You may have read my post about how I was giving up on any expectations that Series 11 of Doctor Who would be good, let alone great. After the BBC’s politically-charged marketing campaign leading up to the premiere, even the one or two decent trailers didn’t encourage me much. I read most of the advance reviews, and they didn’t excite me either. The positive ones focused mainly on the gender change, and the negative ones warned that this wouldn’t resemble the Doctor Who I remembered.
So when I sat down to watch the premiere, I was convinced that I’d find it mediocre at best. My attitude was pretty much, “Let’s get this over with.”
I watched it.
I loved it.
I watched it again, thinking that surely, I was mistaken.
I loved it more.
Does this mean that I’ve abandoned the views I expressed in my earlier post? No, not really. And I’m well aware that this series could still go off the rails and disappoint me. But for the time being, at least, my hope for the future of Doctor Who has been restored.
The Quick, Spoiler-Free Verdict
If you’re here to find out if The Woman Who Fell to Earth is worth your time, and don’t want any spoilers beyond that, then don’t go beyond this paragraph. Yes, it is worth your time. I can’t promise that you’ll feel the same way I did about it, of course, but I think that if you approach it with an open mind, you may be pleasantly surprised. Jodie Whittaker is an excellent Doctor, backed up by a strong team of companions. The premiere was a very promising start. It evokes the golden years of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. Go watch it, and come back for my spoilery breakdown. Or, if you don’t care about spoilers, just keep reading. I will say that there aren’t really any massive, mind-blowing developments to keep secret here–no surprise cameos or anything like that–so if you’re only interested in shielding yourself from that sort of thing, you can read on without fear.
What I Didn’t Like
There isn’t a lot to say in this section, so I’ll get it out of the way first. I’m not sure how I feel about the episode’s opening moments. They work very well in the context of this particular story, and set up a powerful and unexpected moment near the end, but perhaps something more timeless and Doctor-Who-ish should have come before them. It’s easy to assume, when the first thing you see is a YouTube video, that the rest of the episode will focus on pandering to social-media-obsessed millennials, when that’s not really the case at all.
The alien threat was also not very original or intriguing, which won’t allay any fears about Chris Chibnall’s writing skills. I’ve heard it compared to the Predator, which is accurate. And the transport pod did look a little too much like a Hershey’s Kiss, as one reviewer pointed out. However, it’s worth noting that a more complex monster than this would have taken time away from the necessary development of all the new characters introduced here. The Eleventh Hour and Deep Breath took a similar approach, introducing a fairly simple antagonist so more space could be allotted to fleshing out the new Doctor.
What I Liked
The Plot: Despite the mediocre monster, the plot as a whole was very well-constructed. I’ve said before that Chibnall seemed to struggle with the forty-five-minute time constraint of his previous Doctor Who stories. His episodes felt cramped and rushed. The full hour Chibnall gave himself here, however, seems to be the perfect length for him to tell a Doctor Who story properly. Everything is explained well enough for even the casual viewer to follow along, and all the loose ends are tied up…well, all except for that last cliffhanger, of course. (It was nice knowing the new TARDIS team while they lasted.)
The Companions: Or “friends,” or whatever. I’m still calling them companions. In this area, I have to say, Chibnall has already outdone Steven Moffat. He has played to his strengths by writing what is essentially a character piece. Moffat had the unfortunate habit of giving us one “stock” companion after another, and then tacking on distinctive qualities after their introductions. He seemed to have an aversion to making companions unique from the get-go. For example, I remember being intrigued back in 2010 when I spotted Amy Pond wearing a policewoman’s uniform in the trailers for Series 5…only to discover that it was just part of her “kissogram” job. (Seriously, what was the point of Amy being a kissogram?)
Yasmin Khan, on the other hand, is a policewoman, which gives her a unique role to play in the show. Ryan Sinclair battles the coordination disorder dyspraxia–the kind of diversity I can personally get behind, as the brother of a special-needs person. Graham O’Brien is Ryan’s step-grand-dad, and is struggling to break through the young man’s emotional barriers so he can form a relationship with him. He’s an ex-bus-driver, and he doesn’t believe in aliens. At first. His wife, Grace, is a stand-out character who gives the episode its emotional core, and…excuse me a moment…
*sobbing* *loud nose-blowing* CURSE YOU, CHIBNALLLLL!!!
Yeah, I'm still not over Grace.
In the space of a single episode, Chibnall gives you reasons to care about each of the characters, provides them with backstories, and establishes some semblance of a team dynamic. Not bad for a start, I’d say.
The Effects: This is usually where Doctor Who falters. Even the best episodes tend to have dodgy CGI to some degree. The VFX in this episode, however, were a dramatic improvement. Practical effects are relied upon over computer graphics for the most part, and where CGI does appear, it’s of a higher quality than what we’re used to seeing on the show.
The Tone and Content: The Woman Who Fell to Earth is significantly darker in atmosphere than most episodes from the Moffat era. There’s a gritty feel to it at times, which may be off-putting to viewers who are accustomed to Moffat’s whimsical, fairy-tale vibe. However, it’s not that dark. It’s certainly not another Class (ugh, don’t watch Class, trust me) or Torchwood (again, don’t). The shadows serve to make the optimistic, passionate Doctor shine even more. Plus, this story was set in Sheffield at night–I’m sure that other episodes will venture into less gloomy settings and feature higher levels of comedy. Also, as far as adult content is concerned, things stayed pretty clean. There were gruesome deaths, but they were only described, not shown. Profanities are mild and infrequent, and there’s no sexual content or crude lines in this episode.
The Music: Given my great fondness for Murray Gold’s work, I was not happy to hear he was being replaced by Segun Akinola. The new score, however, was yet another pleasant surprise. It’s not the same as Gold’s orchestral style, relying on more exotic instruments and arrangements, but it does an excellent job establishing the mood of the story without becoming obtrusive. I’m looking forward to having it in my Spotify playlist. Also, I really didn’t care for the take on the theme tune which Gold used for the Twelfth Doctor, so the return to a more classic and simple arrangement was welcome. The new theme is a great mixture of the original sixties version and some modern instrumentation…plus, the opening/closing sequence appears to feature a version of the original swirly stuff from the 60’s and 70’s credits! (He said, with nerdy enthusiasm.)
The Doctor: I saved this for last, because it ties in with my overall impressions and final thoughts.
It’s the oldest question in the universe, the one we ask after every regeneration: is the Doctor still the Doctor?
The answer, in my opinion, is yes.
But what about the gender change, and everything I’ve said about it in previous posts?
My opinions on that issue haven’t changed. Switching out male characters for female replacements is a tactic I strongly disagree with, and casting a female Doctor is a tremendous risk. It’s a decision I wouldn’t have made if I were in charge of the show. It’s something that can only work if handled properly, and there was little evidence in the marketing campaign for Series 11 to suggest that it would be handled properly.
There are very few references to the gender change in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and no overtly political moments in general. That almost certainly will not continue to be the case throughout the rest of the season. I’m hoping political subtext won’t reach the same intensity it had during Series 10, and that Chibnall will continue to avoid Moffat’s penchant for man-bashing. But I’m aware that Series 11 could still be a great disappointment in the end. And I can’t even say that I’ve completely relinquished the idea that the Doctor should be male.
All the same, though, when Thirteen finally said those three iconic words, “I’m the Doctor,” I found myself agreeing with her.
She has the wit of Twelve, the childlike exuberance of Eleven, the compassion of Ten, the quiet strength of Nine, and the kindness of Five. That’s one way of describing her, anyway. In the end, Jodie Whittaker’s take on the character is hers and hers alone. She doesn’t come across as a man who comically finds himself in the body of a woman; femininity is not sacrificed in her portrayal. Her Doctor possesses an almost maternal warmth and sympathy. Unlike Twelve, she has no difficulty expressing regret and sorrow when lives are lost. She’s not gruff or inaccessible. (No offense meant to the Twelfth Doctor, who is still one of my favorites.) And while I feared she would be depicted as an infallible goddess after the gender switch, that’s not the case in this episode. Ryan’s eulogy for Grace seems to underline this, establishing her, rather than the Doctor, as the true hero of the story.
Compassion for people on an individual basis has always been one of the Doctor’s defining traits. “I’ve never met someone who wasn’t important,” said Eleven, and Thirteen definitely carries on that spirit. This element is what forms the central theme of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Reviewers, both positive and negative, who focus solely on the Doctor being a woman are missing the point. That’s not what this episode is about. It’s about people and the relationships between them. It’s about family. It’s about the unique value of every single life.
If I were to sum up my review in one sentence, it would be this: Chris Chibnall has told a beautiful, captivating, and emotionally resonant Doctor Who story which just happens to feature the first female Doctor.
The Woman Who Fell to Earth is not perfect. The threat of social-justice-warrior ideology undermining the show hasn’t gone away completely. The Thirteenth Doctor may not continue to be as engaging as she was in this episode, and the majority of fans may decide they don’t want to sign on for this very different new era of Doctor Who.
But I really hope they’ll give it a try. And for now, at least, I’m daring to believe that the future of Doctor Who is in safe hands.
Be sure to join me for more reviews as Series 11 unfolds!