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“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” Is a Solid DOCTOR WHO Start for a New Team

“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” Is a Solid DOCTOR WHO Start for a New Team

For all the talk, hype, and excitement of Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Doctor, a conversation that hasn’t been as active (aside from some of the deeper dives into the wells of Whovian fandom) is the fact that it’s also the debut for a whole lot of other folks as well. Not only did we meet a new Doctor Who, not only were we introduced to a whole new supporting cast to kick the show off with, but practically the entire creative team behind the BBC‘s long-running sci-fi series are new to their roles as well.

It’s fitting, then, that “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” picks up not with the immediate resolution of its falling protagonist, but with a glimpse instead at some of these new faces. These early moments are where new showrunner Chris Chibnall and his team get to being crafting the world of this new, new era of the long-running show. Like the behind the scenes crew, we learn that each of our new Compani– wait, sorry, we’re calling them “Friends,” now; new era and all that– are struggling to find their footing. Police officer Yasmin (Mandip Gill) is looking for a role with some real responsibility, cancer survivor Graham (Bradley Walsh) hopes to belong in his new family, and his step-grandson Ryan (Tosin Cole) quite literally struggles to find his footing as he deals with a coordination disorder that prevents him from even the seemingly simple task of riding a bike.

This first ten minutes of the premiere — so devoid of the Doctor’s presence that even her new opening credits and most of her trademark theme song are nowhere to be found — is where Chibnall and company get their chance to show us what they’re working with when it comes to mystery and suspense. With just a few quick story beats, an alien interface and chilling pottery class fail appear in the woods, an energy distortion occurs, and a flying spaghetti-monster like monstrosity of living cables attacks a train. The tracks are laid perfectly to draw in new viewers and longtime fans alike, leaning in on our sofas wondering what is going on. And just at the exact moment when we might have been caught up enough in the suspense that we, for even a fraction of a second, forgot that we were waiting for our protagonist, she arrives. Crashing through the roof with all the dignity that the office has led us to expect, the new Doctor is here.

There’s always a period of adjustment when a new Doctor takes over, both for the audience struggling to let go of the previous incarnation and the actor who finds themselves actually wearing their tattered clothes to kick off the journey. More eyes are on Jodie Whittaker at this task than perhaps most new Doctors would get, but her actual work is pretty much on an average with all of them. As easy as it would be to say that this brilliantly talented actress nailed it right out of the gate, I think that while we saw Jodie do an excellent performance as the Doctor, I can’t say that I feel we’ve yet seen Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. She’s hitting it all from a craftsman level: the quirkiness, the technobabble, the voice of authority, even a bit of a speech, but she hasn’t quite owned the role as uniquely hers yet. I have full faith she’ll get there, however, and there are a few moments where you can see the future of it, the glimpses around the corner.

A paradox of the show is that while the dawn of a new Doctor is logically the most accessible entry point to the series for new viewers, they’re also rarely anyone’s favorite episodes. There’s a great deal of plate-spinning that must be done in a post-Regeneration episode, too much plot can buckle without the support of a clearly defined Doctor to face it, and trying to define that Doctor can feel heavy-handed if it dominates too much of the story.

For the most part, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” manages this balance well, using the Doctor’s post-Regeneration fogginess as a way of amplifying the threat stakes. The monster, a trophy-hunter alien who collects the teeth of his victims as facial decorations, is legitimately creepy, and the show provides the audience with enough information to fall for the same red herring as the Doctor, allowing for misdirection and surprise. There are a few pacing glitches, especially a subplot involving vengeful brother and exposition device Rahul (Amit Shah) that provided a few more story beats (and workshop for the Doctor to make her new Sonic Screwdriver). But ultimately that didn’t give us more information than we got a few scenes later directly from our monster, “Tim Shaw,” whom I was totally about to call the Tooth Fairy until the show gave us that even more delightfully deflating name.

If Rahul and his sister’s offscreen deaths felt a bit tacked on, the death of Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Graham’s wife and Ryan’s grandmother, was even more so. I appreciate that the show went beyond the typical beat of immediately moving beyond a character’s death, and I suspect the grief of her death will be a continuing character development as the season continues. Still, the feeling of inevitability towards her death that crept in at the very start of the episode, coupled with the semi-unearned, telegraphed sense of it when it happened sat wrong with me. It’s rare that I don’t love Doctor Who, even when I’m frustrated with it, even when it makes me cry, but this was one of those times.

Despite these shortcomings, there’s a lot to be excited about in this episode. New fans have a solid entry point to begin this addicting journey. Those concerned about the change of showrunner can rest assured that we’re getting the Chris Chibnall who is coming off three seasons of Broadchurch. And Jodie Whittaker is hitting the ground running with her bright coat and homemade Sonic. The best is yet to come for the Thirteenth Doctor, and that’s how it should be.

Images: BBC

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