“I know exactly who I am. I’m the Doctor.”
Three words that bring the best kind of chills to every whovian, words that we never tire of hearing. Yet this time, it holds more weight than ever before. Why? Because through its many, many years, through Classic Who and New Who, we have never, until this moment, had a female Doctor. And honestly, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up as she said those three words with strength ringing true in her voice. Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show, and Jodie Whittaker is making history by shining in this truly iconic role. Even though we’re only one episode in, she’s already holding her own. More than that, she’s honoring the classic traits of the Doctor while bringing her own unique spin to the role. And though she may have had her fair share of trolls, the ratings speak for themselves. People are loving the 13th Doctor and the Season 11 premiere was not only a success, but perhaps the best season opener the show has seen.
Season premieres that introduce a new Doctor usually follow a similar formula. One of the first things we see is our new Doctor, trying to land the TARDIS or recover from regenerating. But the Season 11 premiere boldly strays from that tradition, and the risk certainly pays off. Instead of beginning the season with the 13th Doctor, we begin with a boy by the name of Ryan Sinclair. We meet him as he’s live-streaming.
“So today I want to talk about the greatest woman I’ve ever met. Smart, funny, caring, special, proper special… Where do I start?”
The first line makes us think he’s talking about the Doctor, but it isn’t until the end of the episode we realize he’s talking about his Nan, Grace, who helps him every day try and ride a bike. You see, Ryan has a condition that his Nan refers to as a coordination disorder, making tasks like riding a bike incredibly difficult. But she and her second husband, Graham, are there by his side, helping him ride a little longer and a little better each time. On this particular day, he’s fed up, frustrated that he still can’t do it, and throws the bike over a cliff and into the forest below. Grace and Graham sit with him as he tells her he just wants to make her proud, but she promises that she’s already proud of him. And that each second of improvement isn’t as little as he thinks.
As he goes to retrieve the bike, he comes across something odd in the forest. A series of symmetrical, golden, glowing lights, getting closer and closer to him. And out of curiosity, he touches one, not knowing the chaos it will cause. Suddenly, a massive, bright blue pod emerges from the lights, painfully cold to the touch. But luckily, Ryan knows better than to try and deal with this himself, so he calls the police. Which leads us to the next character we meet, Yasmin, or Yas, as her friends call her. Yas is in her second year of probation/training as a police officer, but she isn’t exactly loving the job. Assigned to settle parking disputes, her day basically consists of listening to people bicker with each other. She calls her superior and begs him to give her something else, anything that would be a challenge. So what does he offer her? Ryan’s call, of course!
Funnily enough, the two already know each other from school, but she still thinks this is a prank. Who wouldn’t? She insists he has to move it before nightfall, but he tells her again it isn’t his. He tells her to touch it for proof, and when she does, the cold stings her just as it did him. The pair become even more confused when Ryan receives a startling call from his Nan just moments later. She and Graham were on the train home when it suddenly jolted to a stop. All the lights went out, and as she watched people run from the train, the door to their car locked. That’s when they see a flash of light a little ways down. They run to the end of the car with one other passenger as Ryan and Yas arrive to offer help. But all are useless against the machine that stares them down. An electronic thing with tentacles, it’s about to pounce on all of them when suddenly something crashes into the train and tackles the machine. She stands, looks surprised, and then proceeds to stab the machine with a loose wire, buying them a few seconds. Who is she? Why, she’s the Doctor, of course!
They all look startled, and Grace looks to the caved-in ceiling. “Long story,” the Doctor says absentmindedly as she reaches for her sonic screwdriver, only to realize it’s nowhere to be found. Right. No TARDIS, no sonic, and here’s the real catch: she doesn’t remember who she is. But memory or not, her personality is already shining through. Whittaker wastes no time in making us giggle when she asks the machine what it is and it screeches in response.
“Okay, don’t like questions! More the private type! I get that.”
The machine lingers around the other passenger, Karl, before zapping each of them, including the Doctor, and disappearing. Though there’s a spark of pain, they’re otherwise unharmed, which means it’s time for the Doctor to investigate. But Yas tries to stop her, insisting she must be questioned. But when she calls her ‘madam’, the Doctor becomes confused.
Yas: “Hold on there, please, Madam. I need you to do as I say. This could be a potential crime scene.”
The Doctor: “Why are you calling me ‘Madam’?”
Yas: “Because… you’re a woman?”
The Doctor: “Am I? Does it suit me?”
The Doctor: “Oh yeah, I remember! Sorry, half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.”
Her memory problems go far beyond forgetting she’s a woman. We’ve seen this strange behavior before with every regeneration, but the fall seems to have made it worse. She hilariously asks if Ryan is a doctor because she’s looking for a doctor. She then can’t remember the word ‘tongue’. She’s as wacky as the other Doctors, to be sure, but still brings her own kind charm. Though she’s more than just charming. Even without a sonic, she’s as capable as any other Doctor, stopping Yas from going to her superiors. Yas is already hesitant, as whatever attacked the train isn’t easily explainable, so until they have answers, there’s not much of a point to alerting more authorities. So, Yas, Ryan, Graham, Grace, and the Doctor team up to find out whatever attacked the train and get it back to where it belongs. Karl, on the other hand, has no interest. The night has been rough enough as it is, and still in shock, he’d rather just head to work and forget all about it. Can’t blame him on that one.
As for the Doctor and her, temporary or permanent, companions, they head to the site of the blue pod Ryan discovered earlier that night. He shows the Doctor the pictures he took as they drive over, and it’s lucky that he did. When they reach the woods, the pod is nowhere to be found. As we learn, it was taken by a man named Rahul, whose sister was taken years ago by the same alien that lies in wait within the pod. He’s determined to find out what happened to his sister, even if it kills him, as he admits in a recording that Ryan and Yas later find. And, unfortunately, the alien does kill him. The pod slowly splits open, revealing a being covered head to toe in armor. He rises as Rahul asks what happened to his sister. The being tells him he will never know as he touches his hand to Rahul’s face, causing icy and fatal burns, killing him almost immediately.
Meanwhile, the group decides to split up to try and find answers. Yas heads back to her superiors to see if there have been any other weird reports that night while Graham asks some of his buddies, some of whom are bus drivers, if they’ve seen anything. Constantly moving around the city, they’re the ones to ask. While they head off, the Doctor suddenly becomes woozy, sticks her finger up her nose and realizes she’s going to faint in about nineteen seconds. Ryan and his Nan take her back to his place, where they watch as her hands begin to glow. The regeneration isn’t yet complete. They’re amazed as they watch it unfold, as Grace discovers the Doctor has two heartbeats. But the Doctor doesn’t rest for as long as she needs. As Graham and Yas arrive, she’s awoken by a sharp pain by her collarbone, and when asking to see everyone else’s, they reveal the same glowing dot underneath their skin. They’re genetic bombs that the machine implanted in them when they were shocked on the train. A barbaric form of technology, when it goes off, the bomb literally melts your DNA. It’s a slow and painful death, and without the pod, it could go off at any moment.
The Doctor makes quick work of reprogramming Ryan’s phone to track where the bomb signals are coming from and is able to lead them to the warehouse where Rahul was just killed only moments before. They arrive as the alien leaves, and though they try to chase after it, the Doctor isn’t as fast as she usually is. She’s still cooking, after all. Instead, they head inside, where Grace discovers Rahul’s mangled body. They’re all visibly shaken by the sight, and the Doctor apologizes that they’ve had to see it, that they have genetic bombs, and that she hasn’t figured out how to fix everything yet. But she is nothing if not determined. As Yas and Ryan take a look around the warehouse, where they will uncover Rahul’s video, Grace and Graham watch as the Doctor gathers materials to build herself a whole new sonic screwdriver. And while she works, they ask questions about who/what she is, as she doesn’t look like an alien. So, she describes the regeneration process. And as anyone would, Grace sadly says that it sounds quite painful.
“You have no idea. There’s this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die, and then, you’re born. It’s terrifying. 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. Shake myself towards them! I’ll be fine, in the end. Hopefully. Well, I have to be, because you guys need help. And if there’s one thing I’m certain of, when people need help, I never refuse. Right!? This is gonna be fun!”
This touching and hopeful speech comes before an even more tear-jerking and powerful scene, where the Doctor takes every tool she can find, melting down spoons for metal, and with hammers, blowtorches, and all the protective gear she needs (with a little alien tech from the pod), she builds herself her new sonic. We’ve seen a lot of magical things in Doctor Who, in the past ten seasons alone. But though each Doctor had their sonic, 13 builds her own. The scene is so powerful that it leaves you rather speechless. And it just goes to show you not only what 13 is capable of, but what new show-runner Chris Chibnall is planning for the show. This is unlike anything we’ve seen. Yes, it’s sci-fi, and it’s staying true to what Doctor Who has always been, but in a way, it’s almost more based in reality than the show has ever been before. From 13 making her own sonic on Earth to the way the companions are introduced, everything seems just a little more real. And it’s fascinating to watch.
With her original sonic in hand, she comes out to watch the footage that Yas and Ryan found, where Rahul reveals what he was after. So, now they know why Rahul took the pod, but why was the pod here in the first place? The Doctor’s leading theory is that the pod and the tentacle-being are two separate species at war with each other, using Earth as a sort of battleground. But that theory is soon dismissed when they head up to the roof and overload the tentacle-being with electricity, shutting it down. It’s then that the Doctor discovers the being is no more than a bunch of gathering coils, creatures that can gather tons of data at once. A little bit of work and they’re able to find out it’s searching for Karl, the other passenger from the train. But why him? It doesn’t take long to find out.
The alien from the pod appears on the roof, taking off his mask and revealing his face, covered in teeth. The teeth of all of his victims, no less. His name is Tim Shaw (yeah, we got a laugh from it, too), a Stenza warrior who soon hopes to be the leader. For years, the Stenza race have used Earth as a sort of hunting ground. In order to become leader, a warrior must come to Earth with no weapons, no assistance of any kind, and obtain a selected human, who they will bring back as a trophy. It’s important to note that he broke the rules by using the gathering coils, but his race lives in conditions much colder than Earth, and a mere touch from him is fatal to a human, so he stayed true to the no weapons policy. Holding out his hand, he forces the others to back away as he transfers all the knowledge from the coils into himself and disappears, off to find to the human trophy: Karl.
Karl is exactly where he should be, at work on a construction site. While he’s operating the crane, Tim Shaw arrives at the site and kills his boss. Shortly after, he begins to climb the crane as the Doctor and the others speed through the streets, looking up where Karl works as they go. They arrive as Shaw is halfway to the top. The Doctor tells Graham and Grace to stay put and get everyone else off the site while she, Ryan, and Yas climb to the top of the other crane. Miraculously, they all make it up there, where the Doctor quickly formulates a plan. She will climb on top of the crane, and Yas, who surely can learn how to operate the machine in a couple of minutes, will swing it over so it’s parallel with Karl’s. She’ll motion to Karl to climb over, jump onto their crane, and there you have it! Easy as pie. Yas and Ryan look more than a little disbelieving, but with a little help from the internet, they get the crane up and running. Karl manages to get out of his crane and soon, they’re almost face to face. That’s when the crane comes to a sudden halt. He’ll have to jump over now. But just as he gets the courage, Shaw comes up behind him, grabs him by the collar, and drags him back. The Doctor shakes her head.
“Well, if you want something doin’…”
She takes a few steps back and begins to run. Despite the fact that her crane is lower than Karl’s, putting her at a major disadvantage, she doesn’t hesitate in jumping. And though it’s a close call, she makes it. She quickly climbs up to face Shaw and reveals she took something of extreme value from his pod, the piece that will transport him home. He steps towards her threateningly and she responds by holding the piece over the edge of the crane. If she falls, it breaks. In turn, he threatens to detonate the genetic bombs in their necks. Mutually assured destruction.
But while the standoff occurs above, Grace and Graham pull out countless wires that will shock the gathering coils and overload it once again. Graham doesn’t want Grace to be the one to do it, but she insists, kissing him one last time as she giggles that she’s enjoying the excitement. She climbs the crane as the Doctor tries to talk Shaw down one last time, telling him that he can change. But it’s made evident that he can’t when he decides to detonate the genetic bombs. If only he realized the Doctor was able to take them out, and implant them in the gathering coils instead.
You see, when Shaw transferred the knowledge from the gathering coils into himself, he also transferred the bombs. She tosses him the piece from his pod and orders him to go home. Before he can, Karl kicks him off of the crane. The Doctor rushes over and watches as Shaw manages to transport himself before hitting the ground, and her displeasure at Karl’s choice is clear.
Grace attaches the wires to the gathering coils, destroying it for good, but the shock makes her lose her grip, and the fall is too steep. Grace helped save Karl, but she doesn’t survive more than a minute after she hits the ground. Her death is heartbreaking, but it also sets a tone for the season. It sets this season apart from any other.
Grace’s death leads us back to the beginning of the episode, where Ryan is live-streaming, talking about the greatest woman he ever knew. Not the Doctor, but his Nan. And in her honor, he refused to stop trying to ride a bike. He went to the top of the hill and over and over again tried and fell. Each time he got right back up and started again. Each time he rode a little longer, but he always toppled over. Little did he know the Doctor was watching his determination, seeing the love for his Nan. Grace should’ve survived, as Graham talks about at her funeral. She was the most amazing woman, and she died as she lived, trying to help people. It’s the greatest message she could leave to her friends and family. And it’s the Doctor’s advice to live as she would. Because as long as you think and act and remember the people you love, they never really leave you.
Grace is gone, but her death doesn’t split the group up, but makes them more united. After Yas insists the Doctor go shopping for some clothes, which is considerably difficult considering she hasn’t shopped for women’s clothes in a long time, they team up to help the Doctor find the TARDIS. Using some of the alien tech left behind, they’re able to create a transporter of sorts, and once they lock in on the location of the TARDIS, they flip the switch to send her home. But it doesn’t just transport her. It transports all of them into the middle of space, with no TARDIS in sight.
Talk about an epic way to start the season! If this episode taught us anything, it’s that Season 11 is going to be filled with both laughter and tears, tender moments and action-packed climaxes. And as for the Doctor herself? She’s kind, brave, and more than a little wacky. She’s exactly what we want our Doctor to be. I cannot wait to see what happens next.
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