One of the most surprising things about the first adventure of the first woman to assume the role of Doctor Who is how oddly backwards-looking it was.
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is more than a clever title. Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor quite literally falls through the roof of a train to make our acquaintance. From there she recruits her new set of companions and is off to the races to stop an alien from doing bad things on Earth. All that is par for the course.
Where this new era of Doctor Who differs is how much it seems beholden to late ‘90s/early ‘00s television. The X-Files atmosphere, dark colors and a frankly terrifying monster that feels more like something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Doctor Who, call to mind both Series 1 and the Eighth Doctor film. The reference to the latter is particularly noticeable thanks to a minor character named Grace who works in medicine.
The result is a show that is quite a bit more sinister than it’s been in over a decade. There’s something gritty and industrial, almost Lynchian in this new incarnation of the show. The Doctor even crafts her new sonic screwdriver by hand in a workshop (“made with Sheffield steel!”) and her companions are all distinctly working class people.
In fact, you could argue very easily that the entire first story is about stopping elites from preying on those below them for sport. The nightmarish Stenza is a straight up borrowed Predator-figure, but with the added component of being an upwardly mobile system-cheating yuppie on top of it. The Doctor, bereft of the Tardis at this point, is more than ever forced to rely on human resources.
Here’s where Whittaker shines as our newest Doctor. From the outfit that had been revealed I expected her Doctor to be playful and puckish, sort of the manic pixie girl of all space and time. That would have been the easy road, and so it’s not surprising that showrunner Chris Chibnall went in the exact opposite direction.
Whittaker’s Doctor is a woman of surprisingly few words, especially following the incredibly verbose Peter Capaldi. Even her declaration of “I’m The Doctor” is understated. There’s no swelling music, no sudden fear on behalf of her enemies. She’s just this quiet diamond. She gets a few good quips in, but she listens more than she speaks.
In fact, the only truly great oratory she gives is a few sentences after a funeral, the attendance at which is phenomenally rare for a character that prefers to disappear like smoke rather than face the aftermath of her adventures. She talks about how she is a kind of living memorial to her friends and family, and that she makes it her business to be the change they would have wanted to see in the world. It’s short but incredibly moving.
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Let’s talk companions real quick. With such a big Tardis crew (metaphorically at this point) there was some worry that there wouldn’t be enough screen time to give them all proper personalities. Luckily, if there is anything Chibnall is a master at creating great relationships in short spans.
Ryan excels as the quiet but resourceful type who is a bit of a coward but ultimately is reliable. Yaz is gung-ho, looking to prove herself and ready for adventure. Graham is a midway point, an older man who feels he is living on borrowed time. He serves as the moral center of the group and the humanizing element. They all have a wonderful rapport with Whittaker’s Doctor, instantly forming into an effective team. Say what you want about Chibnall’s a story “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” but you can’t deny it was a hell of a good ensemble story. He brings that skill to the new season.
As far as the post-classic era new Doctor episodes go, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is somewhat mid-grade. It’s better than “Deep Breath” or the “The Christmas Invasion,” but not as good as “Rose” or “The Eleventh Hour.” The reaching back to the Eccleston and McGann eras feels very deliberate in this soft reboot, both in cinematography and in scope. There isn’t an immediate world-wide or even city-wide threat, and thank Rassilon for that.
Instead, we’re seeing things on a smaller, more personal level. Whittaker’s Doctor is a far less god-like one, and for my money that’s a good thing. She’s smaller, more hands-on and a leader as opposed to a misanthrope. It’s definitely a new beginning, even if it’s framed like an old one. I can’t wait to see what happens next!