All of time and space is returning to television. Where do you want to go? “Doctor Who” premiered 53 years ago and has been on television in one form or another for 36 series and counting. But with the premiere this Sunday of season 11 (or Series 37, if you’re so inclined), this is a marvelous opportunity for new fans to start watching.
With a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, an actress in the leading role for the first time ever, Jodie Whittaker, plus new bad guys and a new attitude, this reboot isn’t messing around. BBC America is so excited it is airing the premiere twice, the first as a simulcast with the British airing at 1:45 p.m. ET and again at the regular start time of 8 p.m. ET.
Depending on how you measure it, “Doctor Who” has the oldest continuously running TV fandom in the science fiction pantheon, having been either on the air or publishing under some other format since 1963, four years before “Star Trek” and 14 years before “Star Wars.” On some level, it shares the same impulses as “Star Trek” with its belief that the next frontier for Western civilization is outer space. But where “Star Trek” embodies the very American sensibility of manifest destiny (it was once referred to as “Wagon Train To The Stars”), “Doctor Who” has long depicted the intellectual white man’s burden, doomed to thanklessly save the less-advanced for all eternity.
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While that may sound depressing to non-fans, “Doctor Who” is always one of the most popular series at comic conventions. The endless cast turnover has led to a long string of actors to fawn over, and each Doctor’s distinct style is a boon to cosplayers. Still, it’s not necessarily an accessible show for the uninitiated. When the show’s first star William Hartnell began exhibiting signs of early onset dementia in 1966, the showrunners chose to have the character “regenerate” into a new actor, Patrick Troughton. As a result, the original series ran continuously on BBC for 26 years until it was canceled in 1989. There was a 1996 attempt at revival with an Americanized TV movie, followed by the current reboot which began in 2006, and is now going into its 11th season.
With numbers like that, the idea of attempting to catch up can feel overwhelming. But it shouldn’t be. Despite the advent of streaming services and on-demand TV, no one should be binge-watching “Doctor Who.” For one thing, it wasn’t written that way — not in the 1960s and not even in 2005. Many episodes from the mid-to-late sixties are gone, their masters reused to record other programs. Only a very dedicated few can claim to have seen every episode.
And yet, one of the mistakes of more recent “Doctor Who” reboots was their attempt to cater to these older, more hardcore fans. Showrunner Steve Moffat liked the idea of an insular fanboy culture that pushed away outsiders, and dotted his episodes with references to episodes from the 60s and 70s. It did not help that Peter Capaldi, who played the Doctor before Whittaker, was exactly the sort of “Doctor Who” fanboy who could plausibly claim to have seen every episode. His performance was extraordinary. But for casual fans it was off-putting.
Luckily, showrunners are now ditching that idea. To enjoy Whittaker’s 13th Doctor there's no need to know anything about the old show. Heck, you don't even need to know what happened last year, let alone in 1972. New showrunner Chris Chibnall has all but thrown out the playbook. Not only has he upended the old “white man’s burden” through line, he has added a wealth of diversity both in front of and behind the camera to the show.
The logo has been completely reimagined. He has changed the format from the chaste “Doctor and Companion” love story to one where the Doctor has an entire phalanx of followers (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill). Chibnall has reportedly even dumped all the old monsters that the Doctor must do battle with. Not even the Daleks, the famous pepperpot-shaped creatures with toilet plungers and cooking whisks for arms will turn up this season. The early experimental electronica theme song has been updated (and was not featured during early screenings.) Even the Doctor’s ride, the TARDIS, has undergone a massive upgrade, though embargoes prevent anyone from revealing how.
Shows that run for years on end need to provide new entry points along the way if they want to attract new generations of fans — which they should. Back in the day, “Doctor Who” did this every time a new Doctor came along, changing the show completely to stay with the times. The third Doctor, for instance, was an alien James Bond knockoff, complete with an MI-6 headquarters he reported to and a gadget-filled car. The fourth Doctor, who lasted the longest in the role (and whose career never recovered from it), introduced female companions who were proto-feminists.
When the show rebooted in the mid-aughts, early attempts at accessibility were soon forgotten. Chris Chibnall has brought back the tradition of making “Doctor Who” a show that’s inclusive, not insular. There’s never been a better time to become a fan. As the new Doctor said upon her arrival: Brilliant!