Doctor Who is back, and for many people it feels like a brand new era for the show. If the 2005 revival was 2.0, this is 3.0, after many long-time viewers stopped watching in the wake of an unfortunate apathy towards Peter Capaldi and a ceased faith in Steven Moffat’s showrunning.
The cultural significance of having a female doctor, at last, is huge. It is true that there continues to be some critique of this creative decision, but as many fans responded to the original casting announcement – she’s already the last survivor of a dynasty of time-travelling aliens, is it really too much of a stretch to think that she could be a woman?
Since Sunday, such fanboy criticisms have for the most part been fringe. Responses to last week’s episode were mostly positive and hopeful that Jodie Whittaker is ushering in a sorely needed new epoch for the show. And as a female viewer, there was an undeniable moment of poignancy and triumph in hearing her say in the final minutes of the episode: “I know exactly who I am. I’m the Doctor.” It was a small moment of defiance to anyone who has suggested this casting choice would fail.
The Doctor as a woman does not change the character fundamentally. So far, she has maintained the weirdness that makes the character so loved, and many comparisons have been made to the youthful energy that David Tennant brought to the role.
However, perhaps there were hints of a new side of the Doctor that could be to come. While the character’s empathy for humans has always been evident, there is a certain novelty to the moment in The Woman who fell to Earth when, following the discovery of a man killed by the monster they are in pursuit of, the Doctor apologises profusely to the humans around her for what they are going through. This reads as a very frank display of sympathy – she knows this is a terrible thing, and she shares their pain. This small, human moment may signal an expansion of this side of the doctor, perhaps to be explored in future episodes.
The “coming soon” reel at the end of the episode was similarly novel in the sheer level of diversity it communicated. For a family-oriented Sunday-night programme which will inevitably draw viewers, this is massively significant. Since the 2005 revival, Doctor Who has always, to an extent, tried to be representative of the British people it is both for and about, and clearly this priority has been heightened for the new series.
But the episode wasn’t just empty diversity – the story had real feeling and was at once incredibly funny and intensely heart-wrenching. Setting it in Sheffield and emphasising the characters’ regional identity established a strong context that each of the new companions can now grow from. Off-screen, it’s a nice nod to Jodie Whittaker’s own life to see her time in control of the TARDIS begin in her home county. Plus, it’s just highly entertaining to see a drunk northerner throwing the salad from his kebab at an alien.
Many of us had lost that feeling of looking forward to sitting down at the weekend for an hour of entertainment that’s somehow very down-to-earth in its wacky intergalacticness, so it’s wonderful to experience it again. Whether you’re a lapsed fan or have never seen a Doctor Who episode in your life, head to BBC iPlayer to see where Jodie Whittaker takes us next. I have a feeling it will only get better.