A 55-year-old show going into the eleventh season of its second attempted reboot had better have something new to offer. Thankfully, Doctor Who’s Series 11 premiere episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” which premiered Oct. 7, delivers thanks to a grand tour-de-force from the new lead, despite critical issues with the storyline’s convoluted plot and unconvincing villain.
Even audiences unfamiliar with Doctor Who may have heard of Jodie Whittaker, the first female actress to play the titular character in 55 years. Russell T. Davies spearheaded Doctor Who’s 2005 reboot, which transformed the show from merely a British cultural staple to a global phenomenon. Those unfamiliar with the show’s premise should know that Doctor Who focuses on a time-traveling, two-hearted alien whose real name is secret. Transporting through time and space in the T.A.R.D.I.S., the Doctor dedicates himself to saving civilizations and protecting the innocent.
Last year’s Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time,” saw Whittaker’s first appearance as the Doctor. Whittaker’s Doctor is joined by three new companions: Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), and Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill).
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” focuses on these three new companions, who find themselves on a Sheffield train paranormally relieved of its driver. In familiar yet welcome Doctor Who fashion, Whittaker’s Doctor crashes through the train roof at the last minute and, after a few minutes of bewildering gibberish, saves their lives. After all, what is a regeneration episode without the new Doctor’s mile-a-minute speech in reaction to a villain’s untimely advent?
The episode’s villain and subsequent conflict are its primary weak points. For an episode that aims to harness a new generation of Who fans through the new lead’s grand entrance, the story’s villain and plot are both startlingly confusing. They reek of past episodes dependent on a gross-out monster rather than intriguing moral dilemmas, which include “Love and Monsters,” “The Vampires of Venice,” “Night Terrors,” and the innovative yet unsuccessful “Sleep No More.” Ethical debate and relevant moral dilemmas aided by staples of the science fiction genre often define the most successful Doctor Who stories, including “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood,” “Midnight,” and “Heaven Sent.”
The villain of the Series 11 premiere, Tzim-Sha (pronounced “Tim Shaw”), marked by an only mildly creative play on common British names and a macabre gross-out factor (he takes a tooth from each victim he kills and embeds it in his face as a trophy), is neither memorable nor entertaining. The viewer has no reason to care about Tzim-Sha’s motivations nor his reasons for visiting Earth. Tzim-Sha’s character profile bears a resemblance to the better fleshed-out Krafayis of 2010’s “Vincent and the Doctor,” a villainous character who also kills mercilessly as the single Earth visitor of his kind.
Rarely can Doctor Who craft a winning story solely dependent on the “frightening monster” approach; this method has rarely worked apart from “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead.” Some of the best modern and classic episodes marry philosophical examination with the presence of terrifying villains; The show’s strongest episodes of the past thirteen years prove that this marriage must also be accented by a charismatic lead performer unique from his/her predecessors. The absence of even one of these three elements tends to lead to a less powerful 45 minutes of television.
Few aspects of Whittaker’s Doctor seem worthy of critique; it is the success of her performance that saves the episode. The construction of her own sonic screwdriver seems an obvious (pandering?) attempt to appeal to feminist viewers who would shout, “Hooray, women in STEM!” Furthermore, Whittaker’s characterization of the Doctor as an easygoing and charismatic saver of worlds often rings similar to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Luckily, Whittaker still manages to translate a similar interpretation into a uniquely innovative and engaging performance.
Doctor Who has created its own proven formula, but has rarely been able to re-execute it after Series 5, with Series 10 earning the lowest viewing audience since 2005. Peter Capaldi’s interpretation of the Doctor begged for worthy stories but was given few. Chris Chibnall has at his fingertips some of the best minds in televised science fiction; he does not lack the resources necessary to make Doctor Who’s eleventh series successful. Chibnall must recognize what has made Doctor Who a global phenomenon; then, he must master these time-tested formulas before branching off into new concepts.
“It’s about time” has been a phrase frequently used to celebrate the first female Doctor. It is also about time, after an eight-year slump, that Doctor Who realizes what made it great in the past and run wild with those very formulas.
Bowman is an English and History Freshman.