Review by Tim Robins
WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD…
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 7th October 2018
Written By: Chris Chibnall
Directed By: Jamie Childs
Introducing Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor; Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien; Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair; and Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan
Guest Starring: Sharon D Clarke and Asif Khan
‘We don’t get aliens in Sheffield.’ In a South Yorkshire city, Ryan Sinclair, Yasmin Khan and Graham O’Brien are about to have their lives changed for ever, as a mysterious woman, unable to remember her own name, falls from the night sky. Can they believe a word she says? And can she help solve the strange events taking place across the city?
The new season of Doctor Who finally arrived on the UK’s various platforms on a Sunday, although the rest of its timetable may vary. It’s been ten months since we last saw Jodie Whittaker plummet from the TARDIS, an age for anxious fans. In fact, watching the episode was an unexpectedly nerve jangling experience, not helped by Alec Roberts‘ excellent electronic score humming away in the background and only announcing itself at exciting moments such as The Doctor jumping from the top of one crane to another. However, anyone hoping or fearing that the story to would be a train wreck will have been disabused; “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was chuffing brilliant.
The Doctor’s entrance, plummeting into a train carriage and straight into the middle of monster on human action, was widely held back in favour of introducing the new companions or, as we are encouraged to call them, “friends of the Doctor”.
They turned out to be a motley crew of refreshingly down to earth public servants, including Tosin Cole as Ryan Sinclair, a young lad with dyspraxia, Bradley Walsh as his Bus driving step grandfather Graham O’Brian, and Madip Gill as the personable trainee police officer (Jasmine call-me-Yaz) Kahn.
I have no doubt that some will hear the sound of a Politically Correct check list being ticked, and it is the case that the TARDIS, when it’s finally found, will have a more ethnically diverse crew than some parts of Britain – but one easily recognisable to those living in cities including Sheffield,where the story is set. And yes, the BBC is bigging up the show for its diversity and inclusivity. But this move doesn’t emanate from some Iluminati like group known only as “The Politically Correct”. As a public body, the BBC almost certainly has a statutory duty to promote equality, a duty arising from the Government backed Equality Act 2010 and fact that Britain is a member of the United Nations and a signatory to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that monstrous instrument of oppression designed to … err… impede the kind of prejudices that led Jews, travellers, homosexuals, criminals, and the disabled to extermination camps.
If your only agenda was to be entertained, then consider job done.
Bradley Walsh, playing Sinclair’s step grand-father was a revelation for those, like me, who associate him with his job as a quiz show host. Tosin Cole won me over, despite an awkward introduction in the show’s opening moments that saw him talking to us from Ryan Sinclair’s YouTube Vlog. (The Vlog was not a particularly successful one, judging by the paltry number likes and dislikes it attracted. Sinclair might have been more successful frantically yelling “Ten things about dyspraxia THAT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND!”, or funnier, if Sinclair were a SF Geek giving “10 Reasons Star Trek: Discovery shouldn’t have a woman Captain.” At least the nay sayer Doctor Who fans, with their alt.Rightish views would feel that they were also included.
Writing for a large cast of companions can be a hit and miss affaire. It worked well in the 1960s with Ian, Barbara and Susan, but fell flat with Adric, Teegan and Nyssa, each of whom was given their own bedroom to mope about in. Here, the signs augur well, although a scene where each of the friends announce that they will check their respective work places for news of anything strange was clunky enough to remind me less of The Flash’s team of assistants and more of The Double Deckers. (Google that reference, younger readers). Sinclair’s announcement that he would check social media was laughably over ambitious, along the lines of the first Doctor telling the Daleks that to conquer the Earth “You will have to destroy ALL living matter!” The programme’s nods to the new media on which the BBC fondly hope that it will be watched paid off, however, in a scene redolent of steampunk in which The Doctor made her own “Sonic” from scrap metal by hitting it over the head with a big hammer.
The Doctor, for it is she, finally pops up in a scene that had partly been leaked on-line, reminding the BBC that they don’t have quite the mastery of social media that they might wish. Frankly, they should have released the clip themselves. The clip showed the Doctor first meeting her new friends, and would have been excellent viral marketing, finally cutting through the insipid images on offer from the marketing department.
Whittaker’s performance was much as was seen there, a kind of female David Tennant with a touch of Eccleston and a whole load of herself. This will be much to the relief of the BBC who are desperate for Doctor Who to return to those halcyon days before Stephen Moffatt turned the programme into just the kind of show no one wanted to watch in the 1980s.
The Doctor’s new costume turned out to be an ensemble flung together in a charity shop. The big reveal was so gleeful that I laughed out loud, although I still harbour a liking for her earlier steampunk look. However, I have been told that the Doctor’s new clothes are on-trend for young women.
(Personally speaking, I am quite looking forward to cosplaying the Thirteenth Doctor. Not only will it give me credibility on Brighton’s Queer party scene but I will finally found a way to excuse my ever growing Moobs).
Chris (Broadchurch) Chibnall the show’s new Show Runner, the media industry’s name for highly-paid and doubtlessly over-worked middle managers, has stated that he wants Doctor Who to compete in the new pay to view environment and output of Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” certainly had the right look, a cinematic palate of deep reds, earth tones and warm blue with a hint of currently fashionable camera flare but, thanks to the last vestiges of public service broadcasting, UK audiences gets all this sci-fi wonderfulness thrown in with licence fee.
Chibnall is keen to promote the new season as accessibly free of the entanglements of continuity that tturned the Moffat years into such a mess. But fans being fans, and I include myself among them, it is hard not to watch the story without recalling the past. The climax focusing on electrical forces and the Doctor hanging from a crane could not help but recall the climax of the movie adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit. I think the writer missed a trick by not having The Doctor reference Logopolis, which had the Fourth Doctor hanging precariously from the gantry of a parabolic array.
Then again, do I really want to be reminded of a time when it was thought acceptable to create a season climax out of a doll of Tom Baker hanging by a thread from a schonky model of a big bra of telescope dish? And was it really a missed opportunity not making the alien antagonists a Rutan and a Sontaran? Probably not. Some tricks are best left unturned, although the alien entities, a ball of sea weed and a blue faced humanoid in fetish gear, were instantly forgettable.
So Chibnall seems to have succeeded in rebooting an ailing property that has been all set pieces and no sense. However, while Whittaker convinces as the Doctor, I am yet to be convinced by the story telling. It was Moffat who promoted the idea of Doctor Who episodes as a individual films. Fair enough, but I would prefer them not to be films that I have already seen – in this case, Predator. And I am still to be convinced that Chibnall has not lost the wild imagination and eccentricity that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who… and not just another episode of The Flash.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’