Last term, I interviewed Lawrentians about what pieces of entertainment and media got them through the summer of lockdown and isolation. This term, I’m doing the same thing, except it’s my turn. Each week I’m giving my comfort food, pop culture and art suggestions for the dreary winter we’re facing. What’s something you can watch, read or listen to that can take you to a new world? Well, let me tell you.
I’m a huge “Doctor Who” nerd. I’m talking old black and white serials, the questionable 1996 TV movie, the 2005 reboot that most people are familiar with, conventions — the whole deal. The legacy sci-fi series has existed for over 57 years and continues to reinvent itself, using its central plot device to do so. The main character, a space and time traveling humanoid alien known as “The Doctor” regenerates into a new body when they die. This has totaled in 14 iterations (save a couple technicalities) played by 14 different actors over the show’s run.
It’s a TV show that is very dear to me and one that I used to enjoy watching with my peers, but I’ve seen a lot of people who enjoyed the series as teenagers or earlier in their lives drop off when the main actor playing the titular character changes. I particularly noticed this in 2014 when Peter Capaldi took over the role from Matt Smith. The thing about the Doctor assuming a new body portrayed by a different actor is that, aside from core aspects of the Doctors’ values, each actor brings a new take on the character, including new personality traits, mannerisms and ways of communicating. Some people don’t like this, and that’s fair; one grows attached to a certain actor’s version of the Doctor, and it can be hard adjusting to a new one.
Around the transition from Smith to Capaldi, many were averse to Capaldi’s coarser and curmudgeonly take on the role, something that hadn’t been seen since some of the earliest iterations of the character. Those who had enjoyed the more youthful, whimsical versions of the character fell off, which no one can blame them for — people like what they like, but this article is for those people. I invite you back to “Doctor Who” to start with series 11 and the 13th Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker.
The nice thing about starting with series 11 is that, like series five, it begins the tenure of a new showrunner, in this case Chris Chibnall. Chibnall has written for the program since 2007, and in 2018, came in to start afresh with a new cast and a new set of stories.
As for the Doctor, Whittaker is a revelation. Known for her roles on Broadchurch and in the indie sci-fi film “Attack the Block,” she is the first woman to ever take on the role. Grabbing inspiration from precocious young ‘80s’ movie heroes, such as Mikey from “The Goonies” (1985) and Sarah from “Labyrinth” (1986), Whittaker brings a childlike whimsy to the Doctor that is quite reminiscent of both early seasons of Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor and Smith’s Doctor. Her bright, childlike wonder at the world is beautifully contrasted with the character’s genius but never gets in the way of the Doctor’s more serious moments. The characterization is light and playful without sacrificing the wisdom and burden of her being 4.5 billion years old.
The Doctor is known for always traveling with a human companion or two, and Whittaker’s Doctor is no different. The 13th Doctor boasts one of the most diverse TARDIS (the name of their ship) teams ever, both racially and ability wise, and in terms of generational difference. Ryan Sinclair, a young Black man who struggles with dyspraxia and his stepfather, Graham O’Brien, leave Earth with the Doctor to escape the death of Ryan’s mother and Graham’s partner, Grace, but they soon learn that grief follows you even through time and space. Rounding out the team is Yasmin Khan, a young woman of Pakistani descent who works as a police officer in Sheffield.
The sci-fi of the series is in its usual form — scary (but not too scary) aliens come to earth or are found on different worlds, the intergalactic version of Amazon is sending insidious packages to unsuspecting victims, and the Doctors old friend and eternal nemesis returns in a brilliant performance by the dynamic (and handsome) Sacha Dhawan.
However, what really signals the newness and thoughtfulness of Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner are the historical episodes, which put the characters not in front of aliens but, rather, the problems of the real world. The two episodes that exemplify this are “Demons of the Punjab” and “The Witchfinders,” both from series 11. The former is set on the soon to be border between India and Pakistan on Aug. 17, 1947, the day before the partition of India by British colonial powers. There, Yaz meets her grandmother, who at the time is a young Muslim woman who wants to marry a Hindu man. Of course, there are sci-fi components to the story, but the examination of great political and religious divide though the lens of science fiction allows viewers to learn about an important part of history that they may not be familiar with. Written by Vinay Patel, “Demons of The Punjab” also signifies a move in Chibnall’s writing staff towards a more diverse team featuring the first Black woman and the first South Asian person to write a “Doctor Who” episode. Though these changes are long overdue, they are more than welcome and give the show a new and unique voice.
The Doctor’s status as a woman also allows for commentary on identity by historical and sci-fi means. In “The Witchfinders,” when Alan Cumming delivers all the camp you need via his portrayal of King James the first, the Doctor is accused of being a witch for no reason but her being an intelligent and inquisitive woman. This is something the Doctor has never had to deal with, as she has existed in a male body for billions of years.
In my opinion, “Doctor Who” has never been better than in these past two years. The original creativity and whimsy of the show and its titular character are not lost but, rather, enhanced by the new interesting characters and the stories that they make possible for the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker puts her all into this role and carries the show in a way that captures the imagination of both new and old fans alike. If you are looking for innovative and interesting sci-fi or a show that demonstrates depth without taking itself too seriously, visit or revisit “Doctor Who.” The doors to the TARDIS are open.