Doctor Who is a cultural icon and a show that has lasted for well over fifty years. Every once in a while, however, the show needs a major shakeup. This isn’t just a regeneration mind you – the tone of the programme can be the same even when The Doctor regenerates. In the past, The Doctor and his companions might have changed but the feel of the programme has often remained the same.
However, there have been certain points in the history of Doctor Who that have radically changed everything – the shift between William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton; Jon Pertwee’s Doctor being stranded on Earth; the show being cancelled, only to be brought back in the late 1990s for a TV Movie. Such a change is currently underway in the show with The Doctor now being played by Jodie Whittaker. Alongside new showrunner Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who has never felt fresher than it does now.
The move to Sunday’s nights also demonstrates a remarkable departure for a programme that, aside from a couple of years in the 70s and 80s, has always been on Saturday nights. This change in the nature and feel of the programme will certainly be welcome to newer viewers who, after years of continuity and storylines that perhaps suited those who knew the show inside out rather than casual viewers, may have often felt alienated and unable to simply dive in and enjoy the programme for what it is – a fun science fiction romp through time and space.
This is perfectly demonstrated throughout the sixty-minute opening episode of series 11. Rather than attempting to involve some enemy from The Doctor’s past, in the same way, Peter Capaldi’s introductory story Deep Breath did, The Woman Who Fell to Earth presents us with a fresh set of circumstances and with a new environment for The Doctor to interact with. Rather than limiting the series’ dalliances with Earth to London, as has often been the case in the past, the new series moves the focus up to Sheffield.
This sort of energy is deftly infused with Chris Chibnall’s script. He doesn’t attempt to try to limit his storytelling to the more conventional, story arc led narrative structure that has been the norm for the show for the past few years. Indeed, his style is much lighter than that we have been used to – rather than a story that feels like a grim fairy tale, this story is simply a fairy tale. Chibnall also allows his supporting characters time to breath and, given that we’ll be spending the next nine weeks with.
He perhaps doesn’t fully get the monster of the week concept as “Tim Shaw” is a bit of a bog-standard foe; there isn’t anything that really makes him stand out as worthy of being the first monster that the new Doctor should encounter. In a way though, this doesn’t matter – the alien hunt storyline, though meant to be the main focus of the first episode isn’t really. Both Chibnall’s writing and the episode itself work best when they are dealing with our central characters and allowing them time to fully interact with the world that they are realising exists for the first time. In many ways the plot, though interesting enough isn’t as good as it perhaps could be – yet at the end of the day this doesn’t matter as the focus of the episode is on our protagonists.
Chibnall knows how to write ordinary people in the same way that Russell T Davies did – something Moffat couldn’t exactly achieve without making everyone sexy, feisty, quirky or all of the above. This is typified in Chibnall’s writing of Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) and his wife Grace (Sharon D. Clarke). Chibnall gives them a real sense of history and emotional depth that allows for their dialogue to sound genuine and not in any way artificial. Their reactions to The Doctor and her world are pitched just at the right level to make it believable as well as amusing.
The acting, across the board, is excellent and it is a testament to the casting director that such excellent actors were cast in the roles that they were. Mandip Gill is excellent in the role of PC Yasmin Khan – she brings a maturity and authority to the character which she beautifully combines with a funny and affectionate side which are both utilised in this episode and will hopefully feature throughout the series. Bradley Walsh similarly shines as Graham O’Brien – a character who has echoes of Mark Williams performance as Brian Williams, but Walsh brings his own spark to the part. Walsh’s talent is most on display during his eulogy to Grace; a scene which sees him brings real emotional cleft to this scene and it is nice to see a contrast to Graham’s character; he isn’t simply there for comic relief but has a real soul and a very human side to him.
The main attraction of the episode and, of course, the series is Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of The Doctor. Whittaker’s Doctor has been variously compared to both David Tennant and Matt Smith and there is certainly some truth in those comparisons – all three have a lively, energetic and nuanced take on the role which allows Whittaker to both play to the galleries and have quieter and introspective moments as The Doctor. Whittaker really does bring Chibnall’s script alive and it is difficult to think of another actor who could portray the role as he wrote it.
Her incarnation is perhaps more suited to the jolly and irreverent tone of the programme that Chibnall brings to it – her standoff against Tim Shaw on the crane is a perfect example of the mixture of lightheartedness and inner Sheffield steel that is the hallmark of Whittaker’s portrayal of the part. The balance is perhaps somewhat off in this episode, given that it is the character’s introduction – however, we should hopefully see more of this as the series progresses and we are allowed to see a darker, more dramatic side of Whittaker’s Doctor.
The music, produced by Segun Akinola, is an invigorating new take on the classic soundtrack. As Akinola has only previously worked on documentaries or cartoons, he brings a certain edge to each of his compositions. Akinola’s interpretation of the theme tune is perhaps the best example of this; his combination of old and new ensures that it harks backs both to the show’s roots but also to the future of the programme. Allowing parts of the original theme but giving them an electric mix comes through as a true masterstroke. Akinola’s musical voice has a rhythm to it that the show is unlikely to experience again. I’ll certainly be excited to see how his work pans out in future episodes – though his composition of some of the more light-hearted scenes is unlikely to be matched.
The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who is an engaging and fun romp from the Doctor’s burning TARDIS through the streets of Sheffield to our grand finale. Like The Eleventh Hour, it designs itself to be set at a breakneck pace and by depriving The Doctor of her TARDIS allows there to be a real sense of excitement and thrill to the story. To quote the trailer, the new Doctor Who truly is glorious.
Doctor Who Continues Sunday on BBC One.