Doctor Who:
The Woman Who
Fell To Earth

A spoiler-free preview of the first episode of the new series

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The Tardis, the time and space travelling police box that serves as the Doctor’s ship, has landed in Sheffield. Or at least it did for the new series premiere of the 55-year-old BBC science fiction show Doctor Who on Monday 24 September. The reason for the regional choice for the premiere is that the first episode is set squarely in the city of steel and hundreds of fans turned up to see the stars of the show walk the red carpet, while a number of bemused Sheffield locals walked past the event on the city’s central street the Moor, moaning about the fact their way into Primark was restricted and stating loudly: “What is it? Oh, never watched it.”

It’s fair to say a new series of Doctor Who hasn’t exactly been headline news these last few years. While still beloved by a large fan base, general interest in the show has waned, partly due to the fact that the storylines had become so mired in its own back story that the show sometimes ran the risk of vanishing up its own wormhole.

But this, the eleventh season of the show since its reboot in 2005, when it returned to our screens after a 16-year hiatus interrupted only by a rather dodgy TV movie in 1996, has definitely reignited interest in the show, not least because for the first time in the show’s history a woman, Jodie Whittaker, has been cast in the lead role.

So much has been made of the fact this is a new start to the show – not just a new Doctor, but a new show runner, Chris Chibnall, a new writers room, new producers and directors, even a new composer – that diehard fans of the show may be worried their beloved show is changed beyond recognition. But they need not worry. This is definitely Doctor Who. Sure the first episode may take a few turns away from the established format – it’s well publicised that there’s no opening title sequence in this episode, for example, with Chibnall saying fans will have to wait until episode two for that, but there are plenty of classic first episode moments that regular viewers will recognise: new Doctor confused and disoriented following regeneration? Check. Sonic screwdriver. Oh yes!

That all said, anyone coming to this fresh having never seen an episode can rest assured that they don’t need prior knowledge of the show. This opener takes a similar line to the very first episode of the new series back in 2005, Rose, in that much of the unfolding story is seen through the eyes of people encountering the Doctor for the first time and the viewers are invited to be as confused and scared as they are.

To say much about what actually happens in the show would be to risk spoilers. Suffice to say there’s a group of Sheffield residents whose lives are irrevocably altered when they encounter a nasty alien on a rather disturbing mission. There’s a lot going on in this opening episode and some surprising moments that set up some exciting possibilities for the rest of the series. This one will definitely leave you wanting more.

New show runner Chibnall wrote a couple of okay-ish episodes for Doctor Who in the past, but he’s best known for his three-part drama Broadchurch, a post-watershed thriller about a child murder, which starred Whittaker. Chibnall has clearly been influenced by his time working on that show. This episode is tinged with a dollop of darkness, there’s genuine peril here, a modest body count, some good jump scares and a nasty monster who is sure to terrify some younger viewers. It’s not all grim and dark through. The episode is peppered with humour and warmth, and some frantic action sequences.

Whittaker dives into the role with enthusiasm and energy, revealing in the Q&A that followed the screening that she did her own stunts in this opening episode, including some dizzying action atop a crane on a cold and dark Sheffield morning.

Alongside her new Doctor, a new set of champions/friends gather who are set to travel with her. Among them is Bradley Walsh, best known these days for presenting the game show The Chase, but previously starring in ITV’s Law and Order: UK on which Chibnall was also show runner.

Walsh dons a grey wig to play the grandfatherly role of Graham, who is clearly going to be the adult of the show, while Tosin Cole plays Ryan, struggling with the co-ordination disorder dyspraxia, and Mandip Gill excels as Yasmin, the probation copper desperate to do more than resolve parking disputes between neighbours. There are moments in the first episode when you sense everyone is settling into their roles acting wise, but they are shaping up to be a great team.

A minor gripe is the rather heavy-handed references to embracing change that have been hammered into the script. Whittaker seamlessly takes over the role from previous doctor Peter Capaldi, and it’s testimony to her performance that you forget the whole gender thing within minutes. We don’t need to be repeatedly told that change is good. We can see it is.

Production values have gone up a notch or two in the new series with a cinematic feel to the camera work and special effects. Segun Akinola’s new score is suitably grungy, replacing Murray Gold’s chirpy orchestral score. And if there’s any worry that this new Who has turned its back on what has gone before, wait until you hear the theme tune, sampling as it does Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 original ethereal score. It might well be the best version of the familiar tune yet.

Rest easy then, Who fans, this may not be a flawless episodes but it’s good as – better than – many season openers. And if you’re a sci-fi fan who has never stepped aboard the Tardis before, thinking it’s all still wobble sets and silver foil-covered monsters, now is definitely the moment to jump aboard.

Doctor Who starts on BBC One on 7 October. Read our interview with Jodie Whittaker here

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