The second episode of Doctor Who’s 11th series wastes no time – to both its benefit and fault. With the introduction of the 13th Doctor and her new friends out of the way, we’re dropped into the midst of their first alien adventure. But there’s a distinct lack of character development for both our stars and the people they meet along the way.
Last week’s cliffhanger is immediately resolved in a distinctly Hitchhikers way and the following scenes – of the now divided central four – are some of the strongest of the episode. There’s a gleeful joy to Graham and Ryan’s blunt, matter-of-fact observations – they’re on a spaceship, they’re on an alien world – that lends an air of fun while keeping the new series’ tone of a more grounded take on the Whoniverse. And the Doctor springs to action, more at home in a crashing spaceship than most places, immediately telling the captain he’s flying the ship inefficiently and she has the only way they’ll survive impact – that arrogance that the Doctor is almost always the smartest person in the room hasn’t gone anywhere, but it feels oddly comforting here.
This feeling of the Doctor feeling at once herself but somehow faltering or unsure of it is a theme throughout the episode. Perhaps an obvious piece of metafictional commentary on the feelings of the audience towards Jodie as the Doctor, but it makes sense in the context of a newly regenerated Doctor; especially one whose most recent incarnation seriously considered stopping before this life even began. There is a powerful moment towards the end of the episode when it seems that all is lost, the Doctor and her friends stranded on an alien world, when 13 seems almost to break under it all – as she puts it, she’d made them a promise and broken it. At this moment, it’s the companions who bring the Doctor to her senses, reminding her that they’ve surmounted numerous odds to even get so far, and stop her from falling into despair.
This inversion of the Doctor/companion relationship is an interesting take on what could’ve been seen as a cliché element of the show and serves as a reminder that these everyday people can offer something to the Gallifreyan beyond receiving her expositional dialogue dumps. But Yas feels as underwritten as she did last week, and the two new central aliens – whose names I don’t remember and weren’t important – serve little beyond their initial tropes. One is the haggard bad guy who doesn’t need anyone else, the other a worn-down survivor fighting to save her family. Which isn’t to say that they’re ‘bad’ characters, just nothing new or particularly exciting. With four central characters in this new series, it’s almost inevitable that less character development can be given to everyone we meet, and perhaps the story would’ve been better served with our team and the aliens parting ways earlier in the episode only to reunite at the end.
Beyond the plot, the cinematography is once again stellar and continues to look nothing like the show did as recently as last Christmas. While all 3 aliens in this episode look distinctly human there’s a feeling of otherworldliness to the environment that offers the show a sense of scale and place that simply hasn’t been present before. It’s obvious this isn’t a CGI backdrop or a quarry in Wales, but an honest to goodness real-world location shoot.
Everyone is doing their best with the script even when it calls for some truly face-palm inducing nonsense, with an oddly disjointed gun-toting scene and reference to Call of Duty forming the obvious low-point. The heavy-handed anti-gun PSA which follows makes it clear that some of the moral ambiguity of the 12th Doctor, and Moffat’s run in general, simply isn’t present in the same way anymore. But of course it’s worth remembering that children are watching and what seems condescending to me might hit the mark more with 6 or 7-year-olds, and the message is an amicable one – that of intelligence outwitting overt violence or weaponry and rings true to the core of who we know the Doctor to be. Some things, despite it all, won’t change, and that’s reassuring for an audience who may be witnessing their first hardcore reboot of the show, beyond even just a regeneration.
Because this really does feel like a different show a lot of the time, and that’s either going to appeal to you or it isn’t, depending on your sensibilities. These two stories have been much more straightforward with easy to understand characters, and – two pieces of story arc groundwork in this episode aside – there’s no massive mystery being teased or overly grand characters who represent the end of the universe or the rewriting of reality or anything of that sort. So far Chibnall has been true to his outlook of the Doctor as little more than a wanderer. And that same alienness and lack of omniscient knowledge keeps the Doctor rooted in this story. She can’t afford to be aloof and detached when she’s racing to get back to her TARDIS with no knowledge of where she is or any of the moving parts around her. The joke of her having no idea what the prize money is worth is a great touch.
My biggest gripe was with the aforementioned story arc laid in this episode. There’s a reference to last week’s villain, the Stenza, implying that they’re a larger threat than expected and could very well be this series’ big bad. Episode 1’s villain being largely forgettable doesn’t bode terribly well in this regard. The other was the mention of a ‘timeless child’ and some mention of secrets the Doctor keeps hidden from herself – I am willing to give Chibnall the benefit of the doubt here but the combination of Moffat fatigue and Chibnall’s insistence that this season’s episodes would be standalone had me rolling my eyes – why must we already have talk of some great secret or prophecy, can we not have the Doctor travelling with friends for a while without some over-arching larger than life plot?
There’s a genuine rise of emotion when the TARDIS is first seen, and while to the aliens and humans it’s little more than a goalpost or old box, there’s an urgency and excitement to the episode which kept me eager until the end as a result of both the audience and Doctor knowing just how much more significant that blue box is. And the interior! Drastically different to anything we’ve had before, with a crystal-infused organic feeling, it’s sure to divide opinions. There’s a comforting familiarity to the TARDIS presence in the show and the bond between time-lord and ship is as strong here as with any previous incarnation.
This is the show’s strength at the moment – the new theme and intro, the new interior, the new Doctor – and these elements need to be leaned into. Personally, a large part of the thrill of this new series is just how new and unexpected a lot of these elements are. I can overlook some underwritten characters while we’re still working the kinks of this new era out, and of course one assumes the actors’ chemistry will improve with time – the 10th Doctor has some rough episodes early on that nostalgia has ironed the creases from, I’d assume the same will happen here.
Episode 2 isn’t the revelation the first was, but what made that episode exciting – Jodie and the new supporting cast – is as strong here as before. With the team fully assembled and the Doctor reunited with her TARDIS, there’s endless potential for the show once more; let’s hope the incredibly high-stakes story next week (meeting Rosa Parks) can live up to it. The 13th Doctor is the best part of the show at the moment, and I can’t wait to spend some more time with her.