The 11th season of Doctor Who is genuinely radical

The long-running sci-fi series remains remarkably traditional, but the time-traveling scientist's gender changes the game in almost every way

DOCTOR WHO (various directors) airs Sundays at 8 pm and streams via SpaceGO.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The long-running BBC series Doctor Who returned this past weekend with a new showrunner, a new Doctor, new companions and an appropriately icky new alien threat to tackle whilst dealing with the after effects of our hero’s latest regeneration.

The most radical decision? This is very first episode of the long-running TV series, as far as I could tell, to take place in Sheffield.

Oh, fine. I was kidding. (Honestly, that joke kills in the UK.) The really radical departure for this season of Doctor Who is that the new Doctor is played by Jodie Whittaker, who is a woman. And while the announcement of Whittaker’s casting – shortly after it was announced that Chris Chibnall would be taking over the show from departing producer Steven Moffat – did kick up a fuss in certain stunted quarters of the internet, her arrival was handled with speed, invention and no small amount of sci-fi goofiness… which is to say, just like every other regeneration.

The concept of Doctor Who is remarkably traditional and surprisingly elastic. The character is an eccentric Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time in a blue British police box, usually accompanied by a wide-eyed human or two whom he’s picked up along the way. Over the decades, The Doctor has been played by a succession of white men: some were younger, some were older, some were more melancholy, some were more manic. Hell, the last one was Scottish.

And while the concept of gender fluidity in Time Lords has been hinted at over the last decade, culminating in the arrival a few years back of Michelle Gomez as the arch-nemesis Missy (né The Master), only now, after 55 years of film, television and radio adventures, did it actually happen for The Doctor.

And it works. Partly because Whittaker is a delight in the role, mixing a pop-eyed excitability that recalls Matt Smith’s recent run with a love of tinkering that harkens all the way back to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor back in the 70s, but also because the show doesn’t do anything differently at all. It simply introduces a new Doctor, who happens to be a woman, and lets her go about the usual business of being good and heroic and saving people wherever they need saving. But context is everything, and that’s where this Doctor becomes genuinely radical.

Whittaker’s Doctor is given to the same quick thinking and passionate speechifying as her predecessors. Of course she is: she’s the same person. But the simple fact of her gender changes the game in almost every way.

For more than half a century, The Doctor has always been the man who charges into life-or-death situations all over the universe – alien invasions, natural disasters, natural disasters caused by alien invasions – and simply takes charge, unquestioned. Now, it’s a woman delivering stirring speeches to people who aren’t necessarily inclined to listen to her or respect her authority.

In her first episode, Whittaker’s Doctor doesn’t meet with much resistance from her new human friends, a diverse group of Yorkshire folk caught up in a low-rent Predator scenario. This is part of Chibnall’s strategy, following the New Doctor formula that Russell T. Davies employed when he introduced David Tennant, and which Moffat used to bring Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi on board during his tenure.

We’re introduced to the new actor through the eyes of the humans, and Whittaker wins us over the same way she wins them over: they’re people in trouble, and she’s a capable hero who inspires them to find their own strength, courage and decency. Of course she can rally them to action – but how will things go when The Doctor next visits Victorian England, or any other less enlightened point in human history? Hell, what happens when she goes to present-day America?

I’m excited to find out, and hopefully so are millions of other viewers. Doctor Who is back, and the new Doctor is pretty great. Honestly, anyone who saw Whittaker battle those gorilla-wolf monsters in Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block a few years back (alongside future Star Wars hero John Boyega, no less) could have told you she’d be perfect for this, but I’m really glad to see that it played out so well. Onward and upward, Whovians.

Read previous Superhero Nonsense columns here, and read my Q&A with Whittaker here. | @normwilner

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