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Jodie Whittaker's Doctor Kept Her Companions and Viewers at a Distance

The charismatic Time Lord never developed any real connections, to Doctor Who's detriment.
  • Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor in Doctor Who (James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America/Primetimer graphic)
    Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor in Doctor Who (James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America/Primetimer graphic)

    Jodie Whittaker takes the TARDIS for her final flight in the Doctor Who special, “Power of the Doctor,” which airs Sunday at 8:00 PM ET on BBC America. Whittaker’s 13th Doctor broke the mold in a major way, and it wasn’t just because she was the first woman to play our favorite Time Lord. She was also the first Doctor in the new series without a serious romantic relationship — in many ways a regressive throwback to the more overtly chaste Doctors from the original series.

    Fans might offer Mandip Gill’s Yasmin Khan as the rebuttal to this argument, but while much was made of their budding will-they/won’t-they relationship (#Thasmin often trends on Twitter), the series ultimately fell on the side of “they won’t.” We’re told Yaz loves the Doctor but her affection remains unfulfilled. Whittaker’s Doctor is perhaps deliberately aloof and emotionally unavailable. That was a mistake, and Whittaker’s run suffered as a result. The 13th Doctor’s not just a bad “date.” She’s often not even a very good friend.

    Russell T. Davies, who's returning as showrunner after Chris Chibnall’s departure, set the standard for the modern Doctor/companion relationship when he revived the show in 2005. The companion was more than just the recipient of exposition dumps and technobabble explanations. Davies elevated the companion to series co-lead, presenting the first episode, “Rose,” from Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) point of view. 

    Unfortunately, Chibnall never successfully maintained the balance between the Doctor’s alien nature and their intense connection with their companions. These relationships were how we learned about each Doctor; otherwise, they might as well just travel alone like Caine from Kung Fu or David Banner in the 1970s The Incredible Hulk TV series. The Doctor’s relationship with Ryan (Tosin Cole), Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Yaz only revealed that she kept her self-described “fam” at a distance. But the companion is an audience surrogate, so for three seasons, viewers remained at a significant arm’s length from the show's lead.

    This felt like an intentionally maddening decision, especially in contrast with the four previous Doctors, who all loved passionately and openly. The first season’s overall arc focused on Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) helping Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor recover emotionally from the unseen but traumatic events of the Time War. Rose is why the Doctor refused to commit genocide in “Parting of the Ways,” even against the Daleks. Whittaker's Doctor hasn’t been significantly altered by heris not significantly different because of her companions, and this makes her character static.

    David Tennant’s Doctor and Rose felt so much like a couple that if it were revealed they were sleeping together in the TARDIS between episodes, it wouldn’t feel like a shock. Their scenes together were filled with a playful afterglow, like a couple in the first wave of love. Rose didn’t pine hopelessly for the Doctor; he looked at her as if she was the only woman in the universe, and his unwavering faith in her allowed him to resist evil incarnate in “The Satan Pit.”

    The Doctor and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) were ostensibly “just friends,” but the running gag was that they were often mistaken for a couple, because they behaved like longtime spouses who had settled into a reliable groove together. It was a more mature relationship, and while platonic, it felt no less romantic. The Doctor and Yaz fall into neither of these categories, which makes their relationship fall flat. 

    Matt Smith’s Doctor had a flirtatious, sexually charged courtship with fellow time traveler, River Song (Alex Kingston), whom he eventually married. Whittaker’s Doctor might call her companions “fam," but Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) literally are the Doctor's family. (They’re River’s parents.)

    Chibnall rarely gave Whittaker’s Doctor moments of genuine connection with her companions. There's a heartbreaking moment in “The End of Time,” when Tennant’s Doctor confesses to Donna’s grandfather Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) his fears about his impending regeneration. Whittaker, however, is so distant that when Graham opens up about his own fear of death, she quickly changes the subject and scampers off. The Doctor, regardless of their form, is a socially awkward goof, but beneath it all, they are their companions’ best friend, capable of tremendous empathy and wisdom. 

    Smith’s Doctor saved Amy and Rory’s marriage while also fighting Daleks. Whittaker’s Doctor is a passive observer as Ryan learns to accept Graham as his grandfather.  Past Doctors became part of their companion’s lives outside the TARDIS — they attended weddings and Christmas dinners. Whittaker’s “fam” is all business by comparison, more “work friends” than a true family.

    Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was initially conceived as darker and less accessible than Smith’s and Tennant's. However, this only intensified the relationship between him and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). She was the only person who could reach him, and she helped him navigate the social situations he otherwise found annoying. They bickered. They teased. They loved each other, if messily, and when Clara died, his grief drove what is perhaps the new series’ best single episode, “Heaven Sent.”

    A salient criticism of Chibnall’s era is that he saddled Whittaker’s Doctor with far too many companions. There was no space for her to establish a unique relationship with each one. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) was Eccleston’s naughty Han Solo. Rory initially regarded Smith’s Doctor as a rival before connecting with him as a wacky big brother. Nardole (Matt Lucas) was the snarky Alfred to Capaldi’s Batman. They served a distinct purpose beyond primary companions Rose, Amy, and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie).

    It is unclear what Ryan, Graham, and Dan Lewis (John Bishop) mean specifically to Whittaker’s Doctor. Her final season was an abbreviated six episodes and Chibnall still introduced two more recurring characters in addition to Dan —  Vinder (Jacob Anderson) and Bel (Thaddea Graham), who each get a lot of backstory but little time with Whittaker’s Doctor. There’s speculation about a certain paternal twist but if that comes to pass, it would have zero emotional impact — much like the bulk of Chibnall’s run. The Season 12 finale “The Timeless Children” revealed that the Doctor had an abusive adoptive “mother.” The story potential here was never fully explored, and Whittaker’s “Mommie Dearest” is summarily killed off during “Flux.”

    We’ve seen how losing a companion affected past Doctors. “The Waters of Mars,” Tennant’s penultimate story, played out as it did because Donna was not there to rein in his Doctor. She provided a check to his natural arrogance. When she wasn’t there to humble and ground him, he often made noticeably bad choices. The stories in Whittaker’s era wouldn't change dramatically with entirely different companions. They are merely moving parts, rather than critical components of her Doctor.

    Whittaker’s Doctor is separated from her companions for almost 20 years in “Revolution of the Daleks.” There’s no indication that this has drastically altered her. The Doctor shed tears and was devastated after losing Rose, Donna, Amy, Rory, River, and Bill. Graham and Ryan’s departure leaves no mark.

    After losing Amy and Rory in “Angels Take Manhattan,” Smith’s Doctor hung up his bow tie and retreated from the world. The shadow of Clara lingered for the remainder of Capaldi’s run, and during his final season, the memory of the now-deceased River inspired his attempt to reform his old enemy the Master in their “Missy" incarnation (Michelle Gomez).

    The Doctor and Missy’s relationship was contentious, dangerous, and yes, very flirtatious. Chibnall abandoned this complexity when he introduced a new Master (Sacha Dhawan) in Season 12.  You no longer believe these two were ever friends, and Dhawan’s scenes with Whittaker lack the spark and thrilling unpredictability that Capaldi and Gomez delivered. 

    Chibnall is seemingly so averse to a “romantic” Doctor that Whittaker is never as flirtatious with her companions or anyone else as Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and even Capaldi. There's an annoying bit in the “Flux” finale where Whittaker flirts like a horny teenager with… herself. This isn’t humanizing. It's quite literally masturbatory. And it's a shame: Whittaker is an actor with a preternatural charm that feels willfully suppressed.

    What’s baffling is that Chibnall proved he could write a compelling, romantic Doctor. Season 12’s “Fugitive of the Judoon” (my favorite episode of his run) introduced a previously unknown past incarnation (Jo Martin). She’s hiding on Earth disguised as a human woman (“Ruth”) and her companion was posing as her husband. This isn't just for appearances — they’re very much in love.

    When the Fugitive Doctor’s memory is restored, she is once again the dashing, romantic figure we’ve known and have missed. Besieged by hostile forces, the Fugitive Doctor flees with Whittaker to her own TARDIS. She takes a confused Whittaker's hand and looking into her eyes, whispers with a smile, "You're gonna love this.” It’s so damn sexy. That's the Doctor we should’ve had all along.

    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: Doctor Who, BBC America, Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor, Bradley Walsh, Chris Chibnall, Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole