In celebration of International Women’s Day today and Women’s History Month to follow, I’ve teamed up with a group of other bloggers to write a series saluting some of our favorite female characters. Going first was a bit intimidating. Who could I write about? Who has the gravitas worthy of beginning our month-long celebration of these incredible characters? Then it hit me – it’s the Doctor! It seemed so obvious once I thought of her. So, in honor of International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, and to kick-off our month-long series I’m exploring the Doctor, as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker Fiction’s Fearless Females in Series Eleven and Twelve (with more to come!) of Doctor Who.
Note, watching Doctor Who isn’t always easy, depending on what cable or streaming services you have. So if you’re not up to date, I’ll be discussing her character, using some quotes, and discussing the justice-oriented themes addressed since she’s taken over as the Doctor. But I won’t be discussing specific plot points or any major plot reveals. Depending on how you feel about “spoilers,” that’s what’s to follow. That said, let’s get started!
So, just who is the Doctor? Answering the question of her identity in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” (S11,E1), she says, “Yes, I’m glad you asked that again. Bit of adrenaline, dash of outrage, and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together. I know exactly who I am. I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe.”
First airing in 1963, Doctor Who is a British sci-fi program following the exploits of the titular Doctor as they across time and space in their TARDIS. The Doctor is part of an alien race known as Time Lords. When mortally wounded or near death from illness or old age, a Time Lord will regenerate and, barring another wound during this process, will be reborn in a new body. These regenerations are fluid in regard to age, gender, and race. The process of regeneration is kind of a mix between resurrection and reincarnation; the being who emerges from regeneration holds all the memories from their previous lives but their personality, mannerisms, even their likes and dislikes are in flux (allowing each actor to put their own spin on this iconic character). Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the Doctor was historic in that she’s the first woman to play the role in the show’s near-sixty year history.
And she’s amazing. At first I kind of felt like I was cheating on David Tennant when I’d say this but Jodie Whittaker has become, far and away, my all-time favorite Doctor. It’s no contest. David Tennant’s Ten (my first experience of true love with a Doctor) will always be near to my heart but Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen is my favorite. Among so many other reasons, she embodies the Doctor’s manic and all-consuming love, hope, and joy in all of creation most profoundly for me. Their just-completed Series Twelve has become my all-time favorite series of Doctor Who too. It’s all sooooo good!
As a character with almost sixty years of history across TV series, novels, radio dramas, comic books, and more, there is so much to say about the Doctor and so many directions to take an analysis of her character. But, as the title of this series implies, I’ve one question at hand. What makes her fearless?
To begin, the very process of regeneration takes courage. Each life that ends is very much a “death” and as each new one begins you have to undertake the process of finding yourself anew. The Doctor is over 2,000 years old yet, each time she regenerates, she has to figure out who she is all over again. She explains the process to Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), whom she encounters on Earth the night she regenerated:
The Doctor – “You should’ve seen me a few hours back. My whole body changed. Every cell in my body, burning, some of ‘em are still at it now. Reordering. Regenerating.”
Grace – “It sounds painful, love.”
The Doctor – “You have no idea. There’s this moment, when you’re sure you’re about to die and then – you’re born. It’s terrifyin’. Right now I’m a stranger to myself. There’s…echoes of who I was and a sort of…call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine…in the end. Hopefully. Oh, I have to be! Because you guys need help! And if there’s one thing I’m certain of, when people need help, I never refuse.”
Alien or not, we all understand that struggle. We’ve all had to seek the nerve to trust our instincts and shape ourselves towards the person we’re called to be. It can be exhilarating and, as the Doctor says, terrifying. But it’s a fear life calls us to face and one we must face in order to find true happiness and meaning in our lives. That takes courage. And the Doctor has to do so, in a jarring and complete way, each time she regenerates.
The Doctor doesn’t just have the courage to find herself anew but she also has the courage to be who she is once she has. One of my favorite things about the Doctor is she is always proudly and unapologetically herself, never pretending to be more or less than she is. After Graham shares a deeply personal fear with the Doctor in “Can You Hear Me?” (S12,E7), her response is priceless:
The Doctor – “I should say a reassuring thing now, shouldn’t I?”
Graham – “Yeah, probably.”
The Doctor – “I’m still quite socially awkward. So I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then, in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might’ve been helpful.”
Hahaha, I love it :D. And I’d wager our lives would be much healthier if we were all brave enough to be so open and honest about ourselves – our brilliance and our limitations – with others as well as with ourselves.
Newly regenerated, the Doctor begins drawing closer to her new travelling companions, her “fam.” This time around, Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tonsin Cole), and Graham O’Brien will join the Doctor as she sets off to travel through creation in her TARDIS. This too, is an act of courage, given all the Doctor’s lost.
The modern era of Doctor Who begins with the Doctor in dark times. To end the Last Great Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks (for those unfamiliar…uh, imagine if the worst of the pureblood, genetic-cleansing Nazi ideology was personified in an indestructible garbage can with world destroying weaponry), the Doctor detonated a weapon that destroyed both races. Alone in so many ways, the Doctor (portrayed by Christopher Eccleston in the Ninth regeneration) heads out to endlessly travel the cosmos, seeking distraction and ways to numb the pain and loneliness. Meeting Rose (Billie Piper), the Doctor begins to regain a sense of humanity. The Doctor lets her in but, as with all the Doctor’s companions, she can’t stay forever. They never do. Some die. Some leave. Some are taken. But the Doctor continues to brave the pain of loss and loneliness in the name of companionship.
In this regard, I love, love, love the growth we see in the Doctor’s character as she’s played by Jodie Whittaker. Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor were bursting with excitement over all the wonders of creation and they explored it at a near-manic pace. They loved it all. They protected it all. But their pain was raw, the walls around their hearts high, and the nightmares that haunted them still very, very close. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor begins to gradually lose more and more of that anger. With Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor we see a willingness, from the outset, the christen her new companions as “fam”…even if they aren’t quick to embrace it. Knowing that losing them is the only possible end result, with her being effectively immortal while Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are very human, she still runs towards them. The unwavering drive to protect and honor all of creation still beats in the Doctor’s hearts but the incendiary anger is gone. As the anger fades and the pain recedes, those walls continue to drop with beautiful effect.
No matter how much the Doctor has lost in over 2,000 years, she still has the courage to continue to rebuild her life and her family time and again. Even if there’s still a distance (at first at least) between the Doctor and her fam, she still seeks to unite them by forging the bonds of family, trust, and love between all of them as she shows them the wonders of the universe.
In exploring all the wonders the universe has to offer it’s only a matter of time until you stumble across the horrors as well. It’s not in the Doctor’s willingness to face down all manner of hateful ideologies and monstrous alien threats that I see her fearlessness most demonstrated (although it is, certainly, impressive). Rather it is her courage to always believe in us despite all she’s seen. As a race, we human beings have done some terrible things to each other. And we continue to do so. The Doctor has travelled all through our past, present, and future. She’s seen it all. But no matter what she’s seen, she always believes in us. And you can’t help but get caught up in her wake!
One of the reasons I’m so drawn to Doctor Who as a show is how hopeful it is. I found Doctor Who at the right time. I need this. Looking at the world we live in, simply hoping is one of the most courageous things we can do.
Aboard the medical ship the Tsuranga (S11,E5), the Doctor and her fam must do their best to protect the passengers from a dangerous and near-indestructible Pting that has boarded. Talking to the assistant medic Mabli (Lois Chimimba), the Doctor inspires as only she can:
The Doctor – “You’re a medic. I’m the Doctor.”
Mabli – “A doctor of medicine?”
The Doctor – “Well medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss, LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people, hope. Mostly hope.”
Mabli – “I’m struggling to see much hope here.”
The Doctor – “It doesn’t just offer itself up you have to use your imagination. Imagine the solution and work to make it reality. Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.”
The Doctor will later assure all those onboard the ship, “People prevail. Hope prevails.” This is the medicine my soul needs! It’s easy to see why this show has lasted for almost sixty years. Sometimes when I’m reading the news, I just have to take a break to watch Doctor Who. As I said above, you can’t not get caught in her wake. People prevail. Hope prevails. Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination. To look at the world as it is now and not just say that but believe that is fearless. To hope is fearless. And the Doctor, as a character, has seen all the horrors wrought throughout history. But she still believes in us, in hope.
The show doesn’t shy away from tackling “real world” issues, either. Over the course of the two series of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen we’ve seen stories that have addressed the reality of racism, the Trump administration, America gun culture, religious intolerance and discrimination, corporate exploitation of workers, sexism, Brexit, the way in which we all thoughtlessly accept our technology spying on us in the name of convenience, climate change, the proliferation of plastic pollution, and the importance of destigmatizing and treating mental health issues. The Doctor never shies away from the complicated reality of these problems but she’s never lost in despair either.
Looking to a distraught Ryan, Graham, and Yaz after the stumble onto a future where the Earth’s been destroyed by human actions, the Doctor says, “You want me to tell you that Earth’s gonna be okay? ‘Cause I can’t. In your time humanity’s busy arguing over the washing up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions and actions and people stepping up. Humans, I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets or wreck them. That’s the choice.”
We see the Doctor’s vision of our potential, too, when she encounters Zellin and Rayaka, two of the “old gods” of the universe. Zellin tells her, “You know the best part of humanity? The thing that truly sets them apart? The cruelty of their own minds directed towards themselves. The doubt. Fear. The endless voices telling themselves they’re incapable and unworthy. Such an exquisite animal, built in pain. And the repository of that pain, their nightmares.”
Correcting him, the Doctor says, “You’re wrong about humans. They’re not pathetic. They’re magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilt. They face them down every day and they prevail. That’s not weakness. That’s strength. That’s what humanity is.” Part of what makes the Doctor so inspiring is she doesn’t just see this in humanity but she helps us to see this in ourselves.
Perhaps nowhere do we walk this line of weakness and strength, of doubt and magnificence more than when we love. For in loving, we are at our most vulnerable and we find our greatest potential for strength. As far as I’m concerned, the most fearless thing about the Doctor is her unceasing courage to live in love as nothing in our history or in our hearts requires more strength and bravery than loving. And this incarnation of the Doctor loves everything.
It’s something of a running joke on Series Eleven and Twelve, how the Doctor loves just about everything she encounters. To look at some of her offhanded proclamations of love we find:
“I love a good hologram. I was a hologram once, for three weeks. The gossip I picked up…”
“Big locked door. I love a big locked door.”
“I love tea. Tea at Yaz’s – amazing.”
“I love a conspiracy.”
“I love biscuits.”
“I love a bit of retro.”
“Apple bobbing! I love apple bobbing!”
“Can I just say? I love me sonic.”
“Ugh, I shoulda brought wellies. That coulda been another precaution – always bring wellies. I love wellies.”
“I love a laminator.”
“Oh, I love a good plume. What do ya think?”
What I love (no pun intended, seriously XD) about this gimmick is how true it is. One of the first things that drew me to Doctor Who was how much the Doctor seemed to love everything in creation. This love is the driving force behind everything she does. She travels everywhere because she loves all of creation. She protects everyone and everything because she loves all of creation. She’s a pacifist because she loves all life. And she continually draws new friends – whom she makes her family – to her, no matter how many loved ones she loses, because she knows loving relationship is the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most meaningful thing we can do in life.
We see this perhaps most clearly articulated in “Demons in the Punjab” (S11,E6) where the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham have travelled to India in August of 1947, the day India’s partitioned and Pakistan is created. They are there to see Yaz’s nan, Umbreen (Amita Suman), in her youth. She is a Muslim and is preparing to marry her lover Prem (Shane Zaza), who’s Hindu. As events unfold, the Doctor ends up being asked to marry the two.
In one of the shows most beautiful scenes, while marrying Umbreen and Prem, the Doctor first unties the rope marking the partition between India and Pakistan. Then she says, “I know there aren’t many certainties in any of our lives. But Umbreen, Prem, what I see in you is the certainty you have in each other. 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 you both found love with each other. You believed in it. You fought for it. And you waited for it. And now, you’re committing to it. Which makes you, right now, the two strongest people on this planet – maybe in this universe.”
What the Doctor says of Umbreen and Pram as they wed each other is true of all of us, in every sincere movement of love we make. “Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have.” We see this, love as a transformative weapon of beauty and truth, write large over all the Doctor’s adventures because she never fears to follow where love leads her. By her very nature, she invites us to follow her lead. She calls us to find someone, something, some idea or cause – or all of the above! – and to pour the whole of ourselves into that love, with wild and reckless abandon. It’s scary. It may be the scariest thing we can do, because love leaves us at our most vulnerable. But it’s worth it. And it can change the world.
As the Doctor shows us time and again, it is our nature – our destiny – to overcome our fears and love with all our hearts.
Michael J. Miller writes and rambles about comic books and comic book movies (not to mention Doctor Who and Star Wars and whatever else randomly pops into his head) on his blog My Comic Relief. He teaches theology at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA – including classes on Star Wars as modern mythology and the intersection of comic books and social justice. Should it be your thing, you can also find him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief but he tweets sporadically at best because social media can be exhausting.
Note: If you’ve never watched any Doctor Who and would like to know where to start (*cough* every other author in this series *cough* except Kalie who has watched (and enjoyed!) several episodes with me) allow me to offer some suggestions. A newbie to this world myself several years ago, I think the modern Doctor Who Series One (2005) with Christopher Eccleston is a great entry point as is Doctor Who Series Five (2010) with Matt Smith. Doctor Who Series Eleven (2018) with Jodie Whittaker works too! So, if you were intrigued here, you can start with her series and then go backwards if you’d like. Basically, and new Doctor where there aren’t companions carried over from the previous run serves as a sort of easy entry point.
Note II: Fiction’s Fearless Females is in it’s second year now! Yay! The series will run the entire month of March. Along with myself, the series will feature posts by Nancy and Kathleen of Graphic Novelty2, Kalie of Just Dread-full, Shannon of Reads & Reels, Rob of My Side of the Laundry Room, and Jeff of The Imperial Talker. Be sure to follow each of these blogs (as if you don’t already!) and check back each week – here and on their sites! – to see who’s being featured and bask in all the excitement of our latest installment.