There’s a moment in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ when Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor makes a big, grandstanding speech about the power of change – about how it’s possible to evolve, while also staying true to who we are. As a mission statement for Doctor Who as it embarks on one of the bolder of its many reinventions, it could scarcely be more emphatic.
If such speeches are designed in part to reassure any wavering doubters, though, they probably won’t be needed. Because the new Doctor Who is about to explode across Sunday nights like a one-woman charm bomb.
It’s not just Whittaker who’s new, of course, and incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall appears to be going all out to make the show as **relatable** as possible. From the everyman characters to the decision to make Sheffield the unlikely new centre of the new Doctor Who universe, Chibnall folds the Doctor’s mad, impossible reality into the everyday world of YouTube and Uber; a world where a smartphone can double as a makeshift sonic screwdriver and people turn to the internet for tips on how to foil an alien invasion.
(Which is not to say next week it won’t be a story about talking purple mushrooms on Venus. With Doctor Who, the only real house style is that there is no house style.)
There are new monsters, too, at least one of which appears to have been designed with half an eye on a generation of kids in thrall to the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. And while it’s true some of those kids may well find this episode’s climactic action set piece more sedate than they’re used to, there’s only so far Doctor Who can, or even should, try to play Hollywood at that game. Personally, I’ll take Jodie Whittaker trading witty bon mots with aliens over Batman and Superman knocking lumps out of the walls for 45 minutes any day of the week.
In fact, though the story is exciting – including the tensest Sunday night stand-off in a train carriage since Bodyguard – the monster-of-the-week stuff is relatively low key. That’s long been the standard M.O. with ‘new Doctor’ stories, though, with the alien threat little more than a framing device on which to hang the real story of our hero meeting her new friends – and her new self.
And on that score, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ proves utterly irresistible. All the regulars – Bradley Walsh as Graham, Mandip Gill as Yasmin and Tosin Cole as Ryan – are immensely likeable and (that word again) relatable, and Chibnall draws them into events in a way that feels natural and unforced.
And Jodie Whittaker? Well, did anyone – apart from under a few rocks in the danker corners of the internet – ever seriously doubt she’d smash it out of the solar system? Hers is a fizzing, lightning rod of a Doctor – all synaptic leaps and goofy grins. Some Doctors take a while to find their feet, but Whittaker is among that group – like Tom Baker, David Tennant and Matt Smith – who arrive fully formed. From her very first appearance – brain racing at a million miles per hour, mouth talking a blue streak – she is simply the Doctor.
There’s a lovely warmth to her, too: Chibnall seems to have deliberately stripped away some of the tortured, “lonely god” baggage accumulated by recent Doctors. Yes, he gives Whittaker some beautiful little monologues in this episode – about life and death, birth and renewal, and a brief but touching reverie on absent friends and family. But there’s also a feeling of the character being returned to first principles: “I’m just a traveller,” she explains. “Sometimes I see things need fixing, and I do what I can.”
The BBC’s promotional “It’s about time” line may winkingly allude to Whittaker being a Doctor for the #TimesUp generation, but in the script itself, it’s barely more than a grace note – a couple of hand-waving lines here and there. Which is just as it should be because, honestly, as a viewer you will barely give it a thought.
“I feel glorious, glorious,” sings Skylar Grey on the trailer music that has now been adopted as the anthem for Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord. “Got a chance to start again. I was born for this. It’s who I am.”
Born to be the Doctor? You know, I think she just might have been.
‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ is on BBC One at 6:45pm, on Sunday, 7 October.