Doctor Who: Revisiting THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

Tony joins the Doctor’s fam.

There hasn’t been so radical departure from ‘business as usual’ in the history of New Who as that surrounding the beginning of the Chibnall era.

The casting of the first ‘official’ female Doctor, the time-slot shift from Saturday to Sunday, the statement that there would be no ‘old favourite’ monsters or villains in the first series, the supposedly po-faced prosecutional rage at leaks ahead of broadcast, and a sense perhaps that the fun had gone out of the public-facing production team – things were very nailed down in the run-up to the launch, with just a couple of faintly meaningless clue-words thrown out as to what the new Doctor would be facing in series 11.

All of that adds up to a big gamble. If you are to justify a change out of a much-venerated time-slot, you’ve got to absolutely crush the ratings. If you’re going to justify a series full of all-new villains, they have to include some new stone-cold classics. If you do the maths on Doctor’s first full series, the only time a Doctor has launched in a season where everything was new was Jon Pertwee’s Season 7 – which introduced us immediately to the Autons, and followed up with the Silurians, not to mention finishing the run with the dimension-swapping genius of Inferno. Sylvester McCoy went almost entirely new in his first run, but was anchored in place by a regeneration story with the Rani. Notably, after this experiment, the very first story of his second season pitted him against the Daleks, an experience which had by then become and remains today the ‘rite of passage’ for any new Doctor.

So – setting yourself up against the landmark of Jon Pertwee’s first season. Gutsy move – but did it work?

Immediately when The Woman Who Fell To Earth opened, it went out of its way to present the show as a serious, character-led drama: we had no title sequence reveal, no new theme arrangement, we simply had to knuckle down and focus on the young dyspraxic man trying to ride a bike, his nan and her second husband encouraging him, and the young policewoman frustrated at the slow path of probation, determined to do more. It was quite some way in before anything untoward even began to happen, with Ryan and the mysterious shapes leading to the arrival of the bulb of sub-zero space garlic. There’s some fairly severe directorial sleight of hand to get everyone on a train in time to deal with the arrival of a coil of ‘tentacley things’…and then the Doctor literally falls through the train. Which, considering everything, is an extraordinary stroke of luck and aiming.

Here’s the thing. With a new Doctor – with the Doctor generally, come to that – we’ve come to expect a certain rapidity of speech and thought, a certain facility with technobabble in recent years: Tennant could reel off a line of technobabble at double-speed, chuck in an ‘Allonsy’ and off we went. Smith slowed the pace of the babble down, but turned it into a full-body slapstick routine to embody his ‘thing-in-progress’ Doctor. Capaldi said less than either of them, but gave us some great eye-work, to suggest his brain was such that he could crush us like a bug if we were going to be pudding-brains.

Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, in her regeneration story, gives us a rather more ‘say what’s written on the page’ interpretation of the joyful, ludicrous technobabble any Doctor will have to spout, which is a dangerous way to play the role, because established fans will undoubtedly be hearing ‘more Doctorish’ ways of delivering those lines.

There’s plenty of emerging Whittaker Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth – her grin when she tells her friends ‘You have no idea’ about the process of regeneration, her ‘This’ll be fun!’ as she disappears to make her sonic Swiss army knife, the frankly terrifying puppydog earnestness as she advances on her friends to tell them that when people need help, she never refuses, her request to have the lights and siren on in Yaz’s police car, her ‘I would of’, her commanding ‘Oi!’, her ‘he would be, wouldn’t he?’ when she learns that Karl from the train is a crane driver, her ‘See? Now you’re worried,’ her talking to Ryan about his father, and the touching speech about her family, almost mirroring the Patrick Troughton explanation of how he remembered them, but giving it a touch more emotional welly. There’s all this and more in The Woman Who Fell To Earth to start us on the road to who the Thirteenth Doctor will be, but those who love their technobabbling Doctor have reported feeling that something was ‘off,’ or ‘not quite there’ about Jodie’s delivery of those lines. Still, if you accentuate the positives, there’s a distinct, joyful, childlike Doctor emerging even in this episode.

Perhaps more importantly even than that, her Doctoring is inherently more practical than the last two Doctors, at least in their regeneration story. Eleven ran around being busy for an episode, and then essentially told the Atraxi to simply bog off. Twelve, after an episode of self-crisis, defeated the Half-Face Man by either pushing him out of an airship or talking him into throwing himself out. Thirteen, rather like Ten, takes active steps to defeat the threat: Ten had a sword fight, threw a satsuma and brought down a government. Thirteen removes the Stenza’s DNA-bombs and, in effect, tricks Tim Shaw – would-be King of the Tooth Fairies – into implanting them in himself, and then steals his recall circuit to use as leverage. She still, as all Doctors do, gives him the choice to make a moral decision, or to be a destructive tosspot. And when he makes the wrong decision, just as Ten had no apparent compunction in plunging the Sycorax leader to a squishy death on the surface of the Earth, Thirteen tells Tim Shaw that he’s brought the imminent explosion of his own DNA on himself and contemptuously lets him go home. Bizarrely though, she’s then morally outraged when Karl pushes him off the crane, even though Old Denture-Face dematerialises long before hitting the ground. But Karl’s no Harriet Jones, and Thirteen’s rage is less roiling than Ten’s – she might be annoyed, but she quickly forgets about Karl’s actions, because there are more important things to deal with – like attending Grace’s funeral.

Let’s talk about Grace for a minute. Actually, let’s talk about all the companions for this first series with the Thirteenth Doctor. Ahead of the series launch, there was plenty of worry to go around at the ‘full Tardis’ scenario, where companions end up standing around doing nothing, or simply asking ‘What’s that, Doctor?’

Chris Chibnall in this first story for Thirteen delivers us a proper roster of interesting human beings, and then makes sure there’s something for them all to do. Ryan and Yaz, while frequently sticking together, are each well delineated, and Graham and Grace are immediately wonderful – his overcaution acting as a great foil for her ‘get out there and do it’ enthusiasm. When Grace falls…to earth…we see a marked shift from the Moffat era. She dies. Despite the Doctor still presumably being in the first however-many hours of her regeneration cycle, she doesn’t offer any energy to Grace to bring her back from the dead. There’s no marvellous ‘just this once’ moment of the Doctor acting as miraculous saviour. Grace dies. And she stays dead. The Doctor even attends her funeral. Played by Sharon D Clarke, Grace becomes an instant favourite throughout the course of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, and so, absolutely, it’s dramatically right that she dies. Her death will go on to prompt consequences throughout Series 11, and act as a kind of oracle to both Graham and Ryan as they grieve for the loss of her. After the ‘no-one important to the Doctor ever really dies’ era of Steven Moffatt storytelling, it’s initially sad but ultimately refreshing to be in the company of a Doctor who knows she’s not a miracle worker, and that she shouldn’t set herself up as an antidote to death. Perversely, given her sudden-breaking smiles of absolutely childlike delight, this is a more grown-up Doctor even than the white-haired Scotsman, who despite his gruff exterior, on the quiet, wasn’t averse to giving a little zap of energy and life to people.

The point of a regeneration story is not, for the most part, to wow us with plotting or dazzle us with alien menace, but to introduce us to a new Doctor, their character and quirks. If we’re starting again from scratch, as with Rose and The Eleventh Hour, it’s also to give us a way in to the lives and personalities of the new companions. It’s fair to remember that both Power of the Daleks and Spearhead From Space did a lot of both – Spearhead in particular giving us a fantastic new alien menace, while introducing us to a mostly-comatose Doctor, a spiky new companion, changing the set-up of the show entirely and turning up the colour. But the quality of villainy on display in a regeneration story needs only to be good enough to show us the new Doctor and how they defeat it. In those terms, Tim Shaw and the Stenza are on a par with the Atraxi. On a personal level though, a single stompy, freezy bloke with a face full of teeth isn’t perhaps the most bladder-loosening villain, and Tim Shaw has a tendency to underwhelm – and wow, does he like a bit of exposition. ‘What are you doing here?’ has seldom, even in Doctor Who, produced a response so entirely thorough in terms of detailing the alien’s plans. He also serves the audience’s expectations rather too clunkily when he asks the Doctor a second time who she is, because we’ve all been waiting for the moment when she declares herself to be the Doctor, and the writing cuts to the chase of that in an underpolished way. Ironically, thanks to a handy sackful of cash being thrown at the CGI, Little Timmy Toothypeg’s ball of coiled menace is actually much more ominous and scary every moment it’s brought to life by effect-work, despite, when deactivated, looking like a clearance sale at a vacuum cleaner repair shop.

Overall, The Woman Who Fell To Earth is the regeneration story viewers familiar with his work should have expected from Chris Chibnall: it’s heavy on characterisation and character interplay, fairly light on plot, somewhat dependent on coincidence and positively thick with exposition, while saving its surprises for a reveal of off-screen action (when exactly did the Doctor remove the DNA bombs from her friends? Anyone?). But it’s also a warm, chatty debut for Jodie Whittaker’s enthusiastic, sudden-smiling Time Lord, and it beds her companions firmly into our psyche, so their stories are as interesting before they meet her as they will go on to be in her company, with Bradley Walsh as Graham and Sharon D Clarke as Grace standing out and raising the game. No, it’s never going to blow the socks off the viewers with the wow-factor of its villainy, but in terms of delivering new characters and making us want to see where they go from here, it certainly justifies the impressive viewing figures it got.

The 13th Doctor is here. The 13th Doctor is new. The Doctor’s as glorious as ever she’s been.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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