5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
Well, thank God for that. It's the business.
When it comes to resets, it doesn't get more massive than this. New showrunner. New logo. New composer. New companions, sorry, friends. And oh, yeah, a new Doctor.
We were nervous, for obvious reasons. No, not because the Doctor's a woman, and let's get that stuff out of the way right now. This is old news. Time Lords changing gender on regeneration's already a thing, and a hugely successful one at that. At her best, Michelle Gomez's Missy leaves all the other Masters utterly in the dust. So to all the people who are sobbing that their childhoods have been ruined by the Doctor now being female, we have these priceless words of comfort handed down throughout the ages: jog on.
Gender, age, all of that stuff - none of it matters. What matters is the single question: are they the Doctor? This is a deeply tricky one: good luck defining what's needed. Some spectacular actors have taken on the part and still not managed it. But when you see it, you know it. As soon as Jodie Whittaker's Doctor fell to Earth, we knew two things. First, that despite our admiration for Peter Capaldi's performance, we were finally forced to acknowledge the tiny voice that had whispered to us throughout his tenure that he wasn't really the Doctor. And second, that Jodie Whittaker's got it.
This is no small thing. It's only the second time since the reboot that it's happened. And we're thrilled.
So if it wasn't the girl cooties thing, what was making us nervous? Duh. It was the Chibnall factor.
Let's see, what exactly have we thought about Chris Chibnall's prevous work for the Whoniverse? Oh, dear. "Derivative, clichéd and frankly inept". "The bottom-barrel-scraping worst". "It's awful. It's horrific. It seriously, serious sucks". Not exactly ringing endorsements, right? So imagine our horror when they parcelled up the whole franchise and handed it over to him, like passing an antique glass bauble to a rambunctious toddler.
And yet, he's done it. This is some of the best Who we’ve seen in years.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth is very, very different from the work of the two preceding showrunners. It's ruthlessly shorn of the whimsy normally used to indicate that We Are Watching Made Up Stuff With Aliens And That. Instead, it's a proper, workmanlike drama, treated seriously, that just happens to have aliens and that. We love that: it's something we didn’t know we were missing until we saw it. Like we always say, there's enormous scope in the Whoniverse to do different things, so it's fantastic to see someone taking advantage of that instead of trotting out the same old approach.
And how much are we loving new composer Segun Akinola? His music feels so much more contemporary than Murray Gold's and while it supports and enhances what's happening on screen, it isn’t yelling instructions on how to feel the way Gold's did. It's a perfect match for Chibnall's approach.
Regeneration episodes are tricky. The Doctor's trying to figure out who they are, the whole regeneration mania thing tends to veer from random to embarrassing and back again - in short, they mostly suck. Given that relatively low bar, The Woman Who Fell To Earth stacks up really well. What we love about the Doctor in it is that she doesn't know who she is or what she's doing there, yet her essential Doctorliness comes through in spades. From the take-charginess to the compassion to the whiz-bang engineery bits (we've never liked the sonic so much), despite all the confusion the character is sharp and clear right from the off. We really like her, and we're dying to see how she develops.
And the rest of the TARDIS crew are also highly promising. It's early days for Yaz and Ryan, in that they haven't had a vast opportunity yet to show us who they are, but they're both personable and likeable characters we want to see develop. And Bradley Walsh as Graham brings a warmth and (obviously) wit to his character that's really fun, as well as something new in his role as the old geezer. There's some complexity to his character, too, as we're seeing some not particularly lovely aspects of it with regard to his relationship with Ryan (and vice versa), which is a bonus. All in all, they're a relatable bunch of real people, and that's far from being an easy feat, as we've seen all too often in the rebooted series. We're sad, though, that they killed off Grace: we'd seen the shots of the three companions and knew she wasn't going to get her foot in the TARDIS door, but Sharon D Clarke made her so irresistible we were hoping we'd somehow missed her hovering in the background in the publicity shots.
And the plot? Hallelujah, it's the right scale: just one alien and a tangly thing. With all the regeneration stuff going on, let alone the rest of the reboot, you definitely don't want some kind of bombastic world-spanning invasion story. What’s more, making the alien side of things small and simple leaves room to develop not only the leads, but also Karl, and that's important: if the Doctor is going to risk not only her life but other people's for somebody, you need to care about that somebody.
And just because the threat isn't large-scale doesn't mean it isn’t real. Not only is Tim Shaw genuinely scary, they also up the ante with those terrifying crane scenes. You wouldn't have got us up that ladder even if the delectable Valeyard had been standing at the top clutching a cream cake and a bottle of tequila, so all of those scenes were genuine behind the sofa moments for us. Kudos, too, for not dusting off a familiar alien and wheeling it out, but instead going with something brand new. We really hope this is going to be a trend.
OK, the plot isn't the most original or the most thrilling story we're ever seen, but it does the job and gets out of the way of the important stuff. Add in the pretty, pretty look and direction on top of the excellent characterisation, and it's plenty for a regeneration episode.
Does it have any faults? A few, but then again, too few to mention. Hahaha, kidding! If you're expecting unalloyed praise, you're on the wrong site, baby. So what did they get wrong?
First of all, there's a lot - a LOT - of as you know, Bobism. This is tiresome for the seasoned fan, but we do acknowledge that it's necessary. After years of Doctor Who disappearing up its own vortex under Steven Moffat, leaving the drop-in viewer mystified, it needs to drag back the general family audience it was designed to reach fifty-mumble years ago, and you can't do that without telling new viewers what all this weird stuff's about. Fair enough, then.
What's less forgiveable? The grief thing, for a start, or lack of it. We know Grace said she didn't want her family to be upset at her death, but it changes not a pixel the big dark fact that losing the love of your life can't be shrugged off like you've just had to flush your twentieth goldfish. Graham has just had his life wrenched apart, but post-funeral you'd need a scanning tunnelling microscope to be able to tell. Let's hope they address this in future episodes.
And while we're on the subject of Grace, the small scale of this works in a rather unfortunate manner to unbalance the plot. The Doctor saves Karl, but loses Grace. Nil all. We know the Doctor isn't directly responsible for Grace's death, having told her to leave, but she's not uninvolved either. Not the win straight out of the gate we'd hope for, then.
The plot, too, is far from seamlessly woven. If Ryan had to give permission for Tim Shaw to tootle on his hunting horn and ride off after Karl, how did he manage to snatch Rahul's sister on his previous visit? The Doctor needn't look far for her TARDIS, as Ryan and Yaz must have it: how else could they get to the train so fast after Grace's call? Yes, Karl's Dad owns the company which is why Karl is legitimately scared on the crane when a proper crane operator wouldn't be, but if he's that frightened, how does he get up and down the ladder in the first place?
And then there's the rather clunky moralising. All that bike stuff looks pretty, but a try try try again message when you don't have the physical capacity to do the thing you're trying to do is sheer witlessness.
So yeah, it ain't perfect. So what? There's so much here to like, and for the first time in so long we can't remember, we're not dreading the next episode. Utter, utter win.
The Doctor's costume? Yeah, that's another entry in the negative column. We love the coat, but as for the rest of it, it looks like something Sarah Jane would have worn. And that's not a compliment.