“Jodie’s magnificent, iconic Doctor has exceeded all our high expectations. She’s been the gold standard leading actor, shouldering the responsibility of being the first female Doctor with style, strength, warmth, generosity and humour. She captured the public imagination and continues to inspire adoration around the world, as well as from everyone on the production. I can’t imagine working with a more inspiring Doctor—so I’m not going to!”
Every few years, the news hits: the Doctor is leaving us. While many Doctor Who fans (and even more onlookers from afar) will launch immediately into the merry sport of Guess the Next Doctor, for others it is a time of grieving and processing.
Sure, we’ll love the new one when they get here. But in the meantime, we need a moment, okay?
We brace ourselves for the new, for change (more than any other TV show, loving Doctor Who means embracing change), for everything to be turned upside down and made fresh again. But we’re also bracing ourselves for loss, for losing this specific version of the show, and everything that goes along with it.
A regeneration story is like a wake and a birthday party happening at the same time: so many shiny new presents, so much emotional turmoil at saying goodbye. It’s cathartic and happy, sad and overwhelming and bittersweet. The moment has been prepared for, and even if you think you’re ready, it hits you square in the feels.
I hate to say it, fam, but this time around, it feels like we’re doing it wrong.
So much of the discourse around the Leaving of Jodie has been framed as disappointment. Not disappointment that she’s leaving…disappointment that the show that has starred her for the last two years, and will continue to feature her as lead actor for another season plus three specials, is not quite good enough.
Everywhere I look, the hot takes seem to be all about how obviously Jodie is great, but the writing wasn’t strong enough or funny enough, somehow the show wasn’t quite as magical over the last two years, and isn’t it a shame that the first ever female Doctor failed to live up to our hopes and expectations?
Most of the criticism, it is true, is directed at the current show runner Chris Chibnall (like football fans, Doctor Who fans tend to direct most of their ire and frustration at the chap in charge with a fervour that can’t be matched until the next one comes along). Still, it’s painful to see the legacy of such a brilliant actor’s take on one of the most iconic British TV characters already being defined as ‘wasted potential.’ It’s hard at times to distinguish between the Chibnall-haters and Thirteen-haters, especially when you consider that the complaints about the show’s current tone, writing, creative choices, etc. are as much a product of the much more diverse writing team behind Doctor Who than we’ve ever had before. With so many women and people of colour involved, the fact that so many fans assume Chibnall is the worst thing to ever happen to the show becomes a lot more problematic than just taking aim at the latest white man to be the Doctor Who showrunner.
And, let’s not forget, there are a lot of pure, dyed-in-the-wool, flat out Thirteen-haters in the world right now. They’re not the ones writing all the articles about how Chibnall made the first female Doctor a bit too passive, or that the show is less funny now (cough, now that a woman is delivering the gags). They’re the ones who honestly can’t stand the idea of a woman leading the show at all, ever, under any circumstances. There’s been a massive wave of misogyny poured over Doctor Who ever since Jodie first pushed back her hood, and it’s exhausting to make your way through all that venom to find the critique that’s intended in good faith.
Critique is important. No show is beyond reproach. And everyone gets to enjoy (or not) shows however they want. Right now, in the wake of learning the end-date of the Thirteenth Doctor? Critique of this era of Doctor Who does not bring me joy. And so, as Marie Kondo might advise, I’m thanking it for its service, and kicking it out of my house.
Joy. Let’s take moment to celebrate the joyful aspects of the last couple of years of Doctor Who, and of our Thirteen. She’s a beautiful Space Unicorn, a figure of hope and love and jolly good adventure. She lights up a room.
When Whittaker was first cast, there were fears that this would become the Bras in the TARDIS era, packed with gratuitous gender references and polka-dotted hair-bows. The Thirteenth Doctor eating ice cream on the couch with Wonder Woman and Mrs. Pac-Man, complaining about boyfriends who can’t tidy up after their space bikes, that sort of thing.
Instead, we got a cheeky Northern urchin in comfortable trousers who fell out of the sky, assembled a ‘fam’ of new friends, fell in love with her TARDIS all over again, and rocketed around the universe with eyes full of wonder.
She welds. She gives big speeches. She has a taste for custard creams.
She rocks a tuxedo. Did I mention she welds?
Thirteen is the positive Doctor. Instead of negging the TARDIS with one of the usual takes on the ‘redecorated…I don’t like it’ joke, she notes after a long time apart: “You’ve done yourself up…very nice.” She constantly praises and supports her friends with an infectious warmth and a big grin.
She’s the compassionate Doctor—sympathetic, empathetic and considerate, even as she stands slightly apart from humanity, observing them and trying to best to be kind even then they’re not at their best. She doesn’t need her companions to show her how to be a decent person— she’s already there.
She’s the fierce Doctor, facing down aliens and monsters, always standing between the danger and the squishy humans (or human equivalents), and proclaiming she’s not going to let evil win.
She’s the sciencey Doctor, always looking for some way to fix things, reinvent things, or to look at the problem sideways. She gave Tesla and Edison a run for their money, she dragged her companions off to go scavenging on a scrapyard planet for fun, and she built her own sonic screwdriver, mostly out of spoons.
She’s the Doctor, and like any great Doctor, it’s really hard to imagine who could take her place.
When things were especially dark and grim during 2020, during the first few months of Covid hitting the UK hard, Jodie Whittaker herself made us believe in the Doctor, recording a short message of hope on her phone, while sitting in her cupboard. It was glorious. It was needed. It was three minutes long, and showed that like all the actors who have come before, she is the Doctor. She knows what it means. So yes, it’s going to hurt when she leaves us.
You know what? The Thirteenth Doctor is spectacular, but she’s not the only great thing about Series 11 and 12. Looking back over the last couple of years of Doctor Who, I’ve found plenty to celebrate there, as well.
We got planetary vistas that looked incredible (so many location shoots), shiny spaceships and robots, weird eldritch horrors, and historical stories that dug into the problems of the historical period when they were set, rather than mostly using history as a backdrop for alien adventures.
We got male companions who did the emotional heavy lifting, both in their own character development, and in stories like The Tsuranga Continuum, where Graham and Ryan talk a guest character through delivering a baby while the Doctor and Yaz are busy trying to save the ship. (We didn’t get enough Yaz. What we got of her was very promising. More Yaz, please. Time to give her the character arc she deserves.)
We got a commitment to diversity in front of and behind the cameras, with waves of new talent invited into the Doctor Who family. We got more women and people of colour scripting and directing the show than we had seen before. (It’s not a lot, because the bar was so very low in this regard, but it’s still a great improvement.)
We got wonderful guest stars: Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks, Alan Cumming as James I, Lenny Henry as a villainous CEO, Goran Visnjic as Nikola Tesla, and of course Sacha Dhawan as you-know-who, just to name a few. Not to mention the best and most exciting casting choice of them all: Jo Martin as The Doctor.
We got shocks and surprises—Series 12 in particular was full of them, with teases and reveals and returning villains and friends (I will never quite recover from that moment of recognising Captain Jack’s voice in Return of the Judoon, in what turned out to be one of the smaller surprises of that particular story.
As if all this wasn’t enough, we got the other Big Reveal, the one that I know many fans are still struggling to wrap their heads around. The Massive Mythology Explosion. The revelation that actually, the 57 years up until that point was a tiny tip of the iceberg of the Doctor’s actual personal journey…and there’s so much more for us to learn about her.
Some hated it, some loved it, some are still processing it more than a year later…but one thing’s for sure, we’re all still talking about Doctor Who. I’m still trying to unpack my emotions about all this. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for most of my 43 years (I was born into it—blame my mother), and while I talked about and imagined the possibility for years,
I didn’t realise how important it was to me that we have a female Doctor until she was here.
And if I learned anything from the one time my country (Australia) elected a female Prime Minister, I know that one isn’t enough.
The first one that’s different—well, she gets the backlash as well as the storm of expectations. She’s expected to do everything simultaneously better and exactly the same, while also being hated by people who claim she’s ruined everything. There’s too much weight to carry for one person, one character, one leader.
We criticise women differently from how we criticise men. We criticise female characters differently from how we criticise male characters. To make things even more complicated, we criticise men writing female characters differently to how we criticise men writing male characters. The first time a woman steps up into a traditionally male space… well, the critique is going to go off the charts, until you can’t tell what’s legitimate and thoughtful, and what’s just there to drag her down. The critique gets amplified and given greater weight, and the praise and general squeefulness of those people still enjoying the show gets trampled on, over and over, until it’s not fun anymore to express your love for Doctor Who in public.
When every Facebook or Twitter update about a new episode or a great Jodie moment fills up with comments hating on Chibnall, the perceived flaws of the new era of the show, and so on, as if this is a universally agreed-upon opinion, it drags you down until you stop making those public happy comments altogether.
The Thirteenth Doctor has been wrapped up in all of that. Sometimes the negativity is so loud and overwhelming that it’s hard to cut through the noise and just…find joy in her funny one-liners, her wicked smile, her blazing Hard Stare, her excellent flourishy way of pointing a sonic screwdriver (or anything else). Her general Doctorishness.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this particular era of the show until we know what’s coming next. Is the Doctor going to be female again (still) or was this our one shot at something different? Will she finally be played by a person of colour? Is a non-binary performer even remotely possible? Do we get to keep moving forward, or was Thirteen just an anomaly in the long line of white male British actors between the ages of 26 and 55 waving a sonic screwdriver and telling us how clever they are? Is she the exception that proves the rule, or is she the beginning of a whole new book of rules?
Is she, as the sitcom Community suggested years ago with their running gags about Inspector Spacetime, a “Minerva” who will go down in history as the Worst Doctor, not because she’s female, but because [insert justification here, probably with repeated references to Chris Chibnall]?
I feel like I’m about to launch into a Joanna Russ speech. She was the Doctor, but there was only one of her. She was the Doctor, but look what she Doctored about…
The only way a female Doctor can possibly end up representing all the things we want from the Doctor as hero is if we get another after this one, and another after that. (Can you count up to twelve? I can definitely count past twelve.) If we get enough of them on the screen, perhaps we can finally appreciate the Thirteenth Doctor as the trailblazing figure that she was.
Our precious Space Unicorn. The first of many. Pure joy. Ready for
“Something I believe in my faith: love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have. Because, love is a form of hope, and like hope, love abides, in the face of everything.”—The Thirteenth Doctor.
© 2021 Tansy Rayner Roberts
One Response to “Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor Is a Space Unicorn (And We’re Going to Miss Her When She’s Gone)”
Thank you for this wonderful essay. I loved Jodie from the first promo picture – the joy in her eyes, the grin. Her Doctor’s positivity and inclusivity, her social awkwardness, her hand-on-ness (SHE WELDS!). I loved the emotional depth of the male characters doing that emotional labour that we never see often enough. I loved Yaz (oh please let there be more Yaz) and her wit, her intelligence, her kindness. I loved stores that, as you point out, used the injustices of the historical setting to tell more textured stories. I loved seeing stories about more kinds of people, and scripts that even briefly acknowledged their different experiences. I adored SO HARD the new mythology and Jo Martin’s Doctor (more of her too, please?). Episodes and moments were flawed, it always is, but I only remember how much I’ve loved the cast, the characters, the fresh new approaches and ideas. I hope whoever steps into Jodie’s wonderfully battered boots will take us further on that journey.