Season 11, Episode 1 “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”
Directed by Jamie Childs
Written by Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Brady Walsh, Tonsin Cole, Mandip Gill, Sharon D. Clarke, Samuel Oatley
Air date: October 7, 2018
At last, it begins. After many long months of waiting since Peter Capaldi regenerated, the Jodie Whittaker/Chris Chibnall version of Doctor Who has begun with Episode 11.1 “The Woman Who Fell To Earth.” This season will be shorter than the last few (ten episodes instead of twelve, plus Christmas special), but honestly, it’s all worth it if they’re at least as good as this first one. Steven Moffat is a good television writer and a decent producer, but his plotting and pacing can feel terrifically dense. It’s like eating champagne and caviar all the time and you just want a well-made pizza. This show is that simpler but no less satisfying meal and it sketches out a new course for Doctor Who that could be a very pleasurable ride.
The first thing I like about this season debut is that it strips the show back to its most basic beats. There are no references to Gallifrey, the Time Lords, or even the TARDIS. There are no monsters from the show’s history and no real references to Whovian mythology. The episode presents a vision of Doctor Who where a basic outline of the Doctor character is presented for new viewers, but it is almost left to be filled in later. Rather, this episode primarily serves to tell the backstory of the companions. Without providing any spoilers, I can say it’s a good one. With a very economical use of dialogue, we get an idea of at least one distinct character trait of all three (!) new companions and get to see them interact in circumstances that are at once both tragic and heroic. For comparison, Clara never got an introductory back story this good and this coherent (at least as Clara; her introduction as Osgood was pretty impressive).
This brings us to the introduction of Jodie Whittaker’s version of the Doctor. The story serves her well in how we get to know her. While it is a regeneration story, it lacks most of the histrionics of so many regeneration episodes — which is to say, she’s awake and talking for most of the episode. This strikes me as fairly clever. It lets the audience get to know her, while the Doctor gets to know her new self. It also shows that she’s long on charm and smarts. She takes charge by being the person who always knows the next step, the next thing to do. If someone questions her authority, she points out the alternatives, which usually renders the issue moot.
This inevitably turns around to the issue about the Doctor becoming a woman. The episode is also canny about this. The story already features two relatively strong women in Grace, played by Sharon D. Clarke, and Yas, played by Mandip Gill. The story sticks to a very small circle of characters, and the society of the episode is small and can be driven by expertise. This sidesteps the whole issue of sexism. It lets Whittaker as the Doctor, just simply be the Doctor. It will be interesting to see what happens if any episode is set anywhere with more fixed gender roles.
When it comes to the rest of the episode, it’s generally strong. It’s a formula, not dissimilar to “Mummy On The Orient Express” or “A Town Called Mercy.” The effects are interesting, and Jamie Childs keeps the pace brisk. That’s largely window dressing, however. The purpose here is to let us get to know the new cast, and to assert that no matter how much changes, the Doctor is still largely the same.
That’s all for the future, however. This episode is a strong start. It roots itself in the basic principles of the show without invoking any of its mythology. In this, it reboots the character of the Doctor by stripping her back to her core. It also provides abundant foundational background for the companions. It’s crisp, taut, and engaging. It bodes well for the future of Doctor Who.