Doctor Who-“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” (Spoiler-Free Review)

You know that old saying — if you have an ax and you replace the handle, and later on you replace the blade, is it still the same ax? Welcome to Doctor Who — a show whose handle and blade have been changed so many times it might not even be an ax anymore. The venerable not-so-cult-anymore sci-fi show began its newest season (the 11th of the modern incarnation of the show, the 37th in all) on Sunday, 8 October, after nearly a year-long wait. This isn’t just any new season, either: It’s one of those rare times when everything changes — lead actor, supporting cast, showrunner, producer, the majority of the production team, and even the composer (something that hasn’t changed since Murray Gold took up the baton and synthesizer in 2005). Even the way the show is filmed is new. And new showrunner and head writer Chris Chibnall revealed last week that this season would include no elements from the show’s storied past, other than the Doctor and his (sorry, her) time machine, the TARDIS. So is it still Doctor Who?

Image result for doctor who jodie whittaker

The short answer is “yes.” Led by new star Jodie Whittaker — the first woman to take on the iconic role of the Doctor — the series, at its core, still adheres to the formula that makes Doctor Who the unique show that it is. It’s still about a mysterious time traveler knocking about the universe righting wrongs and challenging bullies of all sorts (“When people need help, I never refuse”). The Doctor still picks up companions along the way — those ‘average joe’ types that are there for the audience to identify with and connect to, who get to have all the amazing experiences that we don’t get to have. The show is still about weird aliens and strange monsters and how encountering them affects the Doctor, the companions, and the people around them. It’s still about hope.

But this season — and this first episode in particular — is, for the most part, a clean slate. Yes, the show has 55 years of history behind, but just like when it returned to screens in 2005 after the original series having been canceled in 1989, you don’t have to have any prior knowledge to understand what’s going on. So what is going on? Well, luckily for viewers, not a whole lot. The basic alien-threat-on-earth premise isn’t exactly thin-on-the-ground, but it did have to leave a lot of room for the Doctor and new Companions to be firmly established. The new 60-minute episode length helped with that, giving time for both aspects of the episode to be developed (with the side-effect of the pacing seeming a good bit slower than modern Doctor Who is usually known for). 

Image result for doctor who series 11

And the characters are a pretty strong bunch — Graham (played by Bradley Walsh), Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Ryan (Tosin Cole). Each is connected in a different way, with different backgrounds, different skill sets, different perspectives, different challenges. There’s nothing overtly or obviously special about any of them, which is what makes them special — they rise to the occasion in spite of the shocking strangeness of the situation they find themselves suddenly in. But part of that is due to the Doctor — she inspires this in others. You want to rise to the occasion because the Doctor thinks you can — or makes you believe that you can. This Doctor immediately embraces these stray people, gathers them around her, makes them part of her posse, gives them the opportunity to contribute their skills to solve the situation at hand. Every part of the team is valuable. There is definitely a camaraderie in its infancy between these characters that I’m looking forward to seeing develop over the course of the season. 

Jodie Whittaker, at the core of the show, is brilliant. She immediately channels the essence of who the Doctor is. She’s quirky, funny, serious, caring, compassionate, stern, and decisive, sometimes all at once. She’s mercurial, but with a sense of purpose and a drive to assist and protect. 

Image result for the woman who fell to earth

While the episode is an easy jumping on point for new viewers, it doesn’t leave more established viewers behind. While everything is presented in a way to make inexperienced viewers feel welcome, there are still moments that longtime viewers will identify with. Subtle moments. Not necessarily nods, not really callbacks, and definitely not overt homages — we’ll call them familiarities that remind us “legacy fans” that this is the same show that William Hartnell, Tom Baker, David Tennant, and Peter Capaldi once helmed.

No matter how good a new Doctor’s first episode is, it never ends up being a fan favorite (with the possible exception of Matt Smith‘s “The Eleventh Hour). It takes time for the new production team to gel, it takes the actors time to settle in, it takes the writers a minute to get the rhythm of the actor’s deliveries and personalities, and the chemistry between them. And through that process, each Doctor’s era improves immensely. This episode was a good one, definitely, but no matter how long Whittaker stays on the show, whether it be one season or ten, this won’t go down as one of her best. The pacing is undeniably slow. The alien threat is on the throwaway end of the spectrum (a common complaint with adversaries in debut stories, whether it be the Sycorax in “The Christmas Invasion,” the Atraxi and Prisoner Zero in “The Eleventh Hour,” or even the long-established Autons in “Rose”) and has drawn comparisons to The Terminator as well as two Star Trek aliens. Some of the exposition is a bit clunky. But on balance, there were also great things about it. We get to see the Doctor as tinkerer, inventor and maker once again. We get a fresh take on the character that we’ve known for decades that’s both new and familiar at the same time. The photography is stunning. The new composer (Segun Akinola) is a radical change from Murray Gold, and he brings a more abstract, amorphous style to the show. 

Image result for the woman who fell to earthThis season seems to be heading in a confident new direction. If you’ve ever been curious about Doctor Who but have never watched it before, give this season a try. If you missed the 7 October debut, you can catch repeats on BBC America or you can attend a Fathom Events screening at cinemas across the country on Wednesday and Thursday, 10 and 11 October. If you’re in the Atlanta area, look for the Wednesday night screening at the Regal Cinemas Hollywood 24 hosted by local Doctor Who convention WHOlanta (view details on Facebook here). Climb aboard the TARDIS and enjoy the adventure!

Interview with Doctor Who’s Murray Gold

Promotional artwork for the "Doctor Who" 50th Anniversary episode. The episode airs on November 23rd worldwide.

Promotional artwork for the “Doctor Who” 50th Anniversary episode. The episode airs on Nov. 23 worldwide.

Murray Gold is the musical composer for one of television’s longest running and most popular shows of all time, “Doctor Who.” In 2005, the BBC brought back the show after a hiatus that many spanned almost an entire generation. Since then, the cast, show runner and producers of “Doctor Who” have all changed at least once, but it has been composer Murray Gold that has there for every episode since The Doctor returned to our screens. “Doctor Who” has been a life changing experience for Gold.

Working on the show has required him to reinterpret the series’ iconic musical theme multiple times and he has even had his “Doctor Who” compositions performed twice at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. Murray’s music can be heard during the 50th anniversary episode of “Doctor Who” on Nov. 23, 2013, which the BBC will be airing the episode at the exact same time all around the world.

Murray Gold’s resume may be filled with episodes of “Doctor Who,” but he isn’t just limited to a show about a time traveling alien saving the universe. Along with his lengthy career of musical composition in television and movies, Gold has written plays, ballets and radio plays. In the past few years, Gold has won the Imison Award for Best Script by a New Writer for his radio play “Electricity” and the Tinniswood Radio Drama Award for Best Radio Drama Script for “Kafka: The Musical.”

To find out how Gold ended up in such a unique and coveted position, it requires a fairly rare discussion about his youth. While he currently resides and works in New York City, he was raised and began his education in a naval town on the south coast of England. “I went to an all boys grammar school in Portsmouth. Most of your readers might not know what an English grammar school is, but it’s basically a school that you have to take an exam to get into. I came out of there and went to Cambridge University and studied history. While I was at university, I was in bands and wrote a lot of music for theater productions. After Cambridge, I had a couple shows at the Edinburgh Festival, then I started writing music for theater.”

Graduating from such a well known a prestigious university didn’t have the immediate payoffs for Gold that he was looking for. Like most of us, for a few years after his time at the university, he found that making a living as an artist proved to be difficult. “When I was in my 20s, I went back home and felt terrible about myself and I didn’t know how anything was going to happen. That was probably the most difficult time of my life. I sort of believe that your twenties should be a part of your education, but (especially in England) most people don’t do post-grad. A lot of people leave full time education at 21, and there are those that leave at 18 and don’t even go into further education.

“I remember my dad used to say to move up to London and do some journalism, and I would say ‘That’s not what I want to do. That’s not who I am.’ But, I think he had a point. Sometimes it’s best just to get things going. I was pretty hardcore about what art was in those days. You know how some young people are so ‘I’m not going to sell out! I don’t want to do television. I would never do television.’ It was all theater and novels and the more avant-garde it was, the better. There was only certain kinds of theater I liked … not the commercial theater … unless it was Chekov or Strindberg. I was kind of like a miserable twenty something. A moody, miserable, little git.”

When comparing his post-educational experiences to those that people may currently find themselves in, Gold does think that technology has changed the playing field.

“I had been putting my work out there, but of course nowadays it’s easier to do that. The question is, can you have anybody listen to it?”

“What I mean by easier is that there are just ways of sitting in your house and making something go public that weren’t available in the nineties when I had left University. But, I was getting out and about. I was doing things and getting a reputation for writing music for theater. Then, one day somebody from television came and asked if I wanted to write some music for a documentary he was making. So, I did a few documentaries, and then I did drama … I was quite lucky, I suppose.”

Then, in the late 90s, a personal tragedy would would forever change his life and define who he is today. “I was still back in Portsmouth in 1996 when my brother died. My brother dying was a major jolt. I had been really depressed up until that point and then I had a reason to be depressed. It had the galvanizing effect of sort of saying ‘to hell with all that depression nonsense.’”

The emotional struggle with his brother’s death led to Gold taking on some work that he might have previously turned away. “I’d gotten a job writing soap opera scripts. I’d managed to convince this show-runner that I would be a perfect writer for this show. I ended up writing hundreds of episodes of this show, and then the next year I started working with this guy named Mark Munden on a documentary, who a little later came to me and told me he’d been asked to direct ‘Vanity Fair,’ a BBC costume drama. He said that he really wanted me to do the music for it. It was really out there musically. It was my first television job, and I’d done a lot of theater, so I was a bit like ‘it’s television, who cares?’

Cover Art for the BBC's "Vanity Fair" DVD

Cover Art for the BBC’s “Vanity Fair”

“So, we got this really out of tune brass band to make this really decadent sounding theatrical music. And it was really noticed and Nicola Shindler, who runs Red Production Company and Paul Abbott, who is one of Britain’s greatest television writers, were looking for someone to write the music for ‘Queer as Folk,’ which was Russell T. Davies’ series. They had gone down the road with somebody quite famous and it didn’t work out for whatever reason, and ‘Vanity Fair’ had just been on. Russell got on the phone with me and said ‘we’ve been watching ‘Vanity Fair!’ Marvelous music! Marvelous music! I’ve done this thing that I’m really proud of called ‘Queer as Folk.’ Would you take a look at it?’”

Little did he know that his work with Russell T. Davies would lead to project after project, eventually landing him the role of composer on “Doctor Who” in 2005. “First it was ‘Queer as Folk,’ then ‘Mine all Mine,’ ‘The Second Coming,’ ‘Casanova,’ ‘Doctor Who’ and then ‘Torchwood.’ I had no idea that Russell was going to do ‘Doctor Who.’ I’d heard that it was coming back and I was really excited about it. He wrote me an email, not long before we had to finish episode one which just said ‘Hey Murray, do you want to do ‘Doctor Who?’ I should have asked ages ago.’”

When asked why he has changed the theme song so many times since the show’s re-launch, Murray went into quite a bit of detail. “Sometimes it’s as simple as a reformatting of the title sequence. There may be an entirely new title sequence and the music might need to be slightly longer or slightly shorter. Or they might decide they want to do the teaser in a different way, or maybe the teaser at the end of the episode is different. So a lot of the time, the titles have been reformatted and they ask if I can change this and that about the theme. But, it is as difficult to change the length of the theme, as it is to do a new one, so I just do a new one. I suppose we tend to just make a little tweak every time there’s a big difference in the character lineup.

“Sometimes there is a new one for Christmas. With ‘The Snowmen’ episode the current show runner, Stephen Moffat, wanted something new again so that we could introduce the new companion, Clara. People might not agree, but I’ve always tried to stay quite faithful to the original version. I’ve never departed much from tempo or feel. The theme has always been rooted in the original Delia Derbyshire version.”

When asked if he feels that the show’s music has ‘gotten bigger’ under Stephen Moffat’s guidance, Gold disagrees. “If you listen the last seasons of Russell T. Davies and David Tennant’s run, especially the last two episodes, they were all intense with the orchestra. There were definitely changes though. I think there were certain cues leftover from the fourth season that were brought over into season five [Moffat’s first season as show runner].

“The ‘I Am The Doctor’ theme is definitely more thematic than anything we’ve had before … partly because Stephen [Moffat] loved it so much. The producers wanted to use it all of the time. They were probably proud that they had that theme because they had a difficult job to step in at that moment. They had to decide what they were going to keep from a very successful show, and if they were going to just keep everything, how would they be doing anything differently. They had lots of choices to make, and I think one of the things that helped them was that theme because they knew that it had never been heard previously. It was distinctive enough for people to recognize it.”

Although writing music for “Doctor Who” has occupied a huge part of his life, Gold has never wandered too far away from his desire to write stories. “I had a play called ‘Resolution,’ then something called ‘50 Revolutions’ and did an adaptation of ‘Candide’ for the Gate Theater. After that, I got asked to start writing radio plays. The first one I did was called ‘Electricity,’ and that won the Richard Imison Award for Best Script by a New Writer. After that, I did another adaptation of ‘Candide’ called ‘Little Joe and the Best of All Possible Worlds.’”

Kafka

“Kafka: The Musical,” Gold’s third radio play is the one that seems to have garnered the most attention though. Starring David Tennant from “Doctor Who,” it is a Kafkaesque story revolving around writer Franz Kafka realizing that he has to star in a musical about his own life. Last year, when it won the Tinniswood Radio Drama Award for Best Radio Drama Script, Gold was both humbled and surprised. The radio drama had been broadcast in 2011, and then went on to be developed as a stage play in Vancouver, Canada. “I won the award for the radio play something like two years after it had been broadcast.”

When asked about where the idea for “Kafka” had come from, Gold explained. “I’d always joked about writing a musical about Kafka. I thought it was one of those jokes that was never going to be a thing. I told Jeremy Mortimer, who was the producer of the radio play, and he told me to go write it. So, I’ve won two radio play awards and I was just absolutely amazed and thrilled because I’d been doing music for a long time, and it was lovely to get acknowledged for these plays.”

Before winding up the interview, Gold did have one serious piece of advice for all the aspiring artists out there.

“Get up early, work, eat lunch, have an afternoon nap and then do another session of work. Don’t lose the afternoon nap! That’s the best thing in the world.”