Jodie Whittaker, Chris Chibnall, and Matt Strevens sat on SYFY WIRE's live stage at New York Comic Con in October of 2018 shortly after their debut Doctor Who episode, "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," aired in front of a packed crowd for the very first time.
They talked about a lot of things that day, but what stayed with me throughout the intervening nine weeks is the conversation about how different Doctor Who would be this time; not in the way it always is across each regenerative reinvention, but in a way Doctor Who hasn't been different since 1970.
To refresh your memory: when Jon Pertwee took over the TARDIS from Patrick Troughton, the show didn't just go from black and white to color; it also became earth-bound, solidified action and morality as the show's driving forces, and introduced Autons, Silurians, astronaut suits as iconography, and featured the first time the Doctor ever lost the sum entirety of planet Earth. Oops!
Just as with Whittaker, Pertwee did it all without the help of past baddies or companions, and the four serials from that series didn't just reinvigorate the show, they also set so much of the blueprint for what the show would become when it returned in 2005.
Whittaker, Chibnall and Strevens just did the exact same thing in 2018. They moved the needle so far in a scant ten episodes that we'll still be feeling the seismic shift of this season 45 years from now.
And that's a good thing.
Some housekeeping: if you hated this season, there's an article already pre-written for you to nod along with. Go read it! In fact, I encourage you to read it regardless of your feelings since its author and I address some similar facets of the show, albeit from very different positions.
Speaking of which, here are some big changes that improved Doctor Who immeasurably this year.
AN INTROSPECTIVE LEADING WOMAN
If there's one thing I feared might be dragged from the toy box of TV tropes when the first ever woman took the role of the Doctor, it was "butt-kicking female." You know, the one where the woman is unemotional, uses her fists a bunch, and otherwise "acts like a man" or whatever?
I'm not saying that character type should never exist, but it already does, in mass quantities. Moreover, it often excludes the concept that femme women can lead, that emotions are antithetical to leadership, and that occasional moments of uncertainty are acts of strength, not weakness.
Since 2005, the Doctor has been a grandstanding, speech-making, chest-thumping, Shouty McShouterson for the ages. When the Doctor was sure, they shouted it to the hilltops. When the Doctor wasn't sure? They shouted a lie to the hilltops!
The Oncoming Storm. The Lonely God. The Trickster. River Song gives a whole speech about how the word "doctor" might come to be synonymous with "warrior" rather than "wise man" the way the Doctor has been carrying on.
And that was fun. For a little while. But after 12 years and four Doctors? We were due for a change.
We got it. Jodie Whittaker's 13th Doctor doesn't do a lot of long-winded speeches, she doesn't kvetch about Time Wars, and sometimes, when she's wrong about someone or something, SHE APOLOGIZES!
It's not just that the modern era of Doctor Who featured arrogantly self-assured Doctors, it's that the show was almost built on them. William Hartnell literally talked about spanking one of his companions. Pertwee, the actor, turned down actresses for the role of Sarah Jane Smith because they were too tall and he preferred diminutive women. Loudmouth braggarts and fatuous egotist don't just dot the landscape of Doctor Who, they ARE Doctor Who.
But not anymore! The 13th Doctor has moments she outright knows she cannot control: she cannot help Rosa Parks, she must let Yaz's grandmother's first husband die, and, if she's physically injured on someone else's ship, she can't act like she's the best candidate to be the boss. Well, she can... she just doesn't.
That change means the Doctor doesn't have to be so rigid in the future. And it means she can rely on her fellow travelers more often. Which segues us nicely to...
ALLIES OVER COMPANIONS
One of the things people were unsure about the new Doctor Who was the change in language. Gone was the long-used term "companion" for those who traveled with the Doctor, and in its place, the far more general, "friend."
Companions, in the past 55 years or so, have been the ones to say, "What's that, Doctor?" Yes, they are sometimes our entryway into the world of the Doctor, they can be intelligent, but, more often than not, they are less than the Doctor. Intellectually inferior. Just not as cool.
But what "friend" has seemingly come to mean (and thus transformed Doctor Who again) is "equal." There's a moment in the eighth episode, "The Witchfinders" where, being selected as the de facto leader because of his age and gender, Graham refers to the Doctor's group as, "a very flat team structure. We all have our area of expertise." It's a sentiment the Doctor herself echoes later.
And that's true! The Doctor is oftentimes the brain, but Ryan, Yaz, and Graham have equal opportunities to spy a solution the Doctor doesn't. And, likewise, while the Doctor's friends are bold of heart, it's the Doctor who often speaks about the importance of love, and not just a way of beating Cybermen.
The Doctor is the leader. No one makes any bones about it. Her ship, her experiences, her rules most of the time. But there's an equality we've never quite seen before. By sheer volume of companions, there's the inevitability that multiple companions will have to make big choices every episode without the Doctor's input. And, more often than not, those decisions are good ones, if not irreversible. It's a different sort of drama from what we've seen before. Which brings us to...
CONTINUITY IS NOT KING
In 2005 we found out the 9th Doctor was the last of the Timelords. Daleks turned humans into Daleks, Cybermen turned humans into Cybermen, The Master turned humans into himself, and each season carried with it an enormous, long-form arc. Moffat built companions around them. The Girl Who Waited. The Impossible Girl. The Impossible Astronaut. The Hybrid.
And, again, it was fun... for a little while. But the long-form stories also carried with them the tendency to build stories both micro and macro into giant, world-ending, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink behemoths. I'm not saying there was no room for nuance, but there was less room for nuance.
This season dispensed almost entirely with the ongoing arc. Other than Tzim-Sha, every episode featured brand new challenges that weren't even necessarily bad guys. The Kisar weren't monsters at all, just aliens bearing witness to the loss of the lies of the forgotten.
What we wind up with once we subtract the dogged obsession for explaining a season-long mystery is a focus on individual stories aka stories about individuals. Graham's struggle to connect with Ryan as his new family. Ryan struggling to overcome his insecurity because of his physical illness. Yaz learning about her family. A season worth of dealing with Grace's death.
And that's just the main characters. King James gets a story for the ages! We see the partition of India through the first ever married couple of Pakistan. And there's a lonely universe shaped like a frog! The show has never been more heartfelt or weird, and that is what happens when you don't have to appropriate temporal real estate every story towards some potential payoff down the line.
In the end, there are a lot of things I could tell you make the show better. I love that the Doctor acknowledges that she wouldn't be defending herself so often if she were still male-presenting. I think exploring the past to remind ourselves of as many cultures as we can is great!
And, frankly, for all the people sad about the lack of a big bombastic Murray Gold score, I could introduce you to a horde of film and TV composers who will tell you that Doctor Who's soundtrack didn't need to be its own character and even hurt the show sometimes. Segun Akinola's more-reserved score is beautiful, and, frankly, there are times its silence reveals where Doctor Who has perhaps relied upon music to fill in a little too much. And finding flaws and ways to improve is important, too.
Whether you love these changes or not, the fact is this: the show is different. More different than it has been in about 48 years. Maybe we'll look back on this first Whittaker season as just okay, maybe we'll see it as a classic, but undoubtedly we will see it as a year that changed what Doctor Who can be. And for a show that is defined by change, that isn't just good, it's essential.