'Doctor Who' Season 11: TV Review

BBC Studios
She's fizzy and funny, but needs grander storylines to maintain the momentum.
10/7/2018

The newest season of the British classic introduces Jodie Whittaker's Doctor, a cheeky, chatty, whizzbanging woman.

Doctor Who is a woman now. Let's just get that out of the way, because it's impossible to treat this casting like a regular occurrence on a show that has produced nearly 1,000 episodes over 55 years and has only ever had male leads. To recap: Fans have been calling for a more gender or racially inclusive Doctor for years. Former executive producer Steven Moffat, who oversaw some beautiful but convoluted storylines between 2010 and 2017, was also notorious for inventing female characters who were sexy and sassy, but internally empty. He responded to these requests for diversity by hiring an older white man as the Twelfth Doctor. Chris Chibnall, who created the dreary seaside mystery Broadchurch, was named the new showrunner after Moffat's departure and hired the lead actress from that show to be next regenerated Time Lord. Got it? Got it.

Jodie Whittaker, who is best-known for playing the grieving mum of a murdered child, was probably the least obvious choice for the next Doctor. After all, other whispered contenders included Tilda Swinton, Helen Mirren and Idris Elba. (Personally, I still hope Richard Ayoade will get the part someday.) From her previous roles, such as Black Mirror's "The Entire History of You," we know she can play "harrowing." But could she be comic and childlike like her forebearers? After loving Brooding Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), Cozy Doctor (David Tennant) and Slippery Doctor (Matt Smith), I bunked off after one season of Gruff Doctor (Peter Capaldi). I still don't know what kind of Doctor Whittaker will be following her debut, but so far she is fizzily captivating.

In "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," a violent alien creature arrives in Sheffield and it's up to distrustful teenager Ryan (Tosin Cole), his resourceful grandparents Grace and Graham (Sharon D. Clarke and Bradley Walsh) and his determined childhood schoolmate Yasmin (Mandip Gill) — along with the Doctor — to save themselves and others from doom. Having just regenerated bodies/consciousnesses/sexes, the Doctor is mentally foggy throughout the episode, a fledgling giraffe discovering all her limbs, so you don't get much sense of her full personality or potential just yet. You derive even less from the new companions, who mostly problem-solve and become sad at the appropriate moments.

The episode is a winking response to its casting choice, the writers trying to minimize the impact of her sex change while also working to self-reflexively address it. When someone informs the Doctor she's a woman, her only reaction is a mildly bemused "Am I? Does it suit me?" Later, she tries to comfort her confused new companions (and a skeptical, trigger-happy audience): "All of this is new to you and new can be scary." It's an episode that subtly criticizes the toxic masculinity of its villain but surprisingly also ridicules the apparent cowardliness of beta males. Policewoman-in-training Yasmin can't process the extraterrestrial occurrences she's just witnessed, so the Doctor seeks to remind of her own credibility: "And why do you need to check CCTV when we all saw it with our own eyes? [...] But, you’re worried about how you’ll explain all this to a superior officer who won’t believe you." These words aren't accidental; they're a reflection of what it means to have a woman's voice in 2018.

Whittaker is more winning than I could have ever imagined — her Doctor is loose and lively, cheeky and irreverent, sporting a deliciously homey Yorkshire brogue that will be catnip for anyone entranced by a Midlands accent. (Me!) She had me laughing aloud with impeccable comedic timing, able to deliver a doe-eyed barb without blanching. "You’re interfering in things you don’t understand,” her foe threatens. "Yeah, well, we all need a hobby." She immediately illuminates the space around her — a carbonated, inquisitive, motormouthed Doctor in a cringe-worthy rainbow-and-suspenders getup that feels like a take on Mork from Ork. (Are they afraid that if they put her in a dress, people will remember all over again she's a woman?)

The premiere is as eerie, sinister and whizzbanging as any other — full of unlucky redshirts, mechanical tinkering and pulsating jewel-toned extraterrestrials that look like Gushers. The specter of death still follows the Doctor in all her forms. And yet, for all my frustrations with the Moffat years, I found myself yearning for his particular penchant for grandness, a meticulous arc planned detail by detail from the opening moments of the regeneration.

It's possible I'm just missing clues here, but it's hard to tell how "epic" this season will be, narratively. We get a sense of this reboot's concept, but not its tone. Chibnall may be responding to fans' hopes for less timey-wimey jibber-jabber, offering more plot simplicity. Will a female Doctor Who be enough to revitalize the series? The development is certainly enticing, but a series has nothing without compelling storylines. You come for the wacky creatures, the vibrant galactic civilizations, the snarky alien bois, but you're only going to stay for the pathos.

Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh
Executive producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Stevens
Premieres: Sunday, 1:45 p.m. ET/PT (BBC America)