The Radical Helplessness of the New Doctor Who

The latest season did something surprising with the long-running show’s first female lead: It often allowed her to be powerless in the face of injustice.

From left to right: Bradley Walsh as Graham, Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yaz, and Tosin Cole as Ryan in 'Doctor Who'
From left to right: Bradley Walsh as Graham, Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yaz, and Tosin Cole as Ryan in Doctor Who Season 11 (Ben Blackall / BBC America)

Commercials and subway ads for the latest season of Doctor Who, which ended Sunday, bore a straightforward slogan: “It’s about time.” The show is, literally, about time, specifically time travel, but the joke was in the tagline’s second meaning: The Doctor, for the first time in the sci-fi series’ 55-year history, was played this season by a woman. The sentiment underlying the show’s promotional material was less proud than it was apologetic; that slogan might as well have been an exhaled Finally.

Since Doctor Who premiered in 1963, the potential of its elastic premise—the Doctor is an alien Time Lord who can regenerate into a new body when the old one fails—hasn’t been fully realized in its casting. Before the actress Jodie Whittaker took over the part at the end of 2017, making her proper debut this year in the revival’s 11th season, 12 white men played the lead role (or 13, counting John Hurt’s appearance in the 50th-anniversary special). While the Doctor—when the Doctor was a man—offered a model of masculinity that was brainier, more compassionate, and more resolutely pacifist than most male heroes in pop culture, the character still propped up a specific idea of what it meant to walk through the world as a white man. He operated like the cleverest person in every room, and because he was almost always right, he was justified in seizing authority. “Just walk about like you own the place,” David Tennant’s Doctor told the show’s first black companion, Martha (played by Freema Agyeman), when he took her back to Shakespearean times. “Works for me.”

Now that the Doctor looks like Whittaker, acting like she owns the place is no longer enough. Far more than in recent years, Season 11 has allowed the Doctor to be helpless, especially in the face of injustice. The most striking example was the episode “Rosa,” which took the Doctor and her friends, Yasmin (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh), to 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, where they endeavored, in the Doctor’s words, to “not help” Rosa Parks. The hour—which the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, co-wrote with the author Malorie Blackman, the show’s first-ever black writer—saw Parks in the crosshairs of a racist criminal from the future. Unable to kill her, the criminal intended instead to change just enough about Parks’s day to derail her protest on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955. As the Doctor and her friends worked from the sidelines to get history back in order, they played no role in inspiring Parks’s protest and were equally powerless to stop her arrest. Rosa Parks’s choices were left entirely in her own hands.

In the past, Doctor Who has imbued historical turning points with larger-than-life significance by suggesting that events were fated to play out as they did. In Season 4, Tennant’s Doctor was unable to stop the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a “fixed point in time” that could not be averted. The episode nodded at the scope of the tragedy but viewed it through the Doctor’s eyes; the pathos of the hour comes as much from his loss of agency as from the loss of life. But “Rosa” presents Parks’s moment in history as decidedly unfixed, precariously dependent on one woman’s bravery. And by showing Parks propelling the civil-rights movement forward by choice rather than by fate, the episode paradoxically empowers the Doctor to do the same: Her act of heroism is to let someone else take the lead.

As a woman, the Doctor has more cause to pull strings without drawing attention to herself than she did as a man. During a trip to the 17th century in the episode “The Witchfinders,” she initially flatters King James I (Alan Cumming) and gains his favor by allowing him to underestimate her. But she abandons that approach as the sexism she encounters gets more overt. Being accused of witchcraft motivates the Doctor to interfere with history more vocally than she had all season. Although earlier incarnations of the character might have been able to simply talk prejudice out of existence, the fact that Whittaker’s Doctor can’t do the same isn’t presented as a function of her gender. Her inability to find a quick fix for pervasive social problems is just a result of the show’s increased willingness to actually engage with those problems—the same ones it once hand-waved away with a “Just walk about like you own the place.” That commitment to change was also evident behind the scenes, where Chibnall assembled the show’s most diverse slate of writers and directors yet, in terms of both gender and ethnicity. Under the new showrunner, the Doctor wouldn’t be fixing the world until Doctor Who fixed itself.

The fact that this season, the first to star a woman in 55 years, was so interested in how long it takes to effect change—and how many people have to suffer in the process—played like a response to the history of the show. Two of the Doctor’s companions in the TARDIS served as reminders that racism and sexism are not confined to the past: Ryan, a black man, and Yasmin, a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, have each dealt with bigotry at home in England in 2018. And when the Doctor and her friends meet Yasmin’s grandmother (in the episode “Demons of the Punjab”) during the partition of India, her grandmother’s Hindu fiancé, Prem, looks at the local outbreaks of religiously motivated hatred and sees history repeating itself: It’s “like we learned nothing” in World War II, he says.

A still from the episode “Demons of the Punjab” (Ben Blackall / BBC America)

“Demons,” like “Rosa,” understands that addressing prejudice also means acknowledging the Doctor’s privilege. Prem, who’s killed the day of his wedding for marrying a Muslim woman, wonders aloud if the Doctor is his enemy now that the British have, in his words, carved up the country. His most cutting accusation—that she won’t even stay to manage the fallout—is proved right when the Doctor and her friends turn to leave at the moment of his death. Mob mentality kills Prem, but his comment suggests that the Doctor, as a white person in India, wears the face of the power structure that encourages people in his country to turn on one another.

Looming authority figures, some so distant they never appeared onscreen, were the defining villains of Season 11. Each of Whittaker’s first two episodes trapped the Doctor and friends in the middle of an intergalactic competition that forced contestants to dehumanize others in order to win. From a storytelling angle, pitting the Doctor against various, often faceless systems yielded mixed results; taken as a whole, the season felt directionless. But the best stories, which were almost invariably the histories, leaned into how frustrating it was, for both the audience and the Doctor, that she couldn’t save the day by defeating a single enemy. When the Doctor could name racism or sexism as the problem, the lack of resolution was the point.

It took a whole season for the Doctor to find an obvious target for her righteous fury, and even then she restrained herself. In Sunday’s season finale, faced with a genocidal villain—an alien she called Tim Shaw, who killed Ryan’s grandmother, Graham’s wife, in the premiere—the Doctor kept her composure and coached Graham to do the same. Getting revenge on Tim Shaw wasn’t worth endangering their plan to rescue his victims. Withholding anger was a kind of punishment in this case: What better way to diminish an ego-tripping warrior who wanted to be a god than by deeming him unworthy of her rage? This season’s villains were all too small to deserve the Doctor’s grand speeches, just as the problems they exemplified were too big to be fixed by them. And although Whittaker’s Doctor has the same right to her anger that previous Doctors had, her commitment to optimism—“Keep your faith,” she advised. “Travel hopefully”—felt radical, given how little control she had over her world this season.

The former showrunner Steven Moffat, who left Doctor Who in 2017, has been criticized for writing his female characters as riddles for men to solve, a critique he seemed responsive to by the end of his run. And by casting a woman (Michelle Gomez) as the latest incarnation of the Doctor’s long-running nemesis, Missy (formerly known as the Master), Moffat helped ease the idea of Time Lords’ changing gender into the show’s mythology. But the writing in Moffat’s seasons was a bit too delighted by its own winks at the possibility of a female Doctor, as if casting a woman would be clever instead of simply overdue. “Time Lady, thank you,” Missy purred once. “Some of us can afford the upgrade.”

Under Chibnall, the show has steered clear of such self-congratulation. Speaking to Vulture at the start of the new season, Whittaker summed up how Doctor Who would change with a woman as its lead: “It’s not the Doctor’s response, it’s other people’s response. And as a woman, that’s often the thing: We’re not surprised we can achieve things as women, it’s often other people who are.” The Doctor is the same, but she is different by virtue of how other people perceive her, and how she has to adjust her own actions accordingly.

In changing how the Doctor is perceived, the show embraces the idea that the people around her, too, are limited by how others see them. The first thing Season 11 did was undermine the narrative that the Doctor is uniquely important. The premiere opened on Ryan recording a video tribute to “the greatest woman [he] ever met: smart, funny, caring, special”—all language that echoed lofty descriptions of the Doctor from seasons past. The end of the episode revealed that he was talking about his grandmother.

Celebrating everyday humans isn’t a new concept for Doctor Who as much as it is a return to form; the theme was a hallmark of the revival’s early seasons under Russell T. Davies, who brought back the series in 2005. But even Davies, who was generally less enamored with the Doctor’s cleverness than Moffat was, couldn’t resist occasionally deifying his protagonist as a “lonely god.” By tearing down that pedestal, Chibnall gives the Doctor the grace to be part of a community of others like her. In a history-making year for the character, it may have been tempting to downplay her flaws. But Whittaker’s Doctor is allowed to not have all the answers; to accept that she cannot be everyone’s cure-all; to be curious and authoritative, defensive and empathetic. The Doctor isn’t an exceptional woman. The Doctor is a woman.