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.