Like the heroic, time-traveling alien at its center, Doctor Who has gone through a regeneration of sorts this season. Jodie Whittaker, as the first female Doctor, has brought a renewed sense of energy to the long-running sci-fi series, breathing new life into its ongoing narrative. But for all the passion and fire her presence has brought to the show, Doctor Who is still failing in other ways. Specifically, it's failing its companions.
Introducing a new Doctor and three new companions at the same time the series was also resetting behind the scenes was always going to be a challenge. Reinventing itself every few years naturally means periodic growing pains for Doctor Who even as it opens up a whole new set of storytelling possibilities. This is why I wasn't too concerned when Thirteen's companions — Yasmin (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) — all took a backseat to the introduction of a new Doctor in the Season 11 premiere. But unfortunately, Doctor Who hasn't done much to develop them since, and after four episodes, they're all still the same barely-there characters they were at the start despite the fact we've briefly met Yaz's family and Ryan and Graham have both lost someone they loved deeply. Is the series' problem as simple as three companions are too many right now? After all, it's not like there isn't the potential for growth.
Grief can be a powerful story driver, yet Doctor Who doesn't seem too interested in going down this particular road right now. On one hand, I get it: This isn't a series that easily lends itself to a deep discourse on grief, what with all the mad adventuring to be done. But on the other hand, Graham is choosing to run away from his pain rather than face it head-on after seeing Grace everywhere he looked in the home they shared. He's joined the others and made the decision to leave behind the lives they had on Earth in exchange for the opportunity to explore all of time and space with the Doctor. Everyone processes things differently, but if the show doesn't address his grief beyond these brief moments in "Arachnids in the U.K." — it didn't really address it in the two episodes that preceded it — this will really drive home the sad fact that Grace's death in the season premiere was nothing more than a plot device.
Of course, Graham would hardly be the first person to use the Doctor and his/her TARDIS to conveniently run away from something — hell, running away is built into the very foundation of the series — but Doctor Who is also about facing one's fears, and this new season will be much stronger if it doesn't allow Graham to run from his pain and fear of being without Grace for too long.
Ryan's storyline would similarly benefit from this kind of storytelling, especially if it means he finally forges a relationship with Graham. But if the show isn't interested in mining this particular area, there are still plenty of other avenues it could explore with regards to Ryan. Why haven't we learned more about him beyond brief references to his disability or the fact he worked in a warehouse prior to meeting the Doctor? He's smart! He appears to have scientific knowledge! Take this information and run with it for an hour. I know four episodes isn't a lot of time, especially in the context of the entire history of Doctor Who, but we should still have a better idea of who Ryan is beyond a cursory understanding of his home life, his résumé and a childhood past with Yasmine.
And speaking of Yaz, she's had perhaps the worst luck of all. Although we met her parents and sister in the season's fourth episode, all we really know is that her mom and dad appear anxious for her to be paired off with someone romantically, and they don't even seem to care who it is. Her other defining characteristic is that she's a police officer who went to school with Ryan. This is it! This is what we know about her.
It wouldn't be too hard for Doctor Who to develop the show's three new companions if the writers spent time on each one individually. There's no reason, especially now that we've reached the point in the season where everyone has chosen to travel with the Doctor voluntarily, that this can't happen. Let's spend an episode digging into Yaz! Let's spend an hour working out who Ryan is outside of his family or disability. Let's explore Graham! He is quite a bit older than the Doctor's regular companions tend to be, and he's also a cancer survivor, so there's a lot the show can use here. There's no reason the series needs to try to service each character equally each week (and I'd argue it hasn't even been doing this). There's still so much excitement surrounding Doctor Who this season, and I've enjoyed so much of what Whittaker has brought to the role of the Doctor. Is it simply too much to ask that her co-stars be given the same opportunities to shine?
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America.