“All of this is new to you, and new can be scary,” remarks Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor early in her debut episode, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” which kicks off the eleventh (or 37th, depending on how you count) season of the long-running sci-fi show.
And she’s right: change can be scary. But in the case of the Thirteenth, it’s mostly just a whole lot of fun, with Whittaker kicking off her tenure as the time-traveling, face-changing alien hero with flair and grace.
Some spoilers for Doctor Who’s season 11 premiere below:
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” starts off slow, introducing viewers to the Thirteenth Doctor’s three traveling companions — Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) — before Thirteen makes her entrance some minutes into the episode, crashing onto the scene (literally) and taking charge.
The episode sticks pretty closely to all the key check marks of a “Doctor introduction”: a group of unassuming humans — who will eventually join the Doctor on her upcoming journey — are being threatened by an alien. The Thirteenth Doctor also builds herself a new sonic screwdriver from scratch (and several spoons) in a welding montage. And of course, there’s the traditional unveiling of the new Doctor’s outfit (“It’s got pockets! Of course it’s got pockets!,” said Whittaker in a Q&A with fans at the recent Doctor Who panel at New York Comic Con). The actual “monster of the week” is Tim Shaw, a creepy tooth-faced monster hunting down a randomly selected human as part of a succession ritual, which of course is the sort of thing The Doctor simply doesn’t stand for.
Whittaker is simply a joy to watch in the role. From the moment she steps onto the screen, it’s clear she’s having a blast, jumping into the extraterrestrial mystery with a giant grin on her face. Throughout the episode, she hits all the right notes as the leading Time Lord — quick to defend her friends (and enemies), cheerful in the face of danger, and stern when the moment for a grand speech comes.
The 11th season also ups the number of The Doctor’s traveling companions from two back to three, which showrunner Chris Chibnall described as a way of “threading a golden thread back to 1963,” when the original Doctor also traveled around with three friends. The new TARDIS travelers all share some ties: Ryan is a factory worker who’s not particularly satisfied with his life, Yaz is his former schoolmate and a police officer, and Graham is Ryan’s step-grandfather. Ryan’s story gets the most focus in the episode, but presumably we’ll get to learn more about Yaz and Graham in the weeks to come.
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” isn’t just Whittaker’s debut, though; it also marks a shift behind the scenes as Chibnall takes over from Steven Moffat, who’s been stewarding the show since 2010. And compared to Moffat’s plots, which leaned toward vast conspiracies with the Doctor at their core (see: “The Pandorica,” “Silence will Fall,” “The Hybrid,” “The Name of the Doctor,” just to cite a few), this episode offers a more grounded, straightforward story. That perspective holds through to the cinematography, too; Doctor Who has never looked better, or more like a big budget movie than it does now.
If there’s anything to criticize the episode for, it’s that compared to Whittaker’s thrilling performance as the Doctor, the actual episode itself is sort of bland. There are also lots of parallels to Matt Smith’s debut back in 2010, “The Eleventh Hour” — the giant, ball-shaped alien in the sky, a confused Doctor running around without a memory, a TARDIS, and a sonic screwdriver. But just like Moffat’s episode showed back then, the Doctor doesn’t need any of tools or toys to be the Doctor — it’s simply a part of who the character is, whether they’re a floppy-haired guy in a bowtie, an angry Scottish man, or a woman in suspenders.
There are a few other complaints worth noting, particularly the death of Ryan’s grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), who is killed while fighting Tim Shaw. It’s not that her sacrifice isn’t a moving moment — it’s played poignantly — but isn’t clear why it was even necessary for her to make that sacrifice. It comes off as an easy way to motivate Graham, her second husband (and Ryan’s step-grandfather), whose main character trait up until then was vague cowardice.
And coming from a show that has often taken dramatic pride in letting the Doctor save everyone (all the way back to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor triumphantly declaring that “everybody lives!”), it was a bit of a downer to hand the Thirteenth Doctor this kind of no-win scenario this early on — especially given the joy that Grace had demonstrated earlier about joining the Doctor on the adventure.
Between Whittaker, Cole, Gill, and Walsh, the new era of the show is perhaps the most diverse cast that Doctor Who has ever had. Chibnall commented at the panel that inclusivity and representation are big themes for the series going forward, which is wonderful to see.
As the Doctor tells Tim Shaw later in the episode while trying to convince him to leave his path of destruction, “We can evolve while still staying true to who we are,” a fitting sentiment for a show that has once again, in the course of its nearly 60-year history, done just that. And whether you’re a longtime fan or just jumping aboard the TARDIS, for the first time in what feels like years, it’s truly exciting to see where the adventure will go next.