This weekend’s Doctor Who special sees Jodie Whittaker hang up her sonic screwdriver. We salute her performance as the Thirteenth Doctor.
This feature contains spoilers for Series 11, 12, and 13 of Doctor Who.
“She was the universe.”
One of the nice things about Doctor Who is that it’s a hard part for an actor to get wrong. Over time, different versions might land further away and closer to what your personal ideal of the show is, but the central role has always been impeccably cast, and so it goes for Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor.
As the first female incarnation of the Time Lord in the TV show proper, Whittaker’s Doctor has had more than her fair share of scrutiny, not to mention the common- or garden-variety misogyny that’s hummed on dully in the background since her casting was first announced in July 2017.
But whatever you reckon to the last few series, overseen by head writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall, Whittaker has been consistently terrific. If it’s your favourite era, as it is for many, her performance speaks for itself. And if you’re not a fan of the scripting or the style or any one of a bunch of other complaints, then you have to admit that she’s done well with what she’s given.
In this weekend’s feature-length special, The Power Of The Doctor, we’ll see the Thirteenth Doctor’s era come to an end, with friends and foes both old and new in tow for her final episode. And ahead of that, we’re in a reflective mood about Whittaker’s performance across the past four years.
Her first full episode, 2018’s The Woman Who Fell To Earth, serves as a convincing 60-minute makeover of Doctor Who, picking up where Chibnall and Whittaker’s respective predecessors, Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi, left off by introducing a Doctor with a new lease on life.
Meeting and instantly befriending Graham, (Bradley Walsh) Yaz, (Mandip Gill) and Ryan, (Tosin Cole) the new Doctor is ostensibly free of the angst that plagues other recent incarnations. Notably steering clear of Doctor Who’s rogues’ gallery of monsters and villains, her first series paints a more optimistic, hyperactive portrayal of the Doctor, but sets about deconstructing it before long.
Cheeky, silly, and oh-so-Yorkshire, Whittaker’s Doctor is outwardly jovial, but even from the start, she has a cold streak to match any of her male predecessors. It comes out throughout Series 11, particularly in any scenes where the mask slips, and her companions aren’t around to see her bare her teeth and show some steel. Her temper quickens throughout the next two series too, as continuity catches up with her.
With her colourful bespoke outfit and occasional callousness towards friends and others, she most often recalls the Doctors of the 1980s – especially Peter Davison, whose sensible yet ineffectual take (not his fault) never seems to come in for the sort of flak that his closest modern counterpart gets. (Funny, that!)
The Thirteenth Doctor may present as that hyperactive optimist, but Whittaker brings depth to her. She’s always better being clever and funny, rather than standing around and having backstory explained to her as in so much of Series 12 and (regrettably) last year’s ambitious season-long serial, Flux, but whatever she’s working with, she’s never any less than great.
An under-discussed aspect of her character is that despite keeping the TARDIS well-staffed with friends and companions, she continually keeps people at arm’s length. By the beginning of Series 12, we see Graham, Yaz, and Ryan questioning whether they know her as well as they think they do.
Though outwardly nice and polite and bubbly, her Doctor visibly puts some graft into repressing her feelings, whether it’s talking about her past or, in latter episodes, expressing what seems to be a mutual romantic attraction to Yaz.
And when it comes to her friends, she’s forever not telling them important details or, for better or worse, professing social awkwardness instead of making a speech. That doesn’t suit all audiences’ tastes. For instance, Simon’s written before about a missed opportunity at the end of Series 12’s Can You Hear Me? – you can read that here:
Then again, characters have flaws and Thirteen’s caginess is only an issue if you think this recurring theme is entirely accidental. Like the Tenth Doctor’s paternalism, or the Eleventh Doctor’s hubris, or the Twelfth Doctor’s acerbic outlook, it lends nuance to the character.
It’s also an interesting wrinkle that this Doctor is at her most “Doctorish”, (a nebulous attribute that all the fans agree that they want, even if it’s got infinite definitions) essaying the ruthless, ancient beast of the universe, when her companions aren’t around to see it. The “flat team structure” she encourages feels like atonement for more domineering past regenerations, but the bottled-up stuff does occasionally boil over into rants such as this, from Series 12’s The Haunting Of Villa Diodati:
“Sometimes this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit in the stratosphere, alone, left to choose. Save the poet, save the universe. Watch people burn now or tomorrow. Sometimes, even I can’t win.”
In such outbursts, Whittaker shows how her Doctor is the right sort of character to confront with the grand rewriting of Doctor Who’s origins that forms a major part of her era.
Far from being upstaged by Jo Martin’s mystery Doctor or Sacha Dhawan’s frazzled, Gallifrey-nuking incarnation of the Master, Whittaker runs with that mystery and adapts her performance to the knowledge that her home is gone (again) and her life is not what she thought it was.
Again, recalling the 1980s Doctors, Chibnall’s storytelling seems to aspire to script editor Andrew Cartmel’s unfulfilled masterplan to restore some mystery to the Doctor by befuddling their character with an unfulfilled plotline about their importance to the founding of Gallifrey.
The show was cancelled in 1989 before this could come to fruition, and judging by the fan reception, this idea was only widely well-regarded. As it stands, the Timeless Child plot is teased from the second episode of Thirteen’s run, The Ghost Monument, but in the execution, its potentially shattering reconfiguration of Doctor Who is somewhat undercut by a weaker script.
This starts happening after her first series, which still represents the best jumping-on point for new fans in many years. It’s a series with vision, whether targeting the character’s hypocrisy and contradictions in Demons Of The Punjab (a high point of Chibnall’s more reined-in approach) or giving us the gift of a scene where she gently dumps a talking frog in It Takes You Away (time’s gonna tell on that one, just you wait).
From scene one, she’s an improviser, given to acting first and thinking later. That ranges from building her own sonic screwdriver out of bits and bobs in a Sheffield workshop to simply acting impulsively and correcting her own mistakes on the go. Whatever “Doctorish” means to you, this fits right alongside other interpretations.
Going back to the 80s Doctors once again, we’ll turn to the most unfairly maligned Doctor actor Colin Baker to sum up what makes Whittaker’s take unique.
In an interview for the extra features on a Doctor Who: The Collection Blu-ray set, Baker enthused: ‘I think she’s wonderful. She has brought, for me, something that I haven’t seen in Doctor Who from any of us, which is joy […] pure, unadulterated, simple, uncomplicated joy, and I think that is such a wonderful characteristic for the Doctor.’
Outside of televised adventures, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the special “emergency transmission” that Whittaker recorded in the early days of the first Coronavirus lockdown in 2020. Scripted by Chibnall and recorded by Whittaker from inside her wardrobe, the 81-second video is pitched directly to younger viewers who might be a bit worried about the state of things.
It’s a dispatch from the Doctor when we need it the most and it’s no pronouncement on the quality of anything else to say it’s probably the single most important bit of Doctor Who in this entire era. Separate from any of the format changes or the deep lore, it’s pure public service and if nothing else, it alone cements Jodie Whittaker as one of the greats.
In its entirety, Doctor Who is too often revisited and pored over for the strength of her overall performance to go unnoticed for long. If the stories or the scripts aren’t to your taste, a Big Finish Thirteenth Doctor Adventures boxset or two probably beckons in time. But if you don’t fancy waiting that long to reassess, just take a look at the cracking work she’s put in over the last four years.
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