In its five decades careening through the cosmos and the popular imagination, Doctor Who has given us plenty of philosophies to choose from: “Go forward in all your beliefs.” “There is no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.” “We’re all stories in the end.” “Bananas are good.” But on yesterday’s Season 11 premiere, the latest incarnation of the time-traveling, galaxy-hopping, species-saving, face-changing Time Lord gave voice to what is perhaps the show’s most enduring philosophy: “We’re all capable of the most incredible change.”
As surely as the Doctor has two hearts, change is built into this show’s DNA. It has a lot to do with Doctor Who‘s enduring message of hope and progress, and even more to do with practicality: A show can go on indefinitely if its lead can change bodies whenever an actor decides to call it quits. In its 54-year history, 12 blokes have stepped into the role — four of them in the past 13 years alone, since the series’ 2005 resurrection. But no change has been more monumental, more timestream-shattering, than the decision to have the Doctor regenerate as a woman.
As with any major news about a beloved franchise, last year’s announcement that our hero would be transforming from Peter Capaldi into Jodie Whittaker (along with a new showrunner, Broadchurch scribe Chris Chibnall) was met with equal parts euphoria and derision. But the proof is in the pudding, and Whittaker’s long-anticipated debut, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” is an episode rooted solidly in the Who tradition while also offering something deliriously new.
After six seasons under showrunner Steven Moffat — who delighted in the kind of “timey-wimey” plotting that would leave your head spinning — the character’s mythos had become so convoluted as to be indecipherable to new or casual viewers. The latest series mercifully hacks through that jungle of backstory to bring us a fresh start. New to this universe? No worries — so is the Doctor.
Freshly regenerated and separated from her TARDIS (that’s the blue police box that can travel through time and space and is bigger on the inside, for those just joining us), Whittaker’s Who crash-lands on Earth clad in the tattered, oversized clothes of her predecessor. She’s a bit confused and still cooking, brand-new-body–wise. “Why are you calling me madam?” she asks one of the first humans she meets. When she find out it’s because she’s a woman, she widens her eyes in surprise and delight. “Am I? Does it suit me?”
But never mind that, because the lady has got extraterrestrial bad guys to fight ASAP — in this case, an electrified tentacle-y creature and a goth Power Ranger-looking dude menacing greater Sheffield. It wouldn’t be Doctor Who without some jerks threatening Great Britain, or without a scrappy, endearing human or four to join the Time Lord in her heroics.
The new crop of companions breaks the usual mold of “plucky young woman looking to have an adventure.” This time, it’s a quartet: local teen Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole); policewoman-in-training Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill); Ryan’s nan, Grace (Sharon D. Clarke); and her husband, Graham (Bradley Walsh). Together, they help the addled but very game Doctor find her bearings, craft a shiny new sonic screwdriver, and take down the threat of the week. (It’s a testament to the new series’ spirit of inclusivity that this group includes three actors of color.)
Fittingly, said villain is toxic masculinity personified: a gravelly-voiced alien (Samuel Oatley) who hails from a planet where they hunt and kill random innocents for sport in order to rise up the ranks; as a fun, gross bonus, the guy wears the teeth of his victims as face jewelry. When the Doctor wins the day and turns his own DNA-melting weapons against him, she tells him: “You had a choice. You did this to yourself. Go home.”
It’s one of several lines in the episode that function both within the plot and as a message to skeptics and haters. “Don’t be scared. All of this is new to you, and new can be scary,” she tells Graham, and later, in a crane-top showdown: “We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” It’s all a bit on the nose, sure, but you could argue that this is a moment — in a show whose occasional heavy-handedness is part of its charm — when everyone’s noses need a good poking.
Because, well, let’s get personal here: As a Who fan ever since Christopher Eccleston first grabbed Billie Piper’s hand and shouted, “Run!” back in 2005, I’ve been enamored of the Doctor’s particular brand of heroics. You know the drill: brains over brawn, godlike powers married to self-deprecating wit, searing curiosity, hidden darkness, endless wonder and a determined compassion for even the most monstrous of creatures.
Through its many incarnations, the show has imagined a universe of infinite possibility, so it seemed nuts that the Doctor would be limited to resurrecting as a series of white guys. Not that the 12 men who’ve captained the TARDIS haven’t been frequently brilliant, but like many other women who love Doctor Who, I’ve been waiting for the day when that Time Lord regeneration glow would fade to reveal a different sort of face than the ones we were used to.
It’s a truth multiversally acknowledged that the Doctor is always the smartest, most capable person in any given room. And the value of seeing a woman in that position, after five decades of alien mansplaining, cannot be understated. The real world is miles behind, but as far as speculative fiction is considered, we have the sci-fi equivalent of a female president.
Whittaker (who’s best known for her previous work with Chibnall on Broadchurch) absolutely owns the part from moment she leaps into the frame. Like every Doctor, she’s a ball of frantic energy and one-liners, commanding the room by thoroughly flustering and out-talking everyone else in it. But she also brings something else to the table that sets her apart from her male antecedents: emotional availability. Take the way she describes the experience of regeneration: “There’s this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die. And then … you’re born! It’s terrifying.” Previous incarnations drew power from shoving their true feelings down deep; Whittaker’s version airs them in the open, and is no less formidable for it.
There comes a moment in every Doctor’s first episode when they take a stand against the bad guy, square their shoulders and declare: “I’m the Doctor.” It’s formulaic, but it’s thrilling; the mantra is both the establishment of a moniker and a mission statement, a superheroic call to fight injustice across time and space. And when Whittaker says it — wind-whipped and majestic in the charred remnants of a black coat tailored to an old body that no longer suited her — it sent a shiver up my spine. For the first time in half a century, women aren’t just in the passenger’s seat of the TARDIS. We’re the goddamn lords of time and space.