For all of Jodie Whittaker’s ample charms, her Yorkshire accent and elastic expression never far from childlike wonder, I held Doctor Who at arm’s length until near the end of its 848th episode. (To be fair, it was only my eighth—I’d never seen a single installment before this season). In “The Witchfinders,” the series finally, unabashedly embraces the fact that Whittaker, the 13th Doctor, is the first woman to play the role: The episode finds her and her three human companions transported to 17th-century England, where the witch craze has gripped a rural community and the Doctor swiftly becomes a target. As is its wont, Doctor Who mines this dissonance for both laughs (“We’re being patronized to death,” she quips of Alan Cumming’s self-satisfied King James I) and, later, “poetry under pressure,” made not only from rhyming couplets, alliteration, puns, but also from folklore, history, myth. Evil be to him that evil thinks, the King’s garter reads, carrying a faint echo of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Doctor replies to his smirk with characteristic wisdom, born of more experience than the all the king’s men: “You want to know the secrets of existence?” she asks. “Start with the mysteries of the heart.”
It’s here, spitting mad and still compassionate, that the Doctor, and Doctor Who, seem most themselves—as much about spirit as science, as intent on considering the age-old questions as asking the ones we haven’t thought of yet. It’s here, I mean to say, that the season offers its longest and most piercing glimpse of the classic series I’d heard so much about, the cultural artifact that’s spawned feature film and stage adaptations, novelizations, and museum exhibitions, the franchise that’s inspired such persistent devotion. I’d resisted Doctor Who since the modern revival debuted in 2005, largely on the impression that the series—episodic adventures, a regularly changing lead actor, and decades’ worth of world-building behind it—must be, as too much science-fiction and fantasy is these days, for experts only. With so many moving parts, how could a novice—and a skeptical one, at that—slip into the stream without flailing?
As I wrote of the season finale to Paste’s editor-in-chief and resident Doctor Who aficionado, Josh Jackson, it turns out that the series only appears impenetrable. In fact, once I accepted that the nature of the Doctor herself is among those “secrets of existence”—I’m sorry, “two-hearted Time Lord in the guise of a human” is not an explanation—Doctor Who struck me as refreshingly straightforward, sending its characters on an hour-long caper each week, one they could be relied on to wrap up in time for the closing credits. And with a new star, new companions—Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh)—and new executive producers Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens, it wasn’t just me starting Who fresh. A number of the early episodes (“The Ghost Monument” and “The Tsuranga Conundrum” in particular) bore the unfortunate mark of the writers finding their sea legs, as if they were still figuring out who this Doctor might be.
“Easy to follow” is not the same as “easy to love,” though, and with nothing else to compare it to, Season 11 of Doctor Who had occasion to stick in my craw. It fires off more than its fair share of groaners (though I did laugh at Whittaker’s divinely tossed-off delivery of “I never go anywhere that’s just initials” in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”), and the tension between Ryan and his step-grandfather, Graham, grated from the start. Yaz felt (and mostly still feels) underutilized. There were unremarkable premises (an intergalactic rally), misguided allusions (Chris Noth’s Trumpian hotel magnate), silly adversaries (even the name “Pting” is dumb), and at least one maddening, even cowardly denouement (let’s just say “Kerblam!” went out with a whimper). Still, as the season went on, it became difficult not to mirror the Doctor’s (and Whittaker’s) generous streak, to critique the series in the spirit of improving it. After all, the Doctor berates King James I in “The Witchfinders” for “killing, and scapegoating, and stirring up hate,” only to hold out a hand of understanding: She knows that his repugnant actions are a result of his pain, and that the solution to both is confronting the past—in his case, the trauma of his mother’s abandonment, and the desperate desire for “virtue” her leaving spurred.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that this iteration of Doctor Who, at this specific cultural moment in Britain and the United States, is at its most formidable when it sets back the clock: In “Miss Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab,” and “The Witchfinders,” Whittaker, Chibnall, and company turn more or less explicitly from the secrets of existence to the mysteries of the heart, and so discover the season’s most compelling rhythms. Against alien ambitions, “anti-zones,” automated warehouses, accelerated particles, it’s the grandeur of the series’ human quotient that comes to seem remarkable—the arduous work of political struggle, for instance, or the immeasurable consequences of colonialism, or the urge to “silence foolish women who talk too much.” Whether or not this is true of its predecessors, whether or not this is the Who you fell for yourself, it’s clear that the alchemy of actors, writers, and directors at work here is eminently capable of spinning gold from folklore, history, myth: These episodes deepen the supporting characters by emphasizing that they’re not the Doctor, that they’re products, like us, of their place and time.
In this, I’m not sure I could’ve drawn up a better version of Doctor Who to start my journey with, and not only because I have a penchant for criticism with a historical bent. No, it’s that the richness of the entries set in the past carried me through the spots that seemed unfortunate, or misguided, or silly, or even maddening, simply because I’d come to feel the same compassion for the characters that the Doctor does for every man, woman, child, or energy-seeking space rat she encounters. “I can show you everything if you stop being afraid of what you don’t understand,” she implores King James, who, being human, fails her. The moral here is about witches, perhaps, or politics, or power, but it’s also about art, and the about the mysteries of the heart it spurs us to investigate. Here’s one: This year I learned to love Doctor Who, in part because it reminded me, to quote the Doctor, to “travel hopefully,” on the airwaves and otherwise. “None of us know for sure what’s out there—that’s why we keep looking,” she advises at the season’s close. “The universe will surprise you, constantly.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.