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The moment that the themes of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” really become evident is, frankly, a gross one: it’s the moment when the bad guy rips a man’s tooth out of his head after killing him. It’s a moment of violation, one that is called back to when the Doctor and friend’s find the dead man’s body. That the man was not just killed, but defiled, is made clear to the audience as being particularly abhorrent by the Doctor. This isn’t the bombastic adventures we got during the first few series of the revived Doctor Who, or the dark fairy tales that followed it. This is a story grounded in physicality, a story about bodies, and how they matter. This is something new, even when Torchwood, which Chris Chibnall who also showran, touched on the physicality of existence, it was with a wink and a twist; the details weren’t quite so important, the spectacle was. That isn’t a bad thing, it just meant it was a different kind of story.
Here, the teeth are paramount.
The very moment the show opens, with our new friend Ryan Sinclair trying to ride a bicycle despite his dyspraxia, we begin to see this new take on Doctor Who coalescing. Ryan can’t ride the bike, he keeps trying, and failing, but his will and spirit are no match for the physical limitations of his body. This isn’t held against him, or shown as a personal failing. It simply is. His body was born a certain way, and that’s how his body is. That his step-grandfather Graham doesn’t quite grasp that his body works differently is not just painful, but sadly realistic.
Having a body (which includes the brain) that does not work the same way as other people is hard. You’re constantly working to meet a standard that comes naturally to other people that takes you incredible effort just to get close to. Even as I’m writing this, my spinal injury is shooting pain up into my head. My left eye and the upper side of my head hurt like hell. I want to go to sleep, but I promised an essay about this episode, so I keep working. The pain is less than it was throughout the rest of the day anyways. Ryan falls off his bike. It hurts. He gets up. He tries again. His body fails him. He hurts. He gets up. I can relate.
So the story continues, and we’re treated to many more bodies and their workings. We meet our new Doctor, who falls (literally) so seamlessly into the role that it’s hard to say anything more than “well all the concerns about her were a waste of time weren't they?”. The way she’s brought in doesn’t focus on that she is now a she, instead of a man, but it does linger on the physicality of her change in a way we haven’t seen before. Other Doctor’s have talked about the existential nature of regeneration, and while they have talked about their bodies in the process, it was to make a larger point about an idea. Here, the body is the point, and not because the body is a woman, but because it is flesh, and that’s what we’re all made of.
We’re given details, from her pulse being checked, to the Doctor describing the feeling of regeneration as a bodily process, to her describing the continuing state of it as an update of symptoms. When we finally get the “I am the Doctor!” moment, she leads up to it by describing how her body has finally gotten to the point where she can remember her name. She name checks a chemical in her body. It’s different, it’s tactile, and it’s mirrored by our villain, the Clockwork Droi--
Wait, no, our villain is Tim Shaw, who seals people’s teeth. Let’s focus on him a second, but take a Deep Breath, I’ll get back to the Clockwork Droid in a second.
Tim Shaw is a monster who, yes, is busy acting like the villain from Predator 2, and going on a nice hunt in Sheffield for a human who he’s supposed to bring back as a trophy for his people. On his face, he places the teeth of the victims he kills to mark his “conquests”. His trophy will be hung up to live till it withers away and rots. His ally is a drone made of flesh and machine that seeks to track his trophy down for him (the done notably gets a first person shot, establishing it’s presence without giving it lines). Tim’s body is a weapon, cold enough to kill a human with a touch. Again, the physicality is in our face, but the most notable aspects of Tim’s physicality are how it’s all about perverting the sanctity of other’s bodies. Tim’s drone is alive, but was engineered to have no choice. Tim implants bombs in our heroes, violating their autonomy. Tim kills people with his body, by turning the frailty of the human body against them. Tim then desecrates them, and adds a bit of them to himself. Tim is perverse: he’s a monster who seeks not just victory, but domination. It’s not enough to win, other people’s bodies need to be shown to be weak, need to be proved to be weak. To feel strong, he needs to make himself feel like other’s are inadequete. The comparison to Predator 2 wasn’t just for show: Tim Shaw is a predator, just not the kind you were thinking at first. He’s definitely not allowed within a hundred yards of schools.
Tim Shaw in this way becomes a dark reflection of the Doctor. The Doctor changes herself, and grows. Her body is in flux, and she finds something new about herself. Tim Shaw changes his body on purpose but taking bits of other people. Like the Clockwork Droid in the earlier Doctor Who episode, “Deep Breath,” which introduced the 12th Doctor. The episode parallels that one, intentionally, and the differences show quite a bit about what Chibnall is trying to show us with this story.
In Deep Breath, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor faces off with a Clockwork Droid that has been linked to disapearing people (check) removing body parts from people it kills (check) who then has a final confrontation with the Doctor way up in the air (check) and then falls from that high place (check). The difference is that the Clockwork Droid is slowly becoming more and more human as it replaces it’s own clockwork with human body parts, while Tim Shaw is mocking his victims. Both villains are a clear reflection of what the Doctor is rejecting, however. In Deep Breath, the Droid swaps it’s parts out till it’s a different person, and the Doctor realizes that he can’t keep pretending he’s the same person he’s always been. Tim Shaw steals people’s teeth to show off his past, and helps the Doctor see that she can be herself, and remember her own past, but not hold onto it like a crutch. She can change, but be the same, and that’s okay too.
The finale has the Doctor turn Tim’s violation back on himself. She doesn’t violate him, or get revenge, just puts him in a position where his own crimes come back to destroy his own body. Tim Shaw finally gets a taste of his own cruelty, and he can’t take it and runs away like a coward. So much for the brave warrior. But really, that’s what all predators like him are. If they really were brave, they wouldn’t need to make other people feel weak to feel strong. Tim Shaw is strong only as long as he is untouchable.
The body count on this episode is high, including the death of the lovely Grace, who will be very much missed. But the bodycount needed to be high here: bodies break, and part of being a hero is respecting the sanctity of bodies. Respecting that they work differently, that some can’t ride bikes, that some have two hearts, that all of them can break. And acknowledging that those who would take advantage of that are, indeed, monsters.
The Doctor will be back next week. Who knows if these themes will continue, or if the themes will be bottled each week, but what a joy that we can talk about them. We will be following the Doctor in a new, tactile world. A world where the trailers prepared us with the Doctor’s new friends eating. Where our needs are important. Let’s explore that. Take a Deep Breath, and fall down to Earth with her. It’s pretty nice here, even if your salad isn’t very good.
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Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.