To quote the Doctor herself at the end of the Season 10 Christmas special, “Oh, brilliant!”
This is a Spoiler-free review of the Doctor Who Season 11 premiere. Some light spoilers for the finale of Season 10 are ahead.
Devoted Whovians and relative newcomers alike have probably noticed a few big changes to the celebrated British science fiction series Doctor Who. There’s a new showrunner in Chris Chibnall, who’s written for the show in the past and is known for his work on Broadchurch. There’s a new season structure, as Season 11 will be the first since Season 7 to contain only standalone episodes with no multi-episode arcs. There’s a new music director, new writers and directors, a new logo, and of course, for the first time since the show’s inception in 1963, the Doctor is now a female character, played by actress Jodie Whittaker. To quote the Doctor herself at the end of the Season 10 Christmas special, “Oh, brilliant!”
This radical shift was perfectly set up by Peter Capaldi’s heart-wrenching exit. “Let’s get it right!” he says, and it’s clear from the Season 11 premiere that everyone involved in the show is working to ensure they do get it right. The series’ ability to deftly leap from tragedy to comedy to action, all within its distinctly British take on science fiction, continues with the season opener, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”
Some of the Doctor’s most celebrated traits have always been his (or her) wit, empathy, and curiosity, allowing audiences to see a character repeatedly saving the world without resorting to violence. Though each actor has helped evolve each unique Doctor, these features have always remained important to the story. The existence of a hero character on tv who uses a tool, instead of a gun, to fix problems, has always been a welcome outlier in the entertainment landscape. And this has perhaps never been truer than right now, especially with the first female Doctor at the helm.
To that end, Jodie Whittaker is absolutely fantastic in this role. She’s equal parts tough and compassionate, stumbling along to save the day even while she’s still wrapping up the difficult regeneration process and forgetting common names for things. This is a character who is so intent on helping the people around her that the fact that she spent her first moments in her new body plummeting through the sky while the TARDIS dematerialized above her sets up a Doctor who’s uniquely disadvantaged, but also uniquely determined to forge ahead.
The first of the new companions we meet is Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a fairly quiet young guy who, despite seeming more comfortable on the internet than in the real world, manages to set off some very big events for the town of Sheffield. Bradley Walsh portrays Graham O’Brien, a gruffer, older man, and Grace, nearly his opposite, is played with a welcome blend of determination and gentleness by Sharon D. Clarke. Mandip Gill rounds out the principle cast as Yasmin Khan, an idealistic young woman frustrated by the limitations placed on her in her career. Though each combination of companions has offered new dimensions to the show, this latest group feels extremely promising. They’re all working-class, presumably going along with the Doctor’s enthusiastic, if largely improvisational, plans to save the day out of a true desire to do good first, and a thirst for adventure second.
For as much energy and intrigue as the premiere episode contains, it does have a few problems with pacing and narrative structure. The second act gets a bit clunky, with the new companions adapting a little too quickly to the strangeness of their newly alien-enhanced lives. This feels like a big missed opportunity to dig just a tiny bit deeper into the intricacies of each character as they interact with one another. The plot trips up on itself, getting convoluted at odd places and then smoothing out again when we need things to get exciting. It seems like maybe the writers were struggling to stretch an otherwise straightforward Doctor Who story across the episode’s full 65 minutes.
However, there are some moments of quiet reflection and emotional depth that definitely do work, particularly those where the Doctor, despite still recovering from her most recent regeneration and struggling to remember basic information, allows herself to be vulnerable with the group. Her description of the regeneration process to them, as well as some other more somber moments, provide a deeper sense of urgency than some of the surface plot points. And the big confrontation that makes up the episode’s climax is dynamic and gripping.
But whenever things threaten to become too heavy or frightening, The Doctor jumps back into playfully determined world-saving mode. Truly, it’s the classically beloved parts of the Doctor Who series that shine brightly in this premiere: mysterious aliens whose appearances are somehow never ruined by bad CGI or cheap costumes (although this episode, like a lot of the series from 2005 onward, actually has solid effects), tons of creative problem-solving that lets the viewer feel like part of the action, and the thrill of something new.
This Doctor has much of the same quirkiness and desire to enact justice as previous ones, and a fair amount of exuberance when faced with impending danger. Fueled in part by exciting changes behind the camera, she seems ready to respond to that exchange between the Master and the 12th Doctor at the end of Series 10. “Is the future going to be all girl?” “We can only hope.” Given that cliffhanger we’re left with by the end of the episode, we’ll have to hope extra hard.