Doctor Who: We need to talk about Graham O’Brien

Doctor Who companion Graham is a generally delightful addition to the TARDIS team. But even though we all love him – what exactly is he doing there?

One of the most surprising additions to Doctor Who season 11 was definitely Bradley Walsh as new companion Graham O’Brien.

Best known for hosting game shows like The Chase and Wheel of Fortune, Walsh had also done a bit of acting prior to signing on to Doctor Who. (Most notably, a two-year stint on British soap Coronation Street, and several seasons on Law and Order: UK.)

But some of us — cough, cough, yours truly cough — were a bit concerned about whether or not the popular TV presenter could possibly make a compelling Doctor Who companion. However, Walsh has proven everyone wrong, imbuing Graham with tons of heart, some surprising resourcefulness and plenty of really great one-liners.

As characters go, he’s lovely. Graham, it seems, connects easily to the people Team TARDIS encounters on their travels. He bonded with Prem in “Demons of the Punjab,” counseled the pregnant Yoss in “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, and genuinely mourned the loss of disgruntled activist Charlie in “Kerblam!”.  Graham is basically everyone’s dream granddad, and he must be protected at all costs.

That said, is making Graham feel emotionally indispensable to Team TARDIS — and, quite frankly, to us as viewers — the same thing as giving him a real story?

On paper, he has one. Graham lost his wife Grace in season 11’s first episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”. He’s traveling with the Doctor ostensibly to process his grief over her loss. This makes sense, because when Graham briefly returned home in “Arachids in the U.K.,” he saw visions of his dead wife haunting his empty house. Who wouldn’t want to run away from that?

But isn’t that kind of all that Graham is doing? Running away? For all that he’s definitely an asset to the TARDIS team, it’s not clear that he’s any different today, seven episodes into our story, than he was when he began it. Certainly he and Ryan have bonded, and if this season doesn’t end with his step-grandson calling Graham grandad, or at least giving him the fist bump he’s wanted all season, there’s no justice in the world.

Is that enough, though? Do we need to see more of either of these men talking about the loss of Grace? Grieving? Even just reminiscing about their lives or learning more about one another?

Every so often someone, usually, Graham, will mention how much Grace would have loved the adventure they’re all on. From meeting Rosa Parks to exploring new alien planets, it’s clear that he thinks of her often, and obviously misses her presence. And maybe that’s enough context for us all to know that Graham is healing, with a little help from his friends. But if his arc this season isn’t about his grief, then what is it? What is Graham part of this group to do?

We’ve had similar conversations about other season 11 companions, most notably Yaz. In fact, all three-companions are a bit under-written, despite their general likeability together and overall appeal. We could say three people create too many stories for one season, but that’s simply not true —  plenty of beloved shows have a multitude of characters who, given the right plot and script, can grow within a season, episode, maybe during one poignant scene.

None of this is to say that nothing is happening on Doctor Who. That’s not true as Ryan and Graham are growing emotionally closer, even if it’s perhaps not happening as quickly as some of us would like. Is that an actual arc for Graham, though?

We’ll have to wait until the rest of the season shakes out to know for sure.

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