“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield.”
We do now. And one of them is the Thirteenth Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker. Her first adventure, ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’, airs on BBC One on October 7th – kicking off a new era for Doctor Who with Whittaker at its heart and Chris Chibnall at the helm.
The first episode works hard
The opening episode of series 11 has a lot of work to do. As well as creating an entertaining stand-alone adventure, winning over potential new audiences, keeping existing fans as happy as feasibly possible and setting the tone and style for a new era of the show, there are a some serious introductions required.
There is a vibrancy and energy and overwhelming positivity to Whittaker’s Doctor from the start
In 65 minutes, the task showrunner Chibnall sets himself is to introduce a new Doctor while making sure we care about the gang of friends who will be accompanying her in her Tardis (once she locates it). And, cannily, he makes us wait for a first glimpse of Whittaker.
We learn what links Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole), and we meet Sharon D Clarke, who is just brilliant in a recurring role, before the Doctor crashes into their world.
It’s set in Sheffield in 2018
The opening episode is a tour de force from Yorkshire (and yes, it even features cycling). It is grounded in a place, Sheffield, and in a time, now. This sets the series up for adventures back and forth in time and across the universe – as we see what home looks like and feels like for the Doctor’s new friends. Are they running away? Seeking adventure? Accidental tourists? All will be revealed. But by the time ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is over, they are all, in their own way, desperately seeking something.
The new series has a more cinematic feel
Everything about the show feels new. The look, thanks in part to new anamorphic camera lenses offering a more cinematic feel, is vast and epic – even when the action is set on a gloomy building site in Sheffield on a chilly night.
The sound has also been modernised and, at the screening, we were treated to the Segun Akinola’s new version of the theme tune, featuring Delia Derbyshire’s original soundscapes. He’s clearly one to watch. And listen to.
The new Doctor is energetic and vibrant
“Half an hour ago, I was a white-haired Scotsman.”
So, what of Whittaker’s Doctor? Well, first things first, it is too soon to judge Jodie. The episode starts with the Doctor mid-regeneration, faculties not yet fully firing, memory scrambled, outfit shredded and ill-fitting. And it doesn’t rush to reunite her with her full intellect, rebuild her Tardis or reveal her instantly iconic new look.
But there is a vibrancy and energy and overwhelming positivity to Whittaker’s Doctor from the start. A genuine warmth and wit. And kindness as well. It was Capaldi’s 12th Doctor who said, in the 2017 series finale, ‘The Doctor Falls’: “I do what I do because it is right. Because it’s decent. And, above all, it’s kind.”
Well, Whittaker’s Doctor has this kindness at her core as she starts to find herself. We see it in a late scene with Ryan, the Doctor offering the kind of post-incident after-care she has not always delivered in the past.
And there is no cynicism. In place of dry wit is a little more lightness and propensity to laughter. She is a team player, her human friends are savoured and celebrated. There is no snark or mockery, so far, in her relationships with Graham, Yasmin or Ryan.
Incidentally, judging by the chaos and cacophony of laughter as the new lead actors joked their way through the post-screening Q&A in Sheffield – whether it was Gill and Whittaker competing over who had the strongest Yorkshire accent, Walsh’s luvvie voice as he regaled us with showbiz tales, or Cole’s love of napping – it is something of a marvel they managed to complete any filming at all.
But the new series still has a dark side
But this is not a softer version of the show. The on-screen edge remains. There is a real darkness, a surprisingly high bodycount, and there is politics in the series opener. Look out for a nod to some big issues, handled with ease and charm but delivered with genuine feeling.
In his speech about kindness, Capaldi’s Doctor went on to say: “If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do.”
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That resignation has regenerated into a renewed desire to help. Any anxiety over whether the Doctor is “a good man” is long gone. This new Doctor is a great woman from the get-go. The insta-impression is that Whittaker’s Doctor relishes a battle but has lost the world-weariness that has eventually overtaken successive Doctors as losses mount and terrors take their toll. This is a Doctor redrawn, renewed and revived.
This new Who era is going to be FUN
“Right, this is going to be fun.”
The Doctor starts off with nothing. No Tardis. No Sonic Screwdriver. No companions or friends. No clothes that fit. The weight of no worlds on her shoulders.
This is a new Doctor with two big hearts and kindness to spare. But there is steel alongside her new line in self-deprecation. After a relatively low-key introduction, we watch her build a new world and a new future, with a little help from her new friends.
There are shades of The A Team as she holes up in a garage full of analogue equipment and constructs the tools of her trade, with a fine line in locally sourced materials. This is where we really start to see the eccentricity and the effervescence we have known and loved in the past and that will continue to delight us as we travel with her into the future.
This IS going to be fun.
Doctor Who airs on Sunday 7th October at 6.45pm on BBC One
Main image: BBC/Doctor Who