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October 11, 2018

‘Doctor Who’ Triumphs by Embracing the New

This week, Jodie Whittaker made her full debut as Doctor Who’s titular alien hero, breaking a streak of all-male doctors that goes all the way back to the show’s debut in 1963. The season opener which served as her introduction (though last year’s Christmas special laid the groundwork), “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” had higher overnight ratings than any premiere episode in a decade. A significant number of new viewers and lapsed fans tuned in to see Whittaker’s take on the character, and I was one of them.

My limited experience with Doctor Who includes foggy memories of a big slab of talking CGI skin and some farting aliens, as well as the profound yet context-free secondhand emotions that came with running a Tumblr during the early 2010s, where gifsets of Ten and Rose’s goodbye scene and “Vincent and the Doctor” were unavoidable. Still, Whittaker’s debut feels like history in the making, and although the hardcore fanboys who opposed her appointment in the role would dismiss my amateur fan’s take, the Doctor herself seems to be embracing the new. Late in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” which turns out to be an emotional opener thanks to new showrunner and episode writer Chris Chibnall’s deliberate vision, she says the following:

“We’re all capable of the most incredible change. 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. Now’s your chance, how about it?”

The sentiment here is threefold. On the surface, the thirteenth doctor–who by this point has already established herself as brilliantly kind and lively incarnation of the Time Lord–is talking to the episode’s villain, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer holdover (this meant as a compliment in an episode that feels Buffy-ish in the best way) who trophy hunts humans and wears their teeth like accessories. This shallowest layer alone is lovely, as Whittaker thoroughly sells the goodness of her Doctor, someone who earnestly believes the bad guy might give up his evil plan if shown a little bit of tenderness, and who somehow convinces us to buy into her optimism along the way.

Of course, Thirteen’s words go deeper than that. She’s been regenerating throughout the episode, describing the exhilarating and painful ways her body is transforming to her new companions with the breathless geeky glee of a body-swapped Bill Nye the Science Guy. Her speech here describes the Doctor’s long-overdue reincarnation into a female body as a thing of wonder, a pure evolution worth celebrating. It’s an acknowledgment of the silly controversy around Whittaker’s casting, and rather than the biting eff-you that misogynist so-called fans probably deserve, she boils the episode’s most meta moment down to the philosophical core of the series, cultivating an authentic teaching moment. Change is good and natural and doesn’t mean forgetting the past, the Doctor says, a reassurance for fans and skeptics alike.

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Because of course, she’s speaking to the viewers as well. At her babbling, hilarious best, Whittaker’s Doctor so far comes across like a mix between an over-excited Leslie Knope hashing out a good guy game plan, and an alien Ms. Frizzle, ready to guide whoever she meets on a mind-bending new adventure. All of this makes her climactic assertion feel like an invitation for the people who love the show–or even those who don’t–to continue growing with it. Even the people who initially hesitated to embrace a female doctor can change their tune, since “we are all capable of incredible change.” In an ongoing cultural conversation that’s often weighed down by our collective impulse to judge and dismiss one another based on perceived faults, the idea that we can all become someone good in the blink of an eye if we simply give it a try is a radical one.

In the past, the Doctor has been funny, angry, strange, and sad, but I get the feeling that no doctor has ever been as inclusive as Whittaker’s will be. It shouldn’t be lost on us that she appears this time in the city of Sheffield, where decidedly average characters are worried about finishing school, getting to work on time, overcoming physical limitations, and proving themselves and their families proud. She immediately recognizes this hardworking group–a nurse, a retired bus driver, a warehouse worker with dreams of becoming a mechanic, and a rookie cop stuck on parking duty–as the heroes they could be, and her immediate, unconditional warmth is as inspiring as her proud declaration that her new Sonic multi-tool is “now with added Sheffield steel!” She’s a Doctor for the people, and once she’s finally finished her reboot, she knows it too. “I know exactly who I am,” she says, in a clear, sure voice. “I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe.”

For the millions of women who watched Doctor Who break open its history and write a new story this week, she’s helped already.

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