The Doctor will see you now: thoughts on Jodie Whittaker's Doctor Who debut

by Jodie van de Wetering

Warning: contains mild spoilers for Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

doctor who

A new Doctor is always cause for celebration, despair, and wild speculation in the seething collective that is the Doctor Who fandom. Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode, The Woman Who Fell To Earth, ramped the usual fan-flailing up to 11 (or should that be 13?) because…

OK, let’s get it over with: the new Doctor is a woman.

The suggestion that a woman might play the Doctor has been bobbing around since the 1980s, and Joanna Lumley gave it a red hot go for charity way back before the series resurrection.

But the simple truth is, the Doctor changes.

Once, the Doctor was played by William Hartnell. Until Tom Baker, the Doctor was always an older man. Until Sylvester McCoy, he always had a received pronunciation accent. Until Christopher Eccleston, he never wore everyday contemporary clothes.

The Doctor changes.

If you’re not OK with the Doctor changing, or Doctor Who as a show changing over its five-and-a-half-decades-and-counting lifespan, that’s fine. It’s a big universe. Make a cup of Milo and put on your VHS of The Web Planet.

The show’s already established that Time Lords can change gender and race through regeneration, and if Chekhov taught us anything it’s that you don’t leave a gun like that lying around unless you’re planning to fire it.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor

Now an episode into the new series, I think Jodie Whittaker is a wonderful choice as the Doctor: bubbling with life, breathlessly enthusiastic, warm and somehow very human despite her baffled alien-ness.

doctor who

One of the great strengths of Doctor Who since its reboot in 2005 has been its domesticity, its humanity, its recognition of family and relationships as what makes us human and ultimately what matters. The characters have lives and backstories, mothers and fathers and grandparents and significant others, and they matter. New Who is its warmest, its realest, its best, when it celebrates and respects that humanity. Being TARDIS-less, Earthbound and involving a variety of technogubbins made out of spoons and microwaves, this story had strong echoes of early Pertwee stories. But I can’t see Random Canon Fodder Security Guard in a Pertwee-era story chatting to his granddaughter on the phone, being given that moment of humanity and dignity, before all hell breaks inevitably loose.

Conversely, I find the weakest New Who to be the episodes and story arcs which forget that, and treat family as expendable (the whole Amy, Rory & River situation) and believeable, human characterisation as secondary to the narrative. (What even is Clara’s deal? I lost track and gave up. Sorry, I’m too old for that level of wtfery.)

I’ve seen fans say they see a lot of Ninth Doctor in Whittaker’s portrayal, some see Ten, some Eleven, some Four. I think that’s because we’re all seeing a reflection of our own favourite past Doctor, like some sort of Gallifreyan Mirror of Erised. Whittaker’s Thirteen is a damn fine Doctor in her own right, and for what it’s worth I see shades of Three’s junkyard genius, Nine’s bluntness and practicality, and - work with me here - Eight’s postregenerative childlikeness and innocence.

On your bike

In new companion Ryan Sinclair, a young adult with dyspraxia, we have the first canonically disabled character to travel with the Doctor.

I don't have dyspraxia, but I do have neurological shenanigans including ASD and ADHD which give me some of the same symptoms. When another character asked Ryan if he was “going to blame this [alien Doctor Who type stuff] on the dyspraxia too?" well, my heart just broke. I've heard that so many times. I think every neurodiverse person has. A lot of people are going to be barracking for Ryan.

Ryan can’t ride a bike. At the end, after the drama and death and general trauma of falling into the Doctor’s orbit, he has one last emotion-charged go… and falls straight on his bum again. That moment matters, there was a lot more to it than just a moment played for laughs. He didn't overcome his disability by trying harder or by being transformed through grief, he wasn't magically cured by meeting the Doctor. He couldn't suddenly ride a bike because he'd earned it through hardship or by trying one more time. It would have been a very neat ending to that loop of harrative, but one that would have discounted the real lived experiences of we who will never be cured by trying harder, by wanting it more, or by meeting a madwoman in a blue box.

Well, a madwoman who should have a blue box.

Where the hell is the TARDIS?

The new season of Doctor Who is available on ABC iView, with new episodes released every Monday morning after the UK broadcast.