You can learn a lot from where a writer sets the first act of his long, multi-series epic saga.
“Rose”. People say Russell T. Davies’ Who is very grounded and down-to-earth, which is not untrue, but the places that dominate his first Who story embody a very particular kind of everyday. A shopping mall. The London Eye. They’re symbols, signifiers – of class struggle, of an economic system and social reality, of a place and a time. It’s realistic, yes, but its realism is rooted in the fictional.
“The Eleventh Hour”. A house – a locked room, invisible and unseen, within the house: secrets, traumas, things hidden and concealed. An hospital – a place that’s, in theory at least, supposed to be defined by its exceptional nature: you enter and leave because of a very specific purpose. The narrative shifts – instead of a semi-realistic universe, composed, collage-like, of bits of symbols and experience, we enter the domain of the intimate and personal. Internal struggles getting exteriorised: an era where we ponder self-betterment, mental illness, power dynamics. If there’s realism – and there doesn’t have to be, purposeful style can be just as meaningful – it’s to be found within the workings of the human mind.
- “The Woman who Fell to Earth”.
When the Doctor first appears, it’s in a train. A train is rather unlikely to have any amount of personal relevance tied to it. It’s a way to get A to point B. Nothing special or exceptional or even especially distinct about it all – a train looks like any other train. These trains from Sheffield look like the one that links Paris to its airports.
And yet – we know that this is a ride the characters have made countless times. Ryan’s got to ride his bike, after all. It’s a habit for them – a part of the rhythm of their life. It must be for poor Karl, too, going to work on his construction site every night. It’s not that interesting. It’s downtime. One of these unremarkable parts of life that matter only in that they give your existence structure, as the void that highlights the more meaningful bit, the silence that echoes around the notes.
And that’s where the uncanny barges in.
If there’s one theme to “The Woman who Fell to Earth”, it’s that. Of course, the episode is largely about the wild, crazy immensity of the universe meeting “ordinary” human lives – that’s probably one of the best definitions you could find for Who as a whole, really, or at least it’s the one I prefer. But the fact this Primal Weird (to quote El Sandifer’s take on the episode) materialises in the mundane, in the regular clockwork movements of a capitalist society? Now that, that is new. And deeply interesting. The very first shot is on a YouTube video! And what’s internet if not the biggest crossroads in our lives, the most common and ordinary centre of banal activities and interactions?
In many ways, it blurs the lines of what we expect Who to do. For all that the Steven Moffat era loves to be experimental and weird and complicated, the separation between what’s “human” and what’s “alien”, between these two worlds, tends to be quite clear – he made a whole episode that’s a case study in how they interact, after all, with “Listen”. When they mingle, it’s generally a human character that embraces alien-ness in a sort of metafictional transhumanism; they pass a threshold, become stories or songs or water lesbian goddesses or some kind of abstract narrative instance.
But with Chibnall? It’s far less clear. The title is meaningful, with its (pretty genius) fake-out: “The Woman who Fell to Earth” ends up being a working-class grandma. Which, yes, isn’t the best storytelling decision, for obvious reasons (it shows a white woman rising up as a saviour while a black one fails and dies; it serves as motivation fuel for male characters, and so on …), but feels pretty coherent with the ethos the episode exudes: the Doctor feels less like a concrete and lofty ideal, a goal characters must strive to reach; and more like an abstract force, a physical constant of the universe characters can attune to. The death of Twelve, his politically-motivated sacrifice, feels like the idea of the Doctor has exploded, imbuing the universe at large, ready to be seized by anyone. Grace, when she dies, fundamentally, is the Doctor, even mimicking Tom Baker’s regeneration. Ryan, in his little YouTube monologues, describes the Doctor – the Doctor just happened to take the guise of his nan, for a short moment. From “The Doctor Falls” to “The Woman who Fell to Earth”.
Thirteen embodies that new paradigm – she is not conflicted, she is not prey to the dilemmas that weighed on her predecessor’s consciousness. She is a force of nature, moving, jumping, fighting, climbing. She’s action – and chaos, and danger. There’s almost an element of violence to how Jodie Whittaker plays the character, an electricity that Peter Capaldi had converted into human warmth a long time ago. Sending aliens to melt, erasing hard drives, disregarding her own safety with a shrug, ignoring consequences because “it’ll be fine in the end” … There’s something raw and immediate about her. Which in a way, is a logical development from Twelve: she is a Doctor who can tell the truth and live with it, act without the suffering and the pressure of past choices and past selves. Her energy obviously echoes David Tennant or Matt Smith, and the papers had plenty of comparisons to make on that level – often with a sneaky dig at the expense of Steven Moffat, because of course, that would happen –, but they never were as direct and truthful as she is here: “The Christmas Invasion” shows Ten enjoying and abusing his power; and “The Eleventh Hour” pretty much is a case study in Eleven failing spectacularly and screwing up Amy’s life beyond belief until its last stretch. She doesn’t lie to her new friends at any point, she just pours her heart out in each and every scene – she even speaks about her own past and family, near the end, which has got to be a first for a Doctor premiere. And yet, she still has this unknowable and unstable, and, yes even a tiny but unsettling quality, which is not without echoing Hartnell, whose spectre has haunted the Who narrative very recently in “Twice Upon a Time” – see the mad inventor get-up, the TARDIS or the general lore around her remaining mysteries, even the theme tune or the final cliffhanger …
But maybe more than with the characters, it’s with the setting the episode really conveys its thematic paradoxes. Sheffield doesn’t look welcoming, does it? It’s filmed at night, all industrial buildings and wet gloom – from the giant cranes on which the climax takes place to the alien probe seeing the environment as a giant sea of electronic fluxes, there is a fixation on the almost mechanical quality of the city. The city as a system, or maybe a creature all on its own on, with Tzim-Sha as only a manifestation of it, a tooth-pulling symptom of some deeper disease. The direction has its faults, from overedits to curiously stock and obvious ways to tackle big emotional lynchpins – Grace’s death, especially, is surprisingly underwhelming that way –, but it nails this general, distant impression of oppression. The only moments of comfort, the only droplets of colour, are found away from town, in the little bit of green pastures that’s Ryan and Grace’s familial heaven; and in Thirteen herself, draped in a coat of many colours like a less abusive Six.
Take the now (in)famous Salad Man scene. It’s a highlight of the episode for the simple reason that it’s pretty damn idiosyncratic. You really can’t imagine Steven Moffat, or even Russell T. Davies writing something like that. It’s really weird, but its brand of weirdness is something we have never really seen in Who – when the aforementioned writers dabbled in the strange, it was a kind of strange that invaded normality. Spaceships crashing in Big Ben and astronauts crashing dinner dates. This scene, on the other hand, shows us a Weird that is inscribed in daily reality – humanity and whatever we have built doesn’t need alien interference to be odd. The character journeys in this episode are correlated with a genre journey, as Ryan, Yaz and co realise in which kind of narrative they are finding themselves: not a police procedural, not even really an action film, but more of a gloomy Post-Industrial Gothic. The Hinchcliffe method applied to pub rants and urban legends rather than to cosmic myths.
There’s cultural relevance in this, too. I’m writing this in Birmingham, making it the first time I get to watch Who in England. It’s night – and outside my window, the only thing I can see are rows and rows of building and skyscrapers, all trying to out-tall each other, and construction sites and trains and half-finished towers. It’s kind of beautiful, especially when neon lights shine in there, but it’s also anxiety-inducing in its own. When you, small human, gaze at this capitalist labyrinth, you do wonder what kind of Minotaurs roam its depths.
Because, concretely, what does Tzim-Sha change to that whole landscape? Some rich, privileged, cheating asshole kills poor people for fun, and to show others he has the biggest penis of the lot. Working-class people. Neurodivergent people. If we exclude the attempted murder of Karl, and that one security guard – all BAME people. Oh, he has the “right” to do it. On a technicality – showing someone a contract they don’t even understand, and as soon as they sign on the dotted line, he’s got power of life and death over whoever crosses his path, consent being, after all, a choice tool in the arsenal of abusers, as Peter Harness explained to us last year, through no less convoluted plot circumvolutions.
That’s not science-fiction. Not even remotely. Oh, there’s the aesthetic genre homage – this is clearly Predator, or, to be precise, Predator 2 with better race politics (down to the potentially problematic tribal coding of the villain – at least we escape the magical vaudou Jamaican drug dealers), because Who is a hungry metatextual cryptid that always love to eat more narratives and digest them into something new. But, deep down, it’s a story of petty, banal, violent abuse – of systemic abuse, to boot. Some critics have deemed Rahul’s character to be a waste of screentime, and while he doesn’t necessarily fit all that well within the framework of the story, he nevertheless shows something important – this, this violence, has happened before, no one cared, and it will continue to happen until it’s stopped. The episode credits the alien as Tim Shaw – and that’s not just a really fun gag, it’s also because he’s basically human, for all intents and purposes. He’s a monster in the most primordial sense of the word – “monster” comes from “monstrare”, “to show” in Latin. A monster is a de-monstr-ation, always, a twisted mirror. And this demonstration, this violence, is rooted deeply into the character’s flesh and bodies – it would be pointless to labour the points James Wylder made so excellently in his own essay about the story, but it’s undeniable physical bodies play a large role here, from dyspraxia to the DNA bombs Tzim unleashes on the gang. Oppression that roots itself in the flesh, just like that gross feeling you get when you fall asleep in the train en route to your shitty job.
Oppression that has to be resisted. It’s early, of course, to try and formulate a typology of the Chibnall era, but, from that initial episode, I think I can posit this: if Davies wrote about the “normal” world needing to be re-enchanted by entering in a dialectic exchange with the Weird; and if Moffat wrote about people running into the Weird in order to take control of the narratives of their lives; then Chibnall writes about people realising that their “normal” actually was the Uncanny all along. And try, to make, at their own, small level, a difference.
There are no big speeches, no overarching clever plan – whatever action the gang (fam?) undertakes, it’s almost always a form of messy, joyous improvisation, turning whatever tools they have at their disposal into weapons of fortune. It’s very Hartnell that way, once again – you can trace a direct line from Ian hijacking a Dalek shell to the team here jamming cables into a cyborg octopus. Which really, fits Who’s aesthetic statement as a whole, which I’ve already defined through the words of French playwright Paul Claudel, but am going to do so again, because, listen, I really fucking like this quote.
“Everything must look temporary, in movement, sloppy, incoherent, improvised with enthusiasm! With successes, if possible, every now and then, for even in disorder one must avoid monotony. […] Order is the pleasure of reason; but disorder is the delight of imagination.” [Le Soulier de Satin, 1929]
What the episode does with the sonic is definitely the most remarkable example of this praxis – they have been, in the New Series at least, something that’s granted to the Doctor, a sort of privilege. Just magically spat out by the TARDIS whenever needed. Here, Thirteen needs to start from scratch, to build herself an identity and a place in the world, removed from the overwhelming legacy of Doctors past. Which in turn leads to a recontextualization of the screwdriver in general – from a magic wand to a “Swiss army knife, except not a knife, because only idiots carry knives”. A practical tool made of “Sheffield steel” – the most important line of the episode, in many regards. It anchors Who in our plane of existence, in a way it hasn’t been in a while – which is not to say that it’s more “realistic”, considering how weird Chibnall and director Jamie Childs make that space look. It’s not a way to undermine the previous eras, it’s a bold statement of purpose – of a Doctor that might finally live up fully to the lofty ideal of “an idiot, passing through, helping out, learning”, free of pain and angst.
Things are not perfect. Grace’s death still feels like a bad choice with a subpar execution; the anxiety of Karl is treated as way more of a punchline than it should be, and the incomprehensibly centrist complaints of Thirteen after he pushes his would-be murderer of a ledge are downright facepalm-inducing. But after watching this story? I do believe the Doctor is here, among us, ready to help. Her presence is tangible, in a way Who has rarely ever managed. With all the insistence on the family motif throughout the story … It does rather make us feel like she, herself, is part of our family.
And you know what? It’ll all be fine, in the end.
- The first scenes do kind of act as a fake-out, teasing you with bright colours before settling in for Sheffield Gothic. Whatever qualms I might have about the direction, that’s very well-done and completely caught me unaware on first viewing. Even the design of Tzim-Sha’s pod is completely different from his suit’s. The transition from The Sarah Jane Adventures to Predator is steep, but delightful.
- Other great moment of direction: the big “do not climb, danger of death” sign clearly in shot at the beginning of the crane setpiece. Not subtle, but lovely and cruel bit of foreshadowing.
- I didn’t think it was useful to mention all the instances of family dynamics within the episode in the main bulk of the essay, but, just for accounting purposes – that random security guard calling his granddaughter, Karl’s daddy issues, and of course Rahul, the Ryan-Grace bond and the Doctor’s unseen but mentioned relatives.
- Got to love the Doctor closing the episode by going “Deep breath … deep breath”. Considering the episode’s similarities to Capaldi’s debut (tweaked Gothic aesthetics, a villain collecting body parts), I’m choosing to see this as a deliberated reference.
- Using a microwave for teleportation not only is a really good visual gag, but it still reinforces this idea of anchoring the weird in the mundane – it’s not any ordinary object, it’s one you probably use every single day, without even really paying attention to it.
- Karl is an iffy character, but the gag about him going “someone out there wants me” on a loop? Delightful. It speaks a lot about Chibnall’s writing works, really – it’s not so much a game of big thematic leaps and statements, than careful layering. Less brilliantly improvised, more carefully handcrafted.