Whittaker is simultaneously Doctor Who as we’ve always known and loved it, and also Doctor Who like we haven’t quite seen before
The new series of Doctor Who was always going to be different. Aside from a new Doctor, Series 11 (or 37, if you’re being a dick about it) has a new ensemble cast, new showrunner, new composer, and new air date. But the show isn’t actually as radically different as most of us had speculated; it’s rebooted, not reinvented, and Whittaker’s new Doctor is the best thing about it.
Whittaker is the first woman to play the role, but that’s pretty much irrelevant to the actual episode. It’s barely even mentioned: a couple of throwaway jokes at the beginning and end, and that’s it. It’s presented matter-of-factly as a natural, unremarkable change, which it should be.
Whittaker shines right from her first scene, diving (literally) into a train carriage, challenging the authority figure, fighting an alien, saving some lives: just doing Doctor stuff, and doing it brilliantly.
It’s unfortunate that the played-out ~post-regenerative trauma~ trope shows up again, getting in the way of us seeing Whittaker at her best. It’s always been the weakest, least interesting part of Doctors’ first episodes, but at least Whittaker doesn’t spend as much time napping on the sofa as Tennant in The Christmas Invasion.
When the Doctor appears atop the crane to confront the wonderfully sinister and genuinely quite scary Tim Shaw (lol), her “I’m the Doctor” moment is one of the best: Matt Smith’s was on top of a fairly faceless hospital roof, but Whittaker gets to do hers while swinging in the air on the arm of a crane, and she just looks so cool.
There are echoes in Whittaker’s performance of what previous actors have brought to the Doctor: she carries some of the energetic vibrancy and infectious enthusiasm of David Tennant, some of the unpredictable I-can-do-anything-but-I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing eccentricity of Matt Smith. Then there are moments where Whittaker’s Doctor feels completely different to what has come before. She cares about people in the heroic, big-picture way that all Doctors have, but also on the smallest, most personal level of giving a stranger dignity in death when she quietly covers his body. She makes the effort to thank her companions, and affirm their good ideas— Whittaker’s doctor is alien, but with a degree of empathy we haven’t quite seen before.
After the older, more cerebral Capaldi, Whittaker’s more practical Doctor is refreshing. Building a sonic screwdriver from Sheffield steel using a massive flamethrower, leaping from cranes, MacGyvering interstellar transport with a microwave—this kind of stuff isn’t completely new to Who, but Whittaker brings an energy to it that’s utterly compelling. Bug-eyed welding goggles give her an alienness that’s also very human, which is always what’s marked the Doctor at their best.
The TARDIS crew accompanying her are great, too— I was worried that after spending days (weeks?) avoiding my dissertation and binge-watching The Chase, I’d only be able to see Bradley Walsh as Bradley Walsh, waiting for him to corpse if someone said “fanny”. But he’s surprisingly sympathetic, reminiscent of Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott in series 4. It’s very much to Walsh’s credit that he manages to make Graham such a sympathetic character, despite some quite nasty moments.
Whittaker is simultaneously Doctor Who as we’ve always known and loved it, and also Doctor Who like we haven’t quite seen before. In her own words, “Right— this is gonna be fun!”