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Doctor Who Series 11 First Impressions

Last year, the BBC announced two new additions to the cast and crew of their internationally popular sci-fi program, Doctor Who.  First off, showrunner Steven Moffat was to be replaced with master storyteller Chris Chibnall (of Broadchurch fame).  The second change was a little more earth-shattering: the Doctor’s thirteenth (well, fourteenth, technically) incarnation would be female, and played by Jodie Whittaker (also of Broadchurch fame – noticing a trend here).

Like many people with blogs last year, I offered my two cents on the matter.  On the one hand, having a female Doctor makes cosplaying her a heck of a lot easier, and on a very shallow level, it felt good to see my gender represented positively to this degree on a show I love.  On the other hand, I shared the concern of many that the Doctor’s gender change seemed politically-motivated, consistent with some other gratuitous antics I picked up on in Moffat’s final season.

I decided I’d wait until I’d seen Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor in action before forming my conclusions about her.  After all, shouldn’t we judge people based on the quality of their characters, not things beyond their control, like race or gender?  (Arguably the Doctor does have some control over these things, but let’s not get into that.)  Series 11 premiered this past Sunday, so there’s really no time like the present to make an informed conclusion.

Having seen the first episode with Jodie Whittaker, I am not disappointed.  Though the first episode of a new Doctor frequently shows the character struggling to settle into his or her new skin, it was clear to me that she was fitting right in.

Ms. Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor is endearingly witty and whimsical right off the bat.  Simply by being herself, which was practically the same as her old self save for the gender-change, she proved that this woman is just as capable of playing the Doctor as any of the previous actors. There was no obnoxious rhetoric, no lewd jokes about anatomy, or really any of the things I feared might come up with this gutsy move on the showrunner’s part.  The most on-the-nose moment was a brief, but powerful line about how it’s possible to respect the past while still moving forward, something it’s clear the Doctor is now setting out to do.

The episode itself is a mixed bag in terms of success.  To paraphrase Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, new showrunner, new rules.

Series 11 will contain ten hour-long, feature-length episodes, instead of twelve or so forty-five-minute segments.  This will take some getting used to for me – after forty-five minutes had passed, my attention span wanted to clock out.  That’s likely due to instinct more than anything else, because the story itself was quite gripping.

For a show all about time and space travel, I was initially quite confused about the passage of time and space in this first episode.  Timeskips, however brief, weren’t very obvious, and it seemed weird that two characters could be out in the middle of the woods at one moment, and suddenly appear standing in an apparently locked train car who knows how far away in the next.

Additionally, until now, Doctor Who’s contemporary scenes were often set in London.  The Doctor quite literally fell from the sky and landed in Sheffield, in the Yorkshire region.  After years of attuning my ears to Rose Tyler’s cockney and Clara’s Blackpoolian, I must retrain my ears to understand Yorkshire.  The Doctor’s new diction fits right in, too.

An interesting change, though more of a throwback to the Classic Who setup, is the near-ensemble cast of supporting characters.  It appears that the Doctor will once again be inviting more than one companion to travel with her this season: we’re introduced to Ryan Sinclair, a young man who struggles with hand-eye coordination issues; his step-grandfather, Graham, who used to be a bus driver; and Ryan’s old school chum, Yasmin (Yaz, for short), who’s a rookie officer at the Sheffield police department.

With New Who, the exclusivity of the Doctor-companion relationship until now has always struck me as a bit awkward.  The Doctor has traveled primarily with female companions; when the companions’ boyfriends were involved, the Doctor regarded them as third-wheels or worse, idiots.  Now, with Ryan, Yaz, and Graham, it seems like there’s potential for more of a family affair with Graham as the wise elder and the Doctor as kind of a parental figure to Yaz and Ryan.  Without spoiling much, Ryan especially could use a new maternal role model in his life right now.

The season seems also slightly darker in tone.  I’m uncertain if this will happen each week, but this week’s episode was essentially an intergalactic murder mystery with plenty of gripping moments.  What can I say?  That seems to be Chris Chibnall’s specialty!

While it’s likely the Doctor themself will remain an incorrigible pacifist, Chibnall does not shy away from depicting onscreen violence when plot-appropriate.  Plus, the creepout factor of this week’s monster (“Tim Shaw”) felt on par with the first time we saw the Cybermen in action during David Tennant’s tenure.  In that respect, my little Whovian hearts are singing.

All in all, it seems to me that Series 11 of Doctor Who is off to a compelling start.  My initial fear that the Doctor’s gender-change would be used as a sociopolitical soapbox has been assuaged for the moment.  I’m looking forward to seeing where this season goes.