The eleventh season of new Doctor Who recently wrapped, and I don’t know if you heard, but the doctor is a ladyperson this time around. I’m going to skip the think-piecing on that except to check in with a “hell yes” and mention that I tuned out of New Who somewhere in the middle of the David Tennant run, but Jodie Whittaker taking up the mantle brought me back.The Chris Eccleston season gave us a one-two punch of two of the best episodes, old Who or new (“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”), but then, it also gave us the fart joke aliens, so…uneven, let’s say. At some point amidst all the sad eyes and flailing about of Tennant, I determined that this version of Doctor Who just wasn’t for me, but that it had enthralled millions of new fans, many of them women, so it got the thumbs up from me even if I wasn’t going to be tuning in.
I would, on occasion, check in on Matt Smith but found him to be more of the same, but even more so. The only episode I made a point of watching was “Day of the Doctor,” and I hated it enough to not tune in for any more Smith or any of of the Peter Capaldi episodes, even though I figured he, at least, must be less of the manic pixie dream doctor. It wasn’t that I was actively avoiding the show; I’d just sort of tuned it out and left it to and for others with more passion for it. But when angry ol’ Pete departed the show and it was announced that, at long last, they’d be hiring a woman to play the next regeneration of the Doctor, my interest was piqued. It was, admittedly, partly because I’m firmly on the side of diversity, even the much dreaded by some “diversity just for the sake of diversity.” But it was also partly because the casting of Jodie Whittaker — as well as turn-over in the creative team behind the show — promised to light a fire under the formula, allow it to explore with a different voice. And that was as exciting a development as back when we first heard this cat Chris Eccleston was going to be stepping out of the TARDIS as the first Doctor since that fancy man jumped a motorcycle at Eric Roberts.
And now that the season has wrapped, I feel satisfied. Whittaker does play the Doctor more in the vein of the sort of running about, hand-waving we got from Tennant and Smith, but she’s funnier when she does it. That look she gets when something is vexing or makes no sense is glorious. And, at least for now, it looks like we’ve done away with “companion loves the Doctor,” which was the part, even more than the flailing about, for which I did not care during the Tennant and Smith runs. Seriously, when they brought Sarah Jane back and reduced her and current companion Rose to jealous women sniping at each other over who loved and was loved by the Doctor more — come on! The 13th Doctor has, at least for now, banished the “woe is me, the lonely god” act as well as the slightly predatory romantic pursuit of his (or her) own sidekicks. In the place of a Rose or a Clara we get an ensemble that hearkens back to the earliest days of Who, when he had a whole entourage along for the fun, each of whom brought a different dynamic to the stories.
Previous seasons also leaned a little heavy on the occasional “I am a scary man! Also, old and lonely!” moment, when the Doctor pulls out his angry face and struts about like a bad ass. Those never really worked for me, and it’s another piece of baggage that has, thankfully, been stored in the back of Thirteen’s TARDIS. Instead, we get a Doctor who is almost pathologically devoted to compassion, understanding, and resolving a sticky situation without violence. We’ve seen her show caring for everything from a giant spider to a plucky little ancient robot. Even the thoroughly rotten Tim Shaw isn’t enough to make the Doctor abandon her belief that murder is never the solution. The final episode is the most challenging examination of this commitment to non-violence, as two of the Doctor’s companions, young Ryan and the older Graham, are the grandson and second husband of a woman murdered by Tim Shaw. Graham, in particular, is much less inclined to show any mercy toward the unrepentant (if anything, even nastier) galactic jackass, but the Doctor cuts Graham no slack. Non-violence doesn’t mean “only when it’s convenient and easy.”
The season also spent a lot of time exploring history, something that was a key component of the show when it was originally conceived as an educational show wrapped in a science fiction adventure. Doctor Who‘s visits to the past have rarely felt as vital and challenging as they were in this this season, including visits to Rosa Parks and Partition-eve India/Pakistan. That one of her companions is a Muslim woman and another is a young black man means that popping back in history can be a lot more threatening than it would otherwise be. That the Doctor is now a woman is also a frequent issue as well, especially when trying to deal with medieval witch hunters. These forays into difficult periods are rendered more powerful by the fact that often, for history to progress, Thirteen and her fam must stand aside and let good people suffer so that progress can occur. The historic episodes this season were among the best and showcase what science fiction has the power to accomplish when it decides to be something more than an action film with slightly futuristic looking jackets.
I will always cast at least an initial vote of support for more women and minorities in high profile science fiction works, but if they’re no good, I won’t stick around. The casting of Jodie Whittaker was enough to get to come back for a look, but it was the quality of the cast, the dynamic between them, and the stories — often smaller scale and more intimate, which is refreshing in an era when every sci-fi property has to be about the end of the entire universe — that ensured I will be back next season. Whittaker brings a an earnestness and energy to the role, makes the manic aspects endearing rather than off-putting. Even in grave moments, she instills a sense of joy in the proceedings that is infectious. This is a Doctor you want to go have adventures with. In fact, I had so much fun with Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor that I thought I might go back and fill in some blanks with Pete Capaldi. Which, I have to admit, hasn’t worked out great. But whatever. I can always make myself smile by remembering how happy Graham was to wear that stupid Witchfinder General hat.