Television 7 October 2018 | 20:44

Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who: Eccentric, energetic and brilliant

07 October 2018 20:44

‘Why are you calling me “Madame”?’ Thus did the 13th Doctor address the Time Lord’s change of biological sex in the first action sequence of the new series of Doctor Who ­– set, as it happens, in a train in Sheffield.

With the question posed and answered, it was odd to recall that there was ever any controversy at all about the casting of Jodie Whittaker to replace Peter Capaldi. She is, quite simply, born to play the part: she exists in italics, vivid, winning and constantly on the move. Eccentric, of course, as the Doctor must be: but restlessly energetic and pulsing with strong-willed generosity. Hers will be an extrovert, engaged Doctor, gently mocking all around her in a thick Yorkshire accent.

The opening episode of Chris Chibnall’s reign as show-runner – after Steven Moffat’s long turn at the helm – also put paid to fears that the new Doctor might in some way be confined to old-fashioned, stereotypically ‘feminine’ virtues. Again, Whittaker was never going to play that game. From her first moments in pursuit of a tall, blue predator-alien – with the teeth of his prey encrusted in his face – she was busy with tools, low-tech cunning and have-a-go determination.

In an excellent sequence, she cobbled together a DIY sonic screwdriver from spare parts as if mending a bike. Truly, Capaldi’s arch Scotsman has been replaced by a northern powerhouse.

We are told that the theme of the series will be ‘family’ – not least because three new companions will be joining the Doctor in the Tardis (once they can find it). Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh – yes, really) make up the trio, and have the promise of a fine team.

Of course, the Doctor’s adventures have always been about family – literally, in the case of the Time Lord’s wife River Song (Alex Kingston), her (confusingly younger) mother Amy (Karen Gillan), and his granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) who accompanied the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, from 1963 to 1964.

With Billie Piper as Rose, there was romance, too, and the breaking of David Tennant’s two hearts. The new line-up is merely the latest iteration in a tradition that has been baked into the series since its inception: the bittersweet notion of a lonely traveller, crossing time and space, constructing makeshift families along the way.

There were clues, too, to the broader direction of the show. Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet, has always been, in truth, an imaginative annex to contemporary Britain. And this is a Doctor for hectic, uncertain times who asks for patience as she seeks answers herself. ‘We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next,’ she said, in a nod to Whovian traditionalists. ‘I have to hold my nerve,’ she warned her new companions – and herself.

The episode ended with the four of them suspended in the vacuum of space, as if to signal to the viewers that this is all a work in progress. Of necessity, it surely is. But the signs are very promising. As she proudly declared of the newly-forged sonic, the Doctor now comes ‘with added Sheffield steel’. It’s going to be quite a journey.