So, the waiting is over, at last. The Woman Who Fell to Earth started with the feel of Steven Moffat’s era, with a narrator, most similar to The Bells of St. John, but also like several other episodes such as Listen and Before the Flood, which opened with narration. This was followed by a scene in a wood shot to evoke a dark fairy tale aesthetic, like much of Moffat’s era. But this was illusory and soon we were in the midst of a story very much rooted in the real world, somewhat like Russell T Davies’ vision for the show, but arguably more real, with characters that felt like real people doing real jobs, rather than simply evoking other TV genres. The funeral at the end in particular rooted this in a reality only previously glimpsed in the codas to Black Orchid and Remembrance of the Daleks. In Doctor Who people die all the time, but they very rarely get buried and mourned.
The lack of advance publicity paid off for me, although I don’t seek out spoilers at the best of times. I guessed that Grace might die because I did at least know which characters would become regulars, but much of the programme was entirely unknown to me; compare the way in which characters like Martha and Bill seemed well-known long before their first episodes were broadcast as I tried to guess how they would enter the Doctor’s life.
The main characters were quickly and deftly sketched in. The thirteenth Doctor doubtless needs time to find her feet, in writing and acting, but seemed initially like a slightly generic new series Doctor: gabby, eccentric (although not as much as her immediate predecessors) and questioning, but also genuinely apologetic in a way that has not been seen for a long time. Perhaps it was this, as much as her gender and height, that gave this Doctor an interesting and unusual air of vulnerability only really seen previously in Peter Davison’s interpretation. I look forward to seeing how this is developed in the coming episodes.
It was not just the Doctor’s vulnerability that echoed the past. The larger regular cast evoked season nineteen as well as much of the sixties, the Doctor tricked the villain into defeat in a very seventh Doctorish way (compare with Remembrance of the Daleks, but also The Dominators) and the title sequence was a little reminiscent of Pertwee’s psychedelic spirals, with a tune closer to Delia Derbyshire’s original orchestration than any since Tom Baker’s time. However, what was most noteworthy was an absence: while there was humour, the wise-cracking, gag-a-minute style that characterised so much of twenty-first century Who had quietly disappeared. Again, it will be interesting to see how this develops.
If the episode had a flaw – and it’s a minor one – it’s that Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw was perhaps too Star Trek-ey a villain, both in conception and execution, but even that serves to distinguish it from the approaches of Moffat and Davies, who tended to steer clear of glossy American ‘cult’ science fiction when searching for inspiration.
The greatest achievement of the episode was that it succeeded as a newcomer-friendly, continuity-lite episode, but somehow still feels like the logical next step from the previous thirteen years. In that respect, the nearest parallel is Spearhead from Space (as relaunch and new Doctor episodes often are), which also quietly reconfigured the programme with minimal fuss and continuity. The Doctor is most definitely in!