REVIEW: Doctor Who S11E01 – “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

episode 1 - grace, yasmin, thirteen, ryan, and grahamIt’s the first episode of the Thirteenth Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) run. It’s the first episode of Chris Chibnall, the new showrunner’s, era. It’s the first episode to feature new companions Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), and Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole). It’s the first episode featuring Segun Akinola, the new composer for the show. To say there’s a lot riding on this new episode would be an understatement. The big question is: does it deliver on all it sets out to? Does it work as a jumping on point for new viewers and a continuation of the show beloved by millions? How’s Jodie Whittaker’s performance as the first female Doctor? How’s Chris Chibnall’s first episode fully crafted by him (and not overseen by a separate showrunner)? Is it a good episode of TV? The short answer to that final question is: yes. (NOTE: There will be spoilers within this review!)

Episode 1101: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jaime Childs)
“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield.” In a South Yorkshire city, Ryan Sinclair, Yasmin Khan and Graham O’Brien are about to have their lives changed forever as a mysterious woman, unable to remember her own name, falls from the night sky. Can they believe a word she says? And can she help solve the strange events taking place across the city?

Guest starring Sharon D. Clarke, Johnny Dixon and Samuel Oatley.

Doctor Who Series 11I’m actually impressed at how good this episode was. I wasn’t expecting it to be bad or anything but based off of Chris Chibnall’s previous Doctor Who writing, I wasn’t expecting an episode this good this soon. Everything about this episode just worked for me. The characters were well defined, well introduced, and well developed; the plot was interesting, well-paced, and featured a satisfying conclusion; and the monster was the right mixture of scary and compelling, with an interesting backstory and motivation that just worked. It was a bit darker than I was expecting it to be, both visually and thematically. There’s a lot of death in this episode, and it’s all grounded in a much more realistic way than previous seasons of Doctor Who have been, which makes the darkness of those deaths hit home a bit harder than they previously would have. The plot itself isn’t super amazing or original, but it absolutely succeeds in all the ways it needs to. It presents an interesting enough mystery with a satisfying conclusion. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it didn’t need to. It just needed to get the ball rolling, and that’s exactly what it did.

yasmin, ryan, grahamStronger than the plot is all the new characters that we’re introduced to in this episode. Before I talk about the Doctor, I just wanna talk about the new companions a bit. Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) is the first person we meet in the episode. A YouTube video made by him ends up being the framing device through which we enter the events of the story, and it’s something that, while not particularly original, actually works pretty well in the context of the story. Ryan is a nineteen-year-old man dealing with a disorder known as dyspraxia (a disorder that severely impacts a person’s coordination skills). He joins his grandmother, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), and step-grandfather, Graham (Bradley Walsh), atop a hill in Sheffield as he continues to try to master the art of riding a bike. The three of them have a dynamic that’s immediately captivating to watch. Grace tries her hardest to be supportive of Ryan, almost to the point of him feeling smothered by her support and patience, while Graham is a bit harder on him, leading to Ryan and Graham having a bit of a strained relationship. Tosin Cole is remarkable as Ryan. He brings this softness to the character that’s really engaging to watch. From his first scenes, you can see how his struggle with dyspraxia (and the torment it’s likely caused him) has weighed him down. You can see how he gets frustrated with being pitied and just wants to be normal. Conversely, Bradley Walsh portrays Graham with a bit of harshness that I wasn’t expecting from him. He’s not exactly mean to Graham (or any of the other characters), but he has this air of no-nonsense that emanates from him. He’s very much of that mindset of not coddling the new generation, and it’s interesting to see his dynamic with Ryan (and later on with Yasmin and the Doctor) play out. Sharon D. Clarke’s Grace is a great counterbalance to Graham. Like Ryan, Grace is very soft and loving. She sees the best in people and wants the best for them. You can immediately see how much she loves Ryan and Graham and how much she wants them to get along and better each other and themselves. She’s a great guest addition to our core four and I hope that (even with the fate that bestows her at the end of the episode) we’re able to see more of her.

graham and yasminAfter throwing his bike down the hill in frustration, Ryan has to go retrieve it where he finds a mysterious alien pod, leading him to call the authorities. Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) is a probationary officer with the Sheffield police. She’s tired of working parking disputes and, after begging her supervisor for a more interesting case, gets assigned to check out the mysterious pod that Ryan reported. Turns out the two of them knew each other from school and watching them get reacquainted with each other is a lot of fun. Mandip Gill’s Yasmin probably gets the least to do in this episode, but Mandip is so enjoyable to watch as Yasmin that she’s able to shine even with the small amount she’s given to do (and I’m sure, as the season goes on, the show will give Yasmin more to do and will explore her more). Just as they’re getting reacquainted, Ryan gets a call from Grace (who is on a train with Graham back to their house) informing him about an electrical problem that has ground the train to a halt. It’s then that the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) crashes through the roof of the train and bursts onto the scene.

thirteen in gogglesFrom her first line, Jodie Whittaker perfectly embodies the Doctor. Even as she deals with the customary post-regeneration amnesia (which, thankfully, isn’t focused on all that much), it’s clear that she is the person in charge of the situation. She gives off such an aura of confidence, intelligence, and compassion that it’s immediately understandable why the various characters decide to listen to what she says without much backtalk (aside from Graham, who kind of says what any of us would say if we were in this situation). In terms of her performance, she’s very much a mixture of old and new. You can see traces of past Doctors within her performance, but she’s clearly bringing her own sensibility to the role, too. Even as the darker elements of the story take hold, Jodie’s Doctor still radiates this sense of excitement. Sure, there’s some terrible stuff happening, but this is all new to her Doctor and she’s excited to put an end to it.

tzim-shaThe Doctor has fallen from her TARDIS, which has subsequently disappeared, and finds herself trapped on Earth as she finishes healing from the regeneration. Immediately faced with the mystery of what this electrical creature they’ve found on the train wants, she takes charge and leads her new gang of friends as they work to save the day. Following her lead, the gang is led to a warehouse in Sheffield where they discover Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), an alien from the Stenza warrior race, who has come to Earth to hunt a specially selected human so he can become the new leader of his civilization. Tzim-Sha is a new alien and his design is really rather frightening. It turns out that he takes teeth from his victims and literally sticks them to his face. It makes for a really disturbing visual when he first takes off his helmet. It’s clear he’s a baddie, for sure. But the rest of his design is also really cool. His armor helps him cut a striking silhouette in the darkness. He immediately feels menacing and threatening and he makes for a good villain. His motivation is simple but still compelling. He’s not here to invade Earth and take over the planet or anything. He’s just here to hunt people, kind of like the Predator, and that has some darker undertones than a simple invasion does. I’d love for the Stenza to appear again in the show, maybe with the Doctor ending up on their planet and having to put a stop to their cruelty once and for all. But I digress, Tzim-Sha makes for a pretty great villain for an opening episode; the focus isn’t really on him, nor should it be. He’s immediately threatening and makes for a good catalyst to bring all the characters together.

episode 1 - thirteen and new sonicNaturally, the Doctor feels she must put a stop to this. The first thing to do: build her new Sonic Screwdriver. From there, the episode follows them as they end up on a construction site where a final confrontation with the alien occurs and Grace makes a major sacrifice to save the others. It’s a shame to see Grace go so quickly. She was a really enjoyable part of the gang, but it felt completely within her character that she’d give her life to save her grandson. It was emotionally satisfying seeing that happen, not that I wanted her to die, but it just felt like the culmination of her character’s arc throughout the episode. It edges a bit too close to a fridging of the character for my liking, but I can see how her death will impact not only Ryan and Graham but also Yasmin and the Doctor as the season goes on. And I hope that, somehow, this isn’t the end for Grace. It is Doctor Who, after all.

group in spaceThe episode ends after our characters leave Grace’s funeral. The Doctor, having obtained her new costume from a charity shop in a pretty funny sequence, enlists their help to create a machine that will help her find her TARDIS. She bids them goodbye as she turns the machine on and is teleported to wherever her TARDIS lands. The only problem is that she accidentally brings Graham, Yasmin, and Ryan along with her, and they’ve ended up being teleported in the middle of space. It’s a pretty shocking turn of the events, and the episode just ends right there, our last image being of our heroes floating in space, seemingly doomed. It’s a pretty great cliffhanger, and I’m extremely glad it existed. One of my biggest worries going into this season was the fact that the production team kept emphasizing how this season would be 10 stand-alone episodes with no overarching series plot. I prefer shows that are a bit serialized, at least. Something that connects the episodes together. It doesn’t need to be super in-depth; it can just be a few lines at the beginning and ends of the episodes that sorta tie it all together. But I want the series to build up to the finale so that the finale has higher stakes than your average episode. My biggest fear with the whole “ten stand-alone episodes” thing was that the finale wouldn’t feel like the culmination of everything that’s happened before it, that it wouldn’t have higher stakes or feel like the resolution to character and plot arcs. My fears have been assuaged, a bit, thanks to this cliffhanger. If this season continues in this regard, I’ll be a lot happier. There’s nothing wrong with ten individual adventures that are started and completed with the confines of a 50 minute episode, but I do like there to be some kind of throughline, whether it’s an overarching plotline or character arcs that last the whole season, that comes to a conclusion in the finale and I’m glad to see that there will be some kind of connective tissue between the episodes. That makes me happy.

Doctor Who Series 11All in all, The Women Who Fell to Earth is a really strong beginning to the Thirteenth Doctor’s era. It’s easily the best episode Chris Chibnall has written for the show. The plot, while nothing amazing or innovating, is completely serviceable and achieves everything it sets out to achieve. The characters are all really captivating and interesting and you’re immediately hooked into their stories and interested to see them grow and change. Tosin Cole’s Ryan is probably given the most to do out of any of the companions, but both Graham and Yasmin have some interesting stuff set up that I’m sure will pay off as the series goes on. This episode looks stunning. It’s clear that the budget for the show has either increased or more is being able to be done for less money. The new cameras help add a cinematic flair to the show that brings it up to date with other shows of its ilk. Segun Akinola (the new composer) provides a score that’s both evocative and understated. The music never calls attention to itself, but it always ends up working with the visuals and acting to help each scene pull of all that it’s trying to pull off. At the end of the day, this episode is a really promising start to the season. It was exciting and emotional and it left me wanting more from the characters and excited to see what happens next. What more can you ask for?

4.5 out of 5 wands

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