[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Doctor Who” Season 11, Episode 1, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.”]
Jodie Whittaker bursts out of the gate with vitality, humor, and grace in her official “Doctor Who” debut, giving an engaging performance that does the Time Lord pedigree proud. After 50 years of men in the role, the Doctor is now a woman, but viewers tuning in for the first time to witness Whittaker’s historic assumption of the Doctor’s mantle will find no barrier to entry. Her regeneration has gone wonky, so she and the audience are figuring everything out together. She’s forgotten everyday words, mixes up common sensations, and doesn’t even know her own name. Nevertheless, she is undeterred in her calling as humanity’s champion. “When people need help, I never refuse,” she declares.
Goofy and curious, commanding and contemplative, Thirteen is already well on her way to demonstrating the complex emotional makeup that is the Doctor. She also demonstrates a cheerful, can-do spirit. While her predecessors somehow obtained their sonic screwdrivers fully formed and functional, she forges her own using whatever she can find in a surprisingly well-equipped garage. The image of her in welding googles and wielding a two-headed blowtorch is the equivalent of a Rosie the Riveter poster for the geek crowd. Doubters, take note: This new Doctor is a badass who commands fire and is willing to get her hands dirty.
Sadly, the hourlong episode doesn’t have the time to create the same character depth in her trio of companions. Instead, each is reduced to simple identifiers: Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) is the guy with dyspraxia, Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) is an ambitious cop, and Graham (Bradley Walsh) is Ryan’s stuffy step-grandfather. Thrown together to face a bizarre alien threat, they’re too busy reacting to circumstances for viewers to get a handle on their individual personas.
Also detracting from their introduction is the presence of Ryan’s grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), who is married to Graham. Since the show announced the three companions well before the premiere and she’s not destined to travel with the Doctor, this creates a lot distracting tension around exactly how Grace will be sidelined. Sure enough, the show sacrifices her in a senseless act that reduces her to a mere prop to bond Ryan and Graham.
Character issues aside, new series showrunner Chris Chibnall (“Broadchurch,” “Law & Order: UK”) has crafted an episode that is distressingly earthbound, and this shortcoming has nothing to do with the Doctor crash-landing into Sheffield. Not every episode needs to take place on an alien planet or whizzing around in the Doctor’s TARDIS — conspicuously absent here — but usually the Doctor’s terrestrial adventures still have elements of fantasy or intrigue that inspire wonder. Where is the time travel? Where are the ghosts? Where’s the anthropomorphic lizard lady in Victorian garb?
Instead, a new alien race called the Stenza is introduced through a solo representative, whom the Doctor dubs Tim Shaw (Samuel Oatley). He’s on Earth to hunt one randomly selected human, but he doesn’t inspire the fear and awe of the usual Whovian monster. His most frightening trait is his face, thanks to his incredibly gross habit of embedding one tooth from each of his victims into his flesh.
With the exception of Tim Shaw’s unappealing self, very little about the episode feels Whovian. Gone is former showrunner Steven Moffat’s sense of play, both in the verbal sparring and convoluted storytelling. At least writer Jamie Childs has given the Doctor some humorous lines, such as when she realizes her new gender: “Am I? Does it suit me? Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.” Peter Capaldi, who played the Doctor’s previous incarnation, is Scottish.
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Perhaps this is Chibnall’s crime-drama background at work, but aliens notwithstanding the episode feels like one of his procedural TV episodes. It is enjoyable in a serviceable, unremarkable way. The problem is that “Doctor Who” is supposed to feel remarkable. The climax that takes place on the arm of a crane is the epitome of what the episode does wrong. There’s no point to that random location, and the manufactured drama feels flat and uninspired.
Chibnall worked on “Who” before, and on its spinoff, “Torchwood.” He is well aware that the sky is, in fact, not the limit when it comes to storytelling in this universe. The premiere’s cliffhanger ending in which the Doctor has unexpectedly teleported her three new companions and herself into space promises that the season will have corrected its course in its second outing. As the Doctor observes as she’s formulating a plan on the go, “It’s a work in progress, but so is life.”
”Doctor Who” airs new episodes on Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on BBC America.