By Sarah Pridgeon
For half a century, a hokey television show that uses kitchen equipment to outfit its villains has been teaching one of life’s most important lessons: we are all capable of the most incredible change. But on Sunday, when the new incarnation of Doctor Who uttered that line in an episode simulcast around the world, it was at a moment of evolution more significant than we’ve seen before.
“Don’t be scared. All of this is new to you, and new can be scary,” said the Doctor, in a statement only related through subtext to the fact that she was, at that moment, for the very first time, busy being a woman. “We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”
The BBC launched Doctor Who in 1963 and it fast became a favorite, with families gathering on the sofa once a week to find out where the character and their companions would travel, what dangers they would face and what galactic problems they might solve.
It’s hard to say why it captured so many hearts – and has been doing the same over here since its relaunch in 2004 – when its most iconic bad guys are essentially giant salt shakers with round bits glued to the sides, a plunger for a nose and a whisk standing in as a weapon. It certainly wasn’t the special effects, though somehow those Daleks still managed to frighten every child in Britain.
It had to do, I believe, with the writers’ ability to tap into our imaginations. The Doctor travels in a time machine that’s bigger on the inside and can turn up anywhere in all of time and space, which gives you plenty of room to tell stories. For this, and for its unfailingly positive message that there are other ways to solve problems than violence, it has become one of the best-selling TV franchises on the planet.
But like any long-running show that focuses on a main character, it had a problem that became abundantly clear when the health of actor William Hartnell began to decline. Doctor Who is known for its moments of genius, but none can match the solution the writers came up with.
Doctor Who is a Timelord from a far-away planet called Gallifrey, so it’s not as though they need to follow human rules. The writers built in a mechanism whereby a Timelord does not die when seriously injured; instead, they regenerate into a brand new body.
This clever little ruse allowed them to introduce a second actor, Patrick Troughton. Aside from a brief break around the turn of the century, they’ve been introducing new “bodies” for the character ever since – twelve, if you include the brief appearance of the War Doctor in the 50th Anniversary story.
On Sunday, the list got a little longer – and it changed. It’s no longer comprised entirely of male names, for Doctor Who is now a lady for the first time in the character’s 54 years. Jodie Whittaker, to be precise, who is best known for playing the grieving mother in Broadchurch.
In the first episode of her run, Jodie was joined by four companions. Within that group of five were three people of color, three women and one person with a disability, which is a whole lot of diversity in a group that would fit your average pick-up.
Naturally, the announcement that the Doctor’s voice would be getting higher and she’d be more likely to wear a skirt caused fans around the world to reach for their paper bags. Hyperventilating with rage, they took to the internet to type furious monologues containing every reason they could think of that the Doctor couldn’t be a woman.
All of which boiled down to one actual reason: because she’d never been a woman before, and we as a species don’t much like change while it’s happening to us. I really only saw one objection that resonated, from a father (and previous Doctor, incidentally) who was sad he would no longer have a male role model for his son who solved problems with clever thinking rather than his fists.
The muttering continued for months as the sneak peeks began to appear, but there’s no stopping change once it’s underway. The series not only had a new actor, but also a new showrunner in the form of Chris Chibnall, who is best known for putting Jodi on screen in Broadchurch.
Out with the old and in with the new, said Chibnall, pointing out that Doctor Who had become complicated over the years as its story arc evolved. Recent episodes were so packed full of references that they were impossible for a newcomer to understand.
Apparently, when he was offered the job, Chibnall wrote down a list of pros and cons. There were ten cons on the list and only one pro – this is Doctor Who, he said, “the best idea TV has ever had”.
Did our five diverse actors manage to tell a good story? Of course they did, because Doctor Who has never been about the person holding the sonic screwdriver (which is now a sonic Swiss army knife because Jodie’s Doctor felt that it, too, could do with a bit more diversity).
Doctor Who is about opening your mind to the weird and the wonderful while seeing yourself represented on screen by the collection of humans who choose to run down corridors and shriek at space monsters with their alien friend. It’s about the gentle lessons each episode has to teach about kindness, honor and loyalty.
Does it matter that the Doctor is a woman? Only for the first three minutes, because it’s a truth universally accepted that nobody ever wants to say goodbye to the last Doctor and we thus turn on the television convinced the new one won’t match up.
But after the usual grudging acceptance that change has once again not been a bad thing, it’s business as usual. The only real difference is that Doctor Who has hit the reset button completely this time – new stories, new lore, new character arcs – so it’s a great moment to tune in and show your daughters that the ladies can master time and space and be just as entertaining as the menfolk.