The beauty of Doctor Who as a television show and the key to it’s longevity is it’s unique ability to regenerate, much in the same way it’s lead character is prone to do on occasion. An entirely new look, a new cast and even a new creative team may be onboard but the show still very much remains the same at heart. Same software, different case, as the Doctor once said.
That quote beautifully sums up this, the first episode of the Chibnall/Whittaker era of Doctor Who. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a confident episode that sets out the show’s new manifesto, yet remembers the show’s fundamentals and keeps them at the forefront of proceedings. There’s obvious changes to the style and tone, but this is still unmistakably the same Doctor Who we know and love.
From the off though, it’s clear that the massive spectacle and mind-bending complexity of the previous era is not the main goal of showrunner Chris Chibnall. Under his watchful eye, the show appears to take a more down-to-earth approach, with a bigger focus on characters and relatability. There’s impressive, out-there science fiction concepts on display throughout, but each of these aspects are intertwined with recognisable setting and situations. The stakes are high, but not in an end-of-the-world kind of way.
It’s this more contemplative approach which takes some getting used to initially – much of the episode feels oft-times subdued, a feeling particularly amplified by the slower pace and the more subtle, atmospheric incidental music. That said, the story itself is an engrossing one, and when it kicks into gear, it does so effortlessly.
Effortlessly is also a perfect word to best sum-up how Jodie Whittaker steps into the role of the Doctor. Though the episode takes its time in properly introducing her, once she’s on screen, she has the audience’s firm, undivided attention. Energetic, eccentric and instantly endearing, Whittaker imbues the character with a sense of fun and optimism, even whilst facing down a terrifying and imposing alien monster. Undoubtedly we’ll see her Doctor develop in other interesting, unforeseen ways across the next few weeks, but based on this episode alone, she’s already got it down pat.
The three other lead characters are a more mixed bag, though each actor delivers a great performance. Tosin Cole as Ryan lends the episode much of it’s heart, whilst Bradley Walsh‘s Graham is a more-restrained and cautious character with a surprising amount of depth to him. However, aside from a few key character traits, we aren’t offered nearly enough moments to properly know the characters. Mandip Gill‘s Yasmin is particularly shortchanged in this department, with nothing other then her job and the fact she previously went to school with Ryan being revealed to us. This may be rectified in the weeks to come, but there’s no escaping the concern that three companions may be a few too many at this point.
This minor niggle aside, the show itself feels as though it’s in safe hands. The episode feels mature, but never po-faced, revelling in the more ridiculous aspects at the appropriate moments. The horror elements may appear more prevalent, with the menacing alien ‘Tim Shaw’ (Tzim-Sha) proving an impressive and imposing creation with his grisly collection of human teeth and his sadistic penchant for freeze-burning people to death, but Chibnall balances this grisliness with some great moments of humour (particularly with the various self-help tape gags). As ever, Doctor Who blends style and genre with ease, resulting in a fulfilling and entertaining watch for everyone.
So, in its new regenerated form, is Doctor Who wildly different? No. But refreshed? Undoubtedly. Whilst we may not have a full picture as to what Chris Chibnall‘s vision for the show may be in the long run, what we do have is a clear indication that the show is still adept at what it does best – entertaining sci-fi adventure with an emphasis on fun. A fantastic opening gambit from Jodie Whittaker, coupled with a story and setting that’s perfect for newcomers and fans alike, only promises even more exciting adventures to follow.
Same Doctor. Different face.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Sunday at 6.55pm. Be sure to join us here on Critical popcorn for our review.