An awful lot was riding on this episode. First female Doctor. New showrunner in the shape of Chris Chibnall who has a patchy at best record on Who, and with things like the scene below on his C.V, we were right to be worried.
On top of this there’s a vocal group online ready to lead boycotts for a series which worldwide is one of the BBC’s top three money-earners, but here in the UK the audience has declined during the Stephen Moffat years. And there’s a point; the first Moffat series is excellent but he quickly falls into a convoluted mess of plotlines and character arcs which means that if you’ve not seen Doctor Who at any point over the last half century, or have been away for a while you’d often turn on a Moffat episode and be lost from the first scene. Then there was the fact many of the scripts being commissioned were just dreadful which made it feel that actors of the calibre of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi were often wasted.
In short the programme was in a similar state to where it was in the Colin Baker to early Sylvester McCoy years where it was falling in on itself from the weight of continuity and the urge to follow it ahead of story and character. Basically Moffatt changed the programme from a mass audience one to one for fans, which works to a limit but certainly the programme had basically fell up it’s own arse.
So The Woman Who Fell to Earth is the programme rebooting itself for the age of mass audience programming with works like Broadchurch and The Bodyguard, proving that loads of people will tune in at the same time if there’s something they want to see. The revamped Doctor Who is now 13 years old and frankly, wasn’t going to keep an audience where it was going, so in come Chibnall fresh from the success of Broadchurch, to essentially take the programme back to 2005. All you need to know going into this is there’s a character called the Doctor, who has just regenerated because they’re an alien, and they fight evil on and off Earth throughout time with their companion/s. Chibnall has also promised no old recurring baddies for this series which is good, and I hope finally lets the new series build up its own mythology.
Which brings us back to everything riding on this episode. The BBC have spent what must be millions in sending Whittaker around the world to publicise the relaunch (which the BBC never admitted it was) and it has to be said, she did her job brilliantly showing an enthusiasm and love for the show that belies the fact she wasn’t a hardcore fan when first cast. The first episode itself has a pretty old-school Who B-plot with an alien landing in Sheffield (the programme uses its Sheffield locations, and the fact we’re not used to seeing programming set outwith of London very well) killing people seemingly randomly. It frankly is only there to push along the A-plot which is who is this woman who crashed from the skies and how come she knows how to fight an alien menace? There’s also the start of three character arcs in the shape of the companions ( Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and a surprisingly good Bradley Walsh) so there’s a lot going on in a busy opener.
On the whole it works. A major death is telegraphed from the minute the character is introduced which detracts from the tension, also the alien menace looks great and not a monster out to destroy the universe but is dispatched with a finality which suggests it won’t return which is a shame. The companions, sorry, ‘friends’ are all fine and good though I’m still worried there may be too many of them, but it’s Jodie Whitaker that the new relaunch hinges on and she carries the entire thing off so well that you forgive the odd cliche, or clunker of a line.Added to the fact there’s a real effort in upping direction (though Moffat should be praised for letting people like Ben Wheatley loose on Who) and cinematography (Sheffield has never looked so good)that things do feel exciting and fresh.
In fact by halfway through the episode you forget all the fuss about a woman Doctor and just accept that this is The Doctor, it’s a regeneration episode and I can’t wait to see where Whitaker goes from here to develop the character though you can spot influences, especially when she’s bumbling around trying to build a new sonic screwdriver there’s a touch of Troughton, Tennant and Smith there, then a touch of Tom Baker and Eccleston during the climatic scenes. There’s even a few scenes where she carries herself as Capaldi would to show shes not fully regenerated yet. Is it perfect? No though as introductory episodes it is up there is the show’s 55 year history (Spearhead From Space remains my favourite) but it had a number of jobs to perform which it did well.
We now have a new Doctor. There are complaints about how the ‘agenda’ is spoiling it from mainly sad wankers, then there’s Americans complaining about the Sheffield accents which is so sad it’s funny but the response so far has been good, though the tough work really starts now. Will Whitaker keep people coming back or, like Smith and Capaldi, will she be let down by scripts? There’s still the Tardis to re-indtroduce too
We’ll see but for now there’s an almost blank slate to play with and Doctor Who feels fresh and exciting. For that a well done to all involved is deserved. Bring on next week!