The first female Doctor Who might also be the best

Jodie Whittaker just had an extraordinary debut

Jodie Whittaker.
(Image credit: Screenshot/BBC America)

Change is hard. Redecorating scares me. I go years without updating my iPhone. The new Gmail threw me into a tailspin. So naturally, I spend the first season of every regeneration in Doctor Who grouchily acclimating to the new face before reluctantly being won over by the finale.

That just makes it all the more surprising that following Jodie Whittaker's Sunday night debut, I was hooked within minutes. I have a feeling other fans felt the same — there is no doubt in my mind that she will be a great Doctor. In fact, she might just be the best in a generation.

Since Doctor Who began in the early 1960s, every incarnation of the Doctor has been a man. But seeing as the Doctor is a regenerating alien, there is no reason for this to be true; as the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) tells his companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie), in a bit of foreshadowing in season 10, the Time Lords are "the most civilized civilization in the universe, we're billions of year beyond your petty human obsession with gender-associated stereotypes." Yet despite calls for a woman Doctor going back to the 1980s, Whittaker is the first. Ultimately Christopher Eccleston was cast as the Ninth Doctor for the series' revival in 2005, followed by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, and Capaldi as the Twelfth. When Whittaker was revealed as the Thirteenth Doctor in July 2017, the news was met overwhelmingly by excited and crying fans, although, as is the sad truth of fandoms when it comes to women, another group bemoaned the supposed "political correctness" of the choice.

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But on Sunday, Whittaker proved herself not just to be right for the role, but possibly born for it. While every Doctor since Tennant has had their growing pains, needing to win over audiences after their beloved predecessor leaves the show, Whittaker was self-assured from the first moment she falls (literally) onto Earth in this polished new season, honoring her forerunners while also making the Doctor her own. As she tells her first enemy, the tooth-monster Tim Shaw, in what seems almost a direct address to her fans: "We can honor what we've been and choose who we want to be next."

Whittaker clearly considers her version of the Doctor a collage of the actors that came before, building herself a complicated character right out of the gate. She imbues the role with the conviction of Eccleston's Ninth Doctor; her defining characteristic in "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" is her authority and command. "I'm not an amateur," she says at one point and sells it.

Whittaker also carries within her the "dash of outrage" of Tennant's Tenth Doctor, a trait that flashes to the surface when humans are threatened. When she tells Tim Shaw, "now please, get off this planet while you still have a choice," it is unmistakably a threat. I am most excited to see what the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, does with anger; different Doctors have carried their rage in different ways, and, like Tennant's Tenth, Whittaker's Thirteenth seems weighed down by the injustices she's seen in her years traveling the universe.

Whittaker has taken her most obvious cues from the Eleventh Doctor, though, giving Thirteen a childlike playfulness, particularly during her mile-a-minute expositions. "I'm callin' you Yas, 'cause we're friends now," she cheerfully tells Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) upon their meeting. She wears oversized clothes — even the striped shirt and suspenders —which exaggerate her youthful appearance. And there's also the matter of her face, which she can completely open up, making her expression so raw and excited that you imagine there's really no filter between what she thinks and says. But while playing up her innocence could easily tilt into inexperience, Whittaker instead has a Holy Fool-like wisdom about her, taken right out of Capaldi's playbook and supplementing her Ecclestonian confidence.

Seeing Whittaker step so seamlessly into the Doctor's skin on Sunday, embodying everything the character has come to stand for over the years while sprinkling in her own emotional depth, it doesn't just feel like we're seeing a new iteration of the character, but one we've been deprived of. While the BBC is running with the tagline "it's about time" for the show, "it's long overdo" is really more appropriate. I'm a huge fan of Tennant and Smith's Doctors in particular, but Whittaker makes me realize there was something missing from the series all along: sadness. She adds a sense of melancholy to the Doctor that comes through in her rare moments of softness and counsel; I expect it will be her own contribution to the tapestry of the Doctor Who universe.

"Right now," the Doctor says, "I'm a stranger to myself." How thrilling it is that she won't be for long.

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