The Woman who Fell to Earth is an interesting beast; one I am still attempting to process in my head. Most notably, the shift in pace compared to more recent years is utterly staggering. We talked a lot about the show slowing down during the 2017 run of episodes. If series 10 was a case of pressing its foot against the brakes, then series 11 is performing an emergency stop. I don’t think it’s trying to world-build as such. There’s some nice little oddities in here that make the world feel lived in – particularly when the episode grinds to a halt to show us sneak peaks of extras’ lives before killing them off – but as a whole, it’s not trying to flesh out the city of Sheffield in any substantial depth. Instead I think the change in pace is Chibnall trying to tell the story of Doctor Who in a completely new way.
This isn’t a animated romp through the cosmos, it’s a sci-fi thriller. One that gradually unfolds and reshapes itself throughout its runtime. A plot doesn’t simply dump itself before our eyes right from the get go, it blossoms in slow motion, not taking its proper form until the final act. It’s an entirely new way of telling a Doctor Who story, and I think it’s fascinating.
This is certainly the case when it comes to the episode’s villain, Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley). Although he’s not all that interesting a antagonist, the way in which Tzim-Shaw becomes part of the plot feels very different to the more recent lineup of Doctor Who adversaries. He doesn’t simply fall into the episode and cause havoc, he bleeds into it one scene at a time. He’s a puzzle that gradually slots into place as the runtime progresses. This essentially creates a murder mystery type episode, one where we are trying to figure out who or what the villain is.
Pacing isn’t the only substantial change offered in the Woman who Fell to Earth. The overall look has drastically re-invented itself too. It’s darker, grittier, more atmospheric in design. This is furthermore reflected in Segun Akinola’s score. The previous 10 years of the show were composed by Murray Gold, who departed along with Moffat at the end of Twice Upon a Time. Gold went for big, brassy hits that charged to the forefront of every story. Akinola’s work is subtle, atmospheric and enigmatic. Gold’s music tugged the narrative along. Akinola props the narrative up.
The episode has its issues, I’m not going to deny that. The final act is rushed and unbalanced to start. Killing off Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) during the back half of the episode is a daft decision, particularly considering how great a character she is. Her openness and general enthusiasm for the events unfolding around her make her a perfect Doctor Who companion. Furthermore, her position as the mother figure to the Tardis team in this episode, not to mention her ability to act as a medium between the Doctor (Jodie Whitaker) and the less credulous characters in this episode makes her an excellent component within the show’s new multi-companion dynamic. Opting to turn her into a sob story for Graham (Bradley Walsh) and grandson Ryan (Tosin Cole) to bond over is one heck of a way to tarnish a brilliant character creation. Furthermore, wedging her funeral between the final showdown and Doctor changing her outfit sequence is a tonal car crash that should scene not have made it into the final draft of this script. there’s even a tendency during this closing act for characters to describe action that we’re either seeing, or action that the director has opted not to show us for whatever reason. Why the script suddenly decides to behave like it’s a Big Finish audio story as opposed to a televised episode of Doctor Who during the back half of the episode feels like yet another form of self-sabotage that could have been avoided with a couple more rewrites.
Be as all this may, I still find myself forgiving this episode for its faults. It’s a new production team trying their hardest to reinvent a show called that isn’t easy to reinvent. New show runner Chris Chibnall had the weight of the world on his shoulders here, and all things considered, if we look beyond the writing gaffs, there’s a lot to admire in here.
Whereas the main cast are still very much blank slates in need of further development, there’s a lot of potential here. The eleventh Doctor (Jodie Whitaker) still hasn’t fully settled into the role of the Doctor at this stage. She’s still finding her feet at this stage. But that’s fine. Matt Smith took a good six or seven episodes to define his character. Heck, Peter Capaldi took an entire 14 episodes to warm up as the Doctor. The gradual development of her persona fits in nicely with this new era’s restrained approach. Whitaker does a fine job of convincing us she’s the Doctor, which will hopefully make all the naysayers keep quiet for a couple of weeks. Though there’s still a lot of work to do in order to get her firing on all cylinders, this is a promising start that I’m confident will get even better over the course of the next handful of episodes.
The same logic can be applied to Ryan Sinclair, Graham O’Brien and Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill). There’s seeds of potential planted throughout this episode (Graham and Ryan’s strained relationship, plus Yaz’s position as a dissatisfied police officer to name two) that will hopefully blossom into something fascinating by the time this series comes to a close. Much like the 13th Doctor, they haven’t quite come into their own yet, but seeing as this is the first chapter in a 10-part series that’s establishing itself as a slow burner, nobody is expecting them to be fully formed just yet.
Freshness is the best way to describe this story. Even the introduction of three companions completely transforms the landscape of the series. We’re transitioning to a show with two leads to an entire recurring crew. One that can bring an entirely new dynamic to Doctor Who. The show has adopted family dynamics throughout its history; most recently with Rory, River and Amy, but this is the first time since the 80s in which we’ve had four people aboard the TARDIS on a weekly basis. It might not work – there’s signs of Chibnall struggling to write for all of them even here – but it’s going to be interesting to see him give this new model a shot.
Aside from its faults and flaws, this is perhaps the most engaging pilot episode we’ve had since 2010’s the Eleventh Hour. Its individuality and peculiarity is fascinating when watching for the first time. Doctor Who as an ambient thriller is a new take that promises something completely unlike what we’re use to. After 10 years of a formula that has only been tweaked mildly since its 2005 revival, it looks as though we’re finally witnessing yet another radical revitalisation in the show’s history. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my concerns, particularly regarding that final act, yet as of right now, I’m completely onboard with this. I genuinely have no idea what kind of shape this series will take by the time this run of episodes comes to a close; a fact that excites the life out of me.