With a new showrunner, new Doctor, and a new gender, conservative social critics feared heavy-handed gender fluidity messaging in the newest season of Doctor Who. Fortunately, those fears may not have come to fruition.
The Doctor is back, this time played by Jodie Whittaker, ought to stop a baddie using Earth as a hunting ground. With hi–erm–her are a slew of companions (though not all are permanent), ranging from a pair of grandparents to a traffic cop to an aspiring mechanic. While last season of the show was dragged down by socially progressive virtue signalling, the premiere surprisingly leaves those topics mostly untouched. What results is a solid Doctor Who episode – a frantic, high-speed quest to save Earth.
Now we come to the elephant in the room: the Doctor is, yes, now a woman. The original announcement created quite a storm in public opinion, and much of it surrounded what this said about transgenderism. Those concerns, though understandable, might have been overblown. That’s not to say that this aspect of Time Lord mythology says nothing about gender, nor that it’s irrelevant to Christians engaging with story. But in this particular story, it’s barely a focus. The only references are brief, such as “half an hour ago I was an old Scotsman,” or “it’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes.” It may be an argument not to watch the show with young children, but given the plot of a serial killer who implants the teeth if his victims in his skin, there might be other compelling reasons to wait until the kids go to bed, anyway.
When viewing the episode apart from that outside context, it appears that Jodie Whittaker will be an effective Doctor. She oozes giddiness and fun in this episode, even while dealing with one of the show’s darker one-off villains. This provides a much-needed balance, as new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s first entry is at danger of feeling stifling in its horror influences. That’s not to say none of this existed before him or even before Steven Moffat. But those such as myself hoping to return to the insanity and fun of the Davies era must wait even longer.
But even as I complain about the continually darkening tone of the series, I’m reminded of the consistent themes I love about the show. Even as the Doctor once said, “In 9,000 years of time and space I never met anyone who wasn’t important,” we meet “unimportant” companions. Ryan wants to be a mechanic but suffers from a coordination disorder; Yaz is a traffic cop who isn’t taken seriously. The limitations of ordinary life and unfulfilled ambition form the basis of their character arcs, a theme I hope continues throughout the ten-episode season. They overcome their obstacles in predictable ways, but the actors themselves are compelling, especially with a total absence of the Doctor/companion sexual tension that has sometimes existed in older incarnations (though not with the 12th Doctor). Doctor Who is at its best when it serves as a fantastical defense of the value of human life, and that’s present here in spades.
That said, the episode doesn’t bring anything new to the table, either. That’s okay; it doesn’t have to. It’s nothing more or less than a fun science fiction episode, albeit on the tense side, with the beginning of some promising character arcs. The notable absence of on-the-nose virtue signaling helps as well, and may help the series get back on track.