October 7th, 2018 was a special day. In addition to being Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada and the day before Columbus Day in the States, it also featured the premiere of what is essentially the 37th season of the British science-fiction juggernaut DOCTOR WHO. For longtime fans of the show, it will come as no surprise that the show has been completely re-tooled, featuring all-new companions, an all-new show runner in Chris Chibnall, and an all-new Doctor — with a freshly made sonic screwdriver to boot. Unlike previous incarnations of the functionally immortal space-bound swashbuckler, though, the Thirteenth Doctor is a woman.
Although there are likely some factions who dislike the Doctor’s change in gender, preferring instead an all-male roster, talk of a female Doctor goes back at least as far as the ’80s when John Nathan-Turner, DOCTOR WHO’s producer at the time, discussed Peter Davison’s replacement.
Back then Turner quickly shut down the suggestion that the Sixth Doctor might be female, saying instead that he planned to replace Davison with an older man. Turner was somewhat true to his word. He eventually chose Colin Baker, eight years Davison’s senior, as Davison’s replacement, but sensibilities have changed a lot since the ’80s.
DOCTOR WHO Returns: A Companion’s Guide to 55 Years of DOCTOR WHO – Finding The Doctor
Thirteen actors have now portrayed The Doctor’s bumbling but always-amazing first steps. And from Patrick Troughton, the first actor to portray The Doctor’s regeneration, to Jodie Whittaker, each actor has built off of previous incarnations of the character to form their interpretation. From an acting point of view, the process of defining a new Doctor must be an increasingly tricky one with every regeneration: fans of a specific version of The Doctor might not feel that their particular favourite has been given enough of a nod. Or, going the other way, fans may feel that the new iteration is too derivative.
As a true Whovian, having now watched thirteen regenerations — the 10th Doctor actually regenerated twice — I’d say I’m familiar with the traditions of the process. Disorientation bordering on dementia is a must for a regenerating Doctor. Whittaker pulled this trait off well: in addition to not being able to remember the word “tongue” or her own name, at one point she jammed her finger in her nose, exclaiming that she loved it, before fainting.
So far I’m seeing a lot of Peter Davison, a bit of Patrick Troughton, and a bit of David Tennant in Whittaker’s portrayal, but as more episodes air and she deals with old and new threats alike, I’m sure viewers will catch glimpses of other Doctors as well — I’m always happy to see hints of the Second and Fourth Doctors.
In its high energy level, Whittaker’s performance is similar to almost all portrayals of the character, except for the First Doctor, but Whittaker’s determined goofiness — kind of a focused innocence — reminds this Whovian the most of the celery-wearing Fifth Doctor.
DOCTOR WHO Returns: A Companion’s Guide to 55 Years of DOCTOR WHO – “For The Doctor’s New Companions, The Chase Is On”
Getting a new Doctor is exciting, but getting all-new companions is also a treat. The Doctor has had a few of them, starting with Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan (Carole Ann Ford).
Then, the Second Doctor introduced viewers to his swashbuckling Highlander companion Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), perpetual damsel in distress Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling), and fan-favourite Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney).
The Third Doctor welcomed one of the most popular DOCTOR WHO cast members, Elisabeth Sladen, as Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane’s time in the TARDIS had her working along both the Third and Fourth Doctors, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker respectively. Sarah Jane made such an impression on the franchise that she made return cameos during the Tenth Doctor’s tenure and starred in two DOCTOR WHO spin-offs, the somewhat unworthy K-9 AND COMPANY (1981) and, much more well-rounded, THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES (2007–2011), which ended prematurely when Sladen, to the dismay of friends, family, and fans, died suddenly of cancer.
Other memorable companions include the robotic dog K-9 (John Leeson and David Brierly), Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), Ace (Sophie Aldred), Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Jack Harkness (Jon Barrowman) — featured in the well-liked spin-off TORCHWOOD — Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), River Song (Alex Kingston), Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). All of these characters and the actors who portrayed them have left their indelible marks, for better or worse, on The Doctor and on the history of the show.
The new cast of companions seems typically unready for their dangerous adventure. The dyspraxic Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Sheffield cop Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), and the hardworking if somewhat out-of-touch Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) will have to learn to work with the scatterbrained Thirteenth Doctor to stay alive, having been inadvertently teleported to the upper atmosphere of an alien planet.
Let’s hope they know what to do when The Doctor turns to them and yells “Run!” Of course, running should be easy for Bradley Walsh, who, when he’s not helping The Doctor right intergalactic wrongs, puts his talents to work as the host of the popular British game show THE CHASE.
DOCTOR WHO Returns: A Companion’s Guide to 55 Years of DOCTOR WHO – Going Forward
I’m excited to see how The Doctor and her cast of companions get along. Although every regeneration and re-tooling of the show always involves the end of something I enjoy, each one also starts something new that I grow to enjoy in its own right. I’ll miss the lovable crustiness of Peter Capaldi’s interpretation of The Doctor just as I missed Patrick Troughton’s goofy exuberance when the businesslike Jon Pertwee replaced him. And even though I never came to prefer Jon Pertwee’s interpretation to that of Patrick Troughton, I did come to like how Pertwee’s portrayal darkened the character: Pertwee’s slightly darker interpretation provided Tom Baker the opportunity to really explore The Doctor’s real emotional potential.
We’ve only seen one episode of the refit DOCTOR WHO so it’s difficult to judge, but I think that Chibnall and Whittaker’s vision for the show will provide unique opportunities to expand on DOCTOR WHO’s well-established themes of beneficence in the face of adversity, the benefits of diversity, and the problems of moral ambiguity. I also predict that there will be Daleks…lots of Daleks.