This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.
Re-casting a beloved character always carries a measure of risk. Solo: A Star Wars Story relied on the willingness of fans to buy in to Alden Ehrenreich as a younger incarnation of Harrison Ford: the film bombed (you know, in Star Wars terms, since it barely made $400 million). New Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall had an even bigger risk on his hands, casting the first northerner in the titular role since Christopher Eccleston in 2005 – but Jodie Whittaker did not disappoint.
In fact, by her first “what?” – delivered to half the supporting cast after she dropped through the roof of an under-siege train car (rumours that the BBC got a bulk deal remain unsubstantiated) – Whittaker had not only convincingly slipped into a role portrayed by 13 men before her, she had put her own stamp on it. Warm, witty, fast-paced, eccentric and handy with a toolbox, the 13th official incarnation of everybody’s favourite primetime time-travelling alien is reason alone to tune in.
With 10 minutes to play for before The Woman Who Fell to Earth lives up to its title, though, Chibnall – who, unsurprisingly, gets the writing credit for the series’ first two episodes – must first build that earth. We meet Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a 19-year-old YouTuber who somehow manages to get more likes than views on his videos despite giving them SEO-unfriendly titles like “hey”; his grandmother Grace (Sharon D Clark) and Grace’s gruff, West Ham-supporting new-ish husband Graham (Bradley Walsh).
A sweet scene in which Grace and Graham attempt to teach the dyspraxic Ryan to ride a bike helps to establish the family dynamics: Ryan, who we later learn lives with his grandmother following the death of his mother, adores her but is suspicious of Graham. Their day out is interrupted when Ryan stumbles across some alien tech – which he inexplicably keeps poking at – prompting his former classmate and frustrated probationary police officer Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill) to arrive to investigate.
The plot of a new Doctor’s first episode tends to be pretty incidental to the world-building: it involves a bloodthirsty alien who takes teeth as trophies, on earth to hunt a randomly pre-selected human with the aid of what appears to be a sentient, malevolent rubber band ball. Samuel Oatley’s armour-plated, blue-faced alien (below) is genuinely terrifying despite his name being constantly mispronounced by the Doctor as “Tim Shaw”. Victim Karl (Jonny Dixon), who we first encounter on the train the Doctor crash-lands into, comes across as the personification of some of the friendlier Twitter comment threads that greeted the announcement of Whittaker’s casting: disengaging in response to the Doctor’s rallying cry of “new can be scary” and later found listening to motivational tapes to convince himself he is worthy of love.
Before all’s well that – mostly – ends well, a few post-regeneration boxes must be checked: a short, but still powerful, soliloquy from the Doctor as she prepares to take down her foe, and the establishing of her signature costume – discovered, with a knowing wink, in a charity shop (although Whittaker looks marvellous in predecessor Peter Capaldi’s waistcoat and fraying frilled sleeves). With three full-time companions needing introduced, only Ryan with his dyspraxia, vlog and hints at a tragi-complex family history makes much of an impression, although Bradley Walsh plays a convincing Bradley Walsh, perpetually bemused and calling everybody “love”.
This first episode’s largely disposable plot ultimately has some ramifications that a cynic suspects may motivate characters not obviously predisposed to adventure in later weeks: there’s a reason only three of the main supporting cast were given official “companion” status in the pre-publicity, although Clarke’s has been billed as a recurring role. And that’s saying nothing of the cliffhanger. Add a darker, more grounded feel from Broadchurch creator Chibnall, Whittaker’s captivating performance and some excellent sight gags – most notably involving a kebab – and there are plenty of reasons to tune in next week. To quote the Doctor herself: “it’s a work in progress, but so’s life” – and I can’t wait to see what comes next.