The Doctor is back, falling to Earth out of nowhere, without her memory, without her sonic screwdriver, and without her TARDIS. And, also, she’s a woman.
In this long-anticipated Doctor Who series premiere, everything is new and different. We’ve got a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch, Torchwood); a new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch); new Companions, Bradley Walsh as Graham, Tosin Cole as Ryan, and Mandip Gill as Yasmin (Yas) Khan; and a new composer, Segun Akinola replacing long-running composer Murray Gold. All of these changes could be scary, but they’re all exactly what Doctor Who needs.
Ryan Sinclair can’t ride a bike because he’s got dyspraxia (a coordination disorder). So, he throws it off a cliff. Realizing that was dumb, he goes looking for it and finds a strange pod in the forest, so he calls the police, who send rookie Yasmin Khan. Then, all light goes out in all of Yorkshire, seemingly. Ryan’s grandparents, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and Graham, are on a train, which is attacked in a way reminiscent of the Dementors in Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban. A strange tentacly thing appears, and so does a strange woman: the new Doctor, in the 12th Doctor’s outfit, with empty pockets and without a name. She’s looking for a doctor.
From this point on, they’re hunting for answers: what’s emerged from the strange object Ryan found? What’s the tentacly thing that zaps people? Who is the strange woman who fell from the sky?
All of this leads to more questions than answers. Never fear, the Doctor is on the case, and she builds herself a new sonic screwdriver. This is a capable, confident Doctor, aware of what’s happening to her and not daunted for a second. She charges forward, knowing that, whatever else may be happening, she must help.
This is a smashing start to a new tenure for a Doctor and a new era of Doctor Who.
Jodie Whittaker plays the Doctor elements of David Tennant and Peter Davison, for sure. She’s got a humorous, fast-talking way about her, with both levity and gravity when need be, in contrast with Capaldi who was, at times, too close to William Hartnell. What’s doubtless: she takes charge. There’s no question, no timidity about Whittaker’s performance as the Doctor. In fact, not since Matt Smith have we had such a strong, surefooted first outing for the character. The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is my Doctor, my standard for all of them, even though Eccleston was the first I saw, but both had awkward firsts. While Tennant’s first episode, “The Christmas Invasion,” ends with a few pretty amazing moments, he’s barely in the episode, bedridden while regenerating. Eccleston made it quickly clear he didn’t want to be there, leading to a series that was rocky at times. Here, however, Whittaker grasps the sonic screwdriver with a steady hand, the symbolism inherent in rebuilding it from scratch not lost on us: this will be a new Doctor, but we’re not that different from what’s come before.
“Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call to who I am, and I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine, in the end. Hopefully. Well I have to be, because you guys need help, and if there’s one thing I’m certain of, when people need help, I never refuse. Right? This is going to be fun!”
This is probably the most diverse group of regular companions we’ve had, certainly in the reboot (though by the end of Tennant’s run we had a wide range of guest companions). Ryan is a less than confident, clumsy nineteen-year-old. Yasmin’s philosophy is “every day is a learning day.” She’s a police officer who wants more from her job. Graham, Ryan’s step-grandfather, is sceptical and fearful, constantly doubting what he’s seeing, and reluctant to get involved in the situation.
Similarly, this is a confident start for new showrunner Chris Chibnall. Like his predecessor, Steven Moffat, Chibnall is not new to the Who universe, having helmed Torchwood and written for Doctor Who on and off since the excellent episode “42” in 2007. Stylistically, this is shot with much more of an eye to reality, possibly taking into account Chibnall’s record with Broadchurch and Torchwood (which, while set in the Doctor Who universe, was grounded on Earth, for the most part). Since the 2005 reboot, Doctor Who has often felt a bit too close on the uncanny valley, even when the setting was present-day Earth. This time around, it’s beautifully shot. Don’t get me wrong, both the Davies and Moffat eras had their moments of lovely cinematography, but this has a flavour of the exquisitely shot Broadchurch.
This new series has an oddly more heartwarming and inspirational feel than Doctor Who has had in a while. Moffat’s run centred on the strange twists and turns and time-wimeyness of the Doctor. At first, especially while Russell T. Davies ran the show, Moffat simply added that flavour to the program. However, once Moffat took over, that intentional strangeness overran all else. We had great moments–even great seasons (series 9 was among the best since 2006)–but a determined adherence to strange over heart often meant that the series was losing sight of what made us love the Doctor in the first place: the heart(s).
And that’s what “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” has in spades: heart and warmth. The new Doctor’s not cold and closed off, nor does she speak in inexplicable jibberish. Moreover, the plot actually makes sense (and not because the showrunner simply says it does, as in many episodes of the past few years). All in all, I wholeheartedly approve, and I’m eager to bounce around Time and Space with the Thirteenth Doctor.