Discussing Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Doctor Who The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Sophie Mutevelian photo | BBC Studios

Well, the Doctor is back with a completely new look, so it’s only natural that this post does the same.

Since my previous co-blogger Kevin was not able to continue (you should still buy his excellent book All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture), I have some new contributors.

Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) is a freelance writer based in Appalachia. She has written for The Weekly Standard and American Consequences. Her favorite Doctor is Tom Baker.

Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt) is the copy editor of Christianity Today magazine. She has a journalism degree from Baylor University and is a lifelong Anglophile. She loves David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and, as a hopeless nerd herself, will forever be grateful to him for making “geek chic” a thing.

Jennifer Neyhart (@JenniferNeyhart) is an aspiring scholar and theologian. She has a Master’s in English and should be graduating with a Master’s in Theological Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary in May 2019. She loves most all things sci-fi and fantasy, books, and C. S. Lewis. Her favorite Doctor is David Tennant, with Matt Smith as a close second. Read more from her at JenniferNeyhart.com.

I enjoy the coincidence of these reviews adding three female contributors with a new female Doctor and three new companions.

If you need a refresher on where we’ve been with the Doctor, read my previous Discussing Doctor Who posts on the “Twice Upon a Time” Christmas special, our full season 10 review and see links to our discussions after each episode and you can see our thoughts on the reveal of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor.

It’s early days yet, but what do we think of the new Doctor?

JenniferI already absolutely love Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor! She seems to be a fun mix of 10 (David Tennant) and 11 (Matt Smith), with her own spin of course.

And I do think it is important that we are able to see those connections to previous Doctors in order to believe that we are still watching the same character in a new body.

And I’ve always enjoyed watching the newly regenerated Doctor trying to acclimate to his (and now her!) new body! It really is a clever little writing convention! As the audience is trying to adjust to this new version of this character, so is the Doctor!

And when she finally remembered who she was and announced it I got goosebumps: “Bit of adrenaline, dash of outrage, and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am … I’m the Doctor.”

HannahMy first impression is good, but qualified. Jodie is charming and charismatic. Unlike Peter Capaldi during his opening minimalist phase, she effortlessly takes charge of the room when she’s in it and the screen when she’s on it.

That said, I’m struggling to suss out what differentiates her character from earlier NuWho Doctors. She incorporates many common mannerisms—intensity and energy, a rapid rat-a-tat talking speed, the tendency to interrupt herself mid-sentence to correct what she’s saying—but Doctors like Tennant, Smith, and Tom Baker had other qualities which they established quickly.

Tennant was a sort of swashbuckling, vengeful god – a man who gives no second chances. Smith was the boy who wouldn’t grow up, a Peter Pan figure who, in J.M. Barrie’s words, was “gay and innocent and heartless.” Tom Baker was something like a bohemian hobo.

Whittaker doesn’t automatically fit into an archetype (this was always going to be difficult with a female Doctor), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but means we end our first episode slightly uncertain about the new Doctor. Chris Chibnall’s writing—heavy on plot, light on character—is largely to blame for this.

I have identified a few characteristics which may be distinctive: She’s constantly talking about fixing things, a tendency underlined by her love of building and tinkering with bits of this and that. Her regional accent, empathy, and eagerness really serve to make her accessible and human—perhaps a bit too much so for a 2000-year-old Gallifreyan.

It remains to be seen whether she’ll be allowed to be anything less than perfect. With an admiring feminist fan-base looking for a paragon and a general public that doesn’t tend to like imperfect female characters (unfair, but true), that makes it a risk the BBC might not take.

JennaI adore her already. Jodie Whittaker is a phenomenal actress and her upbeat but strong and quirky yet confident attitude from the get-go seems spot-on Doctorish. While so much changed, it was key to me that this still felt like Doctor Who, and Jodie’s performance is that needed bridge.

One thing that does seem to have changed is how much more aware of her leadership the Doctor seems to be. She immediately embraces the group as friends (or fam?) and feels responsible for them. She consciously changes her phrasing from “this is exciting” to “worrying” when chasing a lead on the baddie and apologizes that she doesn’t have all the answers and that these innocent people are exposed to such darkness and horror.

This shift is quite a change from Twelve, and even from the Tenth Doctor’s episode “Midnight,” in which bystanders accuse the Doctor of enjoying the mystery a bit too much while they are frightened to death.

But speaking as a woman, Thirteen’s apology didn’t feel like our tendency to over-apologize for things. Nor did it feel like Ten’s numerous apologies out of guilt when he couldn’t save someone. It felt like the Doctor finally has some emotional awareness of her authority.

She carries it with her regardless of external form or choice of costume, but she usually uses it to force enemies into fleeing (see: Eleven’s many speeches) or getting annoying people to cooperate (too many examples to list).

However, the Doctor isn’t always aware of it when solving the mystery, but others are. They see how he or she takes control of the situation, but the ol’ Doc has been doing it for so long that it’s just all part of a day’s work.

Work which is, thankfully, finally defined as ensuring “fair play” throughout the universe instead of solely being Earth’s/humanity’s defender, which always seemed a bit limiting and human-centric for someone who is obviously aware of all the potential damage humans can do.

Not knowing what the (finally more diverse!) writers have in store, I dare say this more neutral tone is a potential jumping off point for the Doctor’s character development as she learns not everyone can be trusted to be buddies and experiences some pendulum swing back to moderate healthy cynicism (again, something Chibnall has experience in showing through a character’s arc and emotionally devastating plot points).

It’s also important to recognize that sometimes humans are the ones the universe might need defending from. As C. S. Lewis put it in a 1958 issue of Christianity Today, “I  … fear the practical, not the theoretical, problems which will arise if ever we meet rational creatures which are not human. Against them we shall, if we can, commit all the crimes we have already committed against creatures certainly human but differing from us in features and pigmentation; and the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt, agonized pity and burning shame.”

That’s a level of awareness a main character (who has been a white man for a thousand years) needs, especially traveling with companions of color. Martha Jones and Bill Potts opened the Doctor’s eyes a bit to this, but I can only imagine that experiencing sexism firsthand and continuing to travel with non-white companions will increase the Doctor’s awareness of social dynamics and just who the creatures in need of defending are.

AaronWhile it was definitely a new version of the Doctor (and the show), there were also some key similarities as you both point out. She needs to be her own Doctor, but she still needs to be the Doctor.

Like you said, Hannah, there’s a lot of the previous lighthearted versions of the Doctor in Thirteen’s first episode. It’s also interesting how much “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” echoes major plot notes of Ten’s debut in “The Christmas Invasion.”

The Doctor regenerates, but collapses and is taken the the home of a new companion. Throughout the episode, the Doctor struggles to remember who they are, but eventually comes around and saves the day. Whittaker even seemed to carry some of Tennant’s mannerisms.

There is a definite playfulness that provides a return to NuWho form after Capaldi highlighted the sternness of the Doctor, which brings up how different Thirteen was from Twelve.

The previous Doctor began his run trying to answer the question, “Am I a good man?” Thirteen doesn’t know much, but she says she knows that when people are in danger, she always helps—which would be a definite change, but also a reflection of how much Twelve changed from the beginning of his time to the end.

I do hope Whittaker is allowed to play a fully formed person with flaws and a character arc. She definitely showed she could play a compelling, but complicated character in Broadchurch. I hope Chibnall can bring that type of nuance to her run as the Doctor.

I am excited to see a female Doctor. I think it opens a lot of interesting possibilities and I recognize the importance of representation on screen. When my oldest daughter was two, she could tell you that a cow says “moo” and a dalek says “exterminate.” I’m glad she will get to see the Doctor as a woman, but Chibnall and the other writers should not let that fact that the Doctor is a woman now become a crutch that keeps them from stretching the character and developing exciting stories.

This is the largest cast of characters the new show has thrown at us as a regular TARDIS team – how does that change the dynamics we’ve seen before?

JenniferThis was a concern I had when I saw the teaser that showed us they would be introducing that many new characters. Some of us are predisposed to root for this new Doctor, we want to like her, but she’s still new.

Obviously we need a new companion, maybe even two, but three? That seems like it might be pushing it. It was a little hard for me to get into the first episode, despite my enthusiasm for this new Doctor, and part of that was the pacing.

It just seemed like it was moving too slowly at first and taking too long to see the Doctor on the screen. And I’m sure the writers were trying to build suspense, but they also needed to tell us something about four brand new characters, which slowed things down.

That said, I really loved the dynamic between Amy Pond and Rory and the Doctor in seasons 5-7, so if this series can give us something like that again, I could definitely get on board!

HannahDoctor Who has struggled to handle large casts in the past. The show began in 1963 with four characters, but it was hard to find something for everyone to do in each episode. Characters like the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman, suffered for it, ending up underwritten and shallow.

This story faces the same problem. I hate to say it, but “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” would have been much better served by eliminating the character of Grace. She’s lovely and sweet, but her stabilizing force kept us from getting to know Graham in a crisis, or from fully understanding his relationship with Ryan. Both of those things are ultimately more important to establishing the personalities and arcs of our regular companions than getting to know Grace.

JennaI’m excited to see the companions are connected and have a bit of tension between them already instead of being three random strangers. New showrunner Chris Chibnall didn’t spend all that time writing an intricately connected town of well-developed characters in his previous hit show (detective drama Broadchurch) for “born to save the Doctor” and “born to kill the Doctor” nonsense.

The characters already have histories and home lives from this (dare I say pilot?) episode set in their backyard and I’m positive there will be much more on that, going off of Graham’s story of meeting Grace. (Rest in peace, most appropriately named character.)

I liked, as Chibnall referenced in a panel at New York Comic Con this week, that this is a return to the original companion trio dynamic. I loved Nine and Ten’s romance with Rose Tyler, and all the various companion dynamics from the sibling vibe with Donna Noble to Clara Oswald’s teasing that the Doctor was her “hobby,” but I’m grateful that we have a group now with no risk of a love triangle or forced sexual tension (lookin’ at you, Amy and Rory’s awkwardness with Eleven), at least for the first season.

AaronYes, Jenna, I’m glad this season will be devoid of soap opera storylines between the Doctor and a companion, but I’m not sure we need three companions to achieve that. I’m in a wait and see position. Despite the TARDIS’ immense size on the inside, it does often seem cramped when it carries more than two or three passengers for an extended period of time.

And I hope each of them are able to show who they are and why they are on the TARDIS. I need them to be developed beyond stock characters on a sitcom or a college catalogue photo showing just the right amount of diversity.

Yet, I like each of the characters (as much as I can with such limited information) and think their previous relationships can add something to their time with the Doctor as her “fam.”

We’ve had a death in the first episode. (Spoilers, sweetie) How do you feel like the change of showrunners impacted how this plot twist was handled?

Jenna:  I loved how Thirteen is able to talk about the loss of her family as a long ago sad event remembered neither with rebellion nor guilt and didn’t just change the subject. I feel like that shows such healthy character development already from past incarnations.

Showing Grace’s funeral seems like departure from what we’ve seen in the past. I am not shocked when people die on Who, even good people, but Grace really owned the episode in some ways and seemed like the most promising companion in terms of wits.

Does Who have a track record of killing people only to bring them back later? Obsessively. Does it also use death as a way to emotionally manipulate its viewers into caring? Unquestionably. DOES KNOWING THIS KEEP US FROM HAVING ALL THE FEELS? Of course not.  

For now, however, the Doctor and her new friends are taking on outerspace a little too literally. It will be interesting to see how she gets them all to, well, any life-sustaining environment after where the episode ends! Gotta love a good cliffhanger, and with Chibnall in charge, we know we’re in for some intense ones to come.

JenniferI was very upset that they killed Grace! She was the one I liked best! I can see how her death will make Graham and Ryan feel more free to travel with the Doctor, but I’m still not happy about it! Honestly, I’d be okay if they decide to bring her back later somehow. I know some people don’t like it when the writers do that, but if I like the character enough, I don’t mind.

HannahWell, first of all, Grace hasn’t turned into a Data Ghost or an immortal bisexual heartthrob, so we know this isn’t Steven Moffat’s Who anymore! All the same, I felt oddly distant throughout the whole thing.

Everything was so hurried in the episode that I didn’t invest in her relationship with Graham (he mostly hung around in the background looking worried) or with Ryan (she encourages him to ride his bike, but their implied closer relationship is left up to the imagination and thus feels weak).

One thing I noticed: Graham’s eulogy, as he spoke in front of a partially-obscured cross, would seem without context to be talking about grace in a religious context. Am I imagining this? He calls her, “The Grace I met when I didn’t have much time left.” I suppose he’s just playing off the double meaning of the word—grace can be used in a secular meaning of “an extended period granted as a special favor.” But spoken in the church setting the word “grace” seemed to hold special weight.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s frank discussion of her lost family is very reminiscent of the Second Doctor’s speech about memory—like Eleven, Two chose to suppress his loss and flee into adventures. It seems like the happy-go-lucky Thirteen isn’t going to be weighed down by her past, but as Jenna said, she’s also able to talk about it in a healthy, open way.

AaronHaving the first female Doctor be the first emotionally healthy Doctor, may be a little on the nose, but it can provide a nice change of pace. Listen, I love Tennent, but I’ve seen enough of a Doctor with sad puppy dog eyes staring off camera. And while Capaldi’s cue card to help him respond to people’s feelings were a fun gag, it could be fun to have a Doctor that can understand emotions and empathize with companions.

Oh, Grace, we barely knew thee. She was obviously the best person among the humans, so of course that means she has to die to provide us with some emotional force in the first episode.

I do agree with Hannah and that it felt a little rushed. That episode had to accomplish a lot—introduce a new Doctor, new companions, start a new season story arc, and have an actual self contained story with a villain and victims. It’s hard to do all that and develop deep personal attachment to characters and their relationships.

Part of what makes Doctor Who are the villains and monsters. What did you make of the Stenza warrior dubbed “Tim Shaw” by the Doctor?

HannahHe’s fine, I guess? There’s a definite element of body horror with his design, which is very effective, but his motivation and method are hardly compelling. The best villains have interesting plans or ideas. He’s just a galactic serial killer cheating in his job interview.

That said, I think my favorite character in this whole episode was Carl the crane operator. His self-worth mantra was the most endearing thing any character did in the whole episode. I want Carl as a companion!

JenniferEww! No! Gross! I never like the episodes that lean towards creepy/scary. Basically, if it borders on horror at times, I don’t like those parts, and like Hannah mentioned, there was a definite horror element here. Beyond that, I don’t find this guy very interesting.

Jenna: I too liked Carl, because they subverted the usual trope of the Doctor being the one to convince someone of their value. But Carl is already working on that himself before he ever meets the Doctor.

Back to the question. I am not big into the body horror, so I admit I had to look away, but the “Tim Shaw” joke was hilarious, in the great tradition on the show of roasting the filming location while also supporting Sheffield itself as an industrial, working class town (which is a WHOLE other essay).

I also greatly enjoyed the Doctor having a chance to reduce a baddie’s motives to petty self-interest right from the very first episode. Mocking an arrogant villain’s monologuing is always a highlight.

Even if I couldn’t stand to watch, I appreciated the gross factor for showing that it wasn’t going to become all sunshine and rainbows just because the eponymous character is a woman now and it still holds that middle-grade-boy demographic appeal while expanding its audience. But personally, could have done without the visual of the teeth trophies. Yikes.

AaronSpeaking for the middle-school-boy demographic, I enjoyed the visuals of the Stenza and the nice added detail of the teeth being conquest trophies. Again, with so much happening in this episode, the villain is going to be a throwaway almost by necessity, so they could do a lot worse than a murderous alien tooth fairy.

I also have to admit that if I’m going to be killed by a Doctor Who villain, I’d want my last line to be “Eat my salad, Halloween.” Drunk salad guy may have been my favorite character from this week. Can we save him and let him stumble around the TARDIS throwing food and insults at however crosses his path?

Poor Carl, little did he know that yes, someone out there did want him … just not in the way his self-help books were telling him. Also the look the Doctor gave him when he said he, a crane operator, was afraid of heights? Priceless.

If you are new to Who and want to get caught up, I wrote a piece about 30 must-watch Doctor Who episodes to watch before series 9.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.