Yup. That’ll do.
The first episode of series eleven of new Doctor Who (New Who) just aired. Theoretically controversial, but actually massively supported, the most striking feature of this episode is that it marks the debut of the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.
The actor fills the variably-sized shoes of twelve or thirteen (or fourteen – or even more, depending on what record you’re checking) white men: William Hartnell,Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a massive Whovian, with affection for both Classic and New Who, but I stopped reviewing the show a heart-breaking five years ago because the sexism just got too much. It takes too much out of a person to review week to week a show you have invested so much into that starts regularly making women the butt of jokes (from the Doctor’s mouth, no less), spouts gender essentialist nonsense, and frames even ‘strong’ women as obsessed with men, and marriage, and the Doctor as the kind of attachment-avoident smug git that former showrunner Steven Moffat thinks drives women wild. We know this not only from textual analysis, but because he’s been quite vocal in his sexism. If you want to know more, I recommend Sophia McDougall’s well-cited blog post on Capes, Wedding Dresses and Steven Moffat – I don’t want to focus any more on the depressing past here.
Because the long-awaited episode that aired tonight was brilliant.
Whittaker was vibrant and excited and weird and spontaneous in just the way we expect the Doctor to be. As a fan with a specific fondness for regeneration episodes, I loved that she couldn’t remember her own name. I loved that she was ill and incapacitated for portions of the experience. I loved that she explained what was happening as well as she could to her companions as she went along, while still being just cryptic enough.
I loved that we avoided the awful, awful, awful ‘goodness! look! boobs!’ jokes that Moffat shoe-horned into ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ in the 1999 Red Nose Day spoof in which Joanna Lumley briefly became the Doctor. I know a lot of men who liked that spoof, but few women. It seared in a generation’s mind the idea that any female incarnation of the Doctor would be instantly sexualised – her secondary sexual characteristics becoming the most important thing about her change.
It didn’t happen.
The Doctor doesn’t realise she is a woman at first – she’s oblivious to her physicality in a way quite in keeping with previous incarnations, who have variously rejected the entire idea that their face belongs to them (the Third Doctor); started immediately unpicking the trappings of their previous incarnation (the Fifth Doctor, famously unspooling the Scarf); or noted they have different teeth, before simply getting on with things. She asks whether it suits her – crucially, not whether she looks good or pretty, but just if her appearance seems appropriate for her – and then does exactly that: she gets on with things. It doesn’t matter. She’s waiting to find out who she’s going to be, and that doesn’t have anything to do with her sex.
Moreover, in the scene where she changes her clothes (delightfully, in a charity shop) she indicates she’s worn women’s clothes before. We can read into that a certain fluidity in approaching gender, even though the show’s canon suggests the Doctor has not had a female incarnation before.
Side note: I’ve seen some people start hesitantly referring to the Doctor as ‘they’. I’m referring to her as ‘she’ because this seems to be what she prefers. I’m a non-binary person and I prefer ‘she’ even though I’m agender. Some non-binary people prefer ‘they’, ‘zie’, or other gender-neutral pronouns, but there’s no single right way to do it. That said, I think the Doctor most closely aligns to genderfluid. She uses male pronouns when in a male body and female pronouns when in a female body. This isn’t quite how it is for those of us who are stuck in one body and are genderfluid, but it’s the closest analogy. Above all, in matters of gender: be led by the person you are speaking to or about. The Doctor uses female pronouns now, but if you were talking about her fourth incarnation, you’d say that he wore a scarf.
On to the show. I won’t dwell too much on the plot, as I want to avoid spoilers, but I’d say it gave everything you’d want from a Doctor Who episode. There were new and original aliens, even while there were nods to science fiction classics. There are little notes of Predator vs Alien (shut it, you, it’s a fun film), the 2016 female Ghostbusters (Holtzmann fans will enjoy a goggles-related nod), and even an earlier Doctor Who episode (I can’t be the only one reminded of the scribble monster from ‘Fear Her’).
There were also a good few scares that would have had me hiding behind the sofa as a kid. It’s easy to forget, watching as an adult, that Doctor Who is a kind of sci-fi horror for kids. Two things any good episode of Doctor Who should deliver if it possibly can are scare jumps and the kind of horror that gets in your brain and makes you think about possibilities you never considered before. I think this episode has both in spades. There were a number of deaths that reminded me of Doctor Who deaths that really affected me as a child – little moments that stayed with me and provided both a bone-chilling and thought-provoking fear. That people with families can lose everything in a moment, and their loved ones might never know what happened.
I also loved the diversity. There still were more men than women – boo! But the main cast was exactly equal. It also had great racial diversity. It felt plausibly like inner Sheffield, and not the white-washed version of an inner city we usually see on TV.
I was less keen on the Doctor getting the sonic screwdriver back and declaring that it’s not really a screwdriver, it’s a tool for nearly everything. This has always been a bugbear of mine. I know the Doctor lies, and that gets us out of a world of continuity errors, but in the old days the sonic screwdriver was just one of the Doctor’s many tools – his favourite, but not the only one – but I liked the fact that the Third Doctor said it literally could only open and close things. That limitation was narratively interesting. And while I think destroying the screwdriver entirely is unnecessary (as happened in the Fifth Doctor’s era because it was too much of a get-out-of-jail-free card), sticking to a few rules about its limitations is really helpful for dramatic tension.
Honestly, if the screwdriver is just a wand of do-anything, it’s boring.
If it being sonic is key (like when the Tenth Doctor combines it with a speaker to disable an alien with sound) or if being a screwdriver is key (opening hard to open things, fixing things) that’s interesting! That’s thought-provoking. That’s science fiction. And I like Doctor Who when it’s trying to be science fiction and inspire kids to have scientific and mechanical curiosity. I know some people say that it’s a fantasy TV show, but I don’t think it used to be, and as much as I love fantasy, some honest sci-fi is good for kids.
I also wasn’t a fan on the Doctor choosing a nickname on behalf of one of her companions or continually getting the alien’s name wrong because it was difficult for her to pronounce and she found it funny to insult him that way. That’s a straight up bullying tactic and it’s racist. How many kids are gonna go away and start garbling people’s names in school because they don’t sound ‘British’ enough and laughing at the other other kid when they get frustrated. The Doctor did it, so it’s fine, right?
No. It’s not. It’s bullying. And it’s racist.
And it is really not OK to choose to shorten someone else’s name without permission, wither. Ryan calling Yasmin ‘Yas’ is fine because they are old friends. The Doctor deciding to do this without even knowing Yasmin likes being called ‘Yas’ is a dick move, and again, not something we should be recommending to kids.
But these are minor complaints in an overwhelmingly positive experience. As well as everything mentioned above, I’m super-pumped that an older black lady got to have a heroic story arc, and her grandson was shown giving her real respect. And we get a companion struggling with dyspraxia – I was really glad that this was not magically cured by determination! It sends a really great message that people with learning difficulties can have genuine problems that can’t be wished away without being lesser as people – the message is about having hope and drawing strength from your support network, not about just trying to find a way to be cured or be ‘normal’.
Overall, this was a great episode, with action and touching family moments and cool-looking aliens (and gross-looking aliens) and it really delivered on what I want from a Doctor Who story. New showrunner, Chris Chibnall, shows that passion and imagination he brought to Torchwood along with the maturity of outlook he demonstrated on other projects, like Broadchurch. He handled this crucial transition episode remarkably well.
I’m excited about where this is going to go. The preview of the season that followed the episode shows an exciting mix of international stars (like Alan Cumming!) and new faces, and a continuing range of diversity for race and gender. I think it’s going to be amazing.