'Doctor Who': 'The Woman Who Fell To Earth' recap: A stellar debut for Jodie Whittaker

Paul Kirkley
Contributor

The first episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’.

What’s it about? The Doctor crash lands in Sheffield, meets some new BFFs and faces off against a ruthless alien warrior. Called Tim.

Verdict: After 15 months of hype and sky-high expectations, was the BBC running a slight risk calling Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who debut ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’?

No, as it turns out. Because Whittaker’s Time Lord is simply out of this world – a crackling, fizzing, lightning rod of a Doctor who’s fast, funny and more than a little bit adorable. Right from the get-go, she is someone you want to spend time with – and who viewers will surely be happy to follow to the end of the universe.

Whittaker’s not the only new sheriff in town, of course, and incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall has been equally quick to put his stamp on the show. From the bold and brilliant decision to make Sheffield the unlikely new centre of the Doctor Who universe, to the hugely likeable supporting trio of Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole, Chibnall’s watchword appears to be: relatable. (Walsh, in particular, is a masterstroke of inclusive, big tent casting guaranteed to give the show added cross-generational appeal.)

There’s a real cinematic quality to the show, too, with the hills and valleys of Sheffield and the Peak District looking as stunning as any alien vista.

Having a cool, shiny, Marvel-style alien as the first Big Bad of the Thirteenth Doctor’s era also feels like a smart move if you want to hold the interest of kids raised on a diet of mega-budget comic book movies. And fair enough, some of those kids might find the climactic action sequence lacking the crash and wallop they’re used to. But give me Jodie Whittaker trading witty bon mots on top of a crane over Hollywood’s spandex superheroes demolishing entire city blocks any day. In fact the whole alien incursion plot is flimsier than a Sea Devil’s string vest, but in that respect Chibnall is just following the standard ‘new Doctor’ playbook: after all, you don’t want the monsters outshining your new star.

Not that Jodie Whittaker – exploding across the screen like a rainbow-coloured charm bomb – was ever in danger of being eclipsed by anyone. “I feel glorious, glorious,” sings Skylar Grey on the trailer song Chibnall personally chose to announce his new Doctor. “Got a chance to start again. I was born for this. It’s who I am.”

Of that, there can surely be no doubt.

‘Doctor Who’: Jodie Whittaker hits the ground running in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’

Doctor’s notes: The Thirteenth Doctor is warmer and less prickly than some of her previous incarnations, and appears unburdened by the tortured survivor guilt of recent years. (Witness the glee with which she declares “This is going to be fun!” or the innocent, almost childlike way she says: “I’m calling you Yas, ’cos we’re friends now.”) Forget all that “lonely god” anguish: the Doctor is once again just a traveller – sometimes she sees things need fixing, and does what she can. She also speaks in a Yorkshire accent, but she’s not from Yorkshire. She’s from space.

Fellow travellers: Graham (Bradley Walsh) is an ex-bus driver who’s had treatment for cancer. Ryan (Tosin Cole) is Graham’s step-grandson. Sweet, vulnerable, a little damaged, he has dyspraxia, and is working in a warehouse while he studies to be a mechanic. Yasmin (Mandip Gill) is a police officer (second year probation) frustrated by having to spend her days sorting out parking disputes.

Isn’t that…? Sharon D Clarke (Grace) is best known for her stint as Dr Lola Griffin on Holby City. Jonny Dixon (Karl) played Matthew “Mopey” Humphries in Grange Hill, and Darryl Morton in Coronation Street.

Location, location, location: Sheffield, South Yorkshire, 2018.

Scary monsters: “Tim Shaw”, leader-elect of the Stenzar, a warrior race who have conquered the nine systems. He takes the teeth of his conquests and wears them as trophies. (He’s not really called Tim. That’s just the Doctor winding him up.) Also on Earth is a super-powered gathering coil – a spaghetti tangle of weaponised biotech with a nasty sting in its flex.

Quote unquote: “We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been, and choose who we want to be next.” The Doctor’s not just talking about her new body here – it’s also a reminder that reinvention is essential to Doctor Who’s longevity (and one of the things that makes it so exciting).

“There’s this moment, when you’re sure you’re about to die, and then… you’re born. Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them.” This must surely rank as the finest description of the regeneration process we’ve ever had?

“Can we have the lights and siren on?” The Doctor really likes police cars.

Gadgets and gizmos: Separated from her TARDIS, the Doctor has no choice but to apply a bit of make-do-and-mend. Using old junk and a blow torch, A-Team style, the result is more of a “Swiss Army Sonic – now with added Sheffield steel”. She also builds a makeshift transport pod using harvested Stenzar technology and a microwave oven. Ping!

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor in Doctor Who (BBC)

Best bit: The Doctor’s first appearance in the train. Jodie Whittaker nails the character straight out of the gate – brain racing at a million miles an hour, mouth talking a blue streak, taking charge and commanding instant respect even as she bamboozles everyone around her.

Worst bit: Tim the Tenzar took an absolute age climbing up that crane, didn’t he? And Grace’s death was an out-of-left-field emotional sucker-punch that didn’t feel entirely earned.

Scariest bit: The creature moving down the darkened carriage has to be the tensest Sunday train sequence since… well, Bodyguard.

Funniest bit: “Tim Shaw?

Huh?: How come everyone is so sceptical about aliens? In the Doctor Who universe, the Earth has been invaded dozens of times. Usually on live TV.

Back in time: The story is consciously light on continuity references – part of Chris Chibnall’s mission to ensure there are “no barrier to entry”.

The Doctor’s lovely reverie about her family (“I carry them with me, what they would have thought, and said and done. Make them a part of who I am. So even though they’re gone from the world, they’re never gone from me”) echoes a similar speech by Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in 1967’s ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’.

Segue Akinola’s reworking of the Doctor Who theme tune includes elements of Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement, as well as re-introducing – be still our beating hearts – the classic 1970s cliffhanger “sting”.

Oh, and don’t think we didn’t notice Chibnall casually tossing in a continuity hand grenade with the Doctor’s line about it being “a long time since I bought women’s clothes”. Cheeky.

Next time – The Ghost Monument: Still reeling from their first encounter, can the Doctor and her new friends stay alive long enough, in a hostile alien environment , to solve the mystery of Desolation? And just who are Angstrom and Epzo?

Doctor Who continues on Sundays on BBC One.

Read more
Jodie Whittaker’s accent confuses America
Actors who nearly played The Doctor
Everything you need to know about S11