SPOILER ALERT: This story includes details about the Doctor Who Season 11 premiere today.
“Not yet who I am, brain and body still rebooting, reformatting,” says Jodie Whittaker’s just-regenerated Time Lord in the Season 11 opener of Doctor Who, shown all over the world and at a near- packed Theater at Madison Square Garden for New York Comic Com. “It’s a work in progress,” the Broadchurch vet and first female Doctor adds,- in what is an unnecessary understatement.
Introduced to a standing ovation and cheers at NYCC by Whittaker, showrunner Chris Chibnall, EP Matt Stevens and BBC America boss Sarah Barnett, the fact is the Broadchurch creator- penned premiere of the latest and 13th Doctor is one of the most complete and rewarding resets for the BBC and BBC America series since it first appeared in the UK in 1963. With the long-revealed new look for the Doctor saved until the end and a search for the Tardis that sends Whittaker’s character and, unintentionally, her trio of new pals off into the universe together, this very earthbound and surprisingly emotional opener is about setting the stage and raising the stakes as an upcoming Rosa Parks-featuring episode aims to achieve.
“What?” is the very first words we hear from the new Doctor in this opening episode after she comes crashing through the ceiling of a darkened train under attack by an alien force. A quick move or two and a “that should buy us a few seconds,” and the fast talkin’ new Time Lord’s new season is off to the races. Constructed so there are just enough in-jokes and references to keep the die-hard fans happy and in the know, this Season 11 start also aims to be inclusive enough for the newbies that the BBC America hope to attract and not confuse.
Besides one very large leap, literally, Whittaker’s Doctor is more cosmic detective than superhero, as you would expect in the best way from the creator of Broadchurch. When a hero shot Whittaker proclaims deep into the episode that she knows she is the Doctor and her job is “sorting out fair play throughout the universe,” the dramatic tension bow that has been pulled is released with a bull’s eye.
“We’re really proud of it,” Chibnall told the Comic-Con crowd after the screening. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants of television,” the EP adds, noting the effort to connect the new season with the very first season of the original Doctor Who. “Its so hard to convey how proud you are and be something and not share it with the most important people, the fans,” a clearly moved Whittaker added. “I want it to be the norm,” she noted of what it means for Doctor Who to come in all “shapes and sizes, genders, sexualities and ethnicities,” as Chibnall said.
“It’s a perfect job for any actor, because even though there’s the 12 previous shoes that you’re filling, you’re able creatively to make it your own,” the actor told Deadline just before San Diego Comic Con in July. That was a year after it was made public that she was taking over the character as 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi and longtime showrunner Steven Moffat poised to exit the series. With the “It’s About Time” mantra, it also was almost forgotten that Doctor Who has played with gender-bending before, when arch nemesis the Master became the Michelle Gomez-portrayed Missy several years ago.
Yet, for all the spotlight Whittaker’s highly effective takeover of the classic role has attracted, once the audience and the characters take a breath and accept that the Time Lord is finally being played by a representative of half the planet’s population, the most significant shift of the new season of Doctor Who may be behind the camera.
Similar in some ways to when Capaldi spun into sight and took over from Matt Smith in 2014, and very different in others and clearly one obvious way, the introduction of the new Doctor is also a narratively and culturally poignant affair.
— Doctor Who Official (@bbcdoctorwho) October 7, 2018
Drawing from those BritGrit series like Chibnall and Whittaker’s old home of Broadchurch that have proven such successful international exports, the primary theme of this approximately 90-minute season Who premiere is fragility and loss. Yes, with a newly built Sonic Screwdriver, the surface plot is driven by the new Doctor still discovering who she is now, family tensions, dental work, bike-tossing, train-crashing, hammer-throwing, ambitious cops and the sudden appearance of a very hot blue object in the hillsides of Sheffield. There are also disappearing siblings, plus abducting and warring aliens using Earth as a battleground. But much deeper forces are at work in this highly engaging debut, if you know what I mean?
In a Britain on the verge of economic irrelevance under a terminally weakened Teresa May amid its exit from the EU, and an America shaken across the spectrum with the political convulsion of having the multiple sexual assault-accused Brett Kavanaugh elevated to the Supreme Court yesterday, the debut of the first female Doctor Who has perhaps greater impact now that when Whittaker was announced in the role back in July last year. “We have a voice and we are entitled to be listened to,” Whittaker herself said on the timing of her debut this weekend at the NYCC panel. “What is wonderful is the united hood, the united sisterhood, the united Whohood, and the united humanhood that we all can embrace.”
Gathering the new companions of Tesin Cole’s Ryan Sinclair, Mandip Gill’s frustrated rookie cop Yasmin Khan, and Ryan’s step-granddad of three years and former bus driver Graham O’Brien, played by the nicely understated Bradley Walsh, the attack on the residents of the third planet from the sun that provides the action here is foiled in a case of personal responsibility. Amidst much discussion of what it is to be oneself, it is a victory that comes at the cost of the death of Ryan’s Sharon D. Clarke, played grandma Grace. The fatality bookends the episode and brings an emotional center to Doctor Who that the series has rarely seen. – and could go to more than just other times and planets in the rest of Whittaker and Chibnall’s reign.
“Half an hour ago, I was a white-haired Scotsman,” Whittaker says at one point early in the David Bowie homage titled “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” with a shift reference to Capaldi’s wonderfully acerbic 12th Doctor. After the roar that the first episode received in MSG today, that statement proves time is an illusion, and the new Doctor is truly in town and space – as the sneak peek at the next episode alludes:
— Doctor Who Official (@bbcdoctorwho) October 7, 2018