The eleventh series of Doctor Who landed on our screens not with a bang or a whimper, but rather more discreetly than anyone could have anticipated - although given this is the programme reimagined by the creator of Broadchurch, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The alien menace looked like something from The Sarah Jane Adventures while the look and tone of the instalment were more from the Torchwood end of the extended universe, but the episode itself was much quieter than either Rose or The Eleventh Hour, a 63-minute introduction to the new characters that took its time letting us get to know them, doing so very slowly and deliberately. This is Doctor Who being repurposed for a broader audience and at times it felt like Doctor Who with its teeth removed.
The good news is that Jodie Whittaker looks like she’s going to make a great Doctor. From moment one she owned the dialogue and the character’s quirks - so much for the lack of idiosyncrasy - with the energy and unpredictability of David Tennant, although thankfully without the tenth Doctor’s particular vocal habits. Whittaker looks supremely comfortable in the Doctor’s skin, and it’s going to be a lot of fun watching her engage with the series’ diversity of narrative across the next ten weeks. She already feels fully formed.
The same can’t be said for the other three regulars, and deliberately so. Chibnall has brought together a TARDIS team - and saved the moment we see them enter the ship, very wisely in an already packed episode, presumably for next week - with a lot of room for growth, at the head of a run of episodes that looks like it’ll take a much more traditional, almost serialised, approach to character development than is generally the case with Doctor Who. For the last thirteen years we’ve always felt we know the new regulars by the end of episode one, whereas The Woman Who Fell to Earth ended with us still asking who the new team are and how they’ll cope - although fortunately Chibnall hasn’t taken the early 1980s route and made them unwilling fellow travellers; one thing we have seen is that this team are going to bond well together, and that’s hugely promising. This also feels like the beginning of a period where the narratives will involve the characters, rather than revolving around them, a touch more than has been the case.
Despite appearing to be third in the pecking order, the way the episode ended called upon Bradley Walsh’s star quality and his scene in the chapel was immensely affecting. He’s far from playing a straight man, but much less of a comedy buffer than we might have anticipated. He’s the least appropriate TARDIS traveller we’ve had in a while though, somewhere between Rory and Wilf but much more authentic feeling than either, so it’ll be fascinating to see where his character takes us. Tosin Cole was our entry point - for this week at least - and like Mandip Gill was strong and sympathetic and believable; they’re both very likeable actors but we’re seeing the beginnings of their journeys, and you can tell there’s a lot more to come from each. Despite the moment of heroism each of the principals is called upon to perform, despite the resolve each of the regulars needs to find, you feel there’s a lot further for them all to travel.
The story, while perfectly serviceable, wasn’t the most inspired (Predator in South Yorkshire, essentially, although it was nice to see the Doctor giving the creature itself as much grief as she did) - and that’s not inappropriate for an opening episode. It was probably a bit grimmer and more gruesome than the promotional materials led us to expect, and being almost entirely centred around a night shoot a lot physically darker too, so it isn’t as much of a lurch out of the Peter Capaldi era as the talk of starting over might have indicated. In fact more than anything The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt like a Russell T Davies script being executed by the Steven Moffat production regime, and it doesn’t quite feel like Chris Chibnall’s stamp has been left on the programme just yet, although the same was largely true of The Eleventh Hour. That said, this maybe felt a bit too dark, a bit too grim, for the Sunday evening timeslot - but all that might change with next week’s episode anyway, of course.
There was a sense, however, of this being Doctor Who shorn of the showrunner’s personality; both Russell T Davies’ and Steven Moffat’s iterations were clearly the work of those highly distinctive writers, whereas The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt like the writer adapting himself to Doctor Who rather than the other way around. The benefits of this are twofold. On the one hand, this is much more in line with the classic series approach, whereby hindsight might allow us to spot the work of particular writers but the overall effect is of a more generic ongoing narrative. The other benefit of this is that it’s less off-putting to the kind of casual viewer who’s less inclined to stick with something distinct if it’s not tailored specifically to his or her tastes. We might be about to enter the most inclusive era of modern Doctor Who yet. Whether audiences will flock to it is to be determined; the opening night’s viewing figure was certainly beyond any realistic prediction of its size.
The downside is that this doesn’t feel as authored, and therefore there’s less to distinguish it from the rank and file of other television (monsters and alien planets notwithstanding) than in the last two iterations of the programme. This might be a period that will be liked by a lot more people, but ends up being loved by fewer.
The absence of a singular authorial voice also throws the spotlight more on the production itself, with mixed but promising results. Segun Akinola’s theme arrangement felt a touch too manufactured on first listen, lacking the organic feel of Murray Gold’s first few attempts, and the incidental music too being so rhythmically based didn’t have the ebb and adaptability of what we’d become used to. It’s not as emotionally prominent, but instead of dictating ‘the feels’ it rather imposes a pace and rhythm on the tone of the programme. The new cameras - while giving Doctor Who a visual sheen that removes it completely from any question of looking like a television production - also rob it of that slightly cartoonishness that has helped make the last thirteen years such a remarkable experience. This is a programme that looks and sounds more like its influences and aspirations than at any point since 1977.
It also had a cliffhanger straight out of Doctor Who’s very first episode in 1963 (with added, and probably easily fixed, space jeopardy), the new regulars stolen out of their lives against their better wishes. The ‘you will be watching’ sequence was a rather odd alteration though, presumably meaning we won’t be seeing ‘next time’ trailers at the end of forthcoming episodes. But it very much fit in with the pre-series promotion, emphasising characters and actors over threats and environments.
All in all, this was an unexpectedly moderate introduction to the new regime, making it hard to tell which aspects - beyond the weight placed on the acting and characterisation – will become more prominent as the series unravels. This was no classic restructuring the way Spearhead from Space was, but it’s not as potentially polarising to a mainstream the way Castrovalva or Deep Breath might have been either. We won’t know the true value of The Woman Who Fell to Earth for some weeks yet, but it was entertaining and agreeable and filled with suggestions of things we might yet come to fall in love with. The casting of the four regulars is its single best aspect; they’re perfect.
DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11, EPISODE 1: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH / WRITER: CHRIS CHIBNALL / DIRECTOR: JAMIE CHILDS / STARRING: JODIE WHITTAKER, BRADLEY WALSH, TOSIN COLE, MANDIP GILL, SHARON D. CLARKE, SAMUEL OATLEY / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED OCTOBER 7TH)