Press launches are not normally a thing that happens to me. Therefore, when the stars aligned and I got asked by SFX to go to Sheffield for the first ever screening of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who – the first time I’ve ever been able to write something professionally about the new era of the show, believe it or not – it was a considerable surprise.
And it was even more of a surprise when I got to Sheffield and fully understood how big a deal this was, with a red carpet outside the cinema venue and big crowds, and a general sense of being fabulously out of my depth. Inside was even weirder – imagine going to your local cinema, and instead of the usual posters on display, absolutely every image in sight is a Doctor Who poster – and I ended up armed with a massive free bag of popcorn, and accidentally found myself sat in a row directly in front of where the main cast were sitting and surrounded by BBC people, simply because I got into the screening early and there was nothing telling me that I couldn’t sit there.
There was a big introduction to the screening, followed by the episode itself and a Q+A with the cast, followed by drinks that involved lots of loud music and tons of people who I didn’t know. I made a relatively swift exit, heading for the station and back to Nottingham, but it was great fun overall, and a hell of a peculiar and memorable way to watch a Doctor Who debut episode (although watching S5’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ in 2010 at a convention while sat next to the gorgeous girl I’d recently met (and who I’d eventually end up falling in love with) still has it beat).
THE REVIEW: (Which I’ve kept pretty-much spoiler free)
I went in with a healthy degree of caution, because while this new era for the show is big and splashy and has a ton of publicity and goodwill behind it, it’s also being overseen by Chris Chibnall, a man with a Doctor Who-related history that can be best described as ‘spotty’ and who’s never written an episode that ranked for me above ‘not bad’. Most of my Chibnall-related problems come from his place as showrunner and main writer on the first two seasons of Torchwood – i.e., the ones before it got genuinely good with Children of Earth – and especially the fact that he wrote the Torchwood episode ‘Cyberwoman’, which is one of the most wrong-headed Doctor Who-related pieces of media I’ve ever seen.
And the end result is an episode that is… quite good, with an emphasis on the ‘quite’.
There are a bunch of sensible choices that have been made here, most notable of which is that aside from a couple of small references (and stuff relating to the TARDIS), there’s basically no continuity and this is played as a completely fresh start. There’s also the fact that the show is properly based in the North now, with Sheffield functioning as the home town for all three of the new companions and giving a very different visual feel and style to the show. Plus, the cinematography has been given a serious upgrade, making the show look a lot slicker and more genuinely cinematic, and the new music takes a definite step away from Murray Gold’s sweeping and occasionally OTT orchestrations for something with a crunchier, slightly more electronic flavour.
Ultimately, the episode is a good jumping-on-point for new viewers, especially since it goes straight for a style and a characterisation that’s very similar to the first two seasons of New Who (except maybe not quite as broad), along with a certain amount of DNA from Torchwood (thankfully, it’s mostly taking from the bits that worked in S2). There are also more homages to The Terminator than you might expect from Doctor Who, but overall this is very much a story of ordinary people being swept up into an adventure, and plays heavily with the idea of weird sci-fi adventure happening in somewhere as gritty and down-to-earth as Sheffield in a way that is sometimes pretty fun.
The problem is that this is the episode’s biggest and most genuinely attention-grabbing idea. The story itself takes a while to coalesce, existing for almost half the episode as “An assortment of strange things happen in Sheffield just as the Doctor arrives”, and even once the main threat makes itself felt, it doesn’t feel like anything that’s in danger of capturing the popular imagination. It’s an entertaining but slightly generic threat, and while there’s a tenuous attempt in the script to make a parallel between the villain’s quest and the Doctor figuring out her new identity, it doesn’t really land or make this all feel less generic.
From certain perspectives, it makes sense to keep the threat relatively simple, considering the heavy lifting the script has to do – not only introducing a new Doctor to a potentially new chunk of the audience, but also introducing three companions (along with another character who essentially acts as an extra companion for the story). Anyone who’s seen any early 1980s Who will know full well that a crowded TARDIS brings with it the problem of giving everybody something to do, and while the episode does its best to spread the load of action around, the result is that not everyone gets the chance to make the kind of strong impression that can be made when there’s just a single companion.
Surprisingly, it’s Bradley Walsh as Graham who makes the most impact, after spending much of the episode playing the ‘perplexed father figure’ role – there’s a couple of scenes at the end that give a lot of depth to his character and make it properly interesting that someone like this is going to be travelling through Time and Space. Both Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill do good work as Ryan and Yaz, but they do run into the simple fact that they don’t quite get enough time to properly make an impression, as well as the fact that the script doesn’t always have the sense of spark, energy and polish that Moffat or Russell T. Davies were able to bring.
Moffat absolutely had his flaws and it was definitely time for him to move on, but it’s easy for some people to forget the level of craft that went into his scripts and the level of energy he was able to inject into even the smaller scenes. There’s not that much of that energy here, meaning that there are lots of what feels dangerously like dead air, or at least scenes that are perfectly functional and nicely played but which don’t do much else, and certainly don’t achieve the breakneck pace that Doctor Who can achieve at its best. If anything, the pacing is surprisingly leisurely in places, especially the opening half hour when the story has yet to coalesce into a genuine idea of where we’re going.
There’s also a couple of scenes that shocked me in exactly how classic 1980s Who they were. Companions in the ‘classic’ era of the show often complained how they were simply there to ask “What’s going on, Doctor?”, and the new era has been pretty good at avoiding that kind of thing, or at least making the big exposition scenes fun and accessible. Here, however, there’s one scene in particular that’s just a little astonishing in how much it cribs from the Classic Who playbook, with virtually every companion just firing “What does this mean?” questions at the Doctor and the Doctor answering them, without finding any way of subverting the whole “this is where the main character explains the plot” part of the episode.
Plus, the storytelling itself is rather murky, even by Doctor Who standards. I’m always willing to forgive a certain amount of hand-waviness when it comes to watertight storytelling in Who – it’s the emotions and the momentum that’s important, not whether every element adds up or makes perfect sense – but there are points in the episode where it gets surprisingly difficult to work out what the hell is going on. I’m still a little perplexed about how the Doctor actually managed to defeat the main villain, and there’s a number of other plot elements that feel like they would crumble if you examined them too closely.
There’s also the tone, which is darker in places than you might expect, and which often feels happier with the idea of being a nicely-played, slightly downbeat character drama than being an unpredictable, frothy sci-fi adventure. Certain moments play well, and other moments play like they’re not quite fitting together, and combined with the struggles the script has of balancing the material between the companions, the result is an episode that isn’t always firing on all cylinders.
And then there’s Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor. Aside from a few references, the new gender doesn’t play anywhere as big a factor as you might think, which is a good way to go, and she attacks the role with a serious level of energy and enthusiasm. She’s absolutely going to be some people’s favourite Doctor as soon as she turns up, and it’s a good contrast to go for after the more traditionally old-school and darker approach of Capaldi (who I loved in the role, but I can also understand why some people were put off by his rather gruffer, more cantankerous approach).
But… I ultimately ended up realising what she reminded me of in playing the Doctor, and it’s Christopher Eccleston. His Doctor was a big factor in relaunching the show, and having an actor of that calibre helped a lot in bringing Who back to prominence – but for me, Eccleston always felt like there were certain things in the role that he was more comfortable with than others (and he’s since gone on record saying that this was the case). Dark, stormy and angry scenes he could knock out of the park – quirky and fun, he was less accomplished at, and sometimes felt like he was trying too hard.
There’s a very odd (and extremely subjective) set of factors that make a good Doctor Who star. For me, probably because I grew up watching Tom Baker, it’s simply to do with being able to make the weird and the strange seem absolutely effortless – which is not something that everybody can do. It’s a throwback to when the performance of the Doctor was what sold the reality of the show (because it certainly wasn’t the special effects). When you see actors like Baker or Patrick Troughton at their best, they don’t feel like they’re acting – you can’t see the performance, they just are the Doctor.
And while Whitaker is really good in the role, there are an awful lot of points where I can feel the performance. She’s occasionally awkward with the more comedic moments, and she’s definitely stronger towards the end of the episode where she gets more dramatic, traditionally ‘Doctory’ material. It’s very possible that this is a performance that I’ll warm to, the same way it took me a while (actually almost a season-and-a-half) to properly like David Tennant as the Doctor. But she hasn’t sold me on her in the role in the same way that Matt Smith did in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, or Peter Capaldi once we hit the restaurant scene in the S8 opener ‘Deep Breath’.
It doesn’t help that for me, S5’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is pretty much the platonic ideal for introducing a new Doctor – an episode that was so packed with invention, humour and weirdly British thrills that it had me almost jumping up and down with excitement by the end credits. ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is enjoyable, but it very rarely thrilled me, and it only managed a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and is nowhere near the level of pace, invention or wit that Moffat managed in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. But then, with Chibnall at the helm, I didn’t really expect it to get there.
Ultimately, what we have here is an episode that’s a fun jumping-on point and an intriguing starting point for the rest of the season. It’s okay if Doctor Who isn’t entirely my bag for a while (I am, after all, a 44-year-old man who’s WAY out of range of the target audience), and I’ll be watching along for episode 2 to see where it goes. I’ll just also cross my fingers that maybe Chibnall can sharpen his showrunning skills and occasionally deliver something close to the high points that both RTD and Moffatt pulled off.