Now that I have seen the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker in the leading role, I am puzzled by the New York Times review yesterday, which claimed (towards the end of the article) to detect a fundamental change of pace compared with past seasons. I didn’t sense that – although it certainly did lack some of the Steven Moffatt franticness.
More importantly, I must say that I was frankly astonished by how quickly Jodie Whittaker simply felt like the Doctor – more quickly than David Tennant or Peter Capaldi did, at any rate. The plot element of having the regeneration impact her ability to find the right word – and the name she goes by – but not her sense of who she is, I felt worked really well. And her statement about it was both contextually relevant to the specific experience of time lord regeneration, and to human existence. The Doctor said, “We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” It’s a message to fans and skeptics about the Doctor’s change of gender as well. And as the Doctor also said, “It’s a work in progress. So’s life.” If this era of Doctor Who doesn’t go entirely smoothly, that will just make it like all the others – and a reflection of real life.
The actual story seemed somewhat ho hum, but in a way that makes a profound point. The lives of everyday ordinary people are lost for reasons that simply don’t justify it. There is no impressive cause, no war that might just possibly have some justification – just a competition, a desire for a trophy, and a careless disregard for the value of lives that are poised to be lost in the process.
Other things that I appreciated include the Doctor’s dislike of empty pockets, and the creation of a new sonic screwdriver, which she acknowledges would be better termed a “sonic Swiss army knife – only without the knife, only idiots carry knives.” I also liked the Doctor’s new “team” and the way they turned to Twitter, WhatsApp, and conversations with bus drivers to look into whether anything out of the ordinary. I appreciated that the show included a significant character with a disability (dyspraxia).
As someone interested in religion on the show, the church service at the end was moving. One character who promises to be a recurring one, Yasmin Khan, is probably from a Muslim background given her name, although she may or may not be a practicing one. But there was very little that engaged specifically and directly with religion in a substantive manner – although new beginnings always provide an opening for discussion of religion, if one is so inclined.
I will also mention that it was pointed out to me that, when visiting Roman era Britain, the Doctor mentioned that he had once been a vestal virgin. In this episode, she said that she hadn’t shopped for women’s clothes in a while. Technically at least (although Whittaker won’t be watching those episodes any time soon) the Sylvester McCoy episodes featuring the Cartmel Masterplan, in which the Doctor is revealed (albeit allusively) to have a much longer history that goes back to the early days of the time lords, could also reveal an earlier sequence of regenerations. There have been other hints at other faces the Doctor has worn at times.
This could be sorted out when the Doctor encounters or at least talks about her wife. Although in one sense technically the Doctor is a widow, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, marriage becomes a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. And River Song becomes a time lord, in essence, by having been conceived in the TARDIS while traveling outside of space and time. Perhaps the time lords originate in precisely this manner. Or perhaps the last of the time lords is also the first, through a time loop paradox. Who knows?
At the moment, the show doesn’t seem to be interested in answering old mysteries, but in alluring new fans and exploring new possibilities. And that’s fine, assuming I’m on the right track here. I did notice and appreciate the mention of the Doctor’s family, lost a long time ago, whom she carries with her, and so perhaps I’m wrong and the writers are indeed planning to dig into the Doctor’s history.
For the longest running science fiction TV show in history, there’s no hurry – precisely because time is of the essence when it comes to Doctor Who, it turns out somewhat paradoxically that time isn’t of the essence.