“All of this is new to you, and new can be scary.”
— the Thirteenth Doctor
Most long-running series are hard to jump into midstream. Particularly in the Peak TV era, when everything is intensely serialized, and if we start to hear around the watercooler that a show in its third season is great, we tend to wait until it’s all over so we can go back and binge the whole thing over a long weekend.
But what about a British sci-fi show that’s been on since 2005, and, before that, ran 26 seasons from 1963 to 1989?
Well, Discerning Viewer, I confess that I never watched Doctor Who either, except for quick glimpses of reruns of the old show on PBS when I was a kid (let’s not get into what decade I was a kid in). But the show has an ingenious built-in regeneration device to keep things fresh: every few seasons, its main character, an intergalactic traveler through time and space with an uncommon interest in Justice and Doing The Right Thing called “The Doctor,” takes on a new body and a new set of companions.
So in the eleventh season (or, if you like, eleventh series, as it’s a BBC show), actress Jodie Whittaker took over as the Thirteenth Doctor, and the first woman to take the role, providing a great opportunity to finally take a look and figure out what all the fuss is about.
I can’t compare Whittaker to any of the past Doctors any more than I can compare this season to any of the previous 36, but I can say that this is a fun sci-fi adventure show, not too heavy and not too hard to keep track of, animated largely by Whittaker’s totally charming performance — as the Doctor gradually acclimates to her new body, she deftly conveys a sense of confusion and disorientation along with a simultaneous inner calm and confidence that she can figure it out. As her confidence grows, she still keeps a certain nervous but assured energy, and fully embraces the role of protector of her friends, constantly reassuring them that she can figure a way out of whatever scrape they’re in, keeping a certain good humor about it all, and, when appropriate, appreciating the dire gravity whatever they’re confronting.
The new Doctor begins her run jumping headlong into an alien invasion in the premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” coming to the aid of a quartet of unsuspecting Earthlings: Ryan (Tosin Cole), a 19-year-old student with a neurological coordination disorder called dyspraxia, which manifests as a fear of heights and an inability to learn to ride a bike; Ryan’s nurturing, funny grandmother Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) and her slightly stodgy husband, Graham (Bradley Walsh), who Ryan has never quite cottoned to; and young police officer Yasmin (Mandip Gill), eager to prove herself as a cop and who, it turns out, went to school with Ryan.
There is enough interesting dynamic among these four to keep some engaging personal stories bubbling along as The Doctor leads the group into increasingly alien territory (both literally and figuratively). The show looks terrific, beautifully staged and shot, a far cry from the glimpses I used to get of the original run on PBS.
But as I said before, it all pivots on The Doctor, and Ms. Whittaker is terrific in the role. If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss has been about Doctor Who the last 55 years, there’s never been a better time to climb aboard the TARDIS.
New episodes of Doctor Who air at 8pm ET Sundays on BBC America; season 11 episodes are available on demand.