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Doctor Who is not like your grandmother's Doctor Who

Time team: from left, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh Jodie Whittaker and Tosin Cole.

Jodie Whittaker packs a Tardis-full of do-gooders to preach intergalactic tolerance in the new Doctor Who.

The new series may have a nana as hero in the first episode but this is not your grandmother’s Doctor Who. Actually, my grandmother never watched the show when it first screened here, in 1964. Like the Tardis, that was the year I landed in New Zealand and I recall Nana preferred The Black and White Minstrel Show, which was just wrong on so many levels, even then, and Coronation Street, featuring characters so alien to my Canadian sensibilities that they might as well have been beaming in from the planet Gallifrey.

Then, the Doctor was like an intergalactic version of my grandmother – a curmudgeonly, patrician figure it was best to obey. He was trying to save the universe from a variety of villains who looked like they were constructed from old home appliances, toilet plungers and homicidal blancmange.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Now, the Doctor is, for the first time, a woman. With – oh, glorious day – a Yorkshire accent. “Am ah?” inquires Doctor No 13, played by Broadchurch’s excellent Jodie Whittaker, when she crashes through the roof of a train. “Does it suit me? Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.”

How times have changed for the ever-regenerating Time Lord, even since previous Doctor Peter Capaldi and his eyebrows took on life, the “silly old universe” and everything. Capaldi’s Doctor signed off with little humility – “Yes, I know they’ll get it all wrong without me” – and a lot of mansplaining of the gig for his successor: “Never be cruel, never be cowardly and never ever eat pears.” Clearly, the new Doctor missed the bit about how to fly the Tardis. It spits her out into hyperspace like an orange pip and she lands up in, of all places, Sheffield.

This series of the immortal space oddity is as diverse, intersectional, gender fluid and pacifist as it can be when there’s a giant blue alien, whose blancmange-like face is studded with the teeth of his victims, to deal with. The Doctor’s new companions are vlogger Ryan, trainee cop Yaz and Bradley Walsh from The Chase, of all people, playing Ryan’s step-granddad, Graham. Ryan has a disability, dyspraxia, which affects his co-ordination. He can’t ride a bike but fortunately can scoot around the universe no problem. It’s a pity Ryan’s nan, Grace, gets dispatched in the first episode, but she goes out in fine, fierce, feminist, non-ageist style.

I enjoyed the drunk Sheffield resident who responded to an encounter with the alien by throwing bits of kebab at him. There was fun to be had in scenes of the Doctor cobbling together a sonic screwdriver from old cutlery and going clothes shopping, though she ends up looking less existentially tortured Time Lord, more Mork from Ork.

Is it all too earnestly woke? There will be no Daleks, apparently. But the redecorated Tardis  makes its reappearance in episode two. And it’s not really about the politics of identity, not any more than it has always been.

This iteration seems to be about transformation. “We’re all capable of incredible change,” the Doctor tells old toothface, attempting to lecture him into submission. “We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”

It’s about learning to live with fear. Graham’s cancer is in remission. You could sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop or go kick some alien butt.

In an age of near-narcissistic self-righteousness, the show’s message of tolerating uncertainty, and each other, is refreshing. “Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. I’ll be fine. In the end. Hopefully,” says the Doctor. We’re all in the same temperamental Tardis hurtling through an uncaring void so we may as well get on.

Doctor Who, TVNZ OnDemand Monday and TVNZ 2, Friday, 7.30pm.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.