“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” marked the premiere of Series 11 of Doctor Who as well as the premiere performance for Jodie Whittaker’s brilliant and groundbreaking portrayal of the decades old (almost) title character, The Doctor. Series 10 ended with The Doctor falling to Earth shortly after regenerating and the TARDIS dematerializing.
The episode opens with a nineteen-year-old Ryan Sinclair, one of three companions The Doctor will have on her journey this season. The scene is set up like a YouTube page with Ryan speaking of “the greatest woman I ever met. Smart. Funny. Caring. Special.” It leads to him talking about not being able to ride a bike, which is explained later in the episode that he has a coordination disorder called dyspraxia, and the scene changing to him to the day he tried to learn. That’s where we meet Ryan’s grandmother, Grace, and her husband and the second companion, Graham.
Unfortunately, Ryan falls off his bike halfway towards Graham. This leaves him frustrated and throwing his bike over the edge. Graham sends Ryan to get the bike because their train leaves in 20 minutes. While Graham and Grace wait on the train, Ryan goes off to find the bike. Just as he finds the bike stuck in a tree, a glowing diamond appears behind him. Smaller diamonds appear inside it as Ryan stares at it, and right in the very center a glowing button-like circle appears. Ryan of course, the curious human that he is, pushes the glowing button making the diamonds disappear and a blue teardrop shaped rock appear in its place. Ryan immediately places his hand on the rock, reminiscent of Mickey accidentally opening the Dalek’s void ship back in series two, and calls the police.
Enter Yasmin Khan, or Yaz as the Doctor calls her (because they are friends now!) She is a police officer working the traffic beat and is shown settling a parking dispute between two women. Afterwards, she calls the station asking for something more challenging. She believes she is capable of something more than just traffic disputes. She is told she needs to learn the basics, but she asks more and different. Which leads to her being tasked with Ryan’s call and the big alien space rock that is freezing to the touch. You cannot get more different than that.
As Ryan and Yaz investigate the rock, something crashes into Graham and Grace’s train. The doors lock Grace, Graham, and the other passenger, Karl, inside. Grace calls Ryan as things start to get weird, but the calls cuts out. What looks like a big, electrified, tangled ball of wires starts creeping its way to the stranded passengers, but not before The Doctor crashes through the roof and stops it. At least for a few seconds.
Ryan and Yasmin appear just in time for the electrified ball of wires to zap each and every one of them. Yasmin calls The Doctor madame, asking her to stay put because it might be a police matter. This is the first time The Doctor realizes she is a woman, asking, “Am I? Does it suit me?” Of course, regenerations always go a bit wibbly wobbly, and this time The Doctor cannot even remember her own name. She gathers everyone together, saying, “Right then, troops. No, not troops. Team. Gang. Fam?” The Doctor calling her companions “fam” was a humorous, light-hearted and modern touch to this episode. Grace points out she crashed through the ceiling, which remind The Doctor she lost her TARDIS, but she is going to focus on one thing at a time. She says she is going to focus on getting answers, but it is too much for Karl, who decides to leave to go back to work.
Ryan points out the other unusual event of the night and leads everyone to the giant alien rock that landed, but has been taken. Someone has taken to a warehouse-like facility with cameras set up to watch it as it cracks open, bringing another alien into the mix. The Doctor’s search for the alien rock is cut short as she passes out, another moment reminiscent of Tennant’s era, complete with Time Lord energy escaping her. However, the alien rock cracking open wakes her up early and it is discovered that when they were zapped earlier it left them all with DNA bombs, some weapon that could potentially kill them. The Doctor tracks down the alien by reprogramming a cell phone and zapping her DNA bomb in order to use it as a tracker. They find the body of the man who took the alien rock, but strangely with a tooth missing.
When the Doctor realizes she needs a sonic screwdriver, she decides to build her own. “I’m good at building things! Probably,” she states. As she builds it, she gives us an insight into what it really feels like for the Doctor to regenerate, both physically and through her thoughts. But she claims it’s alright because “when people need help, I never refuse.” And as a bit of a shout out to her predecessor, she uses teaspoons to make the sonic screwdriver! She also explain how multi-purpose the screwdriver is and all the things it can do. She explains it’s more like a Swiss-army knife than a screwdriver, minus the knife.
When The Doctor and her companions finally run into the mysterious alien, Tim Shaw, she asks why the alien takes teeth from its victims. It is a trophy of sorts, he explains, as he unmasks himself and reveals himself to be maybe one of the most disturbing things in Doctor Who history. Tim Shaw’s face is covered with teeth he has taken from his conquests. He is on a hunt to become leader on his own planet and his next victim? Karl, the passenger on the train who left. So, the Doctor and her “fam” go to save him.
In the big showdown, Ryan and Yaz climb up a crane at a construction site and use the crane to try and steer The Doctor toward Karl. Of course, the crane stops working and they never quite line up. Karl makes a leap for it, but is stopped by Tim Shaw. But the Doctor is clever. She took the device from his teardrop-esque ship that he would need to return home. She threatens to destroy it if he does not let Karl go or if he detonates the DNA bombs. And during her speech, she finally remember who she is.
“Bit if adrenaline, dash of outrage, and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am. I’m the Doctor. Sorting out fair play throughout the universe. Now, please get off this planet while you still have a choice.”
It is discovered that the Doctor transferred their DNA bombs to the flying tangle of wires called a gathering coil Tim Shaw was using, leaving him no longer able to use it to cheat his way to leadership. Karl kicks him over the edge of the crane, but Tim Shaw uses the device The Doctor had to go back home before he could ever fall to the ground. As this is going on, Graham and Grace work together to destroy the gathering coil. Grace climbs halfway up the crane to detonate it, but as it implodes, she falls. Her dying words to Graham are for him to promise her he will not be scared without her. The scene returns to Ryan’s video from the beginning and we finally found out he was talking about his nan, Grace.
After Grace’s service, The Doctor gathers with Graham, Ryan and Yaz. Graham explains that he had cancer and that Grace was his chemotherapy nurse. That is where they met and where they fell in love. Yaz asks The Doctor if she has any family and after she tells them no, Ryan asks her how she copes with that. She tells them she carries her family with her, what they would have thought, said and done. She makes them a part of her so that, “even though they’re gone from the world, they’re never gone from me.” And after Yaz points out that she needs some new clothes, (Tim Shaw sort of exploded on the ones she had been wearing) she goes shopping and comes up with her brand new, iconic look for the Doctor!
The episode ends The Doctor building a transport pod that should transport her back to the TARDIS with the help of Graham, Yaz and Ryan still on Earth. However, all four of them disappear from the room and are shown floating in space as the episode fades to black.
It was a remarkable first episode for series 11, Jodie Whittaker, and new showrunner, Chris Chibnall. It was entertaining, intriguing, and emotional. We got insights into The Doctor we hadn’t quite seen before. It was fresh take on Doctor Who, but with everything that makes the Doctor who they are still in place. I absolutely cannot wait to see where this season goes!
An extended version of this episode will premiere on BBC America at 8/7c on October 7.