The only constant on Doctor Who is change. There’s no other series on television that has the concept as firmly baked into its DNA, or that has spent as long teaching its fanbase that what matters aren’t so much the faces on our screens but the themes at the show’s heart. Travel hopefully. Be kind. Make your story a good one.
Therefore, the announcement that Jodie Whittaker will be leaving Doctor Who following her third season (plus a few specials) in the TARDIS isn’t exactly shocking. While saying farewell to any actor who has played the iconic character is always bittersweet, that change is how the show stays fresh. But Whittaker’s departure somehow feels more disheartening than usual. Part of that is because Thirteen is the franchise’s first female Doctor, a long-hoped-for shift that’s surprisingly difficult to let go of. (We’re all assuming the next Doctor is going to be a man, yes?) But it’s also because it still feels like we barely know her at all.
With two seasons behind her (and one to come), Thirteen still lacks anything that might be called a clear narrative arc. Her inner life remains largely closed off from both her companions and the viewers watching at home. For every “It Takes You Away,” whose weirdo omni-dimensional god frog reflected the Doctor’s experience back to us in new and meaningful ways – so lonely, but still striving always to be kind – there are a half dozen others where Thirteen’s feelings remain a mystery to almost everyone involved. (See also: “Spyfall,” “Ascension of the Cybermen” and “The Timeless Children”).
Doctor Who should absolutely be applauded for finally putting a female Time Lord at the helm of the TARDIS. But as we start to consider the legacy of the Thirteenth Doctor and what Whittaker’s run means in the larger scope of the show’s history, it’s difficult not to conclude that the folks in charge (be it showrunner Chris Chibnall, larger BBC overlords, or some mix of both) never quite knew what to do with her. And that’s a real shame.
To be clear: This is no slam on Whittaker, who has worked wonders with what she has been given, crafting a warm and earnest take on the Doctor that felt like a breath of fresh air after Peter Capaldi’s gruffer and more standoffish incarnation. Where Twelve seemed world weary, Thirteen felt like new beginnings, embracing the wonder of the universe and everyone in it. And yet, it’s still difficult to pinpoint exactly how the character has grown or changed since she first fell out of the sky in the Season 11 premiere.
In many ways, Thirteen’s characterization feels like Doctor Who hedging its bets. A female Doctor was a revolutionary step for the franchise and should have felt like a revelation onscreen. Her journey should have been markedly different from every other Doctor who came before her, simply because she is different from every other Doctor who has come before her.
The way the world responds to Thirteen should necessarily be different than the experiences of earlier Doctors – I mean, any woman who has ever been in a corporate meeting could tell you that indiscriminately voicing their ideas and opinions as this Doctor does is hardly ever met with immediate acceptance or acclaim. The idea that groups of men – whether they’re world leaders or random bar patrons – would ever respond to a woman running up to them and giving them orders by quickly doing what she said with no question, pushback, or outright belittlement feels almost laughably naïve.
The Doctor may hail from a race of beings that don’t really acknowledge gender as a construct – but the planet she loves best very much does, and Doctor Who’s overt refusal to even vaguely acknowledge the differences in the ways human beings are more likely to respond to her now as Thirteen than they did when she was Twelve is deeply frustrating. And by not embracing the ways that Thirteen’s gender would naturally have altered her journey, it feels as though the show – or at least the folks in charge of it – didn’t entirely trust that a female Doctor could be as compelling as her male predecessors.
It no longer feels like an accident that Whittaker’s seasons are the shortest length of any modern Doctor’s or that she’s the first Time Lord since Fifth Doctor Peter Davison partnered with three companions from her first moments on screen. And as much as Ryan, Graham, and Yaz represent important steps forward in terms of inclusion within the franchise, Chibnall’s Doctor Who never managed to figure out how to successfully write for four leads, meaning that no one – including the Doctor herself – ever got much in the way of real interiority, and everyone’s relationships lacked significant depth.
It is also Whittaker whose Doctor has yet to have a true showcase episode, like Capaldi’s “Heaven Sent,” David Tennant’s “Midnight” or even Matt Smith’s “The Doctor’s Wife,” the sort of era-defining installment that allows viewers to understand the iconic character in a new way. And the decision to add John Bishop’s Dan Lewis for Thirteen’s final season, rather than allow Yaz to serve as a sole companion, means we’ll never even get to see this Doctor establish a close one-on-one relationship with anyone else, as we have with every other modern incarnation.
Historically, companions are used as an audience surrogate to both explore and react to the many worlds the Doctor is capable of showing us. But it’s also through her connections with these characters that we’re able to see the Doctor herself change and grow as a character, whether that’s Nine finding his joy again through Rose or Twelve’s slow path to opening his heart with Clara. But with three companions in the TARDIS and only 50 minutes of story to go around each week, there’s little chance for similar relationships to truly develop. By the time Thirteen actually has a big emotional conversation with Ryan in “Revolution of the Daleks,” he’s already got one foot half out the door.
And as a result, it seems as though this Doctor will forever exist a few steps apart from those who are ostensibly closest to her – and from the audience that’s watching her adventures. Uniquely resistant to sharing any significant parts of herself with those she travels with, she tends to deflect any remotely emotionally loaded question and avoids discussing even the basics of Time Lord culture or biology. (Has she ever even mentioned the concept of regeneration to her friends?)
The Timeless Child storyline essentially rewrites the Doctor’s history, yet seems to have virtually no emotional impact on Thirteen herself. (Though hope springs eternal that the show will somehow address how she truly feels about this in Whittaker’s final season.) Instead, it highlights how little her supposed “fam” knew about the being they’d been traveling with for so long. Thirteen’s revitalized rivalry with the Master – one of the few Season 12 plots explicitly centered on her character – goes largely unexplained and her most problematic choices, like deciding to wipe Ada Lovelace’s mind, are unexplored.
Chibnall’s Doctor Who has given us some of the best historical episodes of the modern era in “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab,” and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”. And Season 11’s “The Witchfinders” is one of the few hours of Thirteen’s run that explicitly wrestles with the way her experience of the world changes as a woman versus when she was a man. But his focus on stand-alone stories and surface-level adventures with some occasional deep-cut lore thrown on top ends up almost completely undermining the show’s central character. And since the Doctor is the one piece of Doctor Who that always goes on – this is a problem.
Perhaps the announcement that Thirteen’s final season will be one long serial story means that we’ll finally have the chance to really delve into her character in a way that the previous two seasons haven’t allowed us to do. Whittaker deserves the chance to truly shine – and fans deserve to properly get to know this Doctor before we have to say goodbye.