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'Doctor Who' review: Jodie Whittaker off to a great start as first female Doctor

Jodie Whittaker plays the 13th Doctor in BBC

Jodie Whittaker plays the 13th Doctor in BBC America's new season of "Doctor Who." Credit: BBC/BBC AMERICA

THE SERIES "Doctor Who"

WHEN | WHERE Season premiere Sunday at 8 p.m. on BBC America

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the new-season launch, titled "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," Doctor Who (Jodie Whittaker, "Broadchurch") arrives on Earth just in time to save new friends Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) from a dastardly alien stalking the human race. For the uninitiated, "Doctor Who" — which launched on the BBC in 1963 and has aired, with a few breaks, ever since — is about a "Time Lord" who travels through space and time in a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space, aka a blue London "police box"), mostly to help earthlings. Whittaker is the first female Doctor.

MY SAY For 55 years, the shaggiest shaggy dog story in the history of television has had few rules, but at least one always held fast: The Doctor must be a man. And the Doctor always has been, all 12 of them, dating back to 1963.

There is some superficial logic to this, because if the first doctor was male (he obviously was, played by William Hartnell) then the next doctor that he "regenerates" into should also be male. Regeneration is the key plot driver of "Doctor Who," meaning that Doctor Who can morph into another doctor, ad infinitum. He changes his identity — and the actor playing him changes — but he essentially remains the same because his memories and personality traits are largely intact.

As of Sunday, "he" is now a "she." What does this mean? Everything and nothing.

First, under the "nothing" heading, Who remains very much Who. Whittaker fully embraces the Doctor's essence, which — as laid out by the last one, played by Peter Capaldi — is "always try to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and ... and you mustn't tell anyone your name." She doesn't.

Whittaker also has all the antic comic energy of past Whos, notably Capaldi, and then some. The universe is mad, after all, so best to have a sense of humor about it. When informed by her new friends that she's a woman, she says: "Am I? Does it suit me? Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman." Capaldi is Scottish.

Whittaker's Doctor Who also still has that fundamentally British insistence on bringing order to disorder, and there's always a lot of disorder in the Whoverse. While looking for her lost TARDIS and placating an alien and helping her new friends, she formulates a complicated plan on the fly, calling it "a work in progress — but so's life!"

Now, under the "everything" heading: The longest running-show on prime time, and a cultural treasure that has influenced countless movies, novels and TV series, has never had a female lead? To borrow a Britishism, that's just daft. If a woman can do anything a man can — and if we're being honest with ourselves, probably a little bit better — than the symbolism of Whittaker is both important and faithful to the spirit of "Doctor Who."

"We can evolve while still staying true to who we are, honor who we've been and choose who we want to be next," her Doctor says Sunday.

That's exactly right. "Doctor Who" was always about humanity's unique capability — too often thwarted — of evolving toward our better selves, or embracing our better angels. Shaggy as this story can be and so often has been, "Doctor Who" is really very simple: It's about hope for the future. A female Doctor suddenly makes it all feel just a little bit more hopeful.

BOTTOM LINE As the first in what one hopes will be a long line of female doctors, Whittaker is funny, energetic and full of joy. Whovians should be pleased.

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