Not since the Daleks were confronted by a flight of stairs for the first time has the Doctor seen a challenge quite like it. As she begins her mould-breaking tenure as a female Time Lord it falls to Jodie Whittaker to confirm a woman can wield a sonic screwdriver as skilfully as any bloke and that gender is irrelevant when pinging across space and time.
After all the hype, hyperbole and inevitable internet hate, she acquits herself wonderfully in her full-length debut. In the Doctor’s new uniform of rainbow sweater and bright yellow suspenders (think Bay City Rollers by way of Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy), Whittaker is a force of breezy nature – rambunctious, quirky but with a reassuringly familiar aura of Gallifreyan uncanniness.
When we initially met Whittaker’s Doctor, in the 2017 Christmas special, she had just transformed from the great hooting owl of tea-time sci-fi that was Peter Capaldi and fallen out of the Tardis. It was the ultimate blink-and-you-miss it entrance – though Whittaker, with just two words of dialogue (“oh brilliant”), had radiated kooky charm.
The Doctor’s wheezing police box is conspicuously absent as we resume acquaintances with Whittaker’s 13th iteration of the character in the esoteric realm of … contemporary Sheffield. She has crash landed in the city unable to recollect her name and understandably shaken (“Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman”).
Some will claim Doctor Who holds up a mirror to our times and that the casting of a woman in the title role is an overdue acknowledgement that old stereotypes have been blasted into deep space. That’s well and good – but for many Doctor Who always has been and will be about the monsters.
There will be no Daleks, Cybermen or killer wheelie bins this season, according to new showrunner Chris Chibnall (who previously worked with Whittaker on Broadchurch). Taking over the reins from Steven Moffat, he establishes his own tone early on with a fantastically gristly baddie – introduced, via a hilarious misunderstanding with the Doctor, as “Tim Shaw”.
He’s a classic villain of the week: an icky Predator-type hunter who wears victim’s teeth as pimple-like trophies studding his face and whose prey had been randomly selected to be a Sheffield crane operator named Karl.
Moffat was the intergalactic equivalent of Marmite. His storylines were ingenious, the world-building occasionally breathtaking. His supremely creepy Weeping Angels for instance hold the title of scariest Doctor Who antagonists ever. But under him Doctor Who increasingly resembled his other series Sherlock, in that it was much too besotted with its own cleverness and delighted in confounding the audience just for the sake of it.
It’s foolhardy to make definitive statements based just on one episode but it’s clear that Chibnall has a very different vision. The look of the new Doctor Who is more cinematic – somehow the lack of Netflix-scale budgets has not prevented BBC from making “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” as sumptuous as a blockbuster or Sheffield from bearing an unlikely resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
Whittaker, it is true, starts off delivering an unashamed Capaldi impersonation. And she only gets around to donning her colour-clashing new costume in the final five minutes (having flapped about in Capaldi’s suit jacket in the interim). Yet this is gradually revealed to be a reflection of her inner turmoil as she processes her sudden transformation – “brain and body, still rebooting, reformatting”– rather than a lack of imagination on the part of Whittaker or Chibnall.
Still, she’s soon in her stride with a turn that swerves satisfyingly between whimsical and tom-boyish. “That’s exciting,” she says in a piece of patter which feels as if it will be typical of what she brings to the part. “No, not exciting. What do I mean? Worrying.”
Similarly flushed out the airlock is the traditional paternalistic dynamic between Doctor and assistant. For the first time this is an ensemble affair with the Girl from Gallifrey joined by Mandip Gill as policewoman Yasmin Khan, Tosin Cole as teenager Ryan Sinclair and Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien, Ryan’s geezer-ish step grandfather (actually, make that four supporting characters if you count Walsh’s potentially sentient hairpiece).
The Doctor tumbles from the sky as Walsh’s character and his wife Grace (Ryan’s nan) are menaced by a tentacled probe on a train bound for Sheffield – a juxtaposition that underscores the show’s unique ability to contrast the everyday and the extraordinary. Also onboard is poor Karl (Jonny Dixon), on whom hunter “Tim” has decided to do some reconnaissance by sneakily dispatching a fact-finding robot (against the rules of his initiation ritual, as the Doctor discerns)
Chibnall’s promise that each instalment will be essentially self-contained appears borne out. Having donned steampunk goggles and fashioned a new, improved sonic screwdriver the Doctor and her team track “Tim Shaw” down to Karl’s building site.
Here, a high-altitude standoff concludes with the the Doctor rumbling the hunter’s dirty secret regarding his illicit use of a probe, after which he grumpily beams himself back to where he came from. The only lose end is left when the Doctor, in an attempt to locate her missing Tardis, accidentally transports herself, along with her three new pals, into deep space.
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” also squeezes in a teary-eyed coda, as Grace (Sharon D Clarke), who died fighting the probe, is laid to rest. Doctor Who is known for many things – but a lump-in-throat meditation on grown-up love and visceral mortality is undoubtedly a first for the series. It is a brave departure – almost as plucky as the omission of the familiar title credits and, until the end, the “woo-woo” score (which appears to have been underlaid with heavy metal drums).
These Whovian staples will, we are promised, be present and correct in episode two, along with the Tardis. And yet, no matter how familiar the trappings it will be hard to avoid the suspicion that after just one week with Whittaker at the controls, Doctor Who has changed profoundly and for the better.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies