Doctor Who is back, baby!
That may seem a little too irreverent a way to begin a review of the latest iteration of the venerable 55-year-old BBC sci-fi franchise, but I don’t think the Thirteenth Doctor, the first version played by the incomparably playful Jodie Whittaker, would mind one bit.
She is, regeneration befuddlement and searing pain of every cell in her body aside, a return to the oneliner-quipping hilarity of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor (2005 – 2010) and yet with her own refreshing take on the character, a time and space-romping citizen of Galifrey, who thankfully eschews the grumpy aggression and aggravating selfishness of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor who, along with departed showrunner Steven Moffat, had well and truly outstayed his welcome.
So much in fact, and to be fair it was likely less the fault of Capaldi’s generally-faultless acting and more Moffat’s imaginative but messily executed writing and directing, that there was a palpable sigh of relief when both announced their retirement from their respective roles.
Attention turned, naturally enough – I say “naturally enough” because the role of Doctor Who had always gone to a man and no one envisaged, except the most hopeful among us, that the BBC would break ranks and give us a well-overdue female iteration – to who would step into the Doctor’s fast-moving, quicker-thinking shoes with Whittaker emerging as the then-newly-anointed anointed Time Lord in July 2017.
This set in train a thousand different, boisterously-celebratory, sometimes toxically-misogynistic dissections of the ramifications of having a female Doctor, none of which fully grappled with what it would mean to have a new Doctor at all.
After all, though Capaldi was only in his role from 2010-2017 and Capaldi for a relatively brief three years (2014- 2017), it had begun to feel like the Doctor was in his dotage, lost in a miasma of self-indulgent storylines, narrative deadends and emotionally-unsatisfying journeys.
Where to from this near-unwatchable point?
Well, to the superlative delights of Jodie Whittaker’s exuberantly-extravagant Doctor as it turns out, who, from the moment she falls into a Sheffield, UK train, pretty much on top of policewoman Yasmin Khan (Mandeep Gill) and 19-year-old Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) who are on the darkened train after a roiling, Medusa’s hair coil of alien energy has taken out the driver and is pursuing, with singular intent, one of the passengers onboard, crane operator Karl (Jonny Dixon).
He wants nothing to do with all the weird goings-on and scarpers off to work as soon as events allow, leaving the Doctor who’s unaware but nonetheless delighted she’s a woman – Yazmin prompts the sudden realisation when she calls her madam – and unsure of the word for tongue or her name which may be on the top of it, and her new friends to sort out out what in the galaxy is going on.
Not a lot it turns out but in an introduction episode of a new Doctor, particularly one as heartwarmingly-endearing as the Thirteenth, that is no bad thing.
New showrunner Chris Chibnall, known best for his work on Broadchurch, sensibly keeps the alien story to the point and intriguing enough to be interesting without dominating the getting to know you aspect of the story.
That, as you’d imagine in an episode like this, is the main intergalactic game in town, and it manages to be both affecting, very funny and deeply emotionally-resonant without skipping a beat.
Effectively making things up on a hunch as she goes along, forging a new sonic screwdriver out of Sheffield steel in the workshop of a man who lost his sister to an alien abductor seven years before and is determined to capture her attacker, even if it costs him his life – SPOILER ALERT … IT DOES – and still awash with small luminously-golden tendrils of regenerative energy, the new Doctor is fast with the quip and it turns out, even faster with the scene-saving insight.
That’s handy because Ryan, who has a developmental coordination disorder called Dyspraxia, and Yasmin, who’s bored as a probationary police recruit on night patrol, and Ryan’s grandmother, gutsy, fun-loving boots-and-all Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and husband of three years Graham, more timid and conservative and disinclined to believe in aliens (in Sheffield? Never!) haven’t got all that much experience in dealing with alien bounty hunters such as Tzim Sha (humourously renamed Tim Shaw by the Doctor and played by Samuel Oatley, and lots of teeth) of the warrior race the Stemza.
They have a thing for travel pods that look like the bottle from I Dream, of Jeannie (minus the whimsical decorative additions and with the addition of a cold, brutal killing aesthetic) and a dress code that is equal parts Terminator and Predator and all malevolent, deep-voiced killing machine.
It’s a lot to take in and without the Doctor, even a befuddled version thereof unsure of her abilities, gender or knowledge, or name for a while, they would not have lasted long.
Action and adventure aside, and this being a reborn, revitalised Doctor Who that suggests the vivacity, inventiveness and humanity of the greatly-missed Russell Davies era, there is plenty of both, what strikes you most profoundly about the season 11 iteration of the show is how the focus has swung back to the companions.
The Doctor is front and centre – how could she not be? Oh, how I love saying that particular personal pronoun – and as exquisitely, mischievously, movingly wonderful in the centre of things as always, but “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” turns its focus squarely onto Ryan, Graham and Yasmin, with Ryan being given the lion’s share of character and narrative development, with the now firmly-established as a story of people wanting more from life than they have been given (although Graham seems perfectly happy with things for the most part.)
- SPOILERS AHEAD !!!
The defining moment of the entire episode, which runs for an immersive, never-a-dull-moment 60 minutes, is the death of Grace, a deeply-affecting moment which happens when the protective, garrulous, Carpe Diem grandmother sees her grandson in danger and charges in to protect him.
It’s thanks to her that Ryan and Yaz and the Doctor can concentrate on taking care of “Tim Shaw” and entirely due to her that the Gathering Coils aka the Medusa Hair alien is taken down and out of the equation.
She’s therefore both pivotal to the plot in life and even more so in death, framing the video we see playing at the start of the episode as something altogether else entirely; at first, it looks like Ryan is speaking passionately and fulsomely about the Doctor but cut to the end of the episode, and post the moving eulogy by Graham, and it’s obvious he’s talking about his dearly-loved and greatly-missed grandmother.
For all this seriousness and it’s perfectly and adroitly handled “All of this is new you” says the Doctor to her new friends at one point, ” and new can be scary”), there is humour to be found too with a series of gloriously funny and perfectly-delivered (Jodie Whittaker’s sense of comic timing is beyond superb, neither glib nor laboured) lines that punctuate the action and emotional intensity just-so without once compromising either (“That nap did me a world of good … very comfy sofa”).
The Doctor is back my friends and she and her accidental companions – the way they join her is unplanned and hilarious all at once – are a tonic for a world mired in loss and misery, offering up escapist fun and adventure, a Doctor with sass, intelligence, humour and a slight edge, companions who feel real and relatable and a whole universe of new adventures that feel delightfully unencumbered by everything that has gone before.