“Why did you call me madam?” asked Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in the middle of her first big scene of premiere episode “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” “Because you’re a woman,” replied Yasmin (Mandip Gill). The Doctor responds with brief surprise and happiness—and then promptly moves on to continue her Doctor-ing. Despite this supposedly monumental change with this iconic character’s gender identity, Whittaker told attendees of the Doctor Who New York Comic-Con panel that she only wanted this to be “a second in history to be forgotten”—she wants this to be the new normal.
Whittaker was joined by new showrunner Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), or “Chibs” as he is affectionally called, and new series producer Matt Strevens (An Adventure in Space and Time) introduced the series 11 premiere to attendees of the panel, before the episode’s simulcast around the globe. A total change in cast and creative team can understandably cause some hesitance and worry for hardcore Whovians, but all of those worries were more than alleviated by the time the credits rolled.
The premiere episode chose to build some suspense for Whittaker’s grand entrance, instead introducing the three new companions first. The first few scenes featured Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a young man who we later learn is dyspraxic. He is attempting to learn how to ride a bicycle with the help of his nana (Sharon D. Clarke) and her second husband Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh). Their lives are thrown into an extraordinary situation after Ryan finds a mysterious “button” of light and presses it, which summons a blue pod and some sort of “creature” that I can describe as an orb of snakes and electricity (a very Who-y design), both part of some scheme that is eventually revealed.
With the help of his old schoolmate and now police officer Yasmin Khan, Ryan runs to the rescue of his mother, Graham, and a stranger. When all seems lost, just by chance, the newly-regenerated Doctor literally drops in, after falling out of her crashing TARDIS ship at the end of the previous episode. Immediately, Whittaker takes complete control of the show, and even with just a few minutes of screentime, she instantly embodies everything that fans familiar to the show know of the Doctor. There are a few traits that overlap with some of the modern Doctors: the optimism and empathy of David Tennant, the physical swagger of Matt Smith, amongst others. But Whittaker is still able to make the part her own, despite such comparisons.
This Doctor is a tinkerer, a maker, a handywoman. The episode had a wonderful display of this, with the Doctor building a new Sonic Screwdriver from scratch. It’s a fantastic sequence, and I particularly enjoyed it as her use of tools and craftsmanship is something that is traditionally and stereotypically a masculine trait—this episode knew how to be subtle with its statement on gender roles without being obtrusive to the story in any way shape or form.
Without spoiling too much about the first episode, on the chance that anyone reading this has yet to watch it, it was a little more overt with its main theme of change—we as people have to evolve, even while still inhabiting what makes us unique and distinct. The pacifist Doctor says this to reason with the villain of the week, who has a rather grotesque and memorable appearance. If I had to nitpick about the episode, the image quality looked less crisp than the visuals in the Steven Moffat era, maybe due to whatever camera equipment that was in use. Also, with this premiere episode skipping the theme and opening sequence for suspense, not much from new music composer Segun Akinola stood out.
After the episode, Whittaker, Chibnall, and Strevens all came back on stage for the panel discussion. Each member of the trio was emotional, thanking all of the fans, many in Thirteenth Doctor cosplay and with glowing Sonic Screwdriver props and toys. Inclusivity and unity were the main themes of the discussion—while Chibnall joked that he and Strevens, both white men, were the “two worst guys to ask about representation,” they stressed diversity both in front of and behind the camera. The companions are “us” and “our point of view,” said Strevens. Though Chibnall again joked, responding to people complaining about the large new cast of four: “Have you seen This is Us?”
Whittaker told tales of how she relished in creating a new character; her and the production team were inspired by a black-and-white image of woman “walking with purpose,” who appears genderless from far away, but when it came to the costume, Whittaker wanted to add plenty of colors, along with practical pockets, as she joked in both the panel and in-character in the episode. She aimed to inject energy into her performance, not necessarily looking at previous Doctors for inspiration with an acknowledgment that overlaps between performances were inevitable. But her goal first and foremost was to add “electricity and fizzing energy” that couldn’t be internalized and was instead flowing out into the space as a physical inhabitation of the role.
As Chibnall reminded everyone, the Doctor is a symbol of unity. The character, as Chibnall says, can be “male, female,” or “gender non-binary.” When asked about what she wanted to be the lasting impact in culture, Whittaker answered by saying that she just wanted it to be “a second in history that gets forgotten, because it should be the norm. I don’t want to just be a moment.” Whittaker was also asked about any advice she had for any women and girls: “We have a voice, we are entitled to be listened to,” she answered. “Also, we are flawed; perfection is not the aim,” she added, emphasizing individuality.
Both the episode and panel were characterized by a force of positivity, all of it essentially coming from Whittaker herself. The Who team was asked about some negative backlash over Whittaker’s casting, and she responded by saying that “angry voices may be the loudest but not most representative,” adding “I don’t let it get me down because it’s daft.” But perhaps the most powerful moment of the panel was the final question from an attendee, a woman who is dyspraxic herself. She thanked the team for not only casting a woman but for the inclusion of the disability through the character of Ryan in a fairly realistic manner. This moment out of everything might have demonstrated the need for representation on screen more than any other.
With today’s premiere, the new series of Doctor Who has commenced, with new episodes every Sunday. A brief trailer shown to NYCC panel attendees showcased a variety of guest stars appearing this season, with big names like Alan Cumming—Chibnall also added that the third episode will feature Rosa Parks as a character.