Jodie Whittaker’s “Doctor Who” Is an Impossible Thing, a Miracle

Recently a man in Dunkin’ Donuts asked me what my favorite Star Wars movie is because I was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and I sighed and mumbled, “Here we go.” He wasn’t sincerely curious; I’ve worn enough Star Wars t-shirts enough times to know he was looking for a way to make me feel stupid. He wanted me to say The Last Jedi so he could roll his eyes and cluck “of course” and launch into a tirade about political correctness. He wanted me to name one of the prequels so he could giggle and call me a poser. He wanted me to say The Empire Strikes Back so he could dazzle himself by stumping me on some piece of arcane trivia. Unfortunately for him I know everything about Star Wars and he walked out of that Dunkin’ Donuts with a bruised ego and ten dollars poorer because he bet he could beat me at Wookie trivia.

I thought I was going to watch Jodie Whittaker drop from the TARDIS and into my living room and smile and write a professional review of the episode. How was the regeneration? Did she feel like the Doctor? And what did she bring that was new? Did the story make me care about the new companions? Were they likable? Did her connection with them make sense? And was the story bogged down by too much exposition, or did it balance that well with action, and did it fit into the established narrative of the show while expanding the mythology in a way that made sense and was emotionally satisfying? I was going to state facts and make comparisons to other Doctors and other seasons and other sci-fi.

In short, I was going to write the kind of review that man in Dunkin’ Donuts — and the hundreds of other men at other times who’d interrogated me about Star Wars when I was just trying to buy a coffee, or order a birthday cake, or pump my gas — wouldn’t be able to argue with. One that was objective, constructive; that proved I wasn’t trespassing on his genre.

Anyway, that plan revealed itself as thoroughly impossible about six minutes into “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” when I started sobbing. You can know your beloved Doctor is going to be a woman, and then you can witness her being a woman. It’s two different things.

I can do the facts, though: Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor literally plummets from the sky and into a wrecked train where an alien is torturing the handful of remaining passengers. Among them are retired nurse Grace and her husband, retired bus driver Clarke, who were in Sheffield for the day helping their adult grandson, Ryan, learn to ride a bike. (Ryan has dyspraxia.) Ryan himself ran into an alien object almost as soon as his grandmother and step-grandfather left him to track down the bike he’d hurled off a cliff in anger when he crashed it. Ryan called the cops on his alien discovery and they sent out his former classmate Yaz, who’s new to the police force and just trying to prove herself. And there you go, those are your new companions!

Together they set off with the new Doctor who doesn’t yet know she’s the Doctor but she does know she’s missing her TARDIS and her Sonic Screwdriver and that she’s gotta keep moving while her mind catches up with her new body. They’re going to find the source of these alien attacks and stop them! And they do! The particular plot isn’t really relevant; it’s standard Doctor stuff: The earth isn’t a playground for your psychotic alien games, etc. But it serves its purpose. The companions bond together with the Doctor to keep themselves and their planet safe, and they learn to believe the unbelievable, and she realizes who she is, and gives a speech about it while saving the day.

There’s this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die. And then you’re born. It’s terrifying. Right now I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hone my nerve and trust all these new instincts — shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine, in the end. Hopefully. I have to be. Because you guys need help and if there’s one thing I’m certain of: when people need help, I never refuse.

It’s easy to love all of the companions right away (especially Yaz!) and even though you know Grace isn’t going to make it (because she wasn’t in the promo photos and also because her impending death is classic sci-fi found-family stuff) it’s heartbreaking when she sacrifices herself for the team. (She’s listed as a recurring character, though, so my guess is that she’ll be back.)

Whittaker’s Doctor is unbelievably good. She’s got all the mania and over-confidence and swagger and silliness and centuries-old gravitas of the Doctors before her, but there’s something very distinctly feminine about her iteration. She learns all of the character’s names the first time they say them, for example. She says please and she says thank you. Humanity isn’t alien to her; she is immediately empathetic toward her new companions’ pain and toward their fears. It’s very Golden Age Wonder Woman.

It’s also such a relief to see her handle her gender-swap with a shrug. The Doctor’s been a woman before, apparently (“It’s been a long time since I shopped for women’s clothes”) and honestly the only thing that’s weird for her is Capaldi’s suit is just too big.

Look, you know why I cried. I don’t have to explain it. You’ve been accosted, too, by men in sci-fi and fantasy spaces. You watched Susan Collins stand up and give a speech last week chastising women for daring to challenge the patriarchal norms our society holds so dear, before voting to confirm a sexual assaulter nominated by a sexual assaulter from the highest office in the land to the highest court in the land. You heard and read about the backlash to Whittaker’s casting announcement, and to the news that there’d be a Ghostbusters reboot starring women, and to the news that Tessa Thompson would be one of the men in the new Men in Black, and on and on and on. You’ve heard this conversation on repeat and it starts and ends with fuckable. You have been confronted, every day of your life, with the lie that cis white straight male humanity is the default humanity.

When Whittaker’s Doctor confronts the tooth-faced villain whose people kidnap humans as trophies and watch them rot, she called him a “wannabe leader who has to cheat because he knows he’s unworthy.” The larger drag is deliberate, and so is the juxtaposition. She’s the hero of the TARDIS now, the worthy leader of the companions in a brand new era. Or, to quote Eleven: The universe is big; it’s vast and complicated and ridiculous — and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 738 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. Jodie Whittaker’s performance was absolutely spellbinding. I made my mom watch with me (from another city, we were texting) and she has never seen doctor who and doesn’t care for sci fi but she was glued to the TV because of how incredible Jodie was. I’ve loved her in things before like broadchurch and the night watch (a Sarah waters BBC movie that is no longer available?) But she really blew me away here. Love it! And love her outfit!

  2. Ahhhhh!

    I did’t Cry but I had. A. Lot. Of. Feelings.

    Beyond sharing all the ones you’ve shared with us (thank you!) I’ll add:

    – Northern everything!!! This gorgeous fucking Yorkshire accent and everyone calling each other « love » and SHEFFIELD being a character itself and the Peak District and the « Sheffield Steel » line!!!

    – She got her fucking clothes in a charity shop!!! Listen she’s gonna wear these clothes until she regenerates and she bought them in a charity shop and I FEEL THIS. Do you feel this?

    – the drunk dude throwing kebab lettuce at the alien is 100% something that would happen in Sheffield, they nailed it.

    – also I love that she built her own screwdriver when every previous doctor had it given to them by the TARDIS. You could probably write an essay on gendered housework with this if you consider the TARDIS is always referred to as female and for the first time the doctor is’t relying on the TARDIS to give her new clothes and new toys (ok so that’s because the TARDIS is missing but the symbolism holds true!)

    OK. I still miss Capaldi but I don’t miss Moffat and I look forward to the rest and Alex Kingston better come back.

    Also I was disappointed (REALLY disappointed) at the « Tim shaw » jokes cause the Doctor always took great joy in pronouncing complicated/funny names and suddenly she can’t be arsed to pronounce it right? It reminded me of mocking Chinese kid and giving them an English sounding name instead cause you can’t be arsed to learn. Like the “Chon Wang/John Wayne” jokes un Shanghai Knights.

    • Also this premiere is the biggest premiere in viewing numbers since the 2005 reboot so there! (And I don’t think that’s counting BBC America numbers which will be pretty big too)

      Eat this all the dudebros who were saying a female doctor was gonna ruin this.

    • I also miss Capaldi (and Pearl Mackie), but this episode was everything! So Northern and lovely, the drunk dude throwing his kebab was perfect (and I winced when the villain stepped on it, cos come on!) I absolutely adored the charity shop scene, and felt very seen. It was cinematic and a love letter to the beauty of everyday Britain, which I honestly haven’t felt since the Eccleston years (the regularness, not the cinematic feel). Looking forward to what comes next!

    • “the drunk dude throwing kebab lettuce at the alien is 100% something that would happen in Sheffield, they nailed it.”

      This bit made me laugh SO HARD.

      Oh, and the bit about Sheffield steel. Is now the time to brag that I have a pocket knife handmade by the new generation of Sheffield knifemakers and I carry it everywhere like a walking stereotype I THINK IT IS

  3. Liked the episode. Loved the new Doctor, but honestly she simply felt like The Doctor. The fact that she’s a woman didn’t really make a difference (good). I wasn’t sobbing or anything. I like the manic, abrupt, impatient, mad genius.

    I really liked her making her own sonic Swiss Army knife. Reminded me of my favorite doctor the 3rd who was a mad scientist, inventor / james bond.

    Yay! This Doctor actually had a action scene that wasn’t just running. There was leaping, grabbing, and climbing.

    Thanks to knowing who the companions will be, it was pretty obvious that Grace wasn’t going to make it. That definitely a negative since I was waiting for her death.

    • I’m SO SO happy with Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall! And all of the new companions and the new outfit and new sonic AND EVERYTHING!

      And I super agree with all of Chloe’s points above. Except for Alex Kingston (who is fantastic!), because I sort of think that character’s arc is done, though I super get why some people want to see more of her.

  4. Ahh! This episode was amazing! Whittaker is great and I agree there is something feminine in her politeness but I like it. It definitely isn’t like Moffat’s Doctor Who and that’s absolutely great, it definitely felt more like Russell T Davies and the Tenth Doctor, which I love. Eleven and his companions never wanted to be on earth, but ten’s always had something to make sure they came home. The companions look like fun and I like that they already know each other. All in all a great episode and what looks to be a finominal Doctor

  5. Just finished the episode and watched the season preview trailer that announced all the guest-stars and what really strikes me about this season is the production value. It is night and day compared to the first Eccleson season. And SO MANY BROWN FACE THIS SEASON. That is sure to piss off the fake fanboys even more.

    I’ve Jodie Whittaker in plenty of other things —including Broadchurch, Black Mirror and Attack The Block with John Boyega—so I knew she would be great as the doctor. I’m still a little nervous about her having so many companions at once though. The Doctor has never had three in every episode so we will see how that works in terms of storytelling.

    • “And SO MANY BROWN FACE THIS SEASON. That is sure to piss off the fake fanboys even more.”

      This really stood out to me too! In a great way that is, the episode felt fresh in the way in portrayed all these strong women (of colour)!

      I nearly cried when Grace died though…

      Another great point of diversity: Ryan has dyspraxia. It’s a companion with a disability. How cool is that?

  6. I loved it so much and I’m so excited for the new season, all the diversity to look forward to. Thank you for this piece. I’ve been a sci fi fan since I was a small child, it’s always wonderful to know I’m not the only girl in the club despite what the toxic boys want you to think.

  7. This episode was so magical and gay. I love the eccentricities of the new doctor. She has a lot of Tennant in her, combined with her unique spin on the character. I watched the show years ago, but Jodie made me come back. There is so much toxic masculinity and misogyny in the fandom, I’m hoping her amazing portrayal will turn things around. Her new clothes are so fun. She actually made me appreciate culottes, which I normally hate. It’s sort of an angsty cool dude from the 90’s look like the one in everything sucks. I actually loved her in the vest and shirt personally, but it’s nice for her to take on her own look. She’s got a very queer vibe, which I also appreciate. Excited for what is to come.

  8. I loved the episode! It made my heart hurt in just the right way. Her speech at the end, the way each character grapples with endings and new beginnings, and the sheer DELIGHT of it all really resonated with me.
    Heather, your review, like the new Doctor, felt like it was for us, not for some obnoxious dude in a Dunkin’ Donuts who will always be proven wrong. We so need that right now, and I <3 you both.

  9. I’m a long time Who fan and have to admit to preferring the grumpy doctors from up country – namely Ecclescakes and Capaldi. So I’m not surprised I also love the Northern lass *g*

    My only disappointment was it being obvious Grace wasn’t going to make it, because we knew she wasn’t a new companion.

    I’m hoping we don’t have to wait too long for the new TARDIS.

    And the balance of white to non-white people in the cast was hugely noticeable to me, as a white woman, so for someone who isn’t white I hope that was a wonderful thing to see.

    • I was just thinking the only doctor I didn’t LOVE in the reboot was Matt Smith and he’s the only one who isn’t Northern/Scottish! Ha!

      Although I wish Tennant would have kept his accent on the show :(.

      • As a black person, I was absolutely delighted to see black and brown people everywhere in this episode, though I was honestly kinda upset that a black woman had to die to move the plot forward.

        And I love Matt Smith’s Doctor, I always felt a bit like a delighted child watching him, though he wasn’t helped by Moffatt’s ridiculous plots. Rewatching all the episodes, I think I like Tennant’s ‘Time Lord Victorious’ Doctor the least, though he had some of the best episodes.

  10. THE WHOLE THING WAS SO LOVELY

    I mean I miss bill and Amy and rose and I would want to see any and all of them hang with this doctor,

    And I wish the gran had [redacted] instead of her husband, but

    I AM VERY EXCITED

  11. I’m unapologetically a new Doctor Who fan, who is only watching because the Doctor is a woman and because everything I’ve seen and read regarding Jodie being the Doctor has made me love her and this first episode has just strengthened my love.

    I don’t care if long standing fans look down on me and think I am not a proper fan. I am currently a fan because I have a lot of enthusiasm because this episode of Doctor Who was something that I enjoyed and made me feel things. I’m not interested in proving myself to anyone or being a good enough fan.

    I have seen episodes of Doctor Who because my ex wife is a fan. I liked the personality of the Doctor but I was never into stories about fighting aliens. I’m still not into stories about fighting aliens but I am hopeful that the personalities will continue to make me love it. I did used to watch Torchwood because that always felt like stories about human nature and human behaviour with sci-fi as the vehicle.

    Heather I am really glad you wrote the review you wrote and not the one you were planning.

  12. Living kind if locally to where this is set is exciting for me because a walk I’ve been planning to do ends up at Grindleford station so now I can go and look out for aliens and pretend the Doctor is there! I’m so excited for the rest of the series. So far I’ve managed to avoid seeing any criticism of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor so I want to carry on with that. She deserves all the love!

  13. I always come into a new doctor wanting to like them. I always feel meh after there first episode and this is no exception. I saw alot that made me think ‘yea, that’s the doctor’. That’s the most important part. I was distracted by already knowing that the grandmother was gonna die and it made the rest a bit difficult. Otherwise I have very high hopes for the rest of the season!

  14. I’ve only been a Doctor Who fan for a few years, so although I’ve seen all the new Who episodes, I’ve never experienced the announcement of a new Doctor. But, I was really excited because Jodie Whittaker was great on Broadchurch!

    Anyways, the episode was great. I didn’t really catch all of the plot points, but like who cares? The characters were really fun, and their accents were great. The scene where Yaz was talking to those women having a parking dispute? Felt like it was straight out of coronation street.

    I really liked Jodie as the Doctor, she’s fun and cool, and she went thrifting! And made a sonic screwdriver out of spoons! The whole bit with the crane was so crazy, too.

    The visuals also reminded me a little bit of Class, which is cool cause I really liked that show too.

    In conclusion, it was great! And I can’t wait for the rest of the season.

  15. I am one who hath dared be a *casual* Star Wars fan. I have seen all the films, I have some random memorabilia. And it is so weirdly satisfying to infuriate bros with the fact that I like Star Wars but acknowledge they are certainly bigger fans than I am. Because then, I guess, they can’t defeat me because I’m not competing.

    My point being, I’ve never seen Doctor Who because it doesn’t feel like something one can be a casual fan of, but perhaps it is time for me to check it out. Casually.

  16. Thank you for summing up all of the myriad emotions I was feeling watching the premier, Heather!

    I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was about 5-years-old. I could not be more excited for what’s to come!

    I super agree with everyone regarding Grace. I wish that she had at least gotten to not [SPOILER] and instead, if not go with the companions, stay home for visits.

  17. Great review, with one small error: Grace’s husband’s name is Graham, not Clarke.

    I’ve been watching Doctor Who since the days of the 4th Doctor, and I couldn’t be more excited about the 13th. Jodie Whittaker totally surpassed all my expectations, which were pretty darn high, as did the episode. Here’s hoping the rest of the season doesn’t coast downhill from here.

  18. I DIDN’T REALIZE WHAT DAY IT WAS AND IT SOMEHOW COMPLETELY SLIPPED MY MIND THAT THE NEW SEASON WAS PREMIERING (probably because I keep assuming that a female doctor is still happening in some future time that is not now)! THANK YOU FOR REMINDING ME! I WILL ACTUALLY READ THIS ARTICLE AFTER I HAVE SEEN THE EPISODE!

  19. Thank you for this. This is what I felt! And I don’t have anyone offline who I can share the joy of a show I love becoming itself again (10 was my doctor, didn’t follow it as much once Moffat took over) I already think I might like 13 the most and it’s only been one episode! I cannot wait for the next one

  20. I stopped watching soon after Capaldi started because I couldn’t take the writing anymore. I hadn’t really enjoyed it for a few seasons before that. I thought I was gonna wait a few episodes and gauge what people thought of the new doctor before giving it a try. But the draw of The Doctor finally being a woman made me give it a try and wow! I haven’t enjoyed an episode like that in so long! I remember why I love the show now! I can’t wait for more

  21. I’ve long been a fan of the Doctor, but somehow I knew this was going to be even more awesome. My teenage son and I have a tradition of watching new episodes together and we finally had time last night.

    I was both giddy and teary… so emotional that my son was prompted to say “I think you enjoyed that way more than I did.” It felt very right to see Jodi as the Doctor and I can barely wait for more!

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