LONDON—A decade ago it may have been revolutionary, but the first female Doctor Who finally landed on our screens on Sunday feeling a little behind the times.
Following on from this year’s stunning BBC spy drama Killing Eve which stars two complex women locked in battle—Sandra Oh’s MI5 operative against a sociopathic Russian assassin—the introduction of a gentle, self-deprecating and inoffensive Doctor felt disappointingly safe.
Jodie Whittaker is a great choice for the part and hopefully she will be allowed to bare her teeth in the forthcoming shows, but at the end of a meandering episode one, broadcast simultaneously on BBC America and BBC One in Britain, there was little dramatic tension as she vanquished the bad guy, almost apologetically.
Whittaker was charming and warm throughout, but the Doctor missed her chance to really seize our attention.
“I’ll be fine. In the end,” she says on screen. “Hopefully.”
It’s frustrating because Whittaker is capable of so much more. The writing felt a little too obvious, even clunky at times. One of the actor’s first lines in her new role is directed at a female police officer: “Why are you calling me ‘madam?’” she asks.
“Because you’re a woman,” comes the leaden-footed tip-off to the Time Lord.
“Am I?” Whittaker replies in apparent surprise.
Razor-sharp repartee this is not. Perhaps they should have handed writing duties to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve), or one of her many fellow screenwriters crafting a new generation of incendiary female leads.
Instead of a single sidekick, Whittaker has been granted a team of three former British soap stars (two from Hollyoaks; one from Coronation Street) to help her save the Earth from a host of extra-terrestrial intruders. In the first episode, her two male companions are on the back foot while the third, Yasmin Khan, a trainee policewoman, joins Sinclair’s grandmother in providing the most meaningful assistance to the Doctor.
No sooner has this triumvirate of women overcome the towering alien and rescued a simpering male victim from his clutches, we discover that Sinclair has a deadbeat dad.
It’s all a little heavy-handed.
There’s no need to rush to judgment, however, as showrunner Chris Chibnall is a class act and may yet succeed in helping Whittaker make the 13th Doctor one of the best in the show’s 55-year history. Chibnall’s previous work, after all, includes Broadchurch, the gripping British seaside whodunnit that made Whittaker a star in the first place.
Despite its global reach, Doctor Who has always been a somewhat rickety production and the new season opens with a reassuringly unconvincing stunt as one of the Doctor’s new companions, Ryan Sinclair, falls off his bike.
The low-key, British sense of humor does help to alleviate the sheer weight of allegory. When Whittaker struggles to leap from the arm of one construction crane to another, she points to her physical limitations in comparison to Peter Capaldi, the previous Doctor, who was six feet tall. “These legs definitely used to be longer,” she complains ruefully, clinging on for dear life.
In one of the early scenes, a policeman plays down the bizarre series of events that are unfolding in the Northern English city where this episode is set. “It’s the night shift in Sheffield,” he says. “Everything’s out of the ordinary.”
Just a few days before the first new Doctor Who aired, powerful movie producer Barbara Broccoli came out and said there would never be a female James Bond on her watch. “He’s a male character. He was written as a male,” she explained.
In the past, the same had been said of Doctor Who.
Previous showrunner Steven Moffat, who also came up with the BBC’s Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation of Sherlock, said he “didn’t feel enough people wanted” a woman Doctor as recently as 2013, after Capaldi had been cast.
A year later, Capaldi told The Daily Beast that it was high time for a more diverse Doctor, suggesting that “a woman would be very interesting.”
The very fact that Doctor Who’s gender reversal now comes across as a little underwhelming perhaps shows how much progress has been made in a short time, but that doesn’t mean the producers ought to settle for a quiet revolution. Whittaker should be given the chance to innovate and to thrill a whole new generation.