[Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Season 11 premiere of Doctor Who. Read at your own risk!]
I don't know if Doctor Who will ever again reach the level of popularity it achieved during the Matt Smith era, at least here in the U.S., but I do know that there has never been a better time to start watching the long-running British sci-fi series than right now.
The Season 11 premiere, which aired simultaneously in the U.K. and the U.S. on Sunday, was predictably familiar -- we've been here before as the series resets, seen a Doctor struggle to remember who he or she is after regenerating -- and yet we've also never seen anything quite like "The Woman Who Fell To Earth," because for the first time in Doctor Who's long history, the Doctor is a woman.
A lot has already been written about Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) stepping into the iconic role that's been played by a dozen white men since the sci-fi show first premiered in 1963, and for that reason I won't rehash it all again here (though I will point you toward these two great pieces by Maureen Ryan, one an interview with Whittaker and another a long-form piece about how far the show has come and where it still needs to go), but this is a watershed moment in history, and I can't completely ignore what that means for the series.
Doctor Who's greatest asset has always been its ability to reinvent itself each time a new actor or actress steps on board the TARDIS as Doctor or companion. This unique ability not only allows the show to extend and exist far beyond the limits of a normal TV show lifespan, but it also gives the series a natural way to reboot its story and inject a renewed sense of energy and purpose into the narrative every few seasons. For 55 years though, even as new actors took on the iconic role and even as the Doctor's personalities changed as a result, the character's gender remained the same. Now we're embarking on a bright, new era of Doctor Who, both in front of the camera and behind it as Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch) takes over as showrunner for Steven Moffat, and as a result, young girls (and grown women, if we're being honest) have a new role model to look up to and aspire to be, and it frankly could not have come at a better time.
But perhaps what's truly wonderful about this new chapter in Doctor Who history is that while the show is now headlined by a woman and features three companions, two of whom are people of color, the show itself is still the same escapist, fun series fans have always known and loved.
The Doctor is still an eccentric oddball. She's still a compassionate hero befriending and working alongside altruistic human companions. She's still the smartest person in the room, even when she can't remember her own name. She's still using her brilliant mind and quick wit to outsmart the villains. She's still saving the world because it's the right thing to do. This is Doctor Who. It's the show it's always been, only now there's better representation (there's still work to be done, but this is a much-needed step in the right direction) and fewer Daleks. So for the obnoxious, vocal minority of Doctor Who fans who've whined for the last year about Whittaker inhabiting the role of the Doctor, and for the people who've complained about change as if it is somehow a bad thing, take some comfort in knowing that the core of Doctor Who is still firmly intact. The only major difference is the show is no longer stuck in the past.
Of course, having said this, there is still going to be an adjustment period as the new characters are introduced and the show sets up the new season. But it's the same thing that happens every time the Doctor regenerates or a new companion joins the fray. We worry if the new Doctor can possibly live up to expectations set by previous incarnations. We wonder if the companions will be as memorable or beloved as those that have come before. We ponder what the latest version of the TARDIS will look like. But even as we're doing all these things, we find there's something comforting about this now-familiar process, and instead of being concerned about the repetitive nature of the show or bored by watching the same narrative beats play out time and again, we see it actually feels like coming home. You know, if home also includes terrifying monsters who have the teeth of their victims embedded in their face.
When it comes to Whittaker, she is clearly having a ton of fun as she puts her own delightful spin on everyone's favorite Time Lord. Her Doctor is less angry or curmudgeonly than Peter Capaldi's Twelve, which works in the show's favor as it reboots and tries to bring in new fans while still pleasing the old. I suppose, if anything, Thirteen's energy more closely resembles that of Smith's Eleven, which makes sense since Whittaker is closer in age to Smith than Capaldi, meaning the Doctor is once again at least young-looking, if not actually all that young. But even though there might be some similarities, Whittaker is not channeling Smith's spastic, easily distracted, bowtie-wearing Doctor either; Thirteen is a Doctor all her own, and so far she is thriving.
Her new and improved attitude is interesting when you remember that Capaldi's Doctor was initially unwilling to regenerate as he stared down the end of his life, noting he didn't want to "keep on becoming somebody else." That outlook captured the man Twelve had become but obviously makes very little sense for a brand new Doctor who has just regenerated, so instead of weariness, we are instead treated to a Doctor who's delighting in buying women's clothing for the first time in who knows how long, building her own sonic
screwdriver Swiss Army knife from bits and pieces she'd found, and taking pleasure in being able to tell this week's villain exactly who she is and why he should be afraid. It's all the familiar set-up that usually takes place each time a Doctor regenerates, but there is at least one thing missing from the premiere: the TARDIS. The familiar time-traveling police call box has dematerialized and therefore doesn't make a single appearance in the extended premiere, a reminder that the writers really do want this season to be as accessible to new fans as possible.
The episode's stand alone story also helps in that regard. In "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," the Doctor and her three new companions -- warehouse worker Ryan (Tosin Cole), his stepgrandfather Graham (Bradley Walsh) and police officer Yasmin (Mandip Gill) -- band together after the Doctor almost literally falls into their laps on a deserted train. Together they take on the aforementioned teeth-stealing monster in quite spectacular fashion after he arrives on Earth to hunt an innocent, unsuspecting human so he can advance up the ranks on his own demented world. But the episode's narrative really just drives home one of the core themes of Doctor Who: heroes are everywhere.
We naturally assume that when Ryan is talking about the greatest woman he has ever met he means the Doctor -- a lot of people probably would describe her this way -- but he is actually talking about his grandmother who died trying to assist the Doctor in saving the day. The idea that anyone, anywhere can be a hero is the inspiring, lasting message that drives much of Doctor Who, and it's one of the reasons the show has continued to endure for more than half a century. But when Ryan, who struggles with coordination because of a disorder, gets back on his bike again and again in the episode's final act, he's doing it for his grandmother, who'd been teaching him to ride, but his actions also represent the same drive and persistence that push the Doctor after each regeneration, push her to keep fighting, even when she might not want to.
In doing all of this, the Season 11 premiere reminds us just why Doctor Who exists and will hopefully continue to exist for many more years to come -- there's always more work to be done, there's always room for improvement, and the opportunities for heroes to step up in the face of adversity are quite possibly limitless. Jodie Whittaker's casting was the first step of many in the show's evolution, but as long as the Doctor is around to inspire us to be brave and be better, maybe we will be. Maybe the show will be.
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America.