Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
Sunday night’s premiere of the eleventh season (under the NuWho count) of Doctor Who may have been one of the most-anticipated in the entirety of its 55-year run. It wasn’t just the fact that we haven’t had a new DW episode in almost a year. It’s not even the fact that the much-divisive (and derided) previous showrunner, Steven Moffat, has finally given up the center seat to newcomer Chris Chibnall, and expectations of breathing fresh life (and proper sense) into the show are being giddily anticipated. And no, it’s not even the new sonic screwdriver.
You know what it is.
After five decades and 12 (technically 14) previous male incarnations, the Doctor is finally a woman.
The announcement of Jodie Whittaker in the role caused a frenzy of reaction across the interwebs. As you might expect from certain keyboard cowboys, there was some initial backlash, but luckily the petulant naysayers were drowned out by the overwhelming excitement of devotees, feminists, and fans itching for a clean slate.
And it’s not like the groundwork for gender-fluidity amongst the Timelords hadn’t been laid for quite a while now. One of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries, The Master, has been played by actress Michelle Gomez for the past few years. The Big Finish Audio productions have alluded to, or outright shown, these changes in other characters long before. And there have been a number of varied hints sprinkled throughout the live-action series.
The question was not “if,” but “when.” And that time has finally come.
“The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is all in all a typical DW episode in structure and tone, and that’s not a bad thing. Chibnall obviously gets the material, understanding the interplay between the Doctor and her would-be companions, the delicate balance between horror and humor, and the twinkle of childish wonder while dealing with intriguing mysteries and terrifying alien threats. But there’s definitely an updated sensibility to the show. Visually, it has a far-more cinematic look and vibrance, a bit more daring in its composition and palette. But most importantly, the rage-inducing contrivances and emotional manipulation that Moffat was so vilified for (including very much by me!) is drastically reduced in favor a more cohesive, emotionally satisfying storyline.
But let’s get to the hearts of it here: how did Whittaker manage in her debut? To my mind, excellent.
Unlike the confusion felt by the Doctor herself as she struggles with post-regeneration pangs and somewhat scrambled mental faculties, Whittaker jumps into the role as if she’d been playing it for years. The Doctor is defined by his/her intelligence, ingenuity, humor, compassion, and steadfast resolve to help those in need. And all of this was clearly revealed in this new incarnation. As the Doctor is want to do, Whittaker bounces between these varied and conflicting states of being at a moment’s notice with nary a beat missed. She exudes enough leadership and confidence that the small group of humans caught in her wake have few qualms about deferring to her expertise and guidance. She commands without force, directs without anger, and charms with that breezy Doctor enthusiasm. As such, Whittaker does not play a female version of the Doctor, she simply plays the Doctor.