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Doctor Who Series 11: 10 Big Questions After ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ –

 

 

Doctor Who returned on Sunday night in spectacular style. Judging from the incredibly strong overnights in the UK, it looks set to have achieved its task of turning around the show’s fortunes. The proof of course will be in how many people tune in again next week, but for now it’s great to see everyone talking about the show again.

Some of the reactions were to be expected. An actor of the calibre of Jodie Whittaker was always going to win people over, and she did not disappoint. It was clear that the series was going to eschew recent trends and appeal to a new, younger audience. And it was always going to provoke mixed views on the new showrunner’s more conventional approach to plotting, and less layered handling of themes.

But what is unexpected, is how it has appealed across the board – bringing back to the fold disillusioned fans, some of whom stopped watching in 2005, and welcoming a large contingent of newcomers. This is exactly what Chris Chibnall had set out to achieve, and he must be credited for doing just that. A remarkable, seemingly impossible feat.

As usual the episode has thrown up a number of questions, some related to the plot and others to the future direction of the series.

10. Exactly How Different Was This Doctor Who?

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Series 11 has been heavily marketed as a new direction for the show. A break from the heavily nostalgic and complex plotting of recent years and the perfect entry point for new fans.

It was pretty evident from this first script that characters have been prioritised over story. This was very much a back to basics approach with the Doctor stepping in to save the day and by making the threat personal rather than global it allowed the dialogue to focus on the individual characters – the Doctor, the new companions and the Stenza’s target Karl. Even the alien was treated as an individual, with his own personal hang-ups and ambitions.

The Doctor is immediately more accessible than her predecessors, happy to settle for tea and a fried egg sandwich – a deliberate contrast to the Eleventh Doctor’s quirky fish-fingers and custard. Indeed, this story is what The Eleventh Hour might have been had Amy not been such a mysterious character, or had the plot not been part of a wider series-long arc. With Yaz a probationary Police Officer we have moved away from the ‘not as it seems’ approach of much of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, which was initially signalled by Amy Pond turning out to be a strip-o-gram and not a real officer.

There is much here to delight the long-term fan, however – from the sampling of the original theme tune to the presentation of the Doctor as a great improviser and blagger. “Don’t worry, I have a plan” is a line that could have been uttered by any of the Doctors, before stepping into the breach in blind faith. The Doctor is still very matter-of-fact about death, only this time she doesn’t walk away oblivious to the impact on her human friends. She takes stock, considers, watches and above all understands.

9. What Did We Learn About The New Doctor?

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It’s not clear whether the Doctor will have a catchphrase – early contenders are her first line in Twice Upon a Time – “Oh, brilliant.” “Let’s get a shift on” from the trailers, and in this episode “It should be fine”.

The story follows the convention of the Doctor needing time to adjust to her new body and personality, but rather than acting out of character the major side-effect this time around is her loss of memory. So we can expect the same character traits to stay for the duration.

This Doctor shares the childlike charms of Pat Troughton, Tom Baker and Matt Smith, as in when she asks if Yaz can turn on the sirens and lights. But it is David Tennant’s tenth Doctor that is most evident, perhaps no surprise given the two actors friendship. The enthusiasm, the excitement and the energy of the thirteenth Doctor are very much out of the Tennant stable. It may also be a deliberate move given the huge popularity of the Tenth Doctor with the general audience.

Whittaker’s Doctor is adept at making gadgets. The sonic screwdriver is made from scratch out of necessity, but the Doctor’s enjoyment of this particular challenge and her rebooting of Ryan’s phone suggests this might be a recurring talent.

A clear distinctive is the Thirteenth Doctor’s willingness to embrace her weaknesses. She doesn’t seem overly concerned with not knowing the answers, or with being out of her depth – a welcome change from the Twelfth Doctor’s struggles to embrace his flaws. A hint of panic is as important to her saving the day as is the adrenaline rush. There is a moment when we wonder if she is prepared to gamble with her friends lives in the stand-off with Tim Shaw, but it turns out she has covered the bases, protecting them in case her plan backfires. That extra care isn’t often seen with her predecessors.

8. What Else Did It Remind Us Of?

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In places, the episode felt more like other shows than Doctor Who. Most notably there is a clear Stranger Things vibe, both with the music and the opening scenarios of a missing person and Ryan encountering an alien object from another dimension. The uncompromising approach to death and loss is also very much a feature The Woman Who Fell to Earth shares with the popular Netflix show.

Segun Akinola’s excellent score, aside from a lovely throwback to the original Doctor Who theme when the Doctor first appears, channels a number of other shows from hints of The Six Million Dollar Man when the Doctor jumps from one crane to another (also used in Stranger Things), to the sustained single notes that call to mind some of the music from Chibnall’s Broadchurch.

While the villain of the piece is an all too obvious Predator clone, in terms of the world of cinema the key association is with 2016’s reimagined Ghostbusters movie. That scene where the Doctor is building her sonic calls to mind Kate McKinnon’s Holzmann, a feature of Whittaker’s performance as a whole – surely no coincidence given the respective gender changes.

Whilst some fans were suggesting a Sarah Jane Adventures vibe, the influence of the more adult Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, was far more readily apparent, a show that Chris Chibnall had worked on as lead writer and co-producer. The Stenza is very much a concept more naturally at home there than the CBBC series, particularly in the gruesome way in which they dispatch their victims and take their trophies. There is a grittiness to this opening episode that adds a surprisingly dark element to the family orientated show.

7. How Did The Doctor Survive That Fall?

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The last time the Doctor sustained a comparable unbroken fall, he was clearly left in a battered and broken state even though it was a far shorter drop (The End of Time). In fact, the Fourth Doctor regenerates as a result of a lesser fall. Yet Jodie Whittaker survives relatively unscathed. Last seen being forcibly evicted from the TARDIS in mid-flight we are supposed to believe that she has crashed through a train to land in the carriageway, only to get up and dust herself down like nothing had happened.

Given the grittiness of the episode and the deliberate move away from the magical realism of the Moffat years it is more on an issue than it otherwise might have been. Whilst this is obviously a plot shortcut, there is a possible explanation for those unhappy with the suspension of disbelief expected of them. We have previously seen that for the first few hours post-regeneration the Doctor’s body has some remarkable healing properties. If the Tenth Doctor can regrow a hand that had been chopped off by the Sycorax, then it’s not that big a stretch to see the same healing properties at work here.

The Doctor’s regeneration energy is featured in the episode when she is sleeping on Grace’s sofa, and we even get to see a bit of it hover away, though it’s left a little unclear exactly where it’s going or why. We can at least use it to surmise that the Doctor’s body is still in the regenerative process when it falls into the train.

6. Will Sharon Clarke Be Back?

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One of the most common criticisms of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who was the ease with which characters could cheat death, and in some cases come back to life (even if only temporarily). The Woman Who Fell to Earth includes several irreversible deaths and it’s hard not to see it as part of the quest to establish a clear break from the past. For all the hype about bringing Doctor Who to the masses, it is clear than the complaints of a certain subsection of fans have been listen to and perhaps even shared.

But what of Sharon Clarke as Grace? The actress was one of the first to be officially announced and we were led to believe she would be a recurring character. Is this simply a case of the production team covering up one of the biggest potential spoilers for episode one? Probably not, especially given that when she is first introduced as Ryan’s Grandmother, it’s pretty clear that Ryan had been talking about her in the opening segment, as he mourns a woman he loved.

It would be a surprising move to have her character return from the dead, especially given that the three remaining companions will inevitably pull closer together as a result of Grace’s death, a point foreshadowed by Ryan not being able to call her second husband, Graham, his grandfather. If there is a deliberate move away from fairytale endings, then it’s even more unlikely to happen.

One possible clue, could be in the name. Grace was a companion of the eighth Doctor, who way before Moffat claimed the copyright on it, was brought back to life by the Doctor and his TARDIS (together with Chang Lee). Alternatively, the team may simply go back in time and meet a younger version of the character.

5. What Has Happened To The TARDIS?

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So the TARDIS has materialised in a galaxy, far far away. But why? Has somebody taken control over her, is she sitting in quarantine jealously guarded by a bespectacled Spoilerphobe Beast? The episode ends with the Doctor expecting to rendezvous with the TARDIS, only to find herself and, to her horror (and probably delight), her friends floating in deep space.

It would be quite possible to keep the TARDIS until the final episode, but given the range of locations and time periods we already know the team will be exploring, that seems unlikely. Plus, there have been a few location report photographs of the TARDIS in situ, suggesting we won’t have to wait quite that long.

One of the peculiarities of the opening episode was the foregoing of the credits roll. There are a number of possible explanations – the desire to save the Doctor’s signature theme to her first appearance in the train, or a decision to introduce it, uncut, compete with the middle eight, in the first end credits. But more interestingly, might it be the case that the TARDIS interior features in the credits animation in some way? If so, then there is a strong possibility that the travellers will quickly find themselves in the safety of the Doctor’s ship just before the first eleventh series titles run. Indeed, they might already be in the TARDIS for all we know.

In an interview at the San Diego Comic Con, Whittaker let slip that not everybody will be happy with the gender switch. This implies an encounter with somebody who already knows the Doctor, and the most likely suspect has to be the TARDIS herself. Maybe nobody has taken her after all, and she’s simply gone off in a huff.

4. Will The Doctor Revisit Her Past?

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There was a lovely little scene following Grace’s funeral where Yaz asks the Doctor if she has any family. The Doctor replies “No. Lost them a long time ago. I carry them with me. What they would have thought, said, and done. I make them a part of who I am.”

There are two ways of reading this. It could be the prelude for further explorations into the Doctor’s backstory, or it could be a way of saying from the outset that this is an area her friends don’t need to ask about. Her family live in in her memories and the way she chooses to live her life, and that’s all that matters.

Another feature of Moffat’s era was the frequent references to the Doctor’s past, with Clara even visiting him as a child on Gallifrey. The constant teases became irritating after a while. It was pretty clear that the mystery would be preserved, however much the writers flirted with the issues. Coupled with the well repeated caveat that the Doctor lies, we could never be sure what was in-universe fact and what was in-universe fiction when it came to the Doctor’s identity, no matter how equivocal he sounded.

The scene in The Woman Who Fell to Earth is more of a callback to The Tomb of the Cybermen, when the second Doctor is comforting Victoria as she remembers her father. She suggests he cannot remember his family, to which he replies “Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they… they sleep in my mind and I forget. And so will you.” With this in mind, it seems then that this is yet another break from the Moffat years.

3. Was It Too Scary For The Target Audience?

BBC

I probably shouldn’t have booked my children’s dentist appointments for this week. The sight of Tim Shaw wearing the teeth of his fallen victims was a particularly nasty one, and shows that this series of Doctor Who is perhaps about to up the horror stakes, even as it attempts to woo back the family audience. For the Sunday early evening timeslot this is graphic stuff.

Over the years the show has frequently run into debates about the appropriateness of its horror content, and it’s likely that some parents will have found this episode too much for their little ones. The world we live in offers far less shelter for younger children these days, particularly with the rise of video games and apps, and so, whilst too much for some, many will not have been overly troubled by the scenes. Whether this is a good thing or not is for the experts to analyse, but fortunately there are some caveats that might alleviate some of the concerns regarding Doctor Who.

We have in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor a character who instils trust, who offers a hand of friendship, who tells us to stay behind her. Bad things might still happen, but the Doctor is there to support as with Graham, Ryan and Yaz. Also of note is the decision to tell ten self-contained stories, so whatever evils have been encountered in the episode have been banished by the end. And finally, responsible editing has made sure that there is nothing too gruesome. We don’t see the dead body that Grace describes for instance.

2. What Was The Core Message?

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There are a number of positive messages aimed especially at the younger audience from how to deal with grief and loss to ‘new is scary’ (a nice acknowledgement that some fans will find the new series or the new Doctor hard to get along with). But the thrust of the story is that every child is special and of equal worth and value.

Tim Shaw received the Doctor’s ire for suggesting that “This creature (Karl) is irrelevant”. The line had added import given that Karl did indeed feel his life was worthless and was using a self-help programme to tell himself that he was special. But the Doctor then turns on Karl for pushing Tim Shaw over the edge of the crane – “You had no right to do that.”

For the Doctor, there are no limits to the scope of human kindness and it must extend to strangers and enemies. Even a murderer such as Tim Shaw is not beyond redemption. The Doctor recognises that the alien cheats because he doesn’t think he’s good enough to be the leader he wants to be.

Back under the old regime, that would be grounds for showing how the Doctor herself identifies with such a trait, but here she is like a teacher, ever so slightly patronising in the process, but nonetheless a mouthpiece for truth and wisdom. It’s a bit clunky, a bit twee, but it is a message that is likely to be fleshed out in future stories, illustrated in action rather than preached about.

1. What Happens Next?

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The end credits were interspersed with a rather odd extensive montage of various guest characters. Once again, it is an effort to keep spoilers to the bare minimum, but the end result is a rather disorientating experience, especially for those unfamiliar with most of the faces and accompanying names. With no ongoing arc to speak of, our focus is instead on the four lead characters.

For the Doctor it is about finding the TARDIS and continuing her quest to fix things whenever she can. It’s a straightforward hero’s quest, unburdened by guilt or memories of the past, leaving her free to be the catalyst for change in others.

For Graham it will be interesting to see how his relationship with Ryan develops following Grace’s death, and how he responds to her dying words and the Doctor’s advice. Will he live to honour Grace’s memory, or will he struggle with the guilt of being the one who survived? With his cancer in remission there is always the possibility of it returning.

Ryan’s dyspraxia was handled brilliantly in episode one, and it is likely to be something that has further consequences in specific scenarios. Again, there is no fairy tale ending. The episode ended with him still unable to ride his bike. It remains to be seen whether he and Yaz become an item, but the braver thing to do would be to keep them as just good friends.

Yaz has got her wish to move beyond the menial tasks of being a probationer police officer. We know less about her background than the others and we can expect that side of her story to be more fully fleshed out in future episodes.

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