end of “Twice Upon a Time”, but this is her proper debut. Whittaker had her breakout role in her debut across from Peter O’Toole in Venus, but she first came to my attention, like plenty of others, in the great sci-fi-horror film Attack the Block.  She would then go on to make big impressions in a fantastic episode of Black Mirror and on Broadchurch (even after it went to shit).

She’s stepping into big shoes though as her predecessor, Peter Capaldi, was arguably the best Doctor of the modern era.  He was compelling, funny, a marked changed from the three previous incarnations, hearkening more back to the First Doctor.  His era was also wildly controversial as he alienated fans drawn to the much younger (and less abrasive) David Tennant and especially Matt Smith who had brought in much of the fanbase for the current show (as opposed to myself who had been a Christopher Eccleston stan before).  Viewership fell even more than was to be expected over his era given the increasing fractured nature of media.

It remains to be seen though how she’ll ultimately be viewed since like every Doctor before her, she’s a reaction to the one that came out prior and there will always be gripes.  Smith was too young, Capaldi was too old, Whittaker is too a woman.  Yes, for the first time (not counting “Curse of the Fatal Death” where Joanna Lumley took a turn in the role), The Doctor has regenerated into a woman.  “Hell Bent” (and later Missy) confirmed what had been hinted at before that Time Lords were not restricted to gender and there have been calls for a woman to be cast as The Doctor for years, but there have also been vehement opposition from complete tossers.  Frankly, I’m happy to see some change and how it will affect things.

There was also the issue of Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman who is now busy with Victoria).  While her half season (the end of Matt Smith’s run), was a major disappointment, a reduction of two promising characters into a third character who was less human than mystery, she grew into a strong, compelling companion of her own alongside the Twelfth Doctor.  A combination of the damage already being done and various other factors I don’t have the space to get into kept her from engaging with a large segment of the base however and left her hated.

While worrying about her seems silly considering we just spent a season away from her with a pair of companions in Bill Potts and Nardole who I don’t think people had too much to complain about, their season run already feels like it has been largely forgotten about.  We also have three new companions in Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh.  If there’s a reason three seems like a lot, it is. Back in the First Doctor’s era, the show also had three companions and would often struggle to juggle so many, frequently having to send one of them on subplots that would feel detached from the overarching one. Granted, the format of the show has changed considerably since then, but my concern remains the same going forward.

There’s another major change though, one that happened behind the scenes.  For the third time since the show was brought back from the dead, we have a new showrunner.  While script editors (who performed a similar if more limited function in the Classic era), were changed out more frequently (the longest lasting by far was Terrance Dicks who held the job from 1968-1974), Steven Moffat held the job from 2010-2017 and Russell T. Davies had held it from 2005 until then.  While Moffat had been the most acclaimed writer under Davies, “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” and “Blink” alone are two of the five best NuWho stories, he has started to wear out his welcome by the end of his run at the helm of the show with his over-complicated mythology and emphasis on mysteries.

The new showrunner is Chris Chibnall, a Doctor Who and Torchwood veteran who is best known as the creator of Broadchuch (and I guess has experience as showrunner of Camelot).  I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but it is good to express caution.  Besides what happened to Broadchurch after Season One (though to be fair, it should have only been a one season show), he also is the person responsible for “Cyberwoman”, one of the worst things ever associated with the Doctor Who brand ever.  His Doctor Who episodes hardly inspire confidence either as “42”, “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood”, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, and “The Power of Three” are all mediocre at best.  Still, they promise a very different sort of tone than the one under Moffat.

Set in Sheffield, Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) is 19 and a warehouse worker (trying to be a mechanic.  After becoming frustrated from trying to ride a bike (which he hasn’t learned because of an unspecified incident), he storms off and stumbles upon a bunch of glowy squares that when he presses, summons a giant purple Hershey Kiss is freezing to the touch.  Yasmin Khan (or Yas played by Mandip Gill) a cop (an actual proper cop and not you know a kissogram) who went to primary school with Ryan meets up with him when she is sent to the scene of the Hershey Kiss by her superior after bristling at her assignment giving parking tickets.

Meanwhile, a train with Ryan’s grandparents shuts down and is besieged a big tangly ball of energy and tentacles comes in to attack them.  The two of them raise him and while it isn’t revealed why, it is revealed that his nan’s son (Ryan’s father) is still alive, but just not in contact.  Graham O’Brien is her second husband and a cancer survivor.  While a minor presence this episode, he’s a loving and supportive type.  As the title indicates, The Doctor drops in out of the sky (having been thrown out of her exploding TARDIS) and saves them, directly attacking the creature with some downed wires which while awesome, feels far more direct than a typical Doctor reaction.

When the new five person group goes searching for the Kiss (besides finding its music terrible), they also find that someone has taken the Kiss.  A man who after seeing it crack open and expose its nougat center, demands to know where his sister was and loses a tooth for it from an armored alien that looks like something out of a Syfy original movie.  It’s a purple race covered in teeth embedded in his face on a hunt for one randomly selected human (his sister the last time) and speaks in a gravelly voice with and indecipherable name and race that sounds like Tim Shaw of the Stenzer race.  It’s like Predator if instead of picking the top of each species, they picked some random schmuck except this guy is a cheating bastard who doesn’t even abide by the no rules policy.  The glowing squares thing was Ryan accepting the terms of the hunt and I fully expect plenty of angst over that decision in the upcoming season.

Dealing with the effects of regeneration as after a burst of energy early on, The Doctor is forced to spend a quick bit laying up, but far less than in the “The Christmas Invasion” (though “The Eleventh Hour” skipped that whole step).  It’s a good call since as unlike that episode, which had Rose, her mother, and Mickey established to carry things while The Doctor slept off the episode, the show needed The Doctor as much as possible if they were going to establish this for new audiences (or those who had left).  We get to see her make a sonic screwdriver and its clear they are setting her up as far more mechanically sorted than previous incarnations.

The final confrontation with Tim Shaw over his prey is a thrilling one and they it was a sight to have The Doctor doing an intentional stunt.  Not a bad thing although I’m not looking for this show to turn into an action show since The Doctor’s ability to think has always been the primary appeal of it, but it’s a nice establishing moment.  She also gets to show off that cleverness with her metal way of taking it out by using the sonic screwdriver to surreptitiously move DNA detonation devices that had earlier been planted in everyone’s collarbone to the tentacle creature (which had been mentally linked to Tim Shaw) and then having him take out himself.  It’s a cold moment from a Doctor who had otherwise been so cheerful, but I like it.  It was very Davies era.

Sadly, for the episode, that’s not all as Ryan’s gran dies taking out the tentacle ball creature.  It’s a heartbreaking end though one that is hardly shocking considering I knew the companions beforehand (damn doing my research).  Like I said before, it’s going to be an angst watch situation as Ryan doing the Spider-Man thing where he unwittingly leads to the death of his caretaker could either be a motivate him to do good, spur some interesting drama, or turn him into a misery gut.

The episode was obviously set up heavy as so much of it felt like I was recounting the plot, but it did it effectively and sell the season.  It was fun with a cool one one-off villain even if he was just The Predator but more pathetic.  Most importantly though, Whittaker took the role naturally and self-assuredly, taking aspects from each of the preceding Doctors and yet (in character) making it clear she was still finding her footing.  The companions are much less interesting at this point, but I’m willing to give them time since there was way a lot to pack in.  Regardless, it was a good start and I’m excited for the rest of the season.

Grade: B

Stray Observations

– While I didn’t mention this up above, there was another major change to the show.  Gone is Murray Gold who worked as composer for the entire NuWho era.  While I really liked most of his takes on the theme, his work on the show itself could get too overwhelming and loud at times.  Segun Akinola has taken over the job and there seems to be a shift in sound though not one I can definitively pinpoint yet.
– After a reduction in multi-part stories last season to only one (since they kill the ratings), there will be none this year.
– Those thirty second previews that look just like the episode is starting back up are just as useless and annoying as ever.  Please stop them BBC America.
– The line “You’re interfering in things you don’t understand” is actually uttered which is just marvelous.
– The Doctor spends most of the episode in ragged versions of the Twelfth Doctor’s clothing, but her outfit does show up in the end and it’s certainly quirky.  I’ll see how it grows on me, but as of now, I really don’t care, it’s clothing.
– This Week in Cliffhangers:  After enlisting the Ryan, Yasmin, and Graham to help her find the TARDIS, The Doctor, uses the Stenzer technology and her own mechanical skills to craft a transport device and accidentally transports them all into outer space which is a fantastic final image.

Next Up: The second episode of the Thirteenth Doctor’s run with “The Ghost Monument” on 10/14 while Doctor Who Classic will return on 10/15 with “The Invasion” at 10 AM.