Understandably, most of the buzz about the return of Doctor Who has been around the casting of Jodie Whittaker, with some of the more dimwitted commentators announcing that the show was now dead to them with an actual female woman in the lead.
In fact, Whittaker is just fine in her first episode, as she was always going to be. But she’s not the only newcomer here. Since Peter Capaldi left last Christmas, along with Steven Moffat as lead writer and show-runner, it’s been pretty much a clean sweep, the biggest fresh start for the show since it was brought back in 2005. In some quarters, the arrival of Chris Chibnall as new show-runner has been seen as far more of a cause for concern than Whittaker. To be fair, Chibnall has an iffy track record, having previously written episodes of Doctor Who and its adult-orientated spin-off Torchwood which ranged in quality all the way from ‘utter bobbins’ to ‘hmmm, OK I suppose’. Since then he’s made a name for himself as the creator and writer of Broadchurch, but even ardent fans of that show tend to admit that it went off the boil. So the question watching this episode becomes, is Doctor Who in safe hands?
The Woman Who Fell to Earth turns out to be a tight, stylish yarn which rattles along nicely enough, allowing Whittaker’s Doctor and her new pals to get to know each other as we get to know them. The look of the show has been ramped up, now boasting a cinema-style action gloss which seems to be taking notes from the Marvel superhero films. Director Jamie Childs makes great, almost noirish use of night-time Sheffield (“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield!”) and new composer Segun Akinola is a particularly great addition, soundtracking scenes with spare, impressionistic ambience a mile away from predictable bombast.
It’s a busy old cast, establishing not one but four new regulars, including Mandip Gill as Yaz and Tosin Cole as Ryan, and though they all seem fine, at this stage they don’t all have that much to do except stand about, so it’s to be hoped that the individual team members get the space to develop over coming weeks. As Graham, though, Bradley Walsh makes an immediate impact, which isn’t a phrase many of us might have expected to use. Whittaker herself is just grand, establishing her Doctor as quick and likeable, and she gets to open her Who portfolio with some scenes of pure action and grandstanding speeches.
Here’s the thing, though. If there’s a weak point here, it remains Chibnall’s scripting. Some of the new Doctor’s dialogue feels a bit aphoristic, a bit greetings card, when it could do with more wit and charm. Certain characters, such as Walsh’s Graham, seem to be present mainly for comic relief, rather than humour being right there in the whole story’s DNA. In fact, for all the talk of the show lightening up and reconnecting with young children, much of this is pretty dark stuff, all night-time scenes with brutal killings in lock-ups and talk of being in remission after chemo. That, and there’s a funeral.
Some choices regarding the plot are a bit baffling, too. Other times when Doctor Who has introduced a new Doctor and companions, it’s gone for a bare-bones narrative to make room. The baddie here takes some explaining, though, which becomes convoluted and slows proceedings down.
There are niggles a-plenty, then (How come the new Doctor crash-lands in Sheffield complete with a Yorkshire accent and it never gets mentioned, not even with a “Lots of planets have a north”-style line? How come the Doctor says she doesn’t like things with acronyms for names when she travels time and space in one?). But there is lots to like already, and if future episodes play their cards right, this new team could be something to treasure. There’s plenty of potential, but it doesn’t feel confident, not yet. There’s work to be done, but hopefully, it’ll turn out that Doctor Who is indeed in safe hands.
(Oh, and if Graham’s grief-striken death wish doesn’t pay off further down the line, I’ll eat my Peter Capaldi drinks coaster.)
Images: (C) BBC / BBC Studios