Doctor Who season 11 premiere review: The future is female


A new era of Doctor Who begins with a sparkling, character-driven adventure for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor.

To say that there was rather a lot riding on the season 11 premiere of Doctor Who is something of an understatement. The episode had a lot of work to do: Introduce the franchise’s first female Doctor ever; bring her together with not one, not two, but three different companions; and give us all a preview of what the Who era under new showrunner Chris Chibnall will be like.

The fact that “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” manages to do all those things with grace and consideration is a testament to the hard work of all those involved in this transition, who tackled what is perhaps the series’ most historic moment to date with indescribable care. This is an episode that is well aware of its own cultural moment – note the sly references to how new things can be scary – and embraces it with its whole heart, hoping that its audience will do so as well.

"When people need help, I never refuse."

Jodie Whittaker is stunningly good as Thirteen, instantly owning the role as the Doctor struggles to solve an alien invasion mystery while stumbling through the conclusion of her own regeneration. She literally lands smack in the middle of things, crashing into an ongoing story involving mysterious objects and aliens in Sheffield and dedicating herself to helping the people she meets before she’s even managed to remember her own name. She flings herself off a crane with bravado, DIYs herself a new sonic screwdriver out of spare parts, and often adopts a fly by the seat of her pants approach that’s kind of zany, but ultimately charming.

Surprisingly, however, the actual story of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” which revolves around an alien race that hunts humans for sport every few years as part of a ritual to crown a new chief, feels like a pretty basic episode of Doctor Who. (Save perhaps for the grotesque new alien that advertises his kills by embedding their teeth in his face.) That’s a compliment, by the way. The best way to prove Whittaker can be the Doctor is simply by allowing her to be the Doctor, and that’s exactly what happens here. Thirteen is clever, creative, fearless, a tiny bit weird and suitably quippy. There’s no doubt that this is the same character once brought to life by everyone from Tom Baker to Christopher Eccleston to Peter Capaldi. Though the Doctor’s form and number may change, the bones of the character are constant, and that thread can be felt in every line of Whittaker’s performance.

Her Doctor, at least initially, seems to lean more toward the madcap side rather than the more stoic incarnations that have come before her. (She’s certainly much friendlier and more talkative than Capaldi’s Twelve was, at least!) Yet she is also compassionate, choosing to remain behind on Earth long enough to comfort a young man with a deadbeat father and help her new friends mourn a loss. The Doctor, we may all recall, isn’t often big on staying. This one stays. That empathy seems important, in a way that I doubt we’ve fully understood yet.

"It’s a work in progress, but so is life. It’ll be fine."

Thirteen’s new companions are equally well drawn, interesting both in their own rights and as a unit. The group is more intricately connected than most of us assumed pre-premiere – Bradley Walsh’s Graham is the step-grandfather of Tosin Cole’s Ryan, while Mandip Gill’s Yaz is Ryan’s childhood friend from school. On some level, this is intriguing, as it further illustrates that these people all had preexisting relationships, histories, and issues between themselves before any of them ever met the Doctor. All three are also remarkably normal and relatable, just regular people with working-class jobs and their own set of dreams and problems. (Yaz feels unchallenged by her career, Ryan needs some direction in his life, and Graham is – well, at least by the end of the episode – grieving and battling some pretty significant survivor’s guilt.)

This normalcy all feels like a breath of fresh air after the last few seasons of Steven Moffat’s Who, which focused on companions who all turned out to be incredibly, cosmically important in some way or other.

The premiere isn’t perfect, however. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is much better at character development and relationship building than it is at the actual plot. The monster story gets a bit convoluted in places, particularly as the episode tries to explain Tim Shaw’s connection to and need for the electric data-gathering creature. But the bulk of the episode is so enjoyable it’s easy to handwave some of the more ridiculous plot elements. As all Whovians know, we’ve certainly seen worse. Instead, the episode spends most of its time making the Doctor’s latest group of friends feel like fully realized, three-dimensional people — development which makes the tragic death at the episode’s conclusion feel like a real loss. That’s no mean feat after only an hour, and if it’s indicative of where this season is going, we’re all in for a treat.

"We’re all capable of incredible change.  We can evolve and still stay true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been, and choose who we want to be next."

As a woman who loves Doctor Who, it’s hard to fully articulate what seeing a female Doctor on screen means to me. So much of this show is about possibility, wonder, and our innate capacity to change, to become more than we ever thought we could be. After a year that has repeatedly seen women’s voices discounted, shouted down or straight up not believed, it’s difficult to describe the emotional catharsis of this moment and the bone-deep satisfaction that comes from seeing a woman take up the mantle of this character.

Not because suddenly switching genders will somehow make the Doctor any less flawed. No, a female Doctor matters simply because she’s the Doctor, no more, no less. Without strings. Heroes can be anyone, no matter their gender, race, sexuality, or anything else. It was a privilege to watch Doctor Who take this important step forward, and to push all of us toward a world that’s a little bit more like the Doctor herself would have it become. I can’t wait to see where this Time Lady’s adventures take us next Sunday and in the weeks to come. Welcome, Thirteen. We needed you.

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Doctor Who season 11 continues next Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on BBC America.