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For The First Time, A Woman Steps In As 'Doctor Who' Lead


Since the show's 1963 debut, the British science fiction series "Doctor Who" has always had a male actor in the lead role - until now. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says the first "Doctor Who" episode featuring Jodie Whittaker, which airs today on BBC America, breaks ground in a surprising way.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: What may be most revolutionary about the new "Doctor Who" is how unrevolutionary this first episode feels. Yes, it is wonderful to finally have the show's hero - an alien who regenerates into a different form instead of dying - finally played by a woman after 55 years. And when that woman is the excellent British actress Jodie Whittaker, you get a scene that explains that transformation like this.


JODIE WHITTAKER: (As The Doctor) There's this moment when you're sure you're about to die. And then, you're born. Right now, I'm a stranger to myself. There's echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. I'll be fine in the end.

DEGGANS: Of course, this is "Doctor Who." It always turns out all right in the end, mostly. Whittaker plays The Doctor, a centuries-old time-traveling Time Lord who rights wrongs across the universe. Her first episode is a fast-paced but kind of generic adventure that could've featured any of "Doctor Who's" past male stars. It's got a simple plot. An alien has plopped down in England with nefarious plans. The Doctor must stop him while coping with her own recent changes. Whittaker's predecessor, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, initially played The Doctor as an alien who could be callous. His evolution into a caring Doctor - someone who would sacrifice himself for lesser beings rather than be annoyed by them - was a central arc of Capaldi's three seasons on the show.

Here's a speech from his last regular season episode.


PETER CAPALDI: (As The Doctor) I'm not doing this because I want to beat someone. It's not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it's right. And, above all, it's kind.

DEGGANS: Whittaker's Doctor has no such issues. In a showdown, she tells the bad guy exactly where she stands.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Who are you?

WHITTAKER: (As The Doctor) 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. Now, please get off this planet while you still have a choice.

DEGGANS: Still, Whittaker's first episode doesn't tell us much about her character. Like previous Doctors, she's brilliant, eccentric and surprisingly attached to human life in Britain. She accepts her gender change with barely a hiccup when a police officer points out the obvious.


MANDIP GILL: (As Yasmin Khan) Hold on there, please, madam. I need you to do as I say. This could be a potential crime scene...

WHITTAKER: (As The Doctor) Why are you calling me madam?

GILL: (As Yasmin Khan) Because you're a woman?

WHITTAKER: (As The Doctor) Am I? Does it suit me?

GILL: (As Yasmin Khan) What?

WHITTAKER: (As The Doctor) Oh, yeah. I remember. Sorry. Half an hour ago, I was a white-haired Scotsman.

DEGGANS: "Doctor Who" often features Doctors who speak to the times. When James Bond was popular in the early '70s, dashing Jon Pertwee played The Doctor. In 2010, 20-something Matt Smith was a millennial-aged Doctor. Now, a female Doctor emerges when the subject of women's empowerment is front-page news. But in this first episode, Whittaker shatters stereotypes, mostly, by acting like her male predecessors. She has a mostly unquestioned authority. There's no annoying romantic subtext. She doesn't exist mostly to be saved from danger or inspire revenge or be someone's conscience - all tropes for female characters found throughout science fiction and in past "Doctor Who" episodes.

Fans know the first episode featuring a new Doctor is often awkward. The writers and actor haven't fully clicked with the character, which may explain why new showrunner Chris Chibnall's first episode with Whittaker doesn't feel particularly exceptional, beyond introducing a great supporting cast. But there's also something powerful about just getting on with it and letting the new Doctor be her own woman in her own time.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DOCTOR WHO" THEME SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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