After an episode on Rosa Parks, Doctor Who now feels truly regenerated.
At age 55 and with more quality TV to compete with than ever, Doctor Who has once more transformed itself. With a completely new creative team and cast, this is the biggest change for the show since 2005 when Christopher Eccleston appeared out of nowhere, grabbed Billie Piper’s hand and said simply, “Run!” At first glance Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode reminded me of Eccleston’s, and not just because of her wonderful northern accent. Once again, the story began with the companions, keeping it grounded and providing a way in for new viewers. When the Doctor finally appeared, it was with another sudden burst of energy as Whittaker literally dropped out of the sky. However, this new series also brings home how long ago 2005 was: with location shooting in South Africa, impressive visual effects and an overall more cinematic style, this may be the best Doctor Who has ever looked. It’s clear that the BBC has taken this new series as an opportunity to make Doctor Who a phenomenon once more.
With the stage set for a new era, all of this leaves us with the question of what this new Doctor Who, and particularly this new Doctor, will be like. Firstly, let’s get the obvious difference out the way. After us humans made such a fuss about the Doctor being a woman, the Time Lord pauses only to ask, “Does it suit me?” before ploughing on. Although it has been hinted that the Doctor will have to deal with how others may treat her differently now later in the series, new showrunner Chris Chibnall has rightly demonstrated how insignificant gender is to the core elements of the character.
What then, do Whittaker and Chibnall bring to the show that can be considered unique and refreshing? For the first two episodes this was hard to pin down, as their rapid pace often left the Doctor with nothing to do but explain the plot. However, in the few moments where the characters were given some breathing space, the audience was given some hints as to who the 13th Doctor really is. Accent aside she is a far cry from Eccleston’s version, whose favourite term for humans was “stupid apes.” Whittaker’s Doctor takes time to learn her companion’s names, thanks them for their help, and trusts them immediately. She is earnest and almost fierce in her convictions; within minutes of meeting new companion, Yaz, she declares, “I’m calling you Yaz, cos we’re friends now,” in a tone that cannot be argued with. Chibnall may not have the same gift for witty banter that his predecessors did, but this Doctor has a sincere belief in humanity, compassion and righting wrongs. When this shone through was when Whittaker’s Doctor was at her most engaging, but for the most part an air of uncertainty hung over the show for these first two outings.
It wasn’t until the third episode, “Rosa,” that this new Doctor Who showed us just how bold and unfamiliar it is prepared to be. The show has come a long way since 2007, when the issue of taking the Doctor’s first black companion back in time was brushed over with the line, “Just walk about like you own the place.” Now, as the Doctor and her friends arrive in Alabama on the eve of Rosa Parks’ famous protest, racism is not just addressed but is the focus of the episode. Within just 15 seconds of stepping out the Tardis, black companion Ryan has been slapped across the face for trying to hand a white woman her glove. After 13 years of modern Doctor Who, that slap felt truly new. There was a sense of danger I had never felt before: not a danger from alien creatures but from real life human prejudice and hatred. The Doctor rushes straight to Ryan’s side of course, but it’s clear from her eyes that she’s unsure what to do. There has been a tendency in Doctor Who recently for the Doctor, after saving the universe so many times, to appear godlike. But as she said in her first episode, the 13th Doctor is “just a traveller.” To see a Doctor who helps where she can but can’t fix everything with a snap of her fingers is refreshing and brings an edge back to the show.
“Rosa” also offered a new approach to the long tradition of the “historical” episode of Doctor Who. Dealing with something as sensitive as the Civil Rights Movement, it’s safe to say the show needed to tread more carefully than it had with other historical celebrities (see Queen Victoria and the werewolf from space, or Agatha Christie and the giant wasp from space). Fortunately, there was no suggestion that the Doctor or any other alien was responsible for Parks’ actions. Instead the writers made it the task of the Doctor and her companions simply to protect history from outside interference, taking nothing away from Parks. The most poignant moment of the series so far comes at the episode’s climax as the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham find themselves trapped on the bus for the famous moment, knowing that they must not intervene. A special mention must go to Bradley Walsh’s performance as Graham, as we see the pain written across his face when he realises he must be one of the white passengers Parks is told to give up her seat for.
The rest of the episode provides plenty space for all those little character beats the first two episodes needed more of. We see Ryan having to hold his temper, while Yaz deals with uncertainty of where being of Pakistani heritage places her in 1950s Alabama. In one memorable scene the two characters debate how far we’ve really come in 60 years. Ryan points out that he still gets stopped more often by the police while Yaz firmly reminds him that she is a police officer herself back in 2018. After two episodes where the plot never stopped moving, “Rosa” gives these characters the time they need to properly grapple with the issues at hand.
The episode was by no means perfect. The dialogue was still clumsy in places and like the first two episodes, the villain was nothing special, but it felt like a bold step into the unknown for Doctor Who. Both the show and the Doctor are prepared to tackle difficult situations with honesty and compassion. To anyone intrigued by the new series, I urge you to make it through to the third episode. 55 years in, “Rosa” has proved that Doctor Who still has plenty to say.