11:00 am EDT, October 8, 2018

‘Doctor Who’ season 11 premiere review: The rise of compelling characters and a woman’s fall to Earth

Doctor Who season 11 has arrived and fans finally got their first taste of the Thirteenth Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yasmin.

Regeneration episodes are always a fun way to kick off a new season. What kinds of bodily malfunctions will The Doctor experience? How do the companion(s) come into play?

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How long will it take for The Doctor to debut a new wardrobe? And, what does the TARDIS console look like now?

“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” (nice Bowie reference, btw) gave us answers to most of those questions and much more with surprising companion connections, epic quotes, brilliant moments, and a few things that ruffled the fandom’s feathers.

I think it was a great choice to start off the episode by introducing us to the companions first. It really built the anticipation about how Thirteen would make her first appearance and brought the events that led up to her crash landing together in an epic way.

Ryan captured viewers’ attention immediately with a somber YouTube video about the greatest woman he ever met. At this time, it’s presumed that he’s talking about The Doctor and perhaps reflecting back on his travels.

We find out that he’s 19 years old and has dyspraxia, which is also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder. According to Dyspraxia Foundation, the condition is possibly linked to disruption in signals to the brain and negatively affects a person’s fine and gross motor skills. Dyspraxia makes it difficult to do a wide variety of task (depending on the person) which can include self-care habits, driving a car, writing, typing, and, in Ryan’s case, riding a bicycle.

A vital and often under-explored part of representation is exploring “invisible” disorders/disabilities and how they really affect a person’s daily life. It’s a chance to bring awareness to misunderstood conditions and encourage greater conversations about the role able-ism plays in society.

Coincidentally, this is Dyspraxia Awareness Week and a perfect time to learn more about Ryan’s condition and how it affects people on physically and emotionally. In this episode, Ryan’s physical skills are further tested when he expresses apprehension about climbing a crane to assist The Doctor.

It’s a subtle yet powerful moment for him as he conquers a fear and discovers what he CAN do in a dire situation.

The show does a great job expressing his frustration and embarrassment during his bike lessons with his grandmother (or Nan, as he calls her) Grace and Graham, who is surprisingly revealed to be Ryan’s step-grandfather. This connection set up a hilarious dynamic between the pair as Graham tries to connect with Ryan and is met with the latter’s scathing, shady commentary.

The mens’ personalities are balanced by Grace, who is an instantly warm, vibrant, and likable character.

Ryan’s journey will be an intriguing one to follow as he faces challenges during his travels that may be affected by his coordination disorder. But, hopefully he will not be reduced to his condition nor somehow “cured” of it with some sci-fi mumbo jumbo.

It’s not a likely move considering that show-runner Chris Chibnall confirmed at New York Comic Con that his own nephew has dyspraxia and he wants to prove that anyone can be a hero, per Radio Times. So please, let Ryan be a layered character who is great with (not in spite of) dyspraxia.

Ryan is also the catalyst of this episode’s action after he touches a space button AND a giant alien genie bottle-shaped egg. He calls for help and gets Yasmin, who happens to be his old classmate from Redlands Primary, an actual school in Berkshire.

This means that Ryan is the central link in this TARDIS trio, which hints at him having a key role during his run. Through Ryan and Yasmin’s conversation, we gain additional tidbits about their lives.

Obviously, Yasmin is a police officer, but she is still in her probationary period and looking forward to doing something more than break up parking arguments. Meanwhile, Ryan is a warehouse worker who is studying for his NVQs to be a mechanic.

It’s a clever callback to the first Black male companion Mickey Smith, who was a mechanic, and the NVQs are actual qualifications to prove that you have skills to maintain and repair vehicles. Doctor Who‘s choice to cement the characters’ backgrounds in reality makes them even more relatable to the general audience.

While they mull over the mysterious object, Graham and Grace are on a train ride that goes horribly wrong. An unidentified object takes out the conductor and shuts down the train.

Grace immediately gets into classic companion mode and goes to investigate because she knows something is amiss. She also calls Ryan, who is still with Yasmin, to brief him on the situation.

They are stuck in a train car with Brian, a passenger who is later revealed to be on hit list of this episode’s big bad. As an ominous creature with tentacles and electrical charges approaches them, it is cut off by none other than The Doctor’s crash landing into the train.

This happens right when Ryan and Yasmin make their appearance. In case you forgot, she was last seen falling toward Earth after the TARDIS gave her the boot post-regeneration.

It was a fun way to tie all three companions to her first moment and a nice twist to have her meet Graham, the biggest non-believer in aliens, before anyone else.

Jodie Whittaker immediately proves why she was chosen to be the new Doctor. She’s witty, charming, and has a captivating presence with the gravitas to pull off this iconic role.

Thirteen interweaves quips about the issues of having empty pockets and being a “white-haired Scotsman” thirty minutes prior with smartly deducing the current situation.

There’s so much to love about this train scene, including The Doctor forgetting her name, asking if being a woman “suits her,” rambling about her TARDIS, revealing that she’s an alien to Graham after he denies they exist, and telling Ryan and Yasmin (who literally stumbled into the train car through a window) that they were initially useless.

She also gives Yasmin the nickname “Yaz” because they are friends and tells her to trust her own gut and help her uncover answers to the bigger questions. It gave the fandom a solid look into how Thirteen’s personality is reminiscent of her former selves but also supremely unique, assertive, compassionate, and punchy.

And, can we just talk about Ryan and Grace as a collective? They are the grandma/grandson pair that we didn’t know we needed on Doctor Who. The characters are solid audience surrogates who are asking our questions and uncovering new information about this impending alien conflict.

It’s wonderful to see Black people on Doctor Who, especially when they exhibit wonderful traits like Ryan’s innate curiosity and open mind and his grandmother’s thrill over an adventure with The Doctor. It takes Yaz a moment to warm up to the idea of The Doctor but she’s an investigator at heart so she can’t resist wanting to uncover something spectacular.

And, Graham is just kind of dragged along into the fun at the behest of his wife. Graham is a rather stuffy character who is hard to gauge at this point but the beauty of this show is The Doctor’s ability to pull the best out of people. Work on him Doc…please.

They provide an solid supporting cast, but this episode was undoubtedly about the new Doctor’s awesomeness. She cleverly crafts a a sonic screwdriver Tony Stark style and even calls it her own Swiss army knife due to its multiple functions.

And, she is quite empathetic and in tune with human emotions, which is reminiscent of previous Doctors who were all about the feels.

Thirteen also adds a ton of quotable lines to our already expansive Doctor Who arsenal, but these two moments stand out the most for many reasons.

“Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end.”

This quote sums up the often-nebulous regeneration interval perfectly. The Doctor feels those stirrings of previous incarnations her body and they help guide her during the transition period.

But, as she makes her way into those initial adventures and adjusts to this new body, there are instincts that push her toward defining this new chapter of life and she makes the conscious choice to follow them because they are leading her to Doctor she needs to be at this time.

It’s almost a self-motivating pep talk to help this doubtful woman to find and accept this new version of herself. The fandom can also apply this quote to our own lives when we are in a transition period and not sure what move to make next.

We remember who we used to be and those echoes were valid, key part of our continuous journey that got us to this crossroads. But, now we have to trust our own gut and instincts that are leading us to the future. And, we will be fine.

“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.”

Hurray for the Thirteenth Doctor’s first “I am The Doctor” speech! She’s talking to the toothy faced, blue antagonist (more on him later), but the speech is really for her detractors and skeptics about the show’s push toward inclusiveness.

She’s declaring that it is possible to bring monumental change into the series and stay true to the core message and tenets of the series. The show will always honor its roots but it, like us, has the right to change and evolve alongside the world.

Like most things, this new episode of Doctor Who also had some negative aspects. One of them was the aforementioned alien whom Thirteen dubbed as Tim Shaw.

He was largely uninteresting and his origins and motivations were poorly defined in the episode. He wasn’t menacing or particularly clever, which are the usual qualities of a Who villain. And, every scene between Tim Shaw (insert giggle here) and The Doctor lacked the verbal showdown that most fans expect.

It doesn’t give me much hope for the slew of new villains that the show plans to introduce this season. Honestly, I would have been much more excited to see them pull out a cool Classic Who villain to tie back into that era.

But, this is only the first episode so perhaps there are better foes on the way. This episode was more about The Doctor and new companions, so a meh villain isn’t too bad.

But, episode 1’s biggest offense was Grace’s completely unnecessary death when she sacrificed herself and was electrocuted by the tentacled beast. It’s definitely a case of fridging aka killing a woman to advance the character arc of a man and doubly problematic because a Black woman’s death plays into the character development of her White husband Graham.

Grace and Graham’s last conversation included her encouraging him to not give into fear and to live his best life. And, her death will be presumably used to develop a deeper bond between Graham and Ryan as they mourn over a shared loss. It turns out the episode title applies to her death and she is the subject of Ryan’s YouTube video.

It is a tired storytelling trope and a missed opportunity to truly do something incredible. There were many other ways to develop Graham (and Ryan) into better versions of themselves without killing this character.

As an older Black woman, she could have been an unprecedented and impactful recurring character who subverted the typical mother stereotypes in the series. The closest we have had to Grace was probably Martha’s mom and she was the expected worrier who didn’t want to have anything to do with The Doctor.

An older woman with a youthful exuberance and love for thrills who comes into play during future Earthbound adventures would have been a delightful twist. Or, imagine what it would have been like to have a grandma/grandson team in the TARDIS.

I’m not saying that women cannot die in a TV series, but if their death is not tied to the success of the overall plot or to wrap up their own established storyline, then its just a move to build up another (usually male) character.

Overall, Doctor Who is off to a solid start with compelling characters and a Doctor who is already capturing the hearts of Whovians. There’s a lot of things that remain to be explored, like Yaz’s personal life and the whereabouts of the TARDIS.

And, it will be interesting to see how the show continues to stay true to its longstanding elements while delivering a fresh take on the iconic titular role. It’s an intriguing start so far and we are all down for more time with Thirteen and her fam.

Our Score

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