Doctor Who 11x01 “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” Review
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting and watching whiny white boys make Reddit threads about a female Doctor ruining the entire genre of science fiction, we have a new season of Doctor Who! And, to be honest, it feels like a whole new show compared to the recent dark and moody seasons that were much too interested in their own perceived cleverness than making television that’s actually enjoyable. We have a new Doctor, three new companions, and a new showrunner; the possibilities are endless. I’ll jump right in by dividing my review into two sections: what I enjoyed and what I didn’t.
What I Enjoyed
My first impression of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor is a good one: she’s funny, quick witted, and she already seems comfortable playing this new character. Fans of Doctor Who know that first impressions are crucial for a new version of the Doctor, and the nature of the show doesn’t make it easy. The Doctor has just regenerated, not quite her old self but not yet fully transformed into her new self, either. Whittaker has to play an established character and a new one all at the same time, with the added pressure of being the first woman to do so. She has to transform from an echo of Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor into her own, which she does masterfully.
And, personally, I’m looking forward to a young Doctor. At age 36, Whittaker is the third youngest to play the Doctor after Matt Smith at 26 and Peter Davison at 29. There’s something really effective about a two-thousand-year-old time lord staring at you from the eyes of someone in their 30s, and if we’re lucky enough to have a great actor in the Doctor’s shoes, that will shine through in more dramatic scenes and add real depth to the show. Matt Smith did this better than anyone, and you can fight me on that.
The most recent seasons of Doctor Who have been quite dark, with the Doctor being played by a shouty, fed up British white man in a constant state of angst. Peter Capaldi did a good job playing the Doctor during the past three seasons, but it can definitely be argued that this three season long trend was a bit too long for this kind of Doctor. Every season had at least five moments that all were framed as “the Doctor’s darkest hour,” trying to add depth to the story which instead was interpreted by many as the show being too obsessed with it’s own “cleverness.” Steven Moffat’s show Sherlock is guilty of the same thing, and it’s easy to see how Doctor Who was able to join Sherlock in the way of being a little too pretentious; a little too dark for the sake of attempting to be clever, and the show suffered for it.
Now, with Whittaker (and new showrunner Chris Chibnall), echoes of a more balanced Doctor Who are once again the core of the show. This new Doctor is cheerful in the face of danger, quick to defend her friends (or anyone, really), with the ability to be stern when the moment calls for it. This episode also allows Whittaker to shine through as the Doctor without a grand story or circumstance: she has no TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver (until she fashions one herself), and there is no travel in time or space. It’s just the Doctor on her own with a group of unassuming humans, trying to save lives.
It can be difficult for the audience when someone new plays the Doctor; there’s always a bit of a transition from the version of the Doctor that we’ve learned to appreciate and have grown used to. It’s a testament to Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall that when she finally declared, “I know EXACTLY who I am. I’m the Doctor,” I not only believed it, I was already cheering for her.
As with a new Doctor, new companions sometimes need getting used to, especially if the previous companion was a fan favorite. In this episode we’re introduced to Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). We learn that Ryan and Yaz know each other from school, and Graham is Ryan’s step-grandfather.
We’re introduced to our new companions when they’re struggling; a classic introduction and a perfect way to introduce the Doctor into their lives. Ryan is struggling with a disorder that affects his coordination and is working a dead end job, knowing he’s not satisfied with his current circumstance but not knowing what to do to fix it. Yaz seems like she’s the most successful of the bunch, working as a police officer, but we learn early on that she’s been assigned to working traffic disputes and is met with refusal when she asks her superior to put her on more interesting cases. Graham, who has been married to Ryan’s Nan, Grace, for only three years, is finding it hard to connect with Ryan.
These three (and Grace) all work surprisingly well together in this first episode, and I’m already excited for their dynamic. We learned the most about Ryan this week, but I’m ready to learn about the others as the season progresses. I’m especially intrigued by Yaz; she’s extremely clever and I can’t wait to see that translate into adventures with the Doctor.
Choosing When to Address a Female Doctor
We all know that Jodie Whittaker’s turn as the Doctor is a historic one, marking the first time in over fifty years that the Doctor won’t be a British white man (she’s still British and white, mind you). Immediately following the announcement that the Doctor will be played by a woman, hoards of distraught men threw what can only be described as a tantrum. We all know what white men throwing a tantrum via the internet looks like, so I won’t go into detail. I will say that I’m THRILLED at the treatment that this historical casting got in the season premiere.
The Doctor’s gender is only mentioned once, quickly, and then immediately pushed to the side in favor of the actual substance of the episode. The Doctor hasn’t seen herself since regenerating, and when Yaz refers to her as “Madam” her response is a simple “Am I? Does it suit me? An hour ago I was a white haired Scotsman,” and then moves RIGHT on. Yes, The Doctor is a woman. Women belong in science fiction. A woman INVENTED science fiction, and there won’t be any kind of justification needed for a female Doctor.
The only other time the controversy surrounding Whittaker’s casting was addressed was later on in the episode, indirectly, and by the Doctor herself while giving a signature uplifting speech during the climax of the episode. She says that “We are all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been, and choose who we want to be next.” Honestly, I was waiting for her to pull a Jim Halpert and stare right into the camera.
Back to the True Essence of Doctor Who
I mentioned this earlier on in my review, but it is such a relief to watch an episode of Doctor Who that actually feels like Doctor Who. The show has definitely gotten away from what made it special in the first place: extraordinary events in a perfectly unassuming location with ordinary people, and an alien that happens to have two hearts.
When I’m trying to explain Doctor Who to someone who hasn’t watched it (a tough job, I know), I always feel like I have to include that line from Season 1 when the Ninth Doctor (played by Chris Eccleston) says, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best part about Doctor Who is the notion that the ordinary is extraordinary. Doctor Who is best when it’s simple, when it uplifts everyday people, and when it doesn’t try to be some grand display of cleverness. The Doctor makes her new sonic screwdriver out of Sheffield steel. She calls herself “just a traveler.” We haven’t seen this show like this in awhile, and I’m grateful.
What I Could Have Done Without
As you can tell from the first part of this review, there wasn’t a lot that I didn’t like. There is, however, one major event I take issue with, and that’s the death of Ryan’s Nan, Grace.
Grace is a part of the group that joins the Doctor early on in the episode, and she ends up dying while fighting the “monster of the week,” an alien dubbed “Tim Shaw.” It seemed so unnecessary, especially for a season premiere with a new Doctor, a new showrunner… something like that sets the tone for a new season and a new era, so it’s an odd choice to put in this episode. Fans of Doctor Who know that the show is no stranger to soul crushing sadness, but that’s usually reserved for the exit of a companion or a season finale. They even went so far as to show the funeral, touching upon death in a way that the show hasn’t done before.
We all know that good people die, but this seemed like an odd choice. It’s also pretty evident that Grace’s early demise was a way to push her husband, Graham, into being a better person, but it’s never a good choice to sacrifice a woman to insert meaning into a man’s emotional journey, especially since we only just met Grace and she didn’t have a chance to do anything else. Her relationship with Ryan seemed much more important, but we were robbed of that as well.
Overall, I really loved this episode. I’m genuinely looking forward to the new season, something that hasn’t happened for me since Matt Smith left the show. Here’s to hoping this season is Doctor Who as it should be.