Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”

[Contains big spoilers for the above Doctor Who episode. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should do that first. Not just because of this blog post, but because you really should see it, ideally right now.]

I’m 24 years old and I can’t ride a bike.

Perhaps stereotypically of autistic people, my hand-eye co-ordination leaves a lot to be desired, and I never graduated from stabilisers. It’s never been a problem – even during the years I spent in Oxford, where cyclists seem to outnumber vehicles – but it was always something I’d shy away from talking about. Everyone else learned to ride a bike at a young age, I thought, and if I admit I still haven’t, they’ll all laugh me out of the room. I thought I was the only one.

Yet within minutes of Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) arriving on our screens, his fellow dyspraxic people (and us neurodivergent cousins!) were sharing the same story in public online spaces as if it were a badge of honour.

This is just one example of the power of representation. It might seem trivial to some, especially if you’re used to seeing people like you as fully-fledged characters, but it really does have a big impact. For me, like many female Who fans, this also explains why Jodie Whittaker’s new incarnation of the Doctor gives me all the feelings – feelings I can’t quite articulate. It’s been days since the Thirteenth Doctor’s proper debut, and over a year since she first pulled back her hood and revealed her new face to the world, and still the best I can come up with is “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place”. (You might have noticed I say that a lot. It’s shorthand for that joy.)

I was also lucky enough to be able to watch The Woman Who Fell To Earth with Oxford Doctor Who Society and experience a very crowded room suddenly falling silent – I got to share in the anticipation, the excitement, the goosebumps. Frankly, they could have put anything on screen and I’d have loved it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to try very hard.

Through Ryan’s YouTube-framed introduction, we were still given the “companion’s eyes” perspective I thought might be lacking given the larger ensemble this series. We then meet an array of characters who all work brilliantly. There’s Yasmin (Mandip Gill), “Yaz to my friends”, a trainee police officer desperate to experience more than just parking disputes, and a large part of one of the Doctor’s first interactions (“I’m calling you Yaz, ’cause we’re friends now”). Then there’s Grace (Sharon D Clarke), Ryan’s adventure-hungry grandmother, and her second husband Graham (Bradley Walsh), whose fraught relationship with his step-grandson will hopefully improve over the course of the series. Walsh’s character largely plays the role of the sensible, rational human who’s more concerned about keeping safe than keeping aliens at bay, often to comedic effect: “Why is she running at another alien?! … Now you’re ALL running at it!”. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this reminded me of Rory Williams and his dismay at “actual aliens of death” in The Eleventh Hour.) At this point, you may be wondering why one of these characters is conspicuously absent from the promotion around “the Doctor’s new friends” – more on that later, but it’s probably exactly why you think it is.

Before long, they’re all joined by a strange woman crash-landing into a train near Sheffield – and instantly, she’s the Doctor. (“Don’t panic! Not the end of the world. Well, it COULD be the end of the world, but one thing at a time.”) This is where my thoughts turn back into “Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor and the world is a wonderful place” again, because she just is, she’s just there, being the Doctor, whether a handful of naysayers like it or not. And to top it all off, we’re treated to a few unexpected seconds of the new Doctor Who theme.

There are big changes off-screen as well as on, and I particularly enjoyed Segun Akinola’s more electronic soundtrack. As promised by incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall, the overall look of the show is more cinematic, albeit visually darker than I’d expected from the series promotion.

As with most post-regeneration episodes, the Doctor is still finding her feet and suffering the physical after-effects. However, in contrast to The Christmas Invasion and Deep Breath, in which David Tennant and Peter Capaldi respectively spend most of the episode in pyjamas, this Doctor’s collapse is kept brief, allowing us to see more of Whittaker in action. Instead, the change is marked by her vivid descriptions of how regeneration feels: “Every cell in my body burning… There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am”. We see the new Doctor forge herself a brand new sonic screwdriver – “Swiss Army sonic with a touch of Sheffield steel” – again with an excellent soundtrack which could turn out to be the Thirteenth Doctor’s theme.

You’d be forgiven for overlooking the main villainous threat amongst all these new protagonists, but the tooth-stealing Stenza credited as Tim Shaw added to the unexpectedly dark undertones. Brutally murdering a couple of characters we’d just warmed up to along the way, his target is Karl – another unlikely action hero, whose calming affirmations include a nice line of subtle foreshadowing: “Somebody out there wants me”. It’s worth noting that some interpreted Karl’s relaxation tapes and affirmations as mocking, but I read it as endearing – he might be terrified and wish he was anywhere else, but he is special, he is valued, and he will achieve his goals, even when those goals suddenly involve escaping a bloodthirsty alien. There’s a lot crammed into this scene – the Doctor’s leap across the cranes is on a par with her powerful “I’m the Doctor” moment – and while Tim Shaw is largely handwaved away, there’s still one last gut-punch in store…

In hindsight, introducing then immediately killing off a female character to further the backstory of the two male companions feels out of step with the generally progressive direction of the new series. Still, Grace’s death highlights some important things about how the other characters are written – notably, rather than running off into her next adventure, this Doctor stays for the consequences of the previous one, supporting her new friends through the funeral. And secondly – thank goodness – Ryan isn’t suddenly able to ride a bike through willpower alone. Earlier in the episode, a brief and unimportant stumble on the crane ladder shows Chibnall isn’t just going to forget Ryan’s dyspraxia when convenient; the overall effect is that Ryan is and always will be the way he is, and that’s okay, even if he doesn’t yet see that for himself.

After the Doctor chooses her new outfit, The Woman Who Fell To Earth goes out on a high. The final shots, in the vacuum of space, are so beautiful that it took me a few seconds to realise they actually depicted a catastrophic failure. Then, finally, the new theme! With the original melody line, and the middle eight! We’re left with more still to look forward to – the title sequence, the TARDIS, and that slightly strange roll-call of actors all help to persuade the many curious new viewers to come back next week.

Of course, every episode has its flaws – Yaz was a little sidelined in amongst the barrage of introductions, Grace’s death was fairly predictable, the threat was seemingly defeated off-screen and ends with a rushed judgement of Karl which goes nowhere – but in the moment of broadcast, none of these things particularly mattered. For me, this episode was about character introductions and, again, all the feelings. The Doctor’s “Hi! Us again!” with her new friends in tow, the Doctor waving around her new sonic, the Doctor discovering her identity anew, the Doctor talking about how she carries her lost family with her, the Doctor’s now-already-familiar new outfit… The Doctor has well and truly arrived, and apparently pretty much everything she says or does still gives me that burst of excitement.

There are a few throwaway references to the Doctor’s new gender (“It’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes…”), but it’s largely ignored; in-universe, it doesn’t matter, and rightly so. In our universe as viewers, though, it really does matter. On Sunday night, millions of women felt the sadly unfamiliar delight of seeing themselves in the hero. Young children of all genders are seeing a woman take charge, seeing a woman be strange and goofy and funny and still be taken seriously as a leader, and in time that will have real-world consequences.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and the world might not be a completely wonderful place yet, but she’s given many of its inhabitants a much-needed injection of hope.

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3 thoughts on “Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”

  1. Lovely analysis. I’m 59 now, never learned to ride a bike, and that scene meant the world to me. If I am dyspraxic, it was never diagnosed, I don’t think anyone was aware of it in the 1960s. But I’ve always had very poor co-ordination, and couldn’t catch a ball until my teens. I still can’t swim.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved Jodie Whittaker, she became The Doctor from the get-go, but the plot had a number of flaws in it that spoiled it for me. Why did the alien teleport to the wrong side of the fence, except to cut a hole for The Doctor? And how did someone with dyspraxia climb down a building, drive to a building site and climb up a crane faster than a teleporting super-fast alien who had out-run them a few minutes earlier? And what were the DNA bombs all abou? Surely you just kill the witnesses – they mean nothing to you. Why leave them alive to talk?

    Liked by 1 person

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