“All of this is new to you,” the Doctor says, “and new can be scary.” They’re deliberate words, said earnestly, to comfort but not in comfort. There’s no time for hand-holding. The world keeps turning, people need saving, time to start running.
That quick exchange, between the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and one of her (her!) new companions, is one of several in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” in which three people seem to be speaking at once. There’s the Doctor, always the Doctor, a force of chaotic good at least 2,000 years old who travels the universe, helping where he—and now she—can. There’s Whittaker, an actor of tremendous skill and feeling who has spent the many months leading up to this debut reminding people that “women are not a genre.” And there’s new “Doctor Who” showrunner Chris Chibnall (“Broadchurch”), speaking through the protagonist now in his charge, and whose changes—a new version of the theme, a new approach to the show’s writing, a new logo, a new set of (three!) companions, and oh, yes, the first female Doctor in the show’s decades-long history—have rattled a certain segment of the show’s fandom.
For some of those fans, nothing Chibnall or the Doctor can say will talk them out of their froth. The Doctor, they fume, is a dude. But others—including those who’ve eagerly anticipated Whittaker’s tenure—will be both enticed and heartened by this assured, energetic season premiere. New can be scary, sure, but it can be exhilarating, too.
It’s difficult to write a typical review of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” for two reasons. The first is the usual veil of secrecy that surrounds this series, particularly in the early outings. I’m prohibited from revealing anything in the way of plot details, no hints about the antagonist or antagonists, no descriptions of the early moments or what conspires to bring the Doctor and her companions—Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yasmin (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh)—together. While normally I’d go into at least some detail, it’s an easy mandate to obey, because writing both as a critic and a longtime fan of the series, never would I wish to lessen the enjoyment of those who will on Sunday experience Whittaker’s Doctor and Chibnall’s episode (directed by Jamie Childs) for the first time.
The second reason is harder to articulate. Some of the exhilaration of seeing Whittaker as the Doctor would, I thought, have burned off by now. We’ve seen her lowering her hood in that first teaser, regenerating right into Peter Capaldi’s suit (still worn here) in the Christmas special, and in a series of trailers leading up to this premiere. Yet when the Doctor makes her entrance—another moment that an embargo prohibits me from describing—exhilaration is precisely what flamed up, bright and hot. There’s much that’s comfortable and familiar here. The traditions of Nü-Who’s new Doctor episodes are honored, the Doctor’s code is stated plainly; moments of giddy silliness, the regeneration, the alienness, the two hearts, and the core of bone-deep empathy, all intact.
The Doctor, in short, is still the Doctor, but is also something, and someone, new. To see a series with a history this long headed off in such a promising new direction would be thrilling regardless; Whittaker’s performance is irresistible to both the critical and Whovian pieces of my mind. It encompasses the quickness of David Tennant, the grounded energy of Christopher Eccleston, the undeniable foreignness of Matt Smith, and both the questionable social graces and the slight twinge of long-accepted loss of Peter Capaldi. Whittaker apes none of the performances of these men, nor any of their predecessors (though her costume does nod to several of them). She, as the Doctor herself puts it in a scene near the episode’s climax, honors who she’s been, while embracing who she’ll become. It’s a performance that feels simultaneously newborn and ancient, and there’s nothing more Gallifreyan than that.
That’s exhilarating, all by itself. But for the first time, the Doctor looks something like me, and that’s something else entirely.
It would be easy to go on much longer about both the strength of Whittaker’s performance—no surprise to anyone who’s seen her work in “Broadchurch” or “Attack the Block”—and the experience of watching an episode of “Doctor Who” in which the Doctor is both identifiably the Doctor and female. But the virtues of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” go well beyond Whittaker’s performance and Chibnall’s confident, thoughtful writing of the character. Gill, Cole, and Walsh make excellent additions to the cast, and while each character still wants development (unsurprising, this early on), each also has a moment, or more than one, to shine. Director Jamie Childs, who’ll return for additional episodes throughout the season, fares as well with everyday beauty—a lonely hillside in Sheffield, a sunlit sanctuary, a dark night sky—as he does with the more fantastical elements I cannot yet describe (a shadowy sequence on a train and a discovery in a wooded glen are particularly striking). And the new take on the theme, from composer Segun Akinola, is, like Whittaker’s Doctor, both familiar and giddily, unmistakably new.
Each of "Doctor Who"'s new Doctors has faced this simple challenge: to step, sometimes quite literally, into the shoes of the person who came before and guide both her companions and those watching at home into the moment that comes next. “Right now,” the Doctor says, “I’m a stranger to myself.” She’s a stranger on earth too, in a strange land, as the saying goes; and she is, by virtue of regeneration and contracts and the unstoppable force that is change, a stranger to us, too. Strangers—new people—can be scary, but they also offer nothing but possibility. The Doctor is always running toward whatever comes next, and Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall are doing so at speed. Keep up.