Previously on Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”
Regeneration fog behind her, the new Doctor hits the ground running, bursting into this episode with a wild flurry of action when she and her companions are scooped out of the void by competing pilots at the tail end of the Rally of the Twelve Galaxies. Ryan and Graham are rescued by Angstrom (Susan Lynch), who cheerily labels Ryan a “funny little bonus” as she lands on the planet below, while Yaz and the Doctor are reluctantly rescued by the much grumpier Epzo (Shaun Dooley) whose ship is falling apart. The Doctor continues her “fix it” mandate by manhandling the ship and jettisoning its core to crash land, nearly running down the other party already on planet Desolation. Sans the TARDIS’s universal translator, the ships’ medipods have helpfully implanted one in each companion, solving the language barrier problem, but annoying Graham with yet another alien implant. The full crew proceeds to a tent where Ilin (Art Malik) explains the Rally’s final challenge: cross the poison water and deserted planet to the Ghost Monument which only appears every 1000 rotations. It just so happens said Ghost Monument is the TARDIS, stuck in a temporal phasing loop.
Desolation is suspiciously empty, with no hint of its previous civilization. Epzo and Angstrom add to the Pitch Black vibe with Epzo as the Tom Sizemore-type misanthropic, cigar-chomping, loner whose mother taught him not to trust while Angstrom is a punk-haired widow whose planet has been ethnically cleansed by the Stenza. The companions amusingly attempt to keep them all together by appealing to their humanity, but the captains from this far-flung place are unimpressed, Angstrom replying, “Never heard of mooman beings.” Offended by Ilin’s hologram-only presence, the Doctor takes charge and sets Graham and Ryan to fixing their boat. The lion’s share of character development belong to those two, the episode starting and marking its midpoint with Ryan waking up out of a fog to Graham’s voice. At Graham’s gentle What Would Grace Do encouragement, Ryan repairs the ship’s solar panels, but his feelings of success are limited by mourning and lots of ladders once they find the Complex.
To reach the finish line, they must survive the Complex and its sniper guard bots, which Ryan excitedly blasts Fortnite style only for them to reboot. But the Doctor hasn’t gotten to 1400+ years of age without graduating from the Rickon Stark School of Zig Zagging and EMP’s the bots to a stand-still while they investigate the underground tunnels for clues to Desolation’s lost civilization. According to records left behind, the Stenza forced the planet’s scientists to develop world-killing microbes, robots, and maybe something more menacing. Meanwhile, burnt paper that’s been suspiciously blowing around in the foreground reveals themselves as The Remnants, attacking Epzo and following the crew into the night’s acetylene fields, surrounding them to feed off their fear. Their voices (Ian Gelder) unsurprisingly find the Doctor’s millennia of fear the tastiest, murmuring of “the timeless child, outcast, abandoned, and unknown.” Is this a Doctor’s past life, Me/Ashildr, his granddaughter Susan, or someone else? Alas The Remnants fail to outwit the Doctor who’s tasked Ryan with recalling acetylene facts, namely that it’s lighter than air and highly flammable. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a cigar is really a McGuffin. Thanks to Epzo’s habit, the Remnants are toast.
Having survived the night, both competitors, the Doctor, and her companions find Ilin’s tent at the finish line, but no TARDIS. Angstrom and Epzo force Ilin to acknowledge them as joint winners and divide the earnings, but he transports them off for later reappearance in the season and leaves the Doctor’s group behind. Confused and shaken, the Doctor genuinely apologizes for disappointing them, but, full of her ceaseless encouragement from their adventure, they decline to accept, saying they’re sure it will work out. The Doctor cracks a smile, and at last, they hear the whispers of that glorious grind.
“Come to daddy… I mean, mummy… I mean, I really need you right now.”
Atop another gorgeous vista, the refreshed TARDIS materializes. Its outside is more weathered with artistic notches at its corners, and the ambulance badge is missing. The Police Box sign is black, its handles are switched around, and the window panes are unpainted and framed in gray. Once inside, not only the companions are stunned as the Doctor takes in the redecorated interior and proclaims proudly, “This… is my TARDIS.” Gears within gears replace “the round things,” and raw, glowing crystals jut from the ground while layered hexagon sound dishes float nearby. Things might be in unfamiliar places, but this Doctor can make anything work and finishes with an exchange as much to the audience as to her friends:
“So, you can get us there, then?”
This episode’s structure is a fairly classic Doctor Who ship in crisis/mysterious devastated planet plot line, and its feelings of familiarity to the small budget alien horror Pitch Black and even Serenity don’t hurt at all to fill in missing background as we continue to feel out our new cast. Epzo, Angstrom, and Ilin are all from planets so far they haven’t heard of Earth or the Doctor, which is a bit of a relief as typically even the most alien of aliens are at least intimidated by the Doctor. Susan Lynch is a delight as Angstrom, coming on strong as a big, bemused personality but revealing bits of heartbreak along the way, bonding with Graham over their wives’ loss to the Stenza, who now sound less like the Predator’s warrior race and more like the Borg in terms of sheer extermination power. The new TARDIS has an earthier, organic feel that goes beyond steampunk and grounds itself in an almost magical marriage of natural power and gritty clockworks, underlining what we know of the Doctor’s capabilities, her command over time, and her latest inclination towards tinkering. Its appearance, heralded by swelling music from new series composer Segun Akinola, is thrilling and emotional, and the camera work places us right there with the Doctor, feeling her pride, excitement, and wonderment. Needless to say, I am enjoying myself thus far.
Of note, the directors for this season follow a similar pattern to Capaldi’s last season, in which they direct pairs of or alternating episodes, giving us clues as to which episodes are most closely related. Director Mark Tonderai, with credits from Gotham, Black Lightning, and The Five, is also behind next week’s episode about Rosa Parks. Interestingly, besides Jamie Childs, the remaining season directors include Tonderai, who is black, and Sallie Aprahamian and Jennifer Perrott, who are women. Composer Segun Akinola, winner of BAFTA’s Breakthrough Brit award in 2017, is a young black man, and, appropriately, the writer for “Rosa” is a black woman, Carnegie Medal winner and former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. Playwright Vinay Patel, who penned episode 6, “Demons of the Punjab,” is of Indian descent as is Mandip Gill (Yaz). It seems Chris Chibnall finds bringing talented diversity to Doctor Who‘s sets, in front of and behind the camera, not as challenging as past producers.
Factoids and Doctor Who Trivia
- Venusian Aikido originated with the Third Doctor but was used most recently in “Robot of Sherwood.”
- New production designer Arwel Jones is not that new to Doctor Who, contributing as standby or supervising art director for some of the new series’ most iconic episodes like “Blink” and “Silence in the Library” as well as Torchwood: Children of Earth.
- New TARDIS snack: custard creams, integrating the biscuit form of Eleven’s Jammy Dodgers and his penchant for custard (minus the fish fingers). Twelve, by the way, preferred macaroons.
- The dark police box sign is a throwback to the 70s era TARDIS.
- The St Johns Ambulance badge on the TARDIS door was on the original TARDIS, but disappeared after Hartnell’s Doctor regnerated, reappearing in the 2010 reboot.
- The phone-hatch handle was also on the left in the 1996 Doctor Who movie.
- The TARDIS grind results from the Doctor leaving the parking brake on, according to River Song.
- Ian Gelder, voice of The Remnants, also played Mr. Dekker in Torchwood as well as Kevan Lannister in Game of Thrones.
- The Doctor comments she was once a hologram for three weeks, perhaps referring to Under the Lake/Before the Flood, but holograms have been used repeatedly in the series.
- Ryan’s exasperated, “Why is it always ladders?” is a shoutout to Indiana Jones.
- There are two snaps in this episode, one to ignite the cigar and one to transport Ilin and the competitors from the surface. River teaches the Doctor that the TARDIS can be opened with a snap, and he continues to employ the occasional snap through Twelve’s tenure when he’s feeling sassy.
- The Doctor’s exclamation that she likes the new TARDIS recalls hilarious exchanges of past Doctors showing up in present Doctors’ TARDISes only to find that they hate the new look.