Daniel Mansfield looks back on the Thirteenth Doctor’s era one episode at a time… starting with her very first!
Jodie Whittaker makes her debut as the Doctor here and… it’s a mixed bag. Whittaker’s performance takes a while to get going, with her early scenes on the train being pretty ropey in all honesty, but once it does, she’s absolutely electric. The main problem, I think, is that she’s far too subdued for most of the episode. Having seen all of her era so far, and really warmed to the character as a result, I was shocked at how little I liked Thirteen here, and that’s very much down to how seriously she’s played.
Seriously, compare the character here to pretty much any other episode she’s in. A lot of the zaniness which defines the Thirteenth Doctor is simply absent in this script. There are a couple of moments where it peeks through- the “right, this is gonna be fun!” scene, the “fried egg sandwich” line and the bit where she zaps herself with Ryan’s phone- but for the rest of the story she’s very much a nonentity. The DIY tinkerer stuff is golden, though, and hints at the more successful direction this Doctor is taken in during future episodes.
Her most consistent bits are probably the early scenes on the train; I really like the “why are you calling me madam?” moment and the entire post-regenerative confusion scene that follows, which Whittaker nails. I also really like her “I’m the Doctor” moment and her confrontation with Tim Shaw, but I wonder if that’s more down to the performance and the music than the script itself. Also, the less said about the ‘you had no right to do that’ line the better… poor Karl was about to be murdered, I think he had every right to ‘do that’!
Overall, this isn’t the most stunning Doctor debut, but it’s perfunctory enough, and sows seeds for better things on the horizon.
Team? Gang? Fam?
New era, new TARDIS team… and this time there’s three of them. This is the largest group of companions since way back in the 1980s and, understandably, there was quite some trepidation before this episode premiered about how the show would handle so many main characters. Unfortunately, The Woman Who Fell To Earth proves those worries justified.
Now, of course, this is only the first episode of a ten-episode run: I’m not expecting to come out of this with a complete understanding of who each of these three characters are. What I am expecting, though, is at least a sense of who they are, and I don’t think Chibnall’s script quite achieves that. Let’s take each character one by one and weigh up the pros and cons.
The first member of the trio we meet is Tosin Cole‘s Ryan Sinclair. He’s pretty well-defined in this, shown as reckless and a little bit rebellious, but ultimately relatively likable. Cole’s performance is, at times, noticeably wooden (partly, I suspect, due to his being saddled with an accent that he doesn’t quite nail), but he’s excellent during the bike-riding scenes, and the emotional moments at the end of the episode. I do think Chibnall overplays Ryan’s animosity with Graham a little; while the initial “Graham not granddad” bit is perfectly fine, the random “second husband” comment he makes when Grace introduces Graham as her husband is pretty jarring, but otherwise this is a pretty good introduction to the character.
Now onto Graham (Bradley Walsh), who is probably the best characterised of the three companions here. Aside from his puzzling and unwarranted outburst at Ryan when he says he’ll try and blame starting an alien invasion on his disability, Graham is well-written and performed throughout: the perfect straight man to the Doctor’s eccentricity. Walsh also proves an excellent emotional actor during his speech about Grace, even if it’s a little hard to care about a character who’s had to share her first episode with four other main characters, including a whole new Doctor.
This is a good time to talk about Grace, actually, even though she isn’t one of the main trio of companions. Given Sharon D Clarke wasn’t in any of the publicity material for the series, her character’s fate here is pretty much sealed from the get-go, but that doesn’t stop Chibnall trying to make her work. The parallels between Grace and the Doctor are interesting (and the title a clever subversion), and her fierceness in her final showdown with the Gathering Coil is refreshing, compared to the more laidback demeanour exhibited by the other companions, but there’s really not a whole lot to say about the character aside from that. This is controversial, but I don’t think Clarke puts in a very convincing performance either and this, combined with the lack of focus on the character, means that we struggle to care about her eventual fate, both in this episode, and during the rest of the series, over which her death casts a notable shadow.
And finally, we have Yaz (Mandip Gill). Poor Yaz… While her opening scene sets her up quite well, and Gill is clearly doing her best with what she’s been given, Yaz unfortunately just feels like a spare part in this episode: the only character who’s not part of the O’Brien-Sinclair family aside from the Doctor, who’s automatically interesting because, well, she’s the Doctor. Part of the problem, I think, is how deferent she is to the Doctor’s authority. The scene on the train where she initially questions her is great, but thereafter she just sort of falls in line and does as she’s told. I’d have loved to have seen some more conflict between the two, with Yaz pulling rank and trying to take charge and the Doctor refusing to back down; now that would have been an interesting dynamic. As it stands, though, Yaz is very much a nonentity in this.
I’ve seen this episode many times now, and I think I’ve finally worked out what the problem with these characters is. They spend so much of this episode just being baffled by the Doctor that we never get any kind of meaningful interaction between them. Compare that to Rose and the Ninth Doctor in the “turn of the Earth” scene, Martha and the Tenth Doctor on the hospital balcony or Amy and the Eleventh Doctor in pretty much all of The Eleventh Hour. We feel relationships start to form in those cases, but get nothing of the sort here.
Random character thoughts
- Why does Chibnall make Yaz and Ryan childhood friends? It doesn’t impact on the plot or their character in any way, either here or during the rest of the series.
- I’d have loved to know more about what Graham, Ryan and Yaz did in the aftermath of Grace’s death. There’s a tantalising line where Yaz talks about “all the things they’ve lied to people about”, but we never learn just how not telling the truth has affected them. How do Graham and Ryan feel about covering up their wife/grandmother’s death? How does Yaz, as a police officer, feel?
- Not really a plot hole but… what is the point of Karl (Jonny Dixon)? I mean, yeah, the plot revolves around him, but why did it have to be a character completely unconnected to the main gang? Wouldn’t it have been better for Graham, Ryan, Grace or Yaz to have been the one being stalked by Tim Shaw? Why should we care about a random guy? It’s a huge misstep to make the plot revolve around a one-time character when there’s so many new main characters to introduce.
Teeth and Tentacles
Tim Shaw, Tim Shaw, Tim Shaw. What to say about Tim Shaw? Let’s start with the positives. Samuel Oatley is excellent in the role; he plays the character with the perfect blend of mocking and menace, and his voice is really quite scary in some places. The makeup is fantastic too, really bringing to life Chris Chibnall’s delightful grizzly concept. Seriously, what a great idea for a villain: a blue-skinned warrior who shoves the teeth of those he’s killed into his own face! Brrr.He also gets a great opening scene, ruthlessly taunting Rahul about his sister before brutally murdering him, and the whole concept of the Stenza freezing those they capture and leaving them on the cusp of life and death is at least novel, if a little undeveloped.
The rest… not so good. It all starts to go wrong with the Tim Shaw joke which, quite honestly, just isn’t that funny. It’s surprising, actually, how much damage an unfunny joke can do. Not only do we groan every time the Doctor calls him Tim Shaw, but we feel less threatened by him, because if she’s not taking him seriously, why should we? Now, the Doctor has absolutely mocked villains before; it’s literally a defining character trait… but this Doctor does it in such a way that it effaces all menace, all threat, all tension. We never get the sense that she’s really scared of him, or that he might win, and so when she ultimately defeats him, it’s less of a hooray moment and more of a shrug.
Another problem is to do with aesthetics, I think; there are simply too many design contrasts for things to cohere. Firstly, you’ve got the conflict of mechanical VS organic, with the robotic-looking Tim Shaw clashing with his travel pod which looks, quite frankly, like a vegetable. Then, there’s colour: Tim Shaw is blue, his pod has orange crystals, the floating lights Ryan finds are yellow, and the DNA bombs are purple. None of these aesthetics match!
Jumping ahead a season, we meet the Skithra, who are scavenger aliens and who specifically don’t match any of the technology they use. That’s a great, intentional use of mismatched aesthetics. Here, however, all of the disparate elements just jar, especially when this is the introduction of an alien race who will recur across the season. It’s a shame, because the individual bits and pieces all look great… they just don’t mesh with one another.
With a new production team comes a whole new style of visual storytelling, and this is abundantly clear from the episode’s very first scene. Opening with some stunning cinematography as we pan over the Peak District, courtesy of the new anamorphic lenses used by the crew, The Woman Who Fell to Earth immediately looks very different from the Doctor Who of yesteryear: modern, captivating and sleek. Setting the rest of the story at night basically undercuts this, but this gorgeous opening is certainly a stylish way to open not only a new episode, but a whole new era of Who.
That being said, I think Jamie Childs‘ direction of the rest of this episode leaves a lot to be desired. There are quite a few odd close-ups (see the scene where Yaz and Ryan first meet), which really jar with the rest of the episode, while some of the choices he makes in the warehouse scene are just bizarre. The way Ryan says “look over here” (in reference to Rahul’s computer) before he’s even turned around is baffling and should have been picked up immediately!
I had a read of the script for this episode (available here) while writing this section to see how the script and the direction match up and… blimey. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable examples of where Childs strays from what’s scripted and the consequences that has on the episode
She smiles — dazzling, brilliant, and no nonsense.
This is from Yaz’s introductory scene, coming right after she’s defused the situation between the two women arguing about the parking situation. In the episode? It doesn’t exist. Now, this is an admittedly really small part of the script, but, to me, it’s an essential piece of characterisation for Yaz. Imagine the camera pulling into Yaz after she’s effortlessly sorted out what’s going on, and her smiling. That’s a great moment!
What about this bit, when Tim Shaw kills Rahul:
And we stay on The Warrior’s impassive mask, as Rahul screams in
pain, and dies.
What do we get in the episode? A pan to a flickering light, away from what’s going on: not nearly as effective as what’s scripted! Again, it’s a small moment, but it would have really upped the threat of this episode.
PULL OUT: HARD CUTS — BANG BANG BANG — MORE AND MORE DISTANT.
Four tiny figures hanging in deserted endless space! Seconds from
death! And the cliffhanger scream kicks in –
And this, from the final scene. How much better would this have been? Multiple hard cuts, bang bang bang, racking up the tension, instead of one feeble cut to an extra wide shot. Ugh!
Anyway, on a more positive note, the visual effects for this episode are flawless. The yellow shapes Ryan encounters in the forest are a particular highlight, all juddering and dangerous-looking, while the Gathering Coil makes for an effective CGI villain during its all-too-brief assault on the train. A real budget boost, which makes all the difference.
Also new in this episode is Segun Akinola, taking over from Murray Gold as composer. His music definitely takes some getting used to- it’s far more lowkey and ambient than Gold’s bombastic orchestral scores- but it’s actually very, very effective. Akinola’s use of a rumbling electric-guitar noise in the background (particularly in the theme for Tim Shaw) really complements the darkness of the setting and tone, while the relentless clanging music played during the crane scene adds to the urgency of the scene. I also loved the way Akinola cuts the music when the Doctor jolts her brain back into life with Ryan’s phone; the ambient, synthy whooshing of the previous scene giving way to silence in the same way all of the confusion inside her head has been replaced with clarity. An excellent example of music assisting storytelling.
The standout musical moment, however, has got to be the debut of Akinola’s theme for the Thirteenth Doctor. First heard (a stripped back variation, at least) in her very first scene, and then cropping up throughout the episode in various places, this theme works perfectly with Jodie Whittaker‘s sunnier, more hopeful Doctor, and the three scenes where the full version of the motif properly appears- the Sonic Screwdriver, “I’m the Doctor” and charity shop scenes- are some of the best in the episode.
We also get to hear Akinola’s new take on the iconic Doctor Who theme for the first time in this episode, briefly when the Doctor first enters, and then fully during the closing credits… and what an interpretation! Hearkening back to the very first version of the theme from 1963 while adding modern elements like the drums and the bass drop (okay, that’s not in this episode, given the lack of opening titles, but I’m still going to talk about it), Akinola’s iteration of this hugely important part of Doctor Who is one of my favourites.
Plot Holes and Contrivances
- It’s an egregious coincidence that it’s Ryan who finds the Stenza pod, while his grandparents are simultaneously attacked by the Gathering Coil aboard the train. The Sinclair-O’Briens sure are one unlucky family!
- If Yaz and Ryan entered the train through the driver’s smashed window as they say, why are they shocked to find her dead body when they re-enter the cabin with the Doctor?
- Why does only Ryan follow Yaz down the train when she’s questioning the Doctor? Surely the others want answers too? And if Karl is so eager to get away later, why does he hang around seemingly doing nothing during this scene?
- Why doesn’t the Doctor stop Tim Shaw on the water tower? She’s already learnt of his plan to find Karl, and has already implanted the DNA bombs into the Gathering Coil, thereby securing Tim Shaw’s demise? She’s happy to trick him into “killing” himself with the DNA bombs on the train, so why not just activate them on the water tower and be done with him there?
- Sure, you could argue that the Doctor is too morally sound to do that… but Tim Shaw sure isn’t! Why doesn’t he activate the DNA bombs himself when he meets the gang on the water tower? The Doctor literally promises to track him down and stop him… so surely just blowing them up then and there would make his whole job a hell of a lot easier?
The Woman Who Fell To Earth is an odd one. There are glimmers of excellence- the brilliance of Whittaker and Walsh, the high production values, a fab new composer, and a novel concept for a villain- but there’s equally a great deal of weirdness and incompetence. The direction is poor throughout, the plot is riddled with holes, the Doctor isn’t characterised as well as she would be in future episodes, and the companions aren’t very effective. Even despite all that, though, this is still an enjoyable episode to watch, and these teething problems can be forgiven (to an extent) given that this is the first episode of a new series, a new showrunner, a new Doctor and a whole new side cast. Above average, but not by much.
The Thirteenth Doctor Revisited continues with The Ghost Monument later this week!