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.
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.”