A Woman Doctor? It’s About Time. Unpacking Season 11 of Doctor Who
With Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, Doctor Who Season 11 is a show that’s even bigger on the inside.
I stopped watching Doctor Who around the time the thing with the Pandorica was going on. I say “the thing with the Pandorica” because I’m not actually sure what was going on with that, or even which Doctor was involved. Not Capaldi, I know that much — but the other Doctors, young white men with a penchant for cleverness that often crossed into smarm, were all more or less indistinguishable in my mind. Similarly, by the time I had stopped watching, it felt as if the story lines had gone from being clever in a delightful, surprising sort of way to clever for the sake of showing off just how much the writers could trick the audience.
Thus it was with great hesitation that, mid-way through my university’s winter break, I settled onto the sofa with my cat and queued up the first episode of Doctor Who, Series 11. My motivations for watching were: It’s winter break so what else do I have to do, and, Jodie Whittaker. Suffice to say, I finished the series with a week. (OK, that doesn’t sound so impressive, but since I can barely sit through any show longer than an hour, watching one episode per night is basically the equivalent of binge-watching for me.)
What’s so great about Series 11? Well, the Doctor’s a woman. While I will shamelessly admit that the montage scene in the first episode where the Doctor does blacksmithing in a rumpled tuxedo was both extremely attractive and inspirational, it’s not just the Doctor’s physical form that has changed. The way that others interact with her has also changed. Per usual, when the Doctor encounters a unusual danger, her first instinct is to take charge of a situation, questioning up witnesses, and delegating tasks to her supremely competent companions Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. But, as a woman, at times she faces pushback because of her gender, notably from men who are used to being the ones in charge, such as King James I in “Witchfinders” and Trump-knockoff Jack Robertson in “Arachnids in the UK”.
What really made Series 11 a delight for me was how the Doctor responds to sexism: with surprise (which Whittaker does an excellent job of embodying) and then proceeding to not give a damn. Her concept of self is unshakeable. She exists as a woman who is perfectly free from the influence of misogyny, male fantasies and female insecurities. If women who grow up in patriarchal societies are, as Margaret Atwood writes in The Robber Bridegroom, “a woman with a man inside watching a woman”, the Doctor is simply a woman, unsexualized, unrestricted, and wholly unimpressed with male attempts to demean her.
And, perhaps because of the writers’ revisioning of the Doctor as a woman, certain aspects of her character have also changed. One of my quibbles with earlier series of Doctor Who was how much the show seemed to buy into the ‘great man’ theory of history (a belief popular in the 19th century that history is shaped by the actions of a few highly influential, charismatic, and intelligent men) with the Doctor as, of course, the greatest of men. Although Whittaker’s Doctor is still the leader of her group of companions and, almost always, the most competent person in the room (and, indeed, the whole building), her cleverness never crosses over to that unsettling smarm of earlier Doctors. Rather, she truly seems to be focused on helping others by listening to what they need and enabling them to help themselves.
The Doctor’s willingness to put others first comes across perhaps most clearly in the historical episodes, “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, where the Doctor and her companions must balance the desire to ensure a positive outcome with the knowledge that they must limit their interference in history. I won’t go into more detail, in case some folks reading this haven’t watched those episodes yet, but I will say that seeing the Doctor struggle with the emotional weight of her decisions in those episodes has stuck with me much more than any interaction between the Doctor and the Master.
That brings me to my final point about what makes Series 11 so great: you really don’t have to know the lore about the Master, Gallifrey, Daleks, or anything else to be able to watch, understand, and enjoy these episodes. I can confirm this because I watched over Skype with a friend whose entire knowledge of Doctor Who was limited to the second half of a random episode he saw on a TV at the gym four years ago, and he had a great time. In that sense, Series 11 almost feels like a reboot of the reboot. And with almost every episode in the series functioning as a stand-alone story, you really don’t have to worry about keeping track of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey plot shenanigans.
However, no piece of media is perfect, and I did have some reservations about other representations of identity in this series. Nineteen year old companion Ryan has dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that affects his ability to coordinate body movements, yet it would appear, on multiple occasions, that with the help of a few words of encouragement, he can simply overcome his disability and complete complex tasks like jumping from one moving platform to another or quickly climbing a makeshift ladder. I wish the show writers had instead given Ryan room to actually be a person with a limitation and still be an important companion. Further poor writing on disability is seen in “It Takes You Away”, which features Hanne, a blind teenage girl. Again, I’ll skimp on details to avoid spoilers, but essentially, the portrayal of Hanne felt more like a sighted person’s idea of how blind people inhabit the world than the actual experiences of people with blindness.
And, lastly, racial diversity. Between the companions, supporting characters, and background cast, Series 11 features quite possibly more racial diversity than the rest of the series combined, yet it’s impossible to forget that the Doctor is – once again – a white person. That she is now a woman doesn’t change the fact that this is the Thirteenth iteration of the Doctor and each and every one of them have been white. As thrilling as it was for me to see in Series 11 a Doctor who actually looks like me, I can’t help but hope that Jodie Whitaker’s run ends soon, so we can get a new Doctor who is a person of colour, and someone else can also experience the joy of seeing themselves at the helm of the TARDIS.
Series 11 does a great job of shaking up the Doctor Who canon, but after 55 years of white guys dominating the show on screen and in the writers’ room, there’s still a lot left to be done.