***Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Doctor Who through Series 11, Episode 1 follow. Spoilers***
Amidst our current worldly turmoil and at exactly the perfect moment, it took only a change of writers and a spectacular, otherworldly woman to drop in and make so many things right. After decades of wonderful, morphing gentlemen trading their double-heartbeats among younger, older, fairer, grittier, stripe-scarfed, cowboy-hatted, sometimes-spectacled, to-coat-or-not-to-coat physical forms, the Thirteenth Doctor made her marvelous debut.
It is to her absolute credit that Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch, Trust Me, Black Mirror) somehow managed — through manner of speaking and her physicality — to evoke several of her male counterparts; perhaps through some unspoken osmosis, (at least) Doctors Four, Ten and Twelve are recalled, while at the same time Whittaker creates her positively exhilarating own new incarnation … still in progress, of course. Even the most jaded Whovians can surely see the benefit of finally changing things up, reflecting Earth in a way that will inspire children of all ages, genders, and races, opening minds to all possibilities.
We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been, and choose who we want to be next. Now’s your chance; how about it?” [Thirteenth Doctor]
Speaking of diversity, as marvelously written by Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch, Torchwood, Life on Mars), “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” doesn’t stop with a new Time Lord; we’re introduced to seemingly random folks who’ll turn out to be Thirteen’s new Companions, Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), as well as Ryan’s Nan — Grace — (Sharon D. Clarke). While at first the idea of three new Companions might seem overwhelming, by the end of the hour, the group perfecly gels as if reunited old friends; their natural, every-person camaraderie feels natural. They experience the meeting of this new alien right alongside viewers and unlike recent Who years, there’s nothing forced or quickly overfamiliar about their coming together.
Especially endearing is the introduction of Ryan Sinclair, who we first meet as he’s appropriately YouTubing about the “Greatest woman I ever met” (his Nan), and then quickly segue into the very human experience of learning to ride a bike — only, as a nineteen year old. Returned to our shared youthful memories and nodding along with Ryan’s frustrations (at any age, those first moments until a body learns to balance on a two-wheeled hunk of metal can be exasperating), the scene is all the more charming with the addition of Ryan’s ever-patient grandmother, Grace and her husband, Graham. If you were wondering how this leads to electrified octopi and rambunctious, robotic (murderous) racers, it starts with Ryan’s very adult bicycle tantrum; after he tosses his ride over a cliff, then calms and heads out to the woods to retrieve it, Sinclair discovers — touches — strange shapes appearing our of nowhere, and an oddly glowing gourd.
With a call to police that brings in an old acquaintance (and about to be Companion number three), Yasmin and Ryan contemplate the thing’s existence until a call comes in from Nan. Grace and Graham have encountered a second alien aboard their homebound train, where trapped inside a car, yet another — the supreme — alien crashes in the nick of time. Cue the usual awkward Human(s)-Meet-The-Doctor quipping (“You’re a woman” “Am I? Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman. I’ve lost my T.A.R.D.I.S.” “We don’t get aliens in Sheffield”), and we’ve no time for that because we’re about to be attacked. Thirteen quickly discovers there’s nothing helpful in her pocket and so, she goes to work with the best tool she has — her brain.
While the Doctor does her thing, the glowing gourd left behind in the forest is removed to a handily-equipped warehouse-like location by a grieving brother, who seems to both know and fear what he’s gotten himself into. Unfortunately for him, a Cybermanish alien soon emerges to perform a deadly mind-meld that leaves the man dead and minus a … tooth (trophy).
With the action flowing easily between the two incidents, parts of a puzzle start piecing together; even as Thirteen herself is attempting to solve the mystery connection and deal with the effects of her unfinished regeneration (“Who woke me up? I’m still healing; brain and body are still reformatting”), she’s as competent and fun as we’d expect the Doctor to be. She’s got DNA bombs to remove, aliens to wrangle and — in an absolutely thrilling sequence filled with the Doctor’s characteristically wild and frantic physicality (and spoons!) — a new Sonic Screwdriver (“… it’s more multipurpose than that. Like a Swiss army knife but without the knife. Only an idiot would carry a knife”) to build.
When it all comes together as these things eventually do, through Thirteen we find there are two alien creatures on Earth, one of which — “Tim Shaw” — is merely using humans as sport in a hunting game and the other, a conglomerate of intelligence-gathering tentacles — the latter of which the Doctor manages to turn on the first (The Stenza) to send Tim Shaw home. Unfortunately and meanwhile, Grace’s attempt to help ends with a fall to her death, all the more sad because of the warmth Sharon D. Clarke brought to her character (and the hour).
As the Doctor settles into her own self (and new wardrobe), bidding her would-be adieu to new friends, Ryan, Yas and Graham, and tracking the T.A.R.D.I.S.’ energy to locate her missing mode of time travel, she takes a deep breath and heads into space … accidentally bringing along a few Companions.
What a thrill it is to finally welcome, not only a newly gendered Doctor, but also her excellent Companions. This is a great cast, and to see people of color and women so prominently featured is truly changing the game.
Jodie Whittaker’s Sonic Screwdriver creation was utterly enthralling. In that scene, she inhabited everything we love about the Doctor, regardless of who has played the character — fun, smart, excited, creative, spontaneous — and that the writing was likewise smart throughout .. what a breath of fresh air.
I know it’s a long shot, but here’s hoping Grace somehow makes it back to life (this is a time travel series). Sharon D. Clarke was a welcome warm presence, and she’ll be missed.
During the Doctor Who Comic-Con panel, Whittaker mentioned that every part of her costume has a special meaning that will be discovered along the season’s journey.
I’m calling you Yas, cause we’re friends now.
I was expecting a tentacley thing.
I’m slower ’cause of all this fizzing inside.
They find dead guy.
Really could use my .. I could build one. I’m good at building things, probably.
There’s this moment where you’re sure you’re about to die and then, you’re born.
When people need help, I never refuse.
Ta-da! It should be fine.
Give me nine minutes and a bit of quiet, and I’ll be ready to roll.
Of course it worked; I’m not an amateur.
I’m really craving a fried egg sandwich.
These legs definitely used to be longer.
I’m just a traveler, sometimes I see things need fixing, I do what I can.