Thoughts on the new Doctor, Jodi Whittaker (pilot episode, “The woman who fell to Earth”)

So it’s only been one episode so far I’ve had to judge from, but I have to say I really like Jodi Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor. She’s clearly a great comic actress, and has both successfully aped the style of several of the recent Doctors (Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith) very well — alternatively scattered, slightly self-deprecating, and deadly serious, able to shift back and forth on a dime (she has clearly studied those actors’ style extensively) — yet also injected some flavor unique to her.

Peter Capaldi was a much darker Doctor, in a way we hadn’t seen since Sylvester McCoy — bitter, sardonic, tired, trying his best to keep on saving a universe he knew damned well didn’t appreciate him and wondering how long he could keep this all up. He made you feel every inch of his 2000 year old lifetime.

Whittaker represents a departure, a rejuvenation, a Doctor once again excited by life, playful and seeking adventure, in that Matt Smith sort of way (without descending nearly into his level of goofiness). I was very pleased to see her revive one of my favorite traits of David Tennant’s Doctor, that he always told villains, “I am giving you a choice.” It was always in a moment when the villain thinks he’s going to be triumphant, and we can’t see how he’s anything but, yet Tennant…and now Whittaker…is saying this because it’s already checkmate, the Doctor knows it, and is offering mercy before delivering the coup de grace smackdown, always holding out the hope that the villain has a better nature that can come out if given the chance. That is so much of what I absolutely love about the Doctor, that I felt we lost with Capaldi…the sense that, despite all the horrors he’s seen over the millennia, he (and now she) stubbornly holds on to hope that things, and people, can be better. As Whittaker puts it, “I believe everyone is capable of making a change.” What a needed message, in these present times when it looks like everyone’s walled up in their own camps and nothing’s going to change except for the worse.

Yet her Doctor clearly isn’t a Pollyanna…Whittaker’s finest acting moment in the episode comes when Yasmin asks if she has any family, and you see the pain ripple across her face, in her posture…yet a breath later we see her master it, reconcile it, say she’s made her peace with it, and you know, I almost kind of believe her. As the War Doctor said of Tennant and Smith’s Doctors, respectively, they were “the one who regrets” and “the one who forgets.” Whittaker’s Doctor, it seems, is the one who integrates, reconciles, puts her best foot forward and makes the best of what is…or, and this is even more interesting, the one who at least IS DESPERATELY TRYING to. I hope the writers will let us see that sort of process recur, because it’s fascinating. I love a Doctor with texture.

Whittaker’s Doctor is also someone who clearly brings out the best in people, inspires them to acts of heroism and doing more than they thought themselves capable of, which is a fine Doctorial tradition…yet it was coupled with that other Doctorial tradition, which is, people whom the Doctor inspires like that tend to end up dead for their troubles. Dead, or broken, albeit after many wonderful adventures…the cost of heroism, and likely why so few attempt it. I am curious to see how this season, and Whittaker, will handle that inextricable part of the Doctor mythos. I don’t think we’ll descend into Tennant-level angst, but neither do I think Whittaker’s Doctor will brush it off.

As for the plot of the episode itself, well…it was a Doctor Who plot. There are only so many templates at this point. This is not a show like Black Mirror or the Outer Limits (or even, for its era, Star Trek), where the point is to see what new and interesting spin this episode will put on humanity, science, the universe, etc. It’s not The Expanse or Game of Thrones, where you’re trying to follow political twists and turns. Doctor Who has always been something of a formula show, which we watch specifically for the formula: there’s a threat to time and space, the plucky Doctor succeeds against insurmountable odds by using his (or now her) brains and heart, as opposed to force, the universe is saved, and there’s usually a cost. Now that Steven Moffat is gone, I don’t think we’ll see those convoluted mega-arcs (which peaked, really at the River Song arc with Matt Smith…the Peter Capaldi mega-arcs really failed to grab me), but who knows, the show may yet surprise me somehow.

But even if it doesn’t, I’m still enthused. The only weak spot right now is the companions…none of them have really interested me yet. Ryan’s step-grandpa looks like a very, very poor attempt to re-tread the wonderful character that was Donna’s grandfather. Ryan himself seems limited to the “I’ve got to learn to believe in myself and overcome my limitations” trope. Yasmin has potential, but I’m not sure where that potential is headed. But oh well. They can’t all be Donna or Sarah Jane. At least they’re not freaking Clara.

And that throwaway line the Doctor gives when trying on clothes at the end, that “‘it’s been a long time since I’ve shopped for women’s clothing,” seems to echo Missy’s ambiguously truthful claim a season or two ago about having gone adventuring with the Doctor “when he was a little girl”…has the Doctor had a previous female incarnation we’re not yet aware of? I’d ask how the hell that would fit into continuity, but Doctor Who has always merrily given the middle finger to continuity whenever it wants to (in that regard, it’s very much the anti-Star Trek, where even JJ Abrams’ reboot has to add, “hey, hey, this is just an alternate reality, promise, you can still keep your old continuity if you want to, don’t shoot me!” Although don’t start me on the many, many ways Discovery doesn’t seem to give a f*ck…)

I’ll freely admit I have friends who have wondered what I see in this series, given how much more cerebrally and emotionally demanding scifi is out there. The thing with scifi shows nowadays, though, is that as compelling as I find their worlds — Battlestar Galactica, Walking Dead, Westworld, Handmaid’s Tale, Man in the High Castle, The Expanse, even Stranger Things — none of these worlds, NONE of them, are remotely, remotely, places I’d want to live, or even visit. Different flavors of dystopia, all of them, a place where relentless threat is everywhere, and usually the most you can hope for is to survive another day.

The universe of Doctor Who is also full of dangers…yet it’s full of wonders, too. And amidst all the monsters, there is at least one man — and now, one woman — in a tiny blue box, armed with nothing but a screwdriver and a big heart (er, hearts)… who absurdly, insanely, refuses to be cowed by it. Who believes that one person can make a difference, and who somehow always manages to win the day. How can I not watch that?

Whatever else you could say about Jodi Whittaker’s Doctor, she’s keeping that Quixotic torch alive…so I’m willing to go joust at a few windmills alongside her.

Allons si,

Originally published at on October 14, 2018.



Educator, consultant and author. His latest book is entitled, “What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me? Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice.”

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David Nurenberg

Educator, consultant and author. His latest book is entitled, “What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me? Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice.”