Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Jamie Childs. Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
When I was growing up, turning on the television at 6.45pm would find BBC1 in the middle of Songs of Praise, or ITV about to embark on its own half hour of Christian devotion. With Songs of Praise now adrift somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, and ITV long having shed its Sunday evening ‘God slot’, it’s tempting to regard Doctor Who’s translation to Sunday nights as a recognition that it, now, is the new established faith of the United Kingdom. The excited reporting of social media’s overwhelmingly favourable reaction to The Woman Who Fell to Earth on the 10pm news on BBC Radio 4, complete with approving quotations from an interview with Jenny Colgan, suggested that the projection of public celebration of the new version of Doctor Who is exceptionally important to the BBC, almost existentially so.
There were moments when Chris Chibnall’s first script as showrunner seemed concentrated on plugging in to strands of British identity which have been repressed in recent decades. The Doctor makes her new sonic screwdriver of Sheffield steel, which becomes the wonderworking of a forgemaster technogoddess rather than the product of a clapped-out industry as in perhaps the last worldwide entertainment hit to mythologise Sheffield, The Full Monty. The real economy is in the workshops of the land, rather than in the glass towers of London. The aliens attack sturdy old InterCity rolling stock rather than the cut-price Pacers with which most of northern England was fobbed off and which still endure on the privatized railway. The crane driven by Karl is building something rather than demolishing, despite the broken handrail which almost sends Tzim-Sha – cannily credited as ‘Tim Shaw’ – to his death. Yet this isn’t Brexiteer-inspired isolationism, because old-fashioned British craft is at its most marvellous in alien hands. The Doctor blends it with the technology of less pleasant offworlders than herself to pursue her quest for the TARDIS. Her accidental teleporting of Graham, Ryan and Yaz from the workshop surely presages celebrations of open-mindedness and exploration.
Where does the Doctor stand in the relationship network established in this story? She incorporates herself in a pattern partly reviving one established in the childhood of Yaz and Ryan at Redlands Primary School – ‘Hello, Ryan’s nan’ – but which has also evolved beyond this to (uncomfortably at least as far as Ryan is concerned) accommodate Graham (‘Fam?’ asks the Doctor) and now the precarious adulthood of Yaz and Ryan, one feeling a perpetual probationer, the other at nineteen still going through the childhood ritual of learning to ride a bicycle. For a series which appeals to primary school children but also encourages adults to see the world through childlike eyes, the reunion of Yaz and Ryan feels exactly right. It’s Ryan whose family situation is foregrounded here: the aftermath of Grace’s death sees the Doctor observe the spaces left by an absent parent and dead grandparent without seeking to fill them directly. Grace’s awkward and unintentional infantilization of Ryan is not to be replicated. This isn’t a format of fast explication where relationships are concerned – no thick broad brushes of council estate or suburban dysfunctionality as we saw in Russell T Davies’s era. By comparison, everything is understated here and left on a slow burn, with signals that there is much to be picked up and developed later.
When the Doctor was expelled from the TARDIS at the end of Twice Upon a Time, she was also very visibly expelled from Steven Moffat’s universe and into the sky over Chris Chibnall’s Sheffield. The process continues here, with the Doctor’s empty pockets echoing for the emptying TARDIS shelves. The mementos of past adventures are gone, whether from the carefully curated library or the suddenly empty pockets. This throws the emphasis onto improvisation and innovation, as seen in the much-lauded screwdriver-forging sequence, but also in the emphasis on intelligence-gathering and learning of new skills. The Doctor has always been the practical person envisaged by Sydney Newman, but this stripped out the reliance on mythology and memory evident in Steven Moffat’s era and it felt as if the Doctor was being discovered anew by the audience as well as the new characters.
This isn’t to say that the past was forgotten – far from it. The Doctor’s account of her experience of regeneration was the most evocative and intimate heard in the series, building on ‘It always hurts’ from The Sarah Jane Adventures’ The Death of the Doctor. Memories of The Christmas Invasion were recalled as Grace and Ryan watched over the still-regenerating Doctor. The melting down of spoons to make the new sonic screwdriver drew from a deep rivulet of spoon iconography from The Time Monster through The Creature from the Pit and Robot of Sherwood – and I almost forgot Time and the Rani. The lengthy and heartstopping crane sequence felt at times like a fan of my generation was revisualising the climax of Logopolis. Several commentators saw in Yaz’s police uniform a reference and perhaps a rebuke to Amy’s strippergram costume from The Eleventh Hour. If so, both were remote. I was also expecting some kind of verbal nudge when Yaz said that the Doctor really needed to get out of her clothes, but no: Chibnall’s work contrasts with that of his two predecessors in that it lacks the obvious preoccupation with sex and sexuality.
I watched this episode in a large group, mainly made up of people less than half my age, in some cases those who had not yet started school when Rose aired, and who were now starting university. They laughed (and there was one early line of the Doctor which particularly amused, but I can’t recall which it was), held their hands to their faces (well, I did) as first Karl prepared himself to jump across from his arm to the Doctor’s, and then the Doctor leaped across to confront Tzim Sha. While I sensed not everyone was happy with a ‘Coming Soon’ trailer comprised of actors, there were gasps and small cheers suggesting that the sequence did its job in appealing across the viewing coalition.
In the aftermath of broadcast, I Tweeted (in response to an appeal by Emily Cook of DWM) that the episode was ‘quietly magnificent’. Segun Akinola’s music was largely devoted to enhancing that sense of a sharp-edged peace, whether in the open space of the Peak District – offering broad visual continuity with CountryFile while or the urban night where almost everything was still except for a chain of crucial events leading to a fatality. Urgency relied too on dialogue – a series of plans and contributions to a greater plan, in many cases. The programme celebrated being human without preaching. Akinola’s soundtrack for the screwdriver-forging seemed to represent all the folk traditions found in a British industrial city. The flaws in humans and other characters were present too, of course. The Doctor’s reproach to Karl following his ejection of Tzim Sha from the crane’s walkway, ‘You had no right to do that’, had already been answered – what message could an underappreciated Karl send to someone who seemed to embody all the undermining he’d ever experienced? Judging seemed to be suspended.On the basis of this episode, Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who de-emphasises traditional ritual in favour of developing new, plainer forms of conveying Doctor Who’s message in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Instead of showing pictures of family only some of the audience recognise, the Doctor talks about her lost relatives, recalling a time in the programme’s history when its mythology didn’t seem to have 139 layers with seven incomprehensible. Old monsters are eschewed in favour of a demonic tooth fairy to appeal to a legend told by parents to children; even the TARDIS disappears for now, to be reached by industrial cables and a microwave. If Doctor Who is now a Songs of Praise for modern Britain, perhaps it’s an inclusive Low Church Doctor Who with High Church aspirations to universality – and I thought of that parallel before I realised I was punning on Chris Chibnall’s greatest creative success. This anthem to Doctor Who soared in a low key, but it’s only one part of this year’s service and it’s difficult to tell how it’s going to set the tone.