Last Sunday night, we sat down to catch up with an old friend. After an absence of twenty months, Doctor Who was finally back. The new season stars Jody Whittaker in the titular role, and I was a little bit worried to see where the series was going to go. There’s been a lot of hype, and most of it not very promising. Plus, Steven Moffat’s gone. There’s no telling what direction things might go.
So far, we’re two episodes in, and I’m pretty happy.
I’ve been a Jewhova’s Witness since I first found the series, back in the Tom Baker days. I used to watch it on the black and white TV in our kitchen, because I couldn’t get anyone else in my family to let me watch it in the living room. It was on one of those weird, way down the dial UHF stations that didn’t always come in right, and the screen was about the size of a postage stamp, but that didn’t stop me. I fell in love with that weird dude with the crazy scarf, crazier hair, pocket full of jelly babies, wondrous screwdriver and that magical police call box that could take him anywhere, anytime.
Yeah, that was some good stuff.
The Doctor isn’t human, which gives the writers a marvelous little “out” whenever it’s time to change the actor in the lead role. They kill him. Then they bring him back.
Now, almost anywhere else, this would feel like the sort of comic-book retcon that would leave fans howling with rage and Stan Lee sprinting down to the bank to cash his paycheck before somebody put a stop payment order on it. But with this character, it works. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. The series has been running for over half a century (off and on) and there have been fourteen different Doctors, if you count William Hurt.
That’s not bad when you factor in that Gallifreyans are only supposed to be able to regenerate twelve times.
But, here’s a little secret. I always hate the new Doctor. I disliked Davison. I was indifferent to Eccleston. I thought Tennant was a greasy imposter. I straight up loathed Smith. And don’t get me started on Capaldi, that pretentious lout. With each new regeneration, I started out hating the new Doctor.
And then I fell in love with them. Often, without even realizing that it happened.
So, I have to admit I was a bit concerned. I knew I was going to hate the new Doctor, and I was cool with that. But I was worried about what they’d do with the show. Was it going to degenerate into a load of steaming, politically-correct hashtag social justice crap? I mean, I know when I’m being sold something, and I could just about smell the reek of a thinly-veiled lecture on the evil patriarchy emanating from my DVR.
But, it’s human nature to look at the train wreck. My family served up dinner and took our plates into the living room. The moment of truth had arrived. I steeled myself for the worst and hit play.
It started out bad. I guess BBC America had some sort of launch party, and my recording caught the tail end of it. Everyone in the party was a well-dressed, telegenic woman. None of them looked like Doctor Who fans. Not one. I’m not saying Whovian woman aren’t good-looking. I’m saying I’ve never met a female Time Lord fan who didn’t have a closet full of Tom Baker scarves, Tardis T-shirts and Dalek hats. And, for something like a launch party for the first female Doctor, actual fangirls would have been done up in that regalia and looking awesome doing it.
No, these gals looked like they’d have been more at home selling cosmetics on their YouTube channels than promoting a BBC Sci-Fi series. Like they were cosplaying what they thought women who liked Doctor Who should look like. Like they were trying to sell women that it was alright to like this show without believing it themselves. They were smiling, pointing sonic screwdrivers—I swear they looked like lipstick tubes—at the camera and counting down to the start of the show.
Hoo-boy, I thought. This is gonna be hell.
But the hell never came. To my surprise, the show was pretty good. Sure, Whittaker’s a female, but she comes across as the character we love. She’s got the same frenetic charge the Doctor gets when she’s excited, from solving the puzzle of the situation she’s in to when she kit-bashes a new sonic screwdriver out of parts she scavenges from a 20th-century garage and an alien transport pod. She’s got the same clunky way of running that Matt Smith used. Whittaker was great in the role, and I liked her.
What’s more, the essence of the Doctor came through. The writing remained true to the character. It was like the writers did the thing I’ve been advised to do when writing a female: just write the character without regard to gender (or is it “sex”? I can never remember the approved word.). It worked really well here. Any of the Doctor’s lines could have been delivered by Capaldi or Tennant, and the fact that they were spoken by a woman didn’t make them any different. The Doctor was still The Doctor.
It was cool, and even better, it worked. I think The Doctor is one of the few long-established characters where the writers could make such a big change and get away with it.
I don’t know where this season will take us. When The Master went through his own gender-swapping transformation, he ended up becoming a very different character. The same might happen to The Doctor. I hope not. Contrary to my usual experience with a new Doctor, I like this one.