Shot Study – Doctor Who “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”

The first episode of the 11th season of NuWho has Very Big Expectations. It has to stand up to many recent introductions of The Doctor and/or companions, some of which arguably rank among the best episodes the show has done. It has to act as a pilot of sorts, because even though we know this character and the rich history, this season of the show has an entirely new cast and crew, from star to showrunner. It’s got the weight of “the first lady Doctor,” and all the bias and expectations and weight that entails. It has to establish everything from personality to intercharacter dynamics to the new TARDIS design. [Well, it manages to squeak out of that last one. The upending of expectations is clever in its own right, and serves as a constant distraction until its introduction in Ep 2 credits and late in the episode itself. The episode then immediately pulls the same trick on a smaller level by subverting expectations of hearing some version of the line “it’s bigger on the inside.”] A new screwdriver. New credits. New production design. New coat.

All that and a new shooting aesthetic, too. Not only do a new showrunner and writers and directors always have their own spin on things, the BBC shelled out for new lenses to give the series a “more cinematic look.” Of course, it’s not about the lenses, but how you use them. So far, so beautifully, and here.

[start at about 55:00 if you want to watch the sequence screencapped below]

Dr Who editing perspective1

The first shot is iconic on its own: the new Doctor looking out over a vast expanse of green, watching the boy who is to be one of her new companions. He struggles literally and metaphorically, wrestling with his own imbalance and an enormous weight of loss.

He looks like an ant in the distance as the camera pulls away, a visual reminder of how Doctor Who often posits the god/humanity dichotomy in terms of its Doctors and companions, and how the human element – that which is fragile and failing but striving and resilient – is what wins in the end.

The shot also returns us to the hill on which we first met Ryan trying to conquer his dyspraxia and his pushbike.

As the Doctor stands motionless, our gaze naturally follows hers to the motion onscreen.

Dr Who editing perspective3

The second shot cuts in, but now the camera is still. In the visual space where Ryan was in motion, falling, now rests a memorial to one of the things Ryan is struggling with: a picture of his Nan, Grace.

In the background stands Ryan, now in much the same pose and looking much the same direction as the Doctor. But where she looked at him, he looks into nothingness, away from his loved one, away from the Doctor who is trying to reach him.

Dr Who editing perspective2

And then the focus racks to him.

It’s a short, beautiful sequence, the transitions clearly planned and storyboarded well in advance. It knows exactly what it wants to do with movement, poses, colour, superimposition of one figure onto another, and forced perspective. It tells us about story, character, and themes in a brief amount of time. It reminds us what’s simultaneously invaluable and seemingly impossible about life. And in the first episode with this new Doctor, it takes care to reiterate what humanity and love mean, and how simply struggling forward despite everything against us is the bravest, most important thing of all.

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