Because We’re Friends Now: Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

She’s back. The Doctor is back. And that’s the first time I’ve ever been able to use that pronoun in relation to her. So now that we’ve got a new Doctor and a new showrunner and a new composer and three brand new companions, how does “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” fare?

Summary

A young man named Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) has created a vlog in honor of the greatest woman he’s ever known. We cut to Ryan trying to learn to ride a bike a bit earlier with the help of his grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and grandmother’s husband Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh). He gets angry that he can’t manage it—he has dyspraxia, a coordination disorder that makes it very difficult, and he tosses the bike down a hill. When he goes to retrieve it later, he sees strange lights in the woods and taps at it. Soon after, an object appears, sort of pod-like. He calls the police, and the person who gets the call is a woman named Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) who he went to school with. Ryan insists this is not a prank, but she’s not sure she believes him.

Ryan gets a call from his grandmother, who was on her way home via train with Graham when a strange ball of energy hit the train; they couldn’t evacuate because their door was jammed, but everyone else managed to exit. It’s just them and another young man named Karl (Jonny Dixon). Suddenly someone falls through the roof of the train and begins defending them, but she can’t remember her name. It’s the Doctor, and Ryan and Yaz arrive soon after she does. The strange ball of energy hits everyone with a blast and abruptly exits. The Doctor insists on investigating the whole thing herself (she can’t remember quite how she got there or who she is yet), and convinces the group not to run straight to the police, admitting that she’s an alien and the thing that just came after them certainly is as well. She enlists their help; Graham checks in with his bus driver pals (his former job that he’s retired from), Yaz goes back to work to find out if anything weird has gone on, Ryan take the Doctor back to where he found the pod, but it’s gone.

The pod was towed away by someone who is helping a young man named Rahul (Amit Shah), who linked the appearance of this pod to the disappearance of his sister seven years ago. He turns a camera on it, and when the pod cracks open, the being inside kills Rahul and take one of his teeth. Meanwhile, the Doctor is forced to reveal to her new friends that when the weird orb zapped them, it implanted them all with DNA bombs that can melt them all down at a moment’s notice. She converts Ryan’s phone into a tracker for the pod, and they find it along with Rahul’s body. The Doctor builds herself a new sonic screwdriver, then finds the recall part of the pod that will send it back to its home location. One of Graham’s friends then calls, having seen the orb, and the group goes to intercept. The Doctor learns that the orb is a Gathering Coil, which is collecting data for the being from the pod, a member of the Stenza warrior race named Tzim-Sha; he is using the Coil to help him hunt a human—once he has killed the tagged human in question, he can lead his people. The man he tagged turns out to be Karl from the train, and the DNA bombs were planted on the group to stop them from interfering with his hunt. He absorbs all the data from the Coil and leaves.

The group track down Karl at the construction firm where he works. Tzim-Sha gets hold of Karl despite their best efforts, but the Doctor has the recall device from his pod and threatens to drop it. She remembers who she is now, and insists that he leave the world alone. Tzim-Sha refuses and detonates the DNA bombs, but the Doctor transferred them back to the Coil when they last interacted with it; when Tzim-Sha absorbed all the data from the coil, he also absorbed the bombs, and has now killed himself. The Coil is still present on the site, and Grace tells Graham to help her disable it. In doing so, she is mortally wounded. It turns out that the video Ryan made at the start of the episode was for her, and Graham speaks at her funeral. The Doctor asks for her friends Yaz, Graham, and Ryan to help her get some new clothes and find her TARDIS. She cobbles together some tech to help her arrive where the ship has bounced off to. When she activates it, she accidentally transports not just herself, but the whole group—

—and they’re in empty space.

Commentary

So, I have to start by addressing the big upset with this episode… and that’s Grace.

Knowing, as fans generally do, that she wasn’t set to be one of the main companions for the season, I was worried that Grace might die when we met her at the start of the episode. But then I thought, no, they couldn’t do that. On the very first episode showcasing a female Doctor, they wouldn’t kill another woman, an older woman, a woman of color, just as we were coming back into the fold. An incredible woman in her own right, a woman who makes it clear that she should be the companion, they wouldn’t do that to her or to us. (Is it wrong that I’m enjoying this? she says to Graham right before she dies, because that’s what Doctor’s companions often say, they love the mystery and they want the adventure and they throw themselves right into it.) But she dies, and what’s worse, it’s basically used as a lesson. She asks Graham not to be scared without her, the video that Ryan is recording at the start turns out to be about her, and Graham talks at the funeral about how Grace is the person who embraced life and encouraged him not to squander his time. We learn that she did the same for Ryan, that Ryan’s support had been his mother initially before her death; his dad doesn’t show up at the funeral because he’s not reliable. Now it’s on Graham to step up for Ryan and be the male figure he doesn’t seem to have in his life.

And look, if the point here is meant to be that women often do this—that they inspire the men in their lives, but make it easier for them to hide away because they’re doing the majority of the emotional labor—it’s not a bad message to put in any piece of television. We see her doing this work for both Ryan and Graham, and how they each realize they have to step up in her absence. Graham continues to help the Doctor even though he’s uneasy, and Ryan keeps working at learning to ride his bike now that she’s not there to help. But even if there is a longer arc at work here, it’s just not fair. It’s not fair that we had to lose Grace, who would have been an incredible companion in her own right, to help Graham and Ryan grow. Women don’t have to be snuffed out to make room for male development, women are not damned training wheels. There were other ways this could have gone down, and I miss this woman already. I miss everything that she deserved to experience and all the adventures she’ll never get to have. Perhaps something miraculous will happen—Doctor Who is known for it’s share of revivals and reunions—but I’m not giving them any points until I see it.

So that’s one half of this journey, the part that hurts.

The other half is the Thirteenth Doctor. And she’s blinding in her exuberance. She is sharp and bright at the edges and she feels like a great big hug. She is a little brilliant and a little scary, just as the Doctor should be.

There are small and pointed differences here that only help her shine brighter. Some of those differences harken back to older incarnations; this Doctor likes to delegate, which was the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) all over. And that makes sense, given that she’s going to be running around with a crew instead of one steadfast pal. But there are other moments that speak to the places where this Doctor will be different. Toward the middle of the adventure this Doctor takes a moment to acknowledge that this is frightening for her human companions and that she’s sorry they’re having to suffer, to see death and pain on what should have been a normal day. While the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) was known for his frequent “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”s, this is something else. This is a Doctor who more frequently notices the toll on those around her and makes an effort to say so. She doesn’t get so wrapped up that she fails to care about those around her. That’s brand new.

Another aspect that really brings this new Doctor through is her construction of her own sonic screwdriver. By the end of showrunner Steven Moffat’s tenure, he had mythologized every aspect of the Doctor, even down to the trusty screwdriver—the Twelfth Doctor’s sprang, fully formed, from the TARDIS console and into his hands, like the Lady of Lake bestowing Excalibur on a heroic knight. But the root of the Doctor’s character was never as a fighting archetypal mythic protagonist, it was as a curious scientist. “I’m good at making things,” she says, and she’s right, that has always been a key component of the character. Tinkering with the TARDIS, making odd bits of equipment, understanding how alien tech works, that is the Doctor. The sonic screwdriver is not bestowed upon her, it is something she has to will into existence with her know-how… this time with Sheffield steel.

I love that there’s a sense of imprinting again, as though the Doctor has immediately taken on the accent of her companions, who all have the same Yorkshire-area lilt. I love that her companions all have different reasons for wanting to spend the time with her; Yasmin wants more excitement in her life, Graham needs to broaden his horizons without fear, Ryan needs more people in his life he can rely on. I love that the Doctor picks out her clothes in a second-hand thift shop without the TARDIS wardrobe room on hand.

The plot’s a little rote this time around, but most first Doctor episodes go through that. It’s a reestablishment rather than a brand new thought, and the villain is appropriately gross and odious. Tim Shaw, as the Doctor calls him, is cowardly and he’s cruel and he doesn’t need much explaining or deserve much understanding. It’s reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor’s emergence in that Thirteen doesn’t give her opponent a second chance; she allows him to essentially pull the trigger on himself, and doesn’t feel bad because she knows he’s uninterested in seeing the value of other lives.

The soundtrack, courtesy of new composer Segun Akinola, is gorgeous and sets a brand new tone for the show. (We didn’t get a title sequence this time, so we still have that to look forward to…) We haven’t seen the TARDIS yet, but the redesign is sure to be exciting. So far the show’s design has been just the right level of creepy versus campy. I kept referring to Tim Shaw’s pod as the “giant Hershey’s kiss,” which is exactly the right amount of weirdo whimsy for Doctor Who. If it keeps up in that direction, we’ll have plenty to enjoy.

There are a lot of questions to be answered, particularly in how the new Doctor will break down her dynamic with this set of companions, and how or why they choose to stay on board with her. (They’re all pretty instantly likable, so I’m excited to learn more about each of them in turn.) They have yet to set a clear tone for the run of the series, so we’re not sure if we’re going to be getting a scarier feel, or a funnier one, or a longform plot to follow. It would be nice if more episodes name-checked old scifi favorites (“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is clearly a play on “The Man Who Fell to Earth”), just for the sake of silly trivia.

So it’s not a hit-the-ground running sort of feel, but Whittaker is captivating without a doubt, and her companions are a charming crew. I’d stay just to watch her monologue, and the series will hopefully only go up from here.

Emily Asher-Perrin can’t really believe Doctor Who is back after all this. You can bug him on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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