Doctor Who: What's Old and What's New in Season 11's Premiere

The new season makes history with its first female Doctor — find out what else has changed. Plus, vote now to rank your favorite Doctor debut episodes.

by | October 7, 2018 | Comments

When a television program lasts as long as Doctor Who, certain conventions appear across the decades and creative teams. In Who’s specific case, there may be no more indelible convention than the regeneration episode. Since 1966, when Patrick Troughton took over for William Hartnell, the show made the change in its lead performer an element of the plot thanks to stories in which the character recalibrates for the new star. These post-regeneration episodes became a major part of the show’s traditions and culture.

And with new executive producer Chris Chibnall promising extensive changes to the program, the debut episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” the season 11 debut of Doctor Who had to make a number of big statements — including, of course, introducing Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) as the first female Doctor — while also telling a post-regeneration tale. Did it hit the important points while charting its own territory? Let’s take a look at some of the ways the debut episode changed how a new Doctor is presented and remained the same as it did back in 1966.

Spoiler Alert: The following includes details about Doctor Who‘s season 11 premiere episode. Stop here if you haven’t watched the episode. 

No Titles Sequence

In defiance of just about every episode of Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” aired without the legendary title sequence or theme music. In the continuing attempt to make the show feel different and special, Chibnall chose to run the nearly 90-minute debut without titles. Its absence was certainly palpable as at least two key shots in the first 15 minutes felt like the moment the title would appear. In terms of story, the lack of titles mirrored The Doctor’s partial amnesia and the notion that the regeneration was not complete.

There have been at least two instances in which the titles were altered for story purposes. The 50th Anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” reverted to the abbreviated sequence used in most of the 1963 premiere season while the 2015 episode “Sleep No More” reconfigured the titles to reflect the eerie story line. But going without titles entirely, almost not declaring itself as an episode of Doctor Who, certainly makes the statement Chibnall intended.

The titles will debut next week.

Aliens In Sheffield

Yasmin Khan (MANDIP GILL), Ryan Sinclair (TOSIN COLE), The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER), Graham O'Brien (BRADLEY WALSH), Grace (SHARON D CLARKE) in Doctor Who Series 11 (Sophie Mutevelian/BBC America)

(Photo by Sophie Mutevelian/BBC America)

In one of the bigger structural changes to a regeneration episode, The Doctor is absent for a surprisingly long time. Typically, the new version of the character is at the forefront — often as their regeneration sets off the plot. But in the 10 minutes leading up to her falling from the sky, we’re first introduced to new major characters Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). The latter two are linked through Ryan — Yaz went to school with him, while Graham is married to Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), Ryan’s nan — and those links become important as the show tries to ground the adventure more in the mundane reality of Sheffield than the fantastic worlds of The Doctor.

That collision of the mundane and the fantastic has been a major feature of the program since it returned in 2004, but it has rarely been felt so acutely in a regeneration story, mainly thanks to keeping The Doctor at bay in the opening scenes. Even in David Tennant’s debut episode, “The Christmas Invasion,” The Doctor’s absence as he recovers from regeneration in bed plays more to the fantastic elements of an alien invasion than the reality of the holidays in a council estate. But in some ways, Whittaker’s absence hearkens back to Doctor Who‘s 1963 premiere, in which The Doctor does not appear onscreen until the 12-minute mark of a 25-minute show.

And in keeping The Doctor offscreen for the first 10 minutes, writer Chris Chibnall sets up a different feel for the episode. While it is still about The Doctor trying to work out who she is, it is not the overriding theme of the episode. The evolving relationships of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham may even be more important in the long run than The Doctor’s post-regenerative trauma.

New “Friends”

DOCTOR WHO Season 11 Description: Picture Shows: Ryan Sinclair (TOSIN COLE), The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER), Graham O'Brien (BRADLEY WALSH), Yasmin Khan (MANDIP GILL) Characters/Actors: Type: Episodic Photo Credits: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC America

(Photo by Sophie Mutevelian/BBC America)

More often than not, The Doctor’s regeneration happens among his “companions” — or “friends” now for season 11. In that first 1966 regeneration story, maintaining continuity with the companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) was of utmost importance. It would help sell the idea that this new, younger man was the same person as the older, crotchety fellow the viewers loved; a story point reiterated in “The Christmas Invasion” and done in reverse in Peter Capaldi’s first story, “Deep Breath.” As that sense of continuity continued to be important, most post-regeneration stories feature the companion or companions acclimating to The Doctor’s new persona. Exceptions to the rule include Jon Petwee’s first story, “Spearhead from Space,” and Matt Smith’s debut in “The Eleventh Hour”; in both those cases, cast and crew changed entirely and both stories represented soft reboots of the program, which is also the case with “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” but the episode is still different, as it had the extremely unusual task of introducing three new characters who will travel with The Doctor.

In the show’s original 1963 form, it was a four-person cast with The Doctor (Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her school teachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell), but in 1965, incoming producer Innis Lloyd decided three companions was too many and downsized by one. The cast further dwindled down to The Doctor and one companion in the 1970s. In 1982, an attempt was made to restore the TARDIS crew to four people, but it once again proved unwieldy as one of the companions often ended up kidnapped or incapacitated. In one case, a companion claimed she was too sick to leave the TARDIS and sat out most of the story.

In choosing three characters to travel with the Doctor, Chibnall and his team are making the bold claim that they can make a four-person TARDIS crew work. In theory, it shouldn’t be hard. Most genre shows feature five-to-seven regular cast members and a slew of recurring characters. But Doctor Who isn’t most shows. That said, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” goes out of its way to establish the characters and The Doctor’s keen awareness of their skills, which may be a recurring theme in companion introductions, but here, it feels more important than ever before.

Building Things

JODIE WHITTAKER in Doctor Who Series 11 (Sophie Mutevelian/BBC America)

(Photo by Sophie Mutevelian/BBC America)

In the middle of the episode, The Doctor gets fed up with missing her sonic screwdriver and fashions a new one out of parts found in a Sheffield garage. This is one of the largest departures from the format in terms of post-regeneration episodes.

Prior to 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour” a personalized screwdriver for the new Doctor was not a convention of the series. The original version of the prop — which debuted in 1968’s “Fury from the Deep” — was a simple penlight. A more idiosyncratic version appeared with Pertwee in 1970 (itself a prop from a feature film version of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds) and remained virtually unchanged throughout the rest of the Classic Series; though it was destroyed in a 1982 story and never replaced. It was recreated for the 1996 TV movie and finally redesigned for Christopher Eccleston’s debut in 2005. David Tennant used this version throughout his time on the show. After Matt Smith’s debut, the notion of personalized screwdrivers took hold, even if Peter Capaldi would not receive his until the end of his second season and use Smith’s screwdriver and a pair of sonic sunglasses in the interim.

But in both recent cases, the TARDIS fabricated the device, suggesting it was an extension of the TARDIS herself. In building the new screwdriver, The Doctor makes it both less magical and yet more fantastic. It is an instrument of an efficiently advanced science, but it can be made from ordinary objects. Which is a good thing as the TARDIS is missing.

Finito TARDIS?

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who Series 11 Costume Reveal (BBC America)

(Photo by BBC America)

In what may be the biggest departure in not just a post-regeneration episode, but the format itself, The Thirteenth Doctor debuted without the TARDIS. The legendary Type 40 TT Capsule has always been close to the Doctor, even during a time in the ’70s — or was it the ’80s? — when The Doctor was exiled on Earth and the ship was immobilized. The Doctor also loses the ship on occasion, but its disappearance is usually an aspect of the plot resolved by the end of the story and not a recurring plot thread.

But in another return to the program’s earliest days, “The Woman Who Fell To Earth’s” cliffhanger mirrors the way end of one story would lead right into the next, an aspect of the series which first debuted at the end of 1963’s “The Firemaker.” Landing on a planet with seemingly no radiation hazard, the Doctor, Susan, and their new companions prepare to leave the ship just as a radiation indicator tells the audience that the planet is red hot. The next week’s episode, “The Dead Planet” introduced the Daleks.

That level of story-to-story continuity waxed and waned over the following decades as the series changed from the tale of a mad alien trying to get two schoolteachers back to London into an endless tour of the cosmos. But considering this story convention returns just as Doctor Who welcomes three companions, we can’t help but wonder if The Doctor will once again lose control of the TARDIS all together, another aspect of the program’s original premise.

And that is assuming the new crew of friends even find the ship next week.


Speaking of next week, the 11th season of the revived Doctor Who brings the program to an entirely new night: Sunday. For most of its existence, the show was a Saturday evening tradition going back to its debut on November 23, 1963. In the 1980s, the BBC and producer John Nathan-Turner attempted a surprising change by airing the show twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The experiment was eventually abandoned as the show’s viewership declined. When Doctor Who returned in 2005, all responsible parties agreed Saturday was its natural home. Also, the BBC needed a Saturday night win at the time.

The Saturday night timeslot is less precious in the United States. For those who grew up with the Classic Series on public television stations, the program was more of a Saturday morning tradition or a special midnight ritual. When the New Series was initially picked up by the SciFi Channel, it premiered episodes on Friday evenings. BBC America chose the traditional Saturday slot when it took over U.S. broadcast of the series.

But now, Chibnall, the BBC, and BBC America all hope the move to Sundays will make Doctor Who the watercooler show on Monday mornings. Time will tell if this proves to be the case, because, as The Doctor might say, “it always does.”

Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

Tag Cloud

blockbusters Showtime ABC adaptation scorecard 99% slasher Pride Month OneApp YouTube Red BBC America versus comic Nominations 2019 TIFF stand-up comedy Disney+ Disney Plus CMT psychological thriller based on movie period drama Amazon Studios indie Musical Universal Pictures GLAAD Horror Quiz boxing comic book movies Box Office cars Film Festival IFC Extras elevated horror Cosplay Amazon Prime YouTube Awards Tour stop motion news Epix Black History Month south america christmas movies Crackle Mary Tyler Moore singing competition ABC Signature toronto SDCC Paramount Plus CBS reboot Trophy Talk hist children's TV Adult Swim Mystery concert crime Hallmark 93rd Oscars new york television spanish language Film Year in Review best Election hispanic heritage month king arthur Musicals nfl dragons SundanceTV ghosts Reality Competition Super Bowl adventure cancelled television golden globe awards 007 finale satire italian Elton John Broadway rotten movies we love DC Universe zero dark thirty Rocketman live action San Diego Comic-Con BAFTA Universal Amazon docudrama Disney Channel festivals New York Comic Con kaiju Rock spy thriller Pop binge Discovery Channel zombie First Reviews National Geographic animated robots Red Carpet obituary Countdown VOD cults Summer mockumentary AMC Plus superman The CW Travel Channel spanish political drama black ITV RT History Sci-Fi trailers social media international GIFs stoner Fargo E3 halloween tv Nickelodeon Christmas Comedy Central laika 2017 deadpool 71st Emmy Awards ViacomCBS anime Ellie Kemper rotten new star wars movies comics Arrowverse spain Tubi Exclusive Video documentary Interview fast and furious target Bravo dc Masterpiece japanese 1990s VICE DC streaming service Tags: Comedy 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Crunchyroll Holidays action-comedy See It Skip It genre anthology know your critic crossover FOX 2015 movies nature Action Tomatazos ratings Shudder war james bond Emmys The Witch biopic Premiere Dates slashers composers Rom-Com king kong worst movies sequels live event Star Trek jamie lee curtis Stephen King Neflix Nat Geo crime thriller football TruTV movie 79th Golden Globes Awards Animation Polls and Games ABC Family werewolf Chernobyl sopranos LGBTQ TNT TV One VH1 what to watch medical drama comiccon aliens Britbox universal monsters justice league TCM kong Paramount rt labs harry potter hollywood boxoffice science fiction aapi Turner PaleyFest doctor who Captain marvel Rocky Lucasfilm Comic-Con@Home 2021 Comedy marvel cinematic universe 20th Century Fox adenture Fox Searchlight Apple TV Plus historical drama Reality 2020 Esquire directors Marvel Television Trivia ID serial killer Wes Anderson Spring TV Ghostbusters Dark Horse Comics Image Comics Starz casting WGN Freeform Peacock Infographic DGA transformers game show hidden camera saw Netflix Christmas movies CW Seed royal family Martial Arts spinoff Pixar TCA Set visit APB The Purge TV renewals TCA Winter 2020 supernatural trophy nbcuniversal Lionsgate name the review 2018 romantic comedy RT21 Syfy cancelled TV series video YouTube Premium Winter TV TBS SXSW Tarantino marvel comics Music Ovation dramedy cancelled TV shows MCU child's play archives pirates of the caribbean Lifetime The Walt Disney Company Television Critics Association new zealand batman romance cinemax Biopics Photos PBS Pacific Islander Video Games quibi popular The Academy true crime Certified Fresh streaming Mary Poppins Returns DC Comics game of thrones President spider-man art house HBO Max 2016 Song of Ice and Fire Fox News debate Grammys Star Wars comedies canceled TV shows FX A24 Anna Paquin 73rd Emmy Awards TV movies fresh biography Superheroes hispanic unscripted IFC Films Sundance Now reviews Drama X-Men dark LGBT dreamworks criterion Best and Worst vampires History parents 72 Emmy Awards Pirates Vudu miniseries book adaptation rom-coms theme song Winners PlayStation Toys The Walking Dead The Arrangement Hear Us Out Avengers Alien TV BET Awards Schedule black comedy cartoon Marvel japan sag awards scary movies American Society of Cinematographers Holiday venice critics remakes Emmy Nominations olympics spider-verse BBC One prank AMC NYCC cancelled green book screen actors guild Shondaland franchise Tokyo Olympics asian-american indiana jones women Oscars 24 frames A&E rt archives strong female leads Hulu ESPN Sneak Peek Fantasy Family Spike posters toy story heist movie mcc Mary poppins politics FXX high school gangster Warner Bros. HBO scene in color BBC Disney streaming service Academy Awards sports space Black Mirror 21st Century Fox Legendary TCA 2017 blaxploitation Creative Arts Emmys OWN Mudbound Endgame technology comic book movie award winner Opinion Turner Classic Movies 90s teaser sitcom richard e. Grant Sony Pictures independent Superheroe rt labs critics edition Food Network razzies Spectrum Originals Marathons Fall TV chucky IMDb TV Mindy Kaling facebook monster movies E! travel natural history Cartoon Network 2021 legend worst Lifetime Christmas movies canceled Calendar Binge Guide Brie Larson Logo australia YA streaming movies Pet Sematary police drama Hallmark Christmas movies witnail dogs french Western classics breaking bad Character Guide thriller scary book DirecTV TCA Awards FX on Hulu Prime Video BET free movies festival Pop TV mob HBO Go films tv talk golden globes MTV all-time USA Network NBC Trailer Chilling Adventures of Sabrina TLC Columbia Pictures Watching Series discovery comic books dceu Apple TV+ young adult a nightmare on elm street Women's History Month Funimation CNN Writers Guild of America blockbuster Podcast joker mutant twilight Classic Film Marvel Studios foreign Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Cannes CBS All Access Comics on TV Teen sequel mission: impossible Disney Plus Heroines USA Tumblr cooking Sundance WarnerMedia kids latino video on demand Kids & Family cats Sundance TV halloween dexter documentaries jurassic park lord of the rings Paramount Network basketball Awards psycho docuseries renewed TV shows feel good MSNBC TV Land GoT talk show Amazon Prime Video diversity zombies disaster screenings Instagram Live Baby Yoda critic resources superhero cops Netflix crime drama revenge El Rey Thanksgiving Television Academy vs. Hollywood Foreign Press Association Walt Disney Pictures leaderboard NBA HFPA godzilla 45 die hard Acorn TV Valentine's Day Country Disney Apple emmy awards series telelvision suspense wonder woman 4/20 Comic Book First Look