It’d be reasonable to suggest that any incarnation of the Doctor is only as strong as their companions – especially when they’re first starting out. Throughout the years, TV’s greatest time traveller has played host to robot dogs, pansexual con men from the 51st century, and even a few so-called “impossible” girls able to do such extraordinary things as absorb the Tardis’s time vortex, or implant multiple versions of themselves across the Doctor’s timeline. With all this in mind, who’d have thought that one of the most memorable companions in recent years would turn out to be a middle-aged bus driver from Essex? But that’s the power of Bradley Walsh’s Graham O’Brien.
Introduced alongside the Thirteenth Doctor’s other two new chums, Yaz and Ryan, Graham has spent most of this recent season with one of the most emotional character arcs. Usually, a companion is thought of as a surrogate in which audiences can experience these fanciful flights of escapism when embarking on the next interdimensional adventure, but it’s in Graham O’Brien where the show manages to stay relatively grounded and relatable – if only for the humanity he brings via his humour and grieving.
Many were sceptical of Bradley Walsh’s casting heading into this new series, wondering how he would fit. But, boy, has he exceeded all our expectations. Here’s why we love Graham O’Brien.
Optimism Amid Great Loss
Right from the off, Graham’s reasoning for joining the crew once the Doctor regains control of her Tardis at the end of “Arachnids in the UK” is an honest one. Following the heroic death of his wife, Grace (played by Sharon D. Clarke) during the climax of the season opener, Graham looks to use this call for adventure as his primary coping mechanism. It isn’t unusual for the Doctor’s companions to be running away from something, but this is usually something as trivial as the monotony of everyday life – here, it’s the death of a loved one.
This has led Bradley Walsh to play Graham throughout the season with a consistent sense of faint vulnerability, as he once again is forced to ponder what he deems important in life. Despite these terrible circumstances Graham always does his best to stay strong and optimistic, whether it’s in the way he defends his fellow companions against the ongoing racial discrimination of 1955 Alabama in “Rosa” or how it’s revealed he always packs an emergency sandwich in the chilling “It Takes You Away“.
Against all odds, Graham has been gradually growing stronger following his wife’s death, slowly finding the value in life after loss. Optimism has been an overarching theme of Jodie Whittaker’s initial season of Doctor Who: Bradley Walsh embodies this perfectly, and often, beautifully.
Laughing in the Face of Adversity
To think that Graham O’Brien would be pitched solely as Doctor Who Series 11’s comic relief character may have been wrong, but that doesn’t mean he’s not funny. In fact, he’s hilarious. The character has been a replete dispenser of ‘grandad jokes’ throughout the series – always ready to defuse the tension of the scary scenarios our Tardis crew find themselves in with a bout of regular-Joe jokes. This once again feeds into the emotional journey the character finds himself on, as he continually attempts to find ways to turn his state of anguish into positivity. Even when confronted by 17th-century mud monsters and the maniacal shopping robots of an off-brand Amazon.
One of our favourite running gags so far comes from his constant seeking of grandparent legitimacy. Where, on more than one occasion, Graham has raised his hand for a fist bump to Ryan in true ‘I’m down with the kids’ fashion, only to be left hanging. Despite how “uncool” Ryan might deem it currently, we remain confident that this deal will eventually be sealed by the end of the series finale – if not then, the New Year’s Day special.
It soon becomes clear that Graham is far from the old codger the average passer-by might initially presume him to be, despite him needing to stay conscious of his low blood sugar. When Ryan suggested a bit of Bradley Walsh’s real-life friend, Stormzy, to grant the mutant spiders’ passage to safety in “Arachnids in the UK” he appeared more than willing, and made a rather convincing Steve Jobs when having to think on his feet in the face of a discriminative law enforcement officer. And how could we forget, he is now best mates with Banksy (the Doctor)?
The Voice of Reason
It’s only been passingly mentioned in the show, but as a retired bus driver in remission from cancer, Graham’s vast life experience as the Tardis crew’s most senior human member has rendered him the voice of reason on more than one occasion. This most often comes as a result of him seeking to adequately fulfil the grandad role for Ryan, one that he feels the implicit need to step-up to given the loss of Grace, Ryan’s nan. His 21st-century point of view means he is able to stay level-headed and understand Yas and Ryan’s perspective, particularly on history, alongside the Doctor.
This approach of his was indicated early on in the season when, in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, Graham’s ‘bish, bash, bosh’ attitude and general advice to simply “ask a bus driver” proved crucial in tracking down the menacing Tim Shaw. It’s since continued to feed through into episodes like “Rosa”, “Demons of the Punjab“, and even “The Witchfinders“, where characters feel comfortable in confiding in the middle-aged retiree whenever the question their own beliefs, or what is good and right.
All this contributes to how remarkable Doctor Who’s most seemingly unremarkable companion has turned out to be, pretty much right from the off. Bradley Walsh’s Graham O’Brien is a multi-faceted character we hope will continue to be part of Team Tardis for many future adventures, even if his strong emotional through-line looks to be coming full circle by this season’s end.