"We're all capable of the most incredible change," the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) says, towards the end of "The Woman Who Fell to Earth." "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. Now's your chance. How about it?"
The Doctor says these words to the villain of the piece, Stenza warrior "Tim Shaw" (Samuel Oatley), giving him—as the Doctor tends to do—one last chance to avoid a violent end. But it's a speech that works on a number of other levels as well.
Obviously, the Doctor is also talking—and quite consciously, we suspect—about herself, echoing and deepening words she has said earlier in the episode about her own still regenerating identity. ("There's echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am.")
It's a speech that will resonate with, and inspire, her new companions, who throughout the episode are given—as all Who companions are—the chance to push themselves further, and become something better, than they ever dared before.
It's a speech that tells children in the audience something they need to know, for—as new showrunner Chris Chibnall has reminded us—educating children was the original mission statement for this show. Children are in a constant state of accelerated change—of evolution, of regeneration—and it's not a bad idea to let them know that change is nothing to fear. (It's not a bad idea to remind the rest of us, either.)
But finally, of course, the Doctor's speech to her adversary is a speech about Doctor Who itself. Ever since original star William Hartnell's ailing health forced him to relinquish the role of the Doctor in 1966, Doctor Who has daringly made reinvention a part of its narrative DNA. Through the genius concept of regeneration, an event that would be the death-knell to most shows—the departure of the lead actor—has become an exciting opportunity for regular, creative rejuvenation. Every few years, the show gets to decide what it wants to be next, while still staying true to itself.
"Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon." — The Sixth Doctor1
No other show on television—no other show in the history of television—has embraced the challenge of change the way Doctor Who has. And this is particularly true in the modern series. In the classic series (1963–1989), there was almost always some overlap from era to era. Established Doctors would welcome new companions; established companions would welcome new Doctors. Head writers and producers usually stayed—at least for a story arc or two—to oversee a smooth transition from one era to the next. The show was almost always careful to ease audiences gently from one major change to the next, providing some continuity to ensure viewers that this was, fundamentally, the same show they'd been watching all along.2
However, since the rebirth of the show in 2005, every new showrunner has begun with almost a completely clean slate. It's pure insanity, when you think about it. "Take this very successful and financially lucrative property," the BBC now says to each new showrunner, "and throw out almost everything that made it work. Replace the entire cast, the whole crew, and the stable of writers and directors. Completely change the title sequence, the theme music, the logo, and all the branding. Keep the concept, but change everything else, and start all over again from scratch." Every new showrunner now undertakes a willfully reckless gut-rehab of a beautiful and bountiful property, flirting deliberately with total disaster.
But change is also the lifeblood and magic of Doctor Who, the secret weapon that has allowed it to not only survive but thrive for more than half a century. Very few television shows last five years without growing stale and repetitive, let alone fifty-five. And Doctor Who is a show that consumes creative energy at an alarming rate. After all, in addition to wholly reinventing itself every few years, Doctor Who is a show that also must reinvent itself—on a smaller scale—almost every episode, bringing in a new story, a new setting, a new cast of supporting characters. (As Chibnall's predecessor Steven Moffat once said, "I think you know you’ve got a good idea for a Doctor Who story if you think, ‘Well, I’ve just blown that feature film idea forever, haven’t I?’ That's the size of story that gets you through 45 minutes of Doctor Who."3)
It must be exhausting, and no head writer and executive producer could be expected to churn out inspired work forever. So, no matter how we much we love one era, there inevitably comes a time when we're ready for something new. Showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat both served this show honorably (for five and seven years, respectively), and I loved their eras very much—but, by the time they ended, I was also relieved and intrigued to see Doctor Who try something different.
Enter Chris Chibnall. A veteran writer of Doctor Who stories, and an experienced showrunner from Broadchurch and Torchwood, Chibnall now becomes the third executive producer and head writer of Who's modern era.
I have no idea whether Chibnall was the BBC's first choice to take over from Steven Moffat. (He may well have been, but—because of all the challenges I've mentioned above—it would not surprise me if a number of people turned down the big chair before Chibnall accepted it.) I do know—let me state my biases right up front— that Chibnall would not have been my first choice for showrunner. In his previous Who work—which included Season Three's "42," Season Five's "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood," and Season Seven's "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" and "The Power of Three"—Chibnall impressed me as, at best, a journeyman writer, competent but uneven, uninspired, untouched by greatness. To be honest, I met his announcement as showrunner with a sigh of dull disappointment. I think of Doctor Who as a show that should always aim dizzyingly high, even if that means it sometimes falls spectacularly low. With Chibnall, I anticipated a show that would stay—safely and dully—somewhere in the ignorable mediocrities of the middle.
And perhaps that prediction will still turn out to be prescient. Certainly, on a script level, Chibnall's first story as executive producer neither aspires to nor achieves a noticeably higher plane than his previous efforts: it's a serviceable enough Who plot, neither too complicated nor too ambitious. Chibnall's lane in Who was always "low-stakes mid-season filler," and this story—if written for any other Doctor, and for any other showrunner—would fit that mould perfectly.
But "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" wasn't a filler-episode written for any other Doctor, or any other showrunner: this one was important. Season 11's premiere had a lot to accomplish. It needed to introduce the Chibnall era of Doctor Who. It needed to roll out the welcome wagon for Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor. It needed to introduce four new companions, three of whom will be series regulars.
And those are just the narrative burdens. In a larger, behind-the-scenes context, Chibnall must have known he was also tasked with justifying his own selection and creative decisions (including the most controversial casting decision in the show's 55-year history); reassuring the existing fanbase that it was still fundamentally the same show; and hand-holding an inevitable look-in audience through their very first experience with Doctor Who. (As Moffat said during the table-read for his first episode, "Welcome to the most scrutinized hour of our television lives."4)
So it would be churlish to complain about an absence of "ambition" or "stakes" in the Season 11 premiere: this episode came pre-loaded with plenty of both, long before Chibnall ever wrote a word. And, considering all of that, I'm not sure Chibnall didn't hit all the right notes in "The Woman Who Fell to Earth." It's an episode that strikes a near-perfect balance between ambition and reassurance, between continuity and change.
I have no doubt that I'll have quibbles and complaints aplenty later in the season—I am a Doctor Who fan, after all—but, for now, let's recognize that there's a lot to celebrate here.
"This is exciting. No, not 'exciting.' What do I mean? Worrying." — The Doctor
Let's begin with the story, which is—as I've said—a fairly standard, straightforward, nonsensical Doctor Who plot. An alien warlord has come to Earth on a strange scavenger hunt, tasked with finding one particular human in order to win the crown of his world. (To paraphrase Monty Python, toothy blue aliens kidnapping construction workers is no basis for a system of government.)
But silly plots are the easiest thing to forgive in this show, and simple is definitely the way to go when introducing a whole new paradigm of Doctor Who. With so many characters to usher on stage, and so much essential ground to cover, neither the plot nor the monster could be too complicated. If the plot of "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" feels like little more than a variation of a familiar formula, I think that's intentional in an episode that had to be about reassurance as much as reinvention. (Besides, the creature design—both of Tim Shaw and of his "weaponized bio-tech" gathering coils—was excellent.)
My longtime readers know that I like my Doctor Who plots to be bigger on the inside, something the Moffat era was exceptionally good at achieving. Moffat, at his best, wrote stories that worked on several levels, with the emotional journey of the characters often being echoed in whatever sci-fi plot they were living through.
Whether Chibnall's scripts would be quite that sophisticated is something about which I've had my doubts: his previous efforts were rarely deep. (If Chibnall's Doctor Who turns out to be as shallow as his Torchwood, I'm going to lose interest in writing about this show quickly.) But there's enough thematic resonance in "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" to be encouraging.
We can begin with that seemingly formulaic monster: Tim Shaw is an alien, alone on Earth, seeking to steal an ordinary human, in order to confirm his title and authority. Doesn't this description more or less describe the Doctor as well? The first episode introducing a new Doctor is almost always as much about finding the right humans to accompany them, and one of the companions' roles is to give the Doctor authority. (Hence that scene in the trailer, in which the companions assert that the Doctor is in charge. "Says who?" someone else asks. "Says us," they reply, fulfilling one of their essential functions in Doctor Who.)
If we take this parallel between the Doctor and Tim Shaw a little further, there's even an echo of one of New Who's favorite themes, which I've called The Companion Conundrum: the realization that traveling with the Doctor is not always—physically, psychologically, or emotionally—a healthy thing to do. "What do you do with them, your human trophies?" The Doctor asks Tim Shaw. "They're held in stasis," he replies, "on the cusp between life and death." The notion that traveling in the TARDIS is a form of "stasis"—a troubling pause-button on real life—is a theme Moffat hit hard from his very first season, which took place entirely in Amy's moment of indecision about growing up.
But that's the dark side of traveling with the Doctor, and I'll wait to say more on that until we see whether Chibnall intends to explore that theme as both his predecessors did. "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" is more about the good side of life with the Doctor, the part in which ordinary humans can realize their own extraordinariness. Tim Shaw's desired "companion," Karl (Jonny Dixon), is listening to a motivational tape as he works: "I am valued," it says. "Someone out there wants me." When Karl is trying to summon the courage to make a leap, he tells himself that he is both special and brave, and the Doctor reassures him that he is. When Tim Shaw says the humans are not important, Karl asserts his own worth: "Hey! I'm important," he protests.
This is the real theme of "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," and as good an indication as we have so far about what Chris Chibnall has decided Doctor Who should be: the Chibnall era, I suspect, will be about the humans, not about the Doctor. The opening narration from Ryan (Tosin Cole) tells us this in no uncertain terms, once we get to the end of the episode and realize what it meant. "So today I want to talk about the greatest woman I ever met," Ryan says. "Smart, funny, caring, special. Proper special." We assume he is talking about the Doctor, but, at the end of the episode, we realize he was talking about his grandmother, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke). "I had a lot to learn from her, and I were looking forward to that," Ryan says. "She died like she lived, trying to help other people. I love you, Nan, and tomorrow I'm going out there for you." We realize that the title of the episode itself—"The Woman Who Fell to Earth"—referred not to the Doctor, but to an ordinary human being who tried to help people, who dared to be extraordinary.
So let's talk about the humans.
"I want to do more." — Yasmin Khan
What, after all, makes for a good Doctor Who companion? "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" explores this question, in part, through the parallel between The Doctor's humans and Tim Shaw's human. Karl might be "special" and "important"—in the way all humans are—but he is clearly no companion. Long before he kicks a surrendering Tim Shaw off the crane—irreparably souring any relationship he might have had with the Doctor—he signals his unsuitability to travel in the TARDIS.
All of the humans the Doctor meets in this episode resist, at first, the notion that there could be aliens in Sheffield. But Karl is the only one to walk away. "Actually, I don't want answers," he says, after his first alien encounter in the subway car. "I just want to get to work and forget all about this." His total lack of curiosity and courage—his refusal to believe his own eyes, or to expand his own concept of the universe—constitute fatal flaws in a potential Doctor Who companion.
Compare this attitude to the qualities we see in the other humans. The first time we meet Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), she is negotiating a peaceful reconciliation in a traffic dispute, appealing to the civility and decency of her fellow humans. It's an admirable endeavor—and very Doctor-esque—but we quickly learn that she aspires to greater things. "I want to do more," she tells her superior. Wanting to do more—to be more, to see more, to learn more—is an essential quality for a traveler in the TARDIS.
And Yasmin, like Karl, is tempted to ignore the evidence of her own senses after the encounter on the train—until the Doctor reminds her not to. "Why do you need to check CCTV footage, when we all saw it with our own eyes?" the Doctor asks her, and Yaz proves her worthiness by agreeing to seek answers to the bigger questions instead of blindly following orders. "I'm calling you Yaz because we're friends now," the Doctor says, once Yasmin is on board. ("Every day's a learning day," Yaz says later, expressing another necessary attitude for a companion.)
Ryan, too, has all the markings of a companion. True, it is his decision to touch the geometric lights in the forest that summons the evil alien, but curiosity is always a virtue on Doctor Who, never a vice. ("You all would've done the same," Ryan tells the others, and the Doctor admits that yes, it's true, she would definitely have touched the lights.)
And once again we see in him a willingness, even an eagerness, to become something greater. In the case of Ryan, who has dyspraxia, we are reminded that, for humans, heroic endeavors can be as simple as learning to ride a bicycle. ("I just want to make you proud," he tells his grandmother, as he tries and fails to master the infernal machine.) It is a triumphant moment, late in the episode, when Ryan powers through his disability to climb the crane, but equally heroic is the final scene of Ryan still trying—and still failing—to ride a bicycle. The willingness to keep falling down, and to keep getting back up, is one of the most important qualities a human can have, and we see the Doctor watching in admiration.
(And—side-note—I have never had more faith in Chris Chibnall than I did here: his decision to let that scene play out without giving the Doctor a speech underlining the point bodes very well for the future of Doctor Who.)
The final new companion, Graham (Bradley Walsh), is the least likely TARDIS traveler, and thus has the biggest arc to travel going forward. He is extremely resistant to all of this nonsense, denying that there could be aliens in Sheffield, and challenging the Doctor's reckless decision-making at every turn. ("Why is she running at another alien?" he protests, as the Doctor chases after Tim Shaw.) Without Grace's example, Graham would have buggered off after the subway car encounter, like Karl does.
But Grace, alas, is a born companion. ("Is it wrong to be enjoying this?" she asks breathlessly, at the height of the danger.) Grace dies trying to help other people, and, in the process, she makes Graham both braver and better than he'd otherwise be. This, we learn at her funeral, is what she's been doing for Graham for several years: he met her when he thought he was dying, and she showed him that "life had more to offer."
Her final words to him are an appeal to remember that: "Promise me you won't be scared without me," she says. Now Graham, in late middle-age, is tasked with following her example—to be brave, and kind, and open to possibilities—without her being present to remind him. "I carry them with me," the Doctor says of her own loved ones. "What they would have thought, and said, and done. Made them a part of who I am. So even though they're gone from the world, they're never gone from me." This, now, becomes Graham's challenge too, and it makes him a very different kind of Doctor Who companion.
Understandably, none of these three new companions gets a whole lot of fleshing out in "The Woman Who Fell to Earth." (In particular, Yasmin—who at first glance appears the most like a traditional Doctor Who companion—gets short-shrift in this episode.) But the season is young. So far, however, I am absolutely loving this team. ("Gang? Troop?") Chibnall seems to have given real thought to creating a mix of companions that could provide a generative dynamic—and a nice change of pace—in the TARDIS, and a chance to model and celebrate different kinds of human courage than we've necessarily seen before.
"Does it suit me?" — The Doctor
And finally, of course, let's talk about the lady herself: the Thirteenth Doctor, as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker.
Previous showrunner Steven Moffat introduced two new Doctors during his reign. In the case of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, Moffat struck exactly the right tone: he just let the Doctor be the Doctor, right out of the (blue) box. "Trust me, I'm the Doctor," Matt Smith said, and—almost instantly—we did.
When it came time to introduce the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), however, Moffat bungled it: he spent an entire episode cringingly apologizing for casting an older man, and practically begging the audience —through their surrogate Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman)—to accept him.
So I had been nervous to see which way Chibnall would go with introducing the Thirteenth Doctor, and I was delighted to see him pick Option Number One. Chibnall wastes the exact right amount of time dealing with the fact that the Doctor is now a woman, which is practically no time at all. "Does it suit me?" she asks, when her gender is pointed out—and then, appropriately, neither waits nor cares about the answer. (The only other reference comes in a joke towards the end of the episode, when she says it's been a long time since she had to buy women's clothes.)
How does it change the story that the Doctor is now a woman? In no way at all. (Cranky fifty year-old fans may throw fits about the fact, but I doubt a single six-year-old got hung up on it for a moment.) The Doctor is still brilliant, funny, brave, decent, and quirky, like she always was. She's got work to do—"sorting out fair play throughout the universe"—and she hits the ground running here without giving a moment's thought to her genitalia.
The larger question of whether the gender swap changes the Doctor's character—or, at least, how we talk about the Doctor's character—is a slightly thorny one to which I don't yet have a good answer. I was among those advocating for this change during the Eleventh Doctor's tenure, in part because the Doctor's character was exhibiting too many qualities that are traditionally considered "masculine." As I argued at the time, Moffat was dealing with how the Doctor had grown aggressive, arrogant, even warlike—"the most feared being in all the universe"—and had surrounded him with feminine figures that had to check his more testosterone-associated personality traits. The next logical step in his evolution, it seemed to me, was for the Doctor to become a woman.
But, of course, that's a trap, too: a binary view of gender and gender roles—women are compassionate and peaceful, men are unsympathetic and aggressive—that is ultimately narrow, limiting, and unhelpful.
Is the Thirteenth Doctor a woman with certain qualities, or does she have certain qualities–at least in part—because she's now a woman? Does Chibnall write her differently, because she's a woman? As I said, these are open questions for me, and—even if it weren't far too early to tell—maybe not, ultimately, very important ones.
So let's just talk about what we see on-screen. Who is the Thirteenth Doctor? Based on this episode alone, she is different, to be sure, from her recent predecessors: in many ways the same person ("echoes of who I was"), but reconfigured into a whole new identity ("a sort of call to who I am"). Certainly, I'd argue that—supporting my prediction about the era to come—the Chibnall/Whittaker Doctor is more human than any other Doctor of the modern age. She seems less alien, less superior in attitude, less removed from the humans with whom she interacts. Unique among the modern Doctors, she does not seem to bully with her intellect or powers, and she doesn't appear to gloat. She is confident, but not cocky, determined but not aggressive. This Doctor offers friendship easily, even eagerly, willfully abandoning the trademark detachment of so many previous Time Lords. This Doctor actually apologizes for bad things happening, for getting things wrong, and for not having figured everything out yet. This Doctor not only notices when Grace takes the time to respectfully cover a dead body, she thanks her for it. This Doctor takes the time to attend funerals, and sensitively observes that Ryan is upset about his father not showing up. She openly discusses her own experience with grief, speaking with the humans as a conversational equal, not as a wise-old teacher or ancient wizard. Based on what we've seen so far, this Doctor is far more human than her predecessors, and she may be far more humane.
It's a slightly jarring change, to be honest, but a very welcome one after so many distant, disagreeable Time Lords: the Thirteenth Doctor seems to wear her heart on her sleeve, not buried beneath a lot of layers of craggy, defensive shell. (If we want to compare, I'd say Whittaker's Doctor, on this first glance, reminds me most of Peter Davidson's Fifth and Paul McGann's Eighth.) I would be interested to see a little more alien come through, at least now and again, and I hope we get an occasional glimpse of the 2,000-year-old soul inside the sprightly young woman. But it's a marvelous performance so far, funny, accessible, and endearing, and perhaps a different model of how to be a leader and hero.
And she is—quintessentially, and undeniably—still the Doctor. "Don't worry, I've got a plan," she assures her companions. "Really?" Yasmin asks. "Well, I will have by the time we get to the top."
The plan is always a work in progress. But so, as the Doctor points out, is life. And so, thankfully, is Doctor Who.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Welcome (back) to my ongoing coverage of Doctor Who. To be honest, I wasn't 100 percent sure I would write about the Chibnall era—I wasn't sure I'd like it enough to write about it—but I am very encouraged by this first offering. If the quality stays at this level—or, dare we hope, higher—I'll be here for the long haul. My future reviews should (one hopes) go up a little more quickly than this one, but posting Tuesday or Wednesday is probably a realistic goal. As always, bear with me.
- I mentioned the insanity of hiring an entire new production team to make a long-running series of television, but I think that decision is justified here. "The Woman Who Fell to Earth"—beautifully directed by newcomer Jamie Childs—not only looks marvelous, it plays differently than any Who of the modern era. Though a fast-paced runaround, it takes the time to linger on scenes when it needs to, and it has a more controlled and grounded overall tone than most Doctor Who. A big part of that is the music: though I am not among the haters of long-time Who composer Murray Gold, the infinitely more restrained and subtle score by new composer Segun Akinola—which refrains from beating the viewer over the head with emotion—makes a tremendous difference. Some scenes even had no music. This is a Who that dares to be quiet, and trusts the viewer to have the proper emotions unguided: I welcome that change wholeheartedly.
- Like the gender swap, the question of diversity is one I am hesitant to discuss too much, because I reject the notion that it is something we should have to talk about as somehow remarkable: the world is inarguably diverse, and to see that reflected on television should be the norm, not the exception. But let me just say that I noticed, and celebrate, the effortlessly diverse casting here, not just in the large roles but also in the minor ones.
- I skipped over the sad little subplot about poor Rahul (Amit Shah) and his quest to discover what happened to his sister, but I enjoyed it for its darkness. "You will never know," Tim Shaw tells Rahul, before killing him. Like Grace's death, it provides a serious, melancholy note, and I like a little pathos in my Doctor Who to balance out the silliness.
- On the other hand, I didn't need to overhear the old guard at the construction site (Stephen MacKenna) chatting on the phone with his no-doubt adorable granddaughter, right before getting killed. That was, for my taste, a little too overt an effort to make us care about an instantly disposable character.
- "You are interfering in things you don't understand," Tim Shaw says. "Yeah, well, we all need a hobby," the Doctor replies.
- "Very clever. Merciless, but clever."
- "These legs definitely used to be longer."
- The thing with the teeth really was disturbing. I think it's partially because injury-to-teeth is second only to injury-to-eyes in the category of wince-inducing things, and partially because that's not where teeth go.
- We end on a cliffhanger! That's very old school Doctor Who, and I kind of love it.
NEXT: Episode 11x02 - "The Ghost Monument"
Read all my Doctor Who pieces here.
- In 1984's "The Caves of Androzani"
- In the classic series, there was only one instance when neither an established Doctor nor an established companion carried over from one era to the next: 1970's "Spearhead from Space," which introduced Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor and Caroline John's Liz Shaw simultaneously. That season—which was also the first broadcast in color, and which stranded the Doctor on Earth—was arguably the most extreme "reinvention" of the show during the classic era. Even then, however, it was helmed by veteran writers and producers, and it brought in existing characters like Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) to provide continuity.
- In Doctor Who Confidential 3x10, "Do You Remember the First Time."
- In Doctor Who Confidential 5x01, "Call Me the Doctor."