A new era of Doctor Who officially began with “The Women Who Fell to Earth,” written by new showrunner Chris Chibnall, and here’s hoping it wasn’t just women viewers who got proud, teary-eyed chills when Jodie Whittaker’s regenerated Time Lord finally remembered her name. “Bit of adrenaline, dash of outrage, and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am,” she told Tim Shaw, a stenza warrior whose people use Earth as a proving/hunting ground for ascending leaders. “I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe. Now please, get off this planet while you still have a choice.”
The extended episode was more than our first real look at Whittaker’s take on the iconic role — bursting with curiosity, empathy, and decency, even as the Doctor’s body finished rebooting. It was also an introduction to her new companions. If you knew only three had been announced (probationary police officer Yasmin, her former primary school classmate Ryan, and Ryan’s step-granddad, Graham, a retired bus driver), you suspected the Doctor’s fourth new friend, Ryan’s nan Grace, would meet a tragic but heroic end. And she did. But not before she helped us understand why Ryan and Graham will be willing to travel space and time to honor her memory. Let’s recap:
“The Greatest Woman I Ever Met – Smart, Funny, Caring, Special” | The episode was bookended with Ryan vlogging (don’t hold it against him). It wasn’t the Doctor the 19-year-old was paying tribute to, but his nan, who we’d learn had been raising him since his mother passed away six years ago (because his father, Grace’s son, is the kind of man who can’t be counted on to show up at Grace’s funeral). Ryan has a coordination disorder, so he’d never learned to ride a bike. Grace and Graham, her husband of three years, hoped to remedy that on a hillside, but Ryan’s frustration got the better of him and he hurled his bicycle into the trees below. While nan and the man Ryan refuses to call granddad left to catch their train, Ryan hiked down to fetch his bike. Suddenly a multi-layer forcefield appeared, and naturally he pressed the button-shaped center of it. A giant Hershey Kiss-shaped pod materialized, blue and purple and freezing to the touch. Ryan took out his cell phone (which got miraculous reception in that forest): “Police, maybe?” he said.
“I’m Capable of More Than Parking Disputes” | That segued nicely to young officer Yasmin (Yaz to her friends), who was about to phone her superior asking to be assigned something that would test her — something different. Though she was understandably skeptical of Ryan’s story at first, it helped that they knew each other. As they caught up, we learned Ryan’s a reluctant warehouse worker and is studying to become a mechanic (a handy companion is always good). Meanwhile, Graham and Grace’s journey home came to a screeching halt when an unidentified flying object crashed into their train (RIP operator who died of shock). The doors locked, and the couple was trapped alongside a young bloke named Karl. Grace managed to call Ryan and give him their location before a giant coil, which may have reminded you a bit of The Matrix’s sentinels, reached them — and, more importantly, the Doctor came crashing through the roof. Without her sonic screwdriver (“I hate empty pockets”), she could only temporarily stun the coil. But as it targeted Karl, the Doctor deduced that it wasn’t there to kill anyone. Yaz and Ryan arrived just in time for the coil to implant what we’d come to find out were “little DNA bombs” into their collarbones and retreat.
“Am I? Does it suit me?” | If only all fans had been as excited as the Doctor was to hear that the next incarnation of the Time Lord was a woman. Yaz’s use of the term “Madam” was the Doctor’s tip-off, though she still couldn’t remember her name or the correct words for things. The Doctor rattled off questions they needed to answer about what they’d just encountered, but the humans were more interested in her story at the moment. She explained how she’d lost her TARDIS when it exploded and dematerialized (as seen in the 2017 Christmas special). Graham was reluctant to believe in aliens (“Don’t be scared. All of this is new to you, and new can be scary,” the Doctor told him), but Karl was in complete denial. He just wanted to leave, go to work, and pretend nothing had happened. Good luck with that, Karl.
“Where’s my sister?” | The rest of them headed to the woods to show the Doctor the pod Ryan had found, but it was gone. A young man named Rahul had taken it, because he’d been tracking atmospheric changes and knew whatever alien species had taken his sister seven years earlier had just returned. The team went into recon mode while the Doctor passed out and let her body continue to reformat. Her nap was interrupted when the DNA bombs were armed. She reconfigured Ryan’s phone to track the origin of the signal, and it led them to where Rahul had taken the pod. By this point, it had opened to reveal Tim Shaw (at first glance, think a Cyberman with a fly mask and Predator’s imposing demeanor). The Doctor couldn’t keep up with fleeing Tim Shaw, so all the team could do was discover Rahul’s dead body; the video file on his computer conveniently named “If I Die Click Here”; and the pod, which the Doctor couldn’t analyze without her sonic screwdriver. “I could build one. I’m good at building things. Probably!” she realized.
Cue the welding and hammering montage and the reveal of the Thirteenth Doctor’s “sonic Swiss Army knife” — minus the knife, because “only idiots carry knives.” Chibnall clearly wanted to make sure new viewers understand the value the Doctor places on human life. From the way she apologized for the group having to see Rahul’s body and thanked nurse Grace for finding something to cover it with, to the tone of her voice when she said Rahul’s sister had been his family, to how offended she was that Tim Shaw took a tooth from his victims.
“Which One of You Should I Kill First?” | Following an initial spark (“Should be fine”), the new sonic worked well to analyze the pod. The Doctor thought they were facing two warring alien species using Earth as a battleground, but when they found the coil, she determined it was actually weaponized biotech — a super creature of intel-gathering tentacles — and it had captured the image of Karl’s face.
Tim Shaw showed up at that moment, but like all Big Bads who need to reveal their backstory, he was in the mood to talk. Why did he collect teeth? He removed his mask to show his face covered in them. “A stenza warrior wears his conquests,” he said. In order to become the leader of his race, he must track and obtain the selected human trophy with no weapons and no assistance. Ryan unknowingly granting access to Earth in the woods wasn’t Tim Shaw’s fault, nor could he help that the stenza live at a temperature that is fatal to humans. But as the Doctor noted, Tim Shaw using the super coil to locate Karl made him a “big blue cheat.” Once Tim Shaw’s data transfer from the coil was complete, poof, he was gone. A double cheat.
“I Am Special” | Tim Shaw’s next stop was the construction site where Karl runs a crane. He killed the security guard, who’d just been FaceTiming with his grandchild. That detail was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming: in those few seconds of screentime, Chibnall made sure we knew that the man left the world feeling loved and expressing love. When Team Doctor arrived at the site to find Tim Shaw climbing Carl’s crane, Grace and Graham were ordered to get all the workers to safety and not come back, while Yaz and Ryan were to climb up another crane with the Doctor and then quickly learn how to operate it.
The plan was for Yaz to steer the arm of their crane toward Karl’s so that the Doctor could convince him to step across. Reciting his self-help mantras — “I am valued, I am special… I am confident, I achieve my goals” — Karl made his way to the edge, but the coil made sure the cranes couldn’t line up. When Karl finally agreed to jump across, Tim Shaw was close enough to catch him and began dragging him away. The Doctor, showing the bravery we’ve come to expect, made a running leap to grab ahold of Karl’s crane (“These legs definitely used to be longer,” she cracked while dangling). If Tim Shaw didn’t let Ryan go, she’d destroy the recall socket she’d swiped from his pod, which he needed to return home.
It was another fine time for a chat. The Doctor asked what the stenza do with the people they take: they’re held in trophy chambers between life and death.
“Left to rot. How completely obscene,” the Doctor said.
“They’re not important,” Tim Shaw insisted.
“Hey, I’m important,” Carl quipped.
Tim Shaw threatened to detonate the DNA bombs if the Doctor didn’t give back the socket. More weapons = more cheating. “The wannabe leader who has to cheat because he knows he’s unworthy,” the Doctor said. She didn’t think he’d detonate them, but she wanted him to prove her wrong.
“We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We could honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next. Now’s your chance. How about it?” she said.
That’s the kind of speech that made Tim Shaw again ask who she was. Now, the Doctor knew (insert: those happy tears). Tim Shaw detonated the bombs, which unbeknownst to him, had been removed from the humans, put into the coil, and transferred to him along with the ability to track Karl. Not one to be cruel, the Doctor threw Tim Shaw the socket so he could go home. Lucky for him he’d caught it by the time Karl kicked him off the crane. (That’s why you won’t be a companion, Karl.)
“Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” | We’d seen Grace run toward danger throughout the episode, so it fit her character to disregard the Doctor’s orders to stay away when she saw the coil threatening the crane that Ryan and Yaz were still on. Her plan was for Graham to figure out how to overload the coil for good while she climbed the crane and got close enough to zap it. She made sure Graham (and the audience) knew she was having fun and kissed him twice. The surge worked, too well. Grace was propelled off the crane and fell to the ground. She survived just long enough to make Graham promise her that he won’t be scared without her. The look on the Doctor’s face when she came running – that’s why you cast Jodie Whittaker, something Chibnall would have known from her performance as a mother whose son was murdered on his last show, Broadchurch.
“Look At You Three, I’m Almost Gonna Miss Ya” | Ryan finished his vlog vowing to learn to ride his bike and make nan proud. He went back to the hill and proceeded to repeatedly fall and get back up. It was hard to watch, but the Doctor did from a distance, seeing his determination but, one suspects, also that he could hurt himself if he doesn’t have someone there to guide him. Graham’s eulogy at Grace’s service may have finally made him worthy of her in Ryan’s eyes; Graham wished he’d gone and Grace remained. Afterward, we learned that the couple had met when Grace was Graham’s chemo nurse. The Doctor told her future companions that she’d lost her family a long time ago, but she carries what they would have said and done with her, so they’re never really gone. That’s something Grace would have said. (And another reason why Ryan and Graham will trust the Doctor).
With this crisis averted, the Doctor was ready to deal with two more: first, her wardrobe situation (Yaz seemed unimpressed with the Doctor’s new ensemble but paid nevertheless), and then how to find the TARDIS. The Doctor reconfigured Tim Shaw’s leftover transport pod to track its unique energy. We all knew what would happen when Graham, Ryan, and Yaz needed to be there to help: the confusing stenza technology transported them to the middle of space as well. Let the fun begin (after we figure out how they’re breathing — Ryan, in particular, looked to be struggling).
So, what did you think of “The Women Who Fell to Earth”? Is Whittaker a worthy successor to Peter Capaldi? Who’s your early favorite companion? Hit the comments, and we’ll do it again next week.