Doctor Who: Why 13’s comedic, child-like personality is groundbreaking


Doctor Who’s first female Doctor breaks stereotypes in so many ways, but one of the most underrated ways is through her comedic, child-like personality.

Doctor Who‘s new lead — the glorious Thirteenth Doctor, played by the incomparable Jodie Whittaker — has received well-deserved recognition for her outstanding performance and for breaking a decades-old glass ceiling that many people didn’t even realize existed. The Doctor is an alien who regenerates into different bodies. The bodies had just always happened to be male.

The Doctor’s gender-fluidity isn’t the only groundbreaking aspect of Doctor Who‘s eleventh season, though. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s development of Thirteen’s personality and Whittaker’s embodiment of it is exceptional because it’s such a rare combination of traits, especially for a female character. The Thirteenth Doctor is smart, confident and take-charge, but she’s also funny and child-like and sometimes acts silly or goofy.

While The Doctor has certain core traits, each showrunner and actor offers a new take on the character. Chibnall wanted Thirteen to have a child-like sense of wonder, joy, and excitement, which frequently translates into heartfelt comedy. Other writers would have automatically dismissed such personality traits as being disempowering, especially with an actress stepping into the role for the first time, because super-smart and/or female protagonists are so rarely written that way.

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If characters as intelligent as The Doctor are funny, they tend to be funny unintentionally due to their social awkwardness. Think Dr. Temperance Brennan. Alternatively, they’re witty in a snarky or sardonic way like Sherlock‘s titular lead. Thirteen’s witty banter, by contrast, is more light-hearted.

When you think of a child-like character, you usually think of a lovable, funny, immature guy who’s not very bright such as Andy Dwyer, Michael Kelso or Dylan from Modern Family. You certainly don’t think of someone of a genius-level intellect and you probably don’t think of a woman.

When female characters act at all silly or goofy, they’re often portrayed as “dumb” and “slutty” and objectified as punch lines. There are, of course, notable exceptions. Lorelai Gilmore, Jess Day, Phoebe Buffay, Abby Sciuto, and Leslie Knope come to mind. They’re unapologetically awkward and excitable. They act silly, to varying degrees depending on the day. But they’re also confident, smart and take-charge.

That being said, Parks and Rec‘s co-creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur learned early on just how difficult it can be to blend all of those traits together. Leslie Knope may be a feminist icon now, but she wasn’t always. The series’ first season received widespread criticism for Leslie’s characterization.

In the show’s defense, I understood what Daniels and Schur were trying to do and Amy Poehler absolutely made the best of what she was given. Leslie was meant to be serious and driven but also a bit goofy and lacking self-awareness.

The problem was that Daniels and Schur went overboard on those latter qualities so that on the whole, Leslie came across as dim-witted and incompetent. It also didn’t help that she was way too hung up on Mark. When Daniels, Schur, and Poehler balanced out Leslie’s characterization in season two, she undeniably improved as a protagonist, while still retaining her funny and silly roots.

Chibnall, Whittaker, and Doctor Who‘s writing staff have so far avoided the Parks and Rec dilemma by having Thirteen firing on all cylinders constantly. She is incredibly intelligent with a commanding presence and simultaneously hilarious and goofy with poor impulse control (very much like a kid).

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One moment she’ll be explaining a complex scientific concept, or she’ll be coming up with a brilliant plan to outsmart an adversary on the fly. The next moment she’ll be rambling on excitedly about wanting an apartment with a purple couch, or **spoiler** she’ll be officiating her friend Yaz’s grandmother’s wedding in 1947, despite previously warning Yaz and her other companions not to interfere with the timeline.

Of course, none of it would have worked if Whittaker hadn’t been able to pull off Thirteen’s complicated personality. But, my god, does she pull it off. It’s almost hard to put into words how well Whittaker inhabits the character, making The Doctor both awe-inspiring and adorkable.

Doctor Who, which airs Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America, is just over halfway through its eleventh season. If you haven’t checked it out yet, carve out some time for a binge this holiday season.