Doctor Who season 11, episode 1 recap: Who is The Doctor?

Photo credit: "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" Doctor Who. Acquired from BBC.CO.UK
Photo credit: "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" Doctor Who. Acquired from BBC.CO.UK /

Season 11 of Doctor Who kicked off with a subdued premiere that served as a solid introduction to the new Doctor and her companions.

Last year, the time of the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) came to end with a lighthearted Christmas special. So too did the reign of Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, the series’ head writer since 2010. That meant the show’s twelfth season would not only feature a new Doctor and companions but also a brand-new creative direction.

In a bold move, incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall chose to break with franchise tradition and cast a woman, Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker, in the title role. Additionally, he chose to pair the new Doctor with four new companions from the jump.

In making so many changes with Doctor Who, Chibnall took some big risks. As recent history is shown, altering the foundations of a popular and beloved franchise can alienate long-time fans. But, judging by “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Chibnall’s shakeups have served the program well.

As it turns out, turning the Doctor into a woman doesn’t change the feel of the show all that much. In fact, in many ways, Chibnall’s brought the revived series back to its roots.

And while its lack of innovation was somewhat disappointing, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth’s” overall high-quality suggest that Doctor Who’s 11th season will be a good one. If nothing else, its cast, dynamics and style of presentation will be very refreshing after the thrilling but exasperating season 10. And it’ll be fun getting to know Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor, who is kindly, energetic and inventive, over the next nine weeks.

 “Sorry, half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman”

The season premiere began an encouraging note; with the focus squarely on the companions. The audience was first introduced to Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a young factory worker who struggles with dyspraxia. After a bike riding lesson from his grandmother Grace O’Brien (Sharon Clarke) and her husband Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan made contact with an energy portal.

After a top shaped extraterrestrial pod emerged from it, Ryan called the police and the responding officer was his old classmate Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gil). Before the pair could investigate the object further, Yas was called away to investigate an inexplicably depowered train.

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As it happened, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), last seen plummeting to Earth from her TARDIS, landed on the train along with an alien machine. With passengers Grace and Graham, the Doctor escaped the train and connected with Ryan and Yasmin but the machine.

Together, they learned the pod had vanished and that the group had been implanted with fatal DNA bombs. Elsewhere in England, an alien, whose species had previously visited Earth, emerged from the pod and killed a local. The Doctor located the ship with Ryan’s smartphone but lost the trail and had to fabricate a new sonic screwdriver.

The introduction of the New Doctor is always tricky territory. The character needs to be recognizable as the Doctor, but shouldn’t be too much like their direct processor. And the new Doctor’s characterization needs to be somewhat fuzzy, both to acknowledge the trauma of regeneration and give the show’s writers space to flesh out the new incarnations personality over time.

For my money, the Thirteenth Doctor’s introduction was handled well. The character’s core traits of kindness, heroism and idiosyncrasy were all present and her new traits of youthful vigor, optimism and ingenuity came through quite clearly.

“I never go anywhere that’s just initials.”

The Doctor and friends tracked down the pod alien and discovered it was a bioorganic data gathering device. While examining it, the Doctor’s group were confronted by the alien, named Tzim-Sha (Samuel Oatley), who revealed that he was on a ceremonial hunt. To become the leader of his people, he needed to kill a passenger of the depowered train named Karl (Jonny Dixon). Tzim-Sha teleported away and The Doctor and company tracked him to the construction site were Karl was working as a crane operator.

For reasons beyond the obvious, Whittaker’s Doctor is markedly different than last the last few Doctors. Most notably, she’s a much warmer and less dramatic figure than the Twelfth Doctor (not that there’s anything wrong with Capaldi’s portrayal). She’s less haunted and manipulative than the Eleventh Doctor and also more serious.

And she lacks the Tenth Doctor’s ostentatiousness, guilt and rage, though she’s similarly dashing. Actually, she’s a lot like the Ninth Doctor, albeit without the edge of mania and sorrow. And opposed to her three predecessors, she has no problem being an active leader. It’ll be interesting to see how her personality develops in the coming weeks.

Doctor Who, BBC, BBC America
Photo credit: “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” Doctor Who. Acquired from BBC.CO.UK /

And though they still need a lot of flushing out, Ryan, Graham and Yasmin are all very likable. Though they all have very different personalities and backgrounds, they ultimately worked well together as a group. And they all have the sense of low-key restlessness and openness that is so important for a companion to have. In just this one outing, they all feel much more like real people than most of the Moffat era companions. Plus, as a diverse group, in every sense other than being British, their presence makes Doctor Who feel very inclusive in modern which is a nice touch.

 “I’m The Doctor. Sorting out fair play throughout the universe.”

After transferring the DNA bombs to Tzim-Sha, the Doctor forced the alien to leave Earth. However, Grace was killed while destroying Tzim-Sha’s gathering device. After attending Grace’s funeral and selecting her garish new outfit, the Doctor constructed a device to teleport her to the TARDIS. However, the teleporter malfunctioned and sent the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yasmin into the vacuum of space!

“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” was full of interesting contrasts. In terms of cast, visually style, soundtrack and writing, it felt very different than how Doctor Who has been presented the recent past. As a consequence of being set in modern-day earth, this episode didn’t feel particularly exotic. But more than that, it’s measured pacing and naturalistic cinematography made the show feel more grounded than it has in years. And its narrative focus on the lives and of the companions and directness really set it apart from the narrative pyrotechnics and doctor driven of the Moffat years.

At the same time, the season premiere harkened back to how Doctor Who was in the early part of the revival era. It’s urban setting, dispatched supporting characters and concise storytelling made it feel like an installment that could’ve been produced during Christopher Eccleston’s year as the Doctor. Plus, the decision to make the Doctor a player in the drama instead of its focus felt very Classic Who. As did the choice to sideline the TARDIS and its attendant resources entirely.

And while Tzim-Sha was an uninspiring antagonist, I appreciated that he came to the series without pre-existing baggage. His character and the obviousness of Grace’s fate were the only real bum notes in this episode.

In fact, the show’s quiet stepping away from its history suggests that we might get through the entire season with a nary a Dalek eye stock to be seen. And I’m fine with that. The focus should be on establishing the new Doctor and companions. Once they’re more sketched in, it’ll be more interesting to see them confront the Doctor’s rogues’ gallery.

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And though nothing has been announced, it would be really interesting if the entire season revolved around finding the TARDIS and getting the new trio home. Also, it would be a lot of fun if each new episode ended with a cliffhanger. Presenting the entire 11th season of Doctor Who as a 10-part serial would be a nice nod to the show’s past and an interesting new narrative conceit.

Next week, The Doctor takes her new friends to their first alien planet. Presumably, nothing will hurt and everything will be beautiful.

Doctor Who airs on Sundays at 8 pm on BBC America.

What did you think of the Doctor Who season premiere?