Previously on Doctor Who, “The Doctor Falls”
“Why are you calling me madam?”
“Because you’re a woman.”
“Am I? Does it suit me?!”
Over the last 50 years, the time-traveling, alien Doctor has worn 13+ faces (depending on which ones you count), each reflecting a stage of development in the Doctor’s psyche and a change of gears in the show. If you are new to Who, this regeneration is the perfect starting point. Not only are Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, showrunner Chris Chibnall, and all three companions new, but Season 11’s stories will stand alone with thematic drabbles building toward the finale. As for the Doctor’s new form, during Peter Capaldi’s tenure, the Doctor’s lifelong nemesis and best friend the Master regenerated into Michelle Gomez’s Mistress, aka Missy, setting off centuries of antagonism and, eventually, positive change. When Number 12’s own time came to an end during 2017’s Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time,” Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor appeared as the latest regeneration. For a quick summary of that episode, scroll to the end.
Season 11 of Doctor Who opens with someone struggling to translate their thoughts and impulses to their body, but that someone isn’t the newly regenerated Doctor: it’s Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a black 19-year-old warehouse worker trying to at last master riding a bike, a skill that’s so far eluded him due to a brain-based condition called dyspraxia, which can affect motor skills, spatial skills, or pronunciation. Despite help from his nan, Grace, and her husband Graham (Bradley Walsh), he falls and tosses his bike down the hill in a fit of pique, where he discovers a glowing portal. At his touch, a freezing Hershey’s kiss-shaped pod appears, while Grace and Graham’s train is overtaken by an electric alien Tangela.
As the probe approaches them, the Doctor crashes in from space and takes charge. Probationary police officer Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill) interviews Ryan, realizing they’ve known each other since grade school, and they tag along together to the train. After they all experience a shock from the creature, another victim named Karl wants to put this all behind him and heads to work. The remaining mix is a Pond family-adjacent dynamic with old classmates Ryan and Yaz, and Graham, a gregarious, grandfatherly bus driver, adds humorous but grounded incredulity. Sharon D. Clarke as Grace adds a warm but adventurous spirit, not only advising as a nurse and maternal figure, but taking heroic risks that immediately endear her to the audience.
“It could be the end of the world, but one thing at a time.”
Historically, it takes a good episode or so for the Doctor to settle into their skin and recall important information, and this is no different. While the crew reaches out to their network of fellow police, bus drivers, nurses, and Twitter, the Doctor sleeps on Grace’s couch as bits of excess regenerative energy slough off, cementing her identity as an alien. Meanwhile, Rahul, a mechanic who believes his sister Asha was kidnapped by aliens 7 years ago and has been monitoring signal activity ever since, hauls the pod to his underground workplace where it cracks open. An armored Stenza warrior emerges, freezes him to death, and breaks off a tooth.
The Doctor awakes with a start, sensing they were all implanted by microbombs by the probe and reconfigures Ryan’s cell phone to track the pod’s signal. Although the Stenza has left, Rahul’s files and tools provide solid ground to start their quest, as the Doctor decides that this form is a builder, donning steampunk-esque goggles to forge her own sonic screwdriver from the alien craft and spoons. During the planning stage, she babbles a bit of foreshadowing, telling Grace that she has no idea what it feels like, to almost die yet feel reborn, and finishes with a classic new Doctor speech, revealing key aspects of her mission and personality:
“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 gonna be fun.”
“Sorting out fair play throughout the universe”
Thanks to Graham’s bus driver pals, the crew locates and disables the Tangela probe, finding inside of it a recording of Karl (Jonny Dixon). The Stenza warrior, Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), appears and reveals a face full of embedded teeth from his victims. Earth, he says, is a proving ground for his race and, if he succeeds in the hunt for a randomly named target, AKA Karl, he will ascend to ruler. The Doctor realizes he’s using the probe to cheat, setting off the race to locate Karl, obliviously absorbing positive affirmations at his night crane-operator job. With the Stenza climbing his crane and the probe covering his way up, the Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz nevertheless ascend a neighboring crane while Grace and Graham clear the grounds.
The Doctor inches out to the top to talk Karl into jumping as Ryan and Yaz YouTube operator instructions, and Grace devises a plan to electrocute the probe with Graham at ground controls. The Stenza grabs Karl mid-leap, but the Doctor reveals she’s reversed the bomb probes back to Tzim-Sha, and as Karl kicks him off the edge, the Stenza phases away. Sadly, down on the ground, a stray shock kills Grace in her quest. Courage, heroism, and commitment rarely leave the Doctor’s companions unscathed. A video playing at the top of the episode proves to be Ryan’s tribute to his grandmother, which plays out while the Doctor and Ryan await his absent father at her touching memorial service. Graham’s eulogy reveals he once was her patient and should have died first but for her care, another elder statesman like the Doctor now living alone and on borrowed time.
“Even though they’re gone from the world, they’re never gone from me.”
Afterward, the Doctor says her own family is long gone, but they are a part of her, never truly gone, a lovely moment interrupted by her sudden awareness that she’s without a TARDIS and, as Yaz points out, a decent outfit considering she’s managed the entire caper in 12’s shredded velvet coat. Trashing an entire thrift store’s selection, the Doctor settles on her new wardrobe and hauls the team back to Rahul’s workshop to reverse engineer the probe’s tracking device and transport herself back to the TARDIS. She bids goodbye to her companions and zaps away, but, Surprise! They’re transported with her… to the dead of space. And no TARDIS.
So how was this Doctor and her companions?
For an introductory episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was fun and emotional with an interesting, well-drawn cast. Peter Capaldi’s first outing was tragically beautiful and melancholy, revealing a maudlin, contemplative Doctor still shaking off traces of 11’s 400-year exhaustion and loss. Whittaker’s reinvigorated Doctor is hopeful and helpful, respectful of rather than burdened by her memories, and determined to buckle down and make things happen. The usual talk of Earth’s protected status is, for now, replaced by her enforcement of universal fair play. I loved that each companion is finding themselves like the Doctor, whether in body like Ryan, occupation like Yaz, or soul like Graham. The group is unaffectedly diverse including, at last, the Doctor, and this time it isn’t just about race and gender, but also abilities. I went in expecting to most appreciate the Doctor’s first female representation, but as the mother of a sensory-abled child, their inclusion of Ryan’s often unrecognized condition which can make one feel disconnected from and out of step with their own world, surprised and moved me with empathy and understanding.
There are a few editing kinks, like the strange cut to their first Tangela takedown and later when it suddenly reappears back together. Was it a different one or the same one? Was it meant to be cut this way or did the almost 40 minutes of commercials interrupt the flow? The alien story was also too Predator, but with so much to introduce, leaning on a trope seems like the least offensive sin. But, there are a few production upgrades, too. The cinematography and drone shots are particularly notable in the Peak District hillside and the crane scenes, and Tzim-Sha’s oozy tooth makeup is authentically revolting. In the end, the Doctor and her team already feel like family and friends, and I look forward to their adventures this season.
Questions, Quotes, & Historical bits:
- The title refers to the 1976 David Bowie vehicle, The Man Who Fell to Earth. It also gains a second meaning when Grace falls to her death.
- Episode director Jamie Childs is relatively new but previously of Poldark.
- Although Chris Chibnall has written on staff for DW before, this is his first completely original script (others were under Steven Moffat’s years).
- Has the Doctor ever been to church before?
- Jodie Whittaker did her own stunts for this episode.
- The Doctor’s new diet: tea and a fried egg sandwich
- Spoons refer primarily back to the 7th Doctor who played the spoons, but the 12th Doctor used a spoon to fight in Robot of Sherwood and against Rassilon in Hell Bent. He also made a Sonic Spoon in the novel The Blood Cell.
- The Doctor’s mocking of Tzim-Sha’s name as Tim Shaw is a classic Doctor move.
- Tzim-Sha says trophy humans are kept in a suspended-animation trophy case, which means a later episode MUST be focused on a final showdown to save Rahul’s sister Asha.
- This story line is also a blatant X-Files shoutout as Fox Mulder’s sister was infamously kidnapped as a child by “aliens.”
- Rahul’s workplace is reminiscent of (and probably the same set as) Torchwood’s headquarters.
ICYMI: Twice Upon a Time
In the 2017 Christmas special, the First and 12th Doctors inadvertently catch the Testimony, a universal memory conservatory, gathering memories from the moment of Captain Archibald Lethbridge-Stewart’s death on the WWI battlefield and conspire to give him a happy ending by returning him moments before the spontaneous 1914 Christmas Eve truce, defeating death for one person yet again. Through the glass-embodied memories of the Testimony, 12 says goodbye to Bill Potts, Nardol, and even Clara, finally regaining his memories. At peace with his regeneration, the First Doctor returns to his smaller TARDIS and the 12th decides to give it one more go.
“Well, I suppose one more lifetime won’t kill anyone… Except me.”
Shouting encouragement and lessons to the future Doctor, he stumbles about the TARDIS landing on one tasty tidbit regarding his still-secret name, saying nobody can hear it anyway, except children. At last 12 regenerates into 13, who catches a glimpse of her first female form and exclaims, “Brilliant!” just before the TARDIS goes haywire, dumps her out the door, and phases away.
Doctor Who S11E1 Review Score
"The Woman Who Fell to Earth"
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Sharon D. Clarke, Tosin Cole, Jonny Dixon, Mandip Gill, Asif Khan, Stephen MacKenna, Samuel Oatley, Amit Shah, Bradley Walsh