Watching The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Before I properly get going here, we’re not going to talk about specific plot points but anyone reading this before watching The Woman Who Fell To Earth for themselves might want to rectify that situation before continuing – if nothing else, you’ll at least be better armed to disagree with me! So for everyone still reading… now the default disclaimer is out of the way, here we go with a new season of Doctor Who, a new Doctor in Jodie Whittaker and three new companions all in need of an introduction.

My Beloved and I sat down to watch it together and enjoyed meeting all of these characters for the first time, learning more about them and finding out how they were connected to and interacted with each other; obviously we knew who the actors were going to be well in advance because that’s how the hype machine works these days but it’s always fun to actually see them in action as it were. That said, it’s been a few years since I last visited Sheffield but I don’t remember it being quite that dark and forbidding… perhaps I just managed to avoid the more ropey, alien-invaded areas?

The response online has apparently been mixed and I’ve already seen this episode described on social media as the “worst opening of a new series” amongst other things, but that rather implies a lack of previous Doctor Who experience on the part of the commenter… this was a post regeneration story and those have always been relatively weak in part because they need to dedicate time to establishing the new Doctor’s character. Other elements tend to be left aside to make room for that process, so classic ‘Who brought us “gems” like Time And The Rani, which I’d argue that still stands as the worst opening of a new season and is incredibly unlikely to ever lose that dubious “honour”. And don’t get me started on The Twin Dilemma…!

So the villain was okay but two dimensional enough to slip under a badly hung door and I felt that the resolution of Twice Upon A Time’s cliff hanger was something of a letdown (oh dear… sorry about that) but at least easily retconned, but as a whole The Woman Who Fell To Earth did what needed to be done in a more than reasonable fashion. The companions will no doubt be fleshed out as the season progresses but are already interesting enough that I want to find out more, the story was a “fun romp” and the new Doctor is a little scatterbrained but charming and likeable, with lots of energy which makes her a good counterpoint to Capaldi’s more brooding and grumpy rendition.

The new version of the theme works nicely with lots of Radiophonic Workshop overtones – I’m thinking it’s an improvement over the last season personally – and I’m very interested to see where things go especially after the cliffhanger and the roll call of upcoming guest cast – again, some people on the interwebs have complained that they felt this showed a lack of confidence on the BBC’s part but it’s no different to the season-wide trailers we’ve seen previously and actually less likely to spoil future episodes in the long run – so roll on next Sunday evening and, whilst I’ sort of expecting a certain missing element to remain so for a while longer, we also have that reveal to look forward to.

I died in a book once

Before we start, a little back story for those who aren’t fans; the BBC took Doctor Who off the air in 1989, having all but strangled it with ridiculously small budgets and, according to some, deliberately poor scheduling. A few of these wilderness years passed before Virgin Books licensed the Doctor Who universe and started producing a range of books called the Doctor Who New Adventures which continued where Sylvester McCoy’s third season left off at Survival. They also took a few cues from the Cartmel Masterplan – the nickname for the road map laid out for the show had it continued with Andrew Cartmel as script editor – which included drafting in new companions.

One of these new characters was archaeologist Bernice Summerfield who was created by writer Paul Cornell and, when the BBC didn’t renew the license in 1997, Virgin dropped the “Doctor Who” from the name and continued the series with Benny front and centre. The fourth Benny NA as they were sometimes known was Ship Of Fools, a murder mystery set aboard a space-bound cruise liner called the Titanium Queen with Bernice contracted to retrieve a stolen artefact. And during said book is this scene…

‘I vonder if you can help me,’ said the woman. My name is Heidi von Lindt. I have thus far spent this delightful cruise visiting with certain gentlemen of my acquaintance, offering them companionship and, I must confess, a certain degree of succour. I have been, if you will, a kind of random companion…’

Benny wondered vaguely if this scenario was going to lead anywhere. ‘I’m really not in much of a state to help any -‘ she began.

Heidi von Lindt held a finger to her glossed lips in a small shushing gesture. ‘Vun of my gentleman friends,’ she said, ‘seems to haff had a small mishap. I left him under firm restraint, momentarily, while I went to find a pair off nipple-clamps, a bullwhip, a set of electrodes and a pint of clarified ghee, and I haff come back to find him horribly murdered. ‘ She presser her hand to her forehead in a display of abject sorrow. ‘Ach! Poor Jason is no more! Vot am I to do? I can’t help it!’

And yes, the Jason who “had not died, as was first thought, from the constriction of the ropes tying him to Frau von Lindt’s chaise longue, but by an injection of strychnine to his upper left ventricle” was indeed yours truly, with the part of Heidi von Lindt being played by my then girlfriend who went by the pseudonym Random Companion to the point where even I called her that. The book’s author Dave Stone – that’s him in the picture below circa 1997 if memory serves, standing next to a grinning idiot – had put a call out via the USENet newsgroup Rec.Arts.DrWho (which was visited by quite a few of the New Adventures writers) for people to lay down their lives in the service of literature, so there’s several R.A.DW names, pseudonyms, in-jokes and references throughout.

The book was the first in a trilogy which have recently been retooled to add a new lead character of Dave’s own creation, Pandora Delbane, and made available for Kindle owners at very reasonable rates, although my cameo and most of the R.A.DW references are gone in this new version – that makes sense since jokes like the Bekkar boys and their industrial flame won’t thrower mean anything to people who “weren’t there” and may have completely slipped the minds of many who were after two decades. I’ve got all three on my Kindle but ended up buying a second hand copy of Ship Of Fools as well to transcribe the scene above – I still have a WAV file of Random reading Heidi von Lindt’s part – and to scan the cover, because even if I could find my original copy it’s “well read” almost to the point of destruction.

Those were the Doctor Who “wilderness years” when the show wasn’t on the air, but it’s also a time I mostly remember fondly for the sense of community around the show, even if being “persuaded” to attend parties, conventions – three in the space of a month at one point – and other events wasn’t and indeed still isn’t for want of a better phrase, really my “style”. I don’t entirely know how I ended up in some of those situations, but there’s a couple of anecdotes from that time I’ve been telling for years that could stand to be written down…?

Watching Twice Upon A Time

Before I start, there won’t be a blow by blow account of the story but it’s not really possible to discuss the 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special Twice Upon A Time without… well, spoilers sweetie. There have been a few days since it was originally broadcast – I’ve already watched it twice, three times if you include the slightly skippy run yesterday to scavenge images from iPlayer – but, if you haven’t already seen it, carrying on might give away things you were trying to avoid before watching.

First off, as a long-serving Doctor Who fan – who was there in the “the wilderness” after cancellation, through the darker tones of New Adventures books and dashed hopes after the TV movie wasn’t picked up – I am a sucker for a multi-Doctor story. The fanboy in me just adores them and my Beloved had to literally suffer me screaming like a horror movie victim when the first Doctor appeared at the end of the last season because, despite my attempts to avoid spoilers beforehand, I’d heard rumours about David Bradley returning for Christmas and was only an organised religion away from praying it was true.

The main theme throughout was death; both of the Doctors were edging inexorably towards their regenerations despite railing against it, the Captain slowly coming to realise that his number was up having being snatched out of time and Testimony is, in essence, the Doctor Who universe’s version of the afterlife. That might all seem rather morbid especially for the time of year but Doctor Who is one of the few television programmes that can potentially carry something like that off and still resolve everything on what is essentially a positive note. The “Christmas miracle” was one of those moments in history where humanity did something positive so I was pleased that the writers didn’t alter what happened to give the Doctor credit, merely “borrowing” the event for a good purpose.

Peter Capaldi really shines as the Doctor, spending most of the story going from dark and brooding to full of joy before either rolling his eyes to the point they almost become detached or having his ego thoroughly punctured by what his former self just said. Mark Gatiss puts in a lovely, understated performance as the Captain who somehow comes across as befuddled and quietly frightened throughout whilst maintaining the stiff upper lip needed to support his moustache and Pearl Mackie as Bill is great as always, brimming with energy and asking sometimes difficult questions but also the voice of reason for those moments when the Doctor needs one.

But it’s David Bradley as the first Doctor who pretty much steals every scene he appears in, from the moment he takes over during a William Hartnell speech as the footage rather beautifully transitions from deliberately grainy black and white 4:3 ratio out to glorious 16:9 colour. It’s quite uncanny really; he nails the delivery and mannerisms yes, but isn’t merely doing an impression. I’ve seen a few people online complaining that the character is shown in a rather misogynistic light, but that tone is consistent with the original. My Beloved and I have talked about this and agree that we’d both rather see that level of accuracy with him subsequently being shot down by his future self or Bill than have those cracks be papered over. That’s the Doctor we get in the Hartnell stories so changing him now just wouldn’t be right.

As the Doctor himself notes, there isn’t actually an evil plan to thwart – most of the actual danger in the story comes from trying to find out what’s actually going on since Testimony insists on being rather vague until the Doctor’s worked it out for himself – but it’s still enjoyable to watch them getting to the point where they realise. Ultimately we knew where this one was going, but there were some lovely, tear-jerking surprises and references to stories past during that journey.Peter Capaldi’s final speech might be a little drawn out for some – it felt that way for me the first time as well presumably because I was waiting for the fireworks, but not on the second pass – but Twice Upon A Time was a solid story overall and a fitting final salute to the Moffat era of ‘Who and Capaldi’s time as the Time Lord.

We didn’t get to see much of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, but her entrance and rather abrupt, cliff-hanging exit were well done and I’m looking forward to seeing where she and new show runner Chris Chibnall are going to either take or indeed be taken by the TARDIS.