“Religion” is the only thing you hear about Doctor Who on almost every other news outlet, and not because it’s the specific topic. It’s the obvious choice to use to capture what’s the lasting statement about this show: it’s unafraid to let you know what’s going on in its head.
Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to be given the job in the 50-year history of Doctor Who, is appropriately tough to love. But it isn’t because she’s cold or uncommunicative. It’s because what the Doctor is actually about is being absent: unable to be in the world and part of it at the same time, to be present to two halves of herself that don’t acknowledge each other.
Doctor Who is cool as it is because of the honesty it can show of the Doctor’s mental health: high from the strength of her memories of the previous Doctor and his spirit, she’s constantly flying through time and space to rescue people she’s never met, only to eventually encounter them only to realize that they are her first victims. These two halves of her life are intertwined but she cannot live as they are, she cannot die as they are. She cannot be both of who she is and her past self. She can’t be part of two worlds.
The creation of her character is interesting. If the Doctor hasn’t quite had this existential problem since her beginnings, she was exposed to it quickly in the episode. At the end of this particular season, we are shown the kind of Doctor we can expect from her going forward. The Doctor is sad because her way of life is compromised by the defeat at the end of the last season.
“Religion” opened with a shot of a gang of monsters that broke into an ancient religious structure (a sand temple from another world; it was a reference to the opening of “The Power of Three”) and made the place their new home. As the titular survivors, they are driven by a war against history. These aliens rise up and call the Doctor an enemy and try to block the Doctor from finding her mission. The Doctor, as old and beautiful as she is, has to deal with a brand new form of oppression.
The Doctor — or, “new” Doctor — is introduced as a simple person. Her history in the Time Lord’s scheme begins small, with her powerful lineage and the end of an era, but she has no real idea why she was chosen by Time Lords to become the new Doctor. “Religion” only allows her some fleeting glimpses of her past life, but her identity is called into question once she sees her powers in action.
The context of the story, though, is light. “Religion” is a background episode that the plot could happen in. It’s the story of aliens interrupting the Time Lord’s mission and destroying it for them, not that the Doctor herself is asked to save the time machine as in the existing story. The pilot episode is a big, open and fiery one, but the one with Time Lords crashing time was a quietly beautiful episode.
The little moments are completely absorbing. When the Doctors face off on a diving bell, moments of perfect imagery come about. When time first dawns for the new Doctor, which makes her afraid and angry at her growing abilities, the scene is even more stark. She is at her lowest and needs to lash out. Then the Time Lords come and remove her from the problem, a moment which sends her back toward her morality and her need to do what is right.
That’s to say nothing of the moments of light. Moments where the Doctor speaks aloud not only a thought coming to her, but a realization that she is finally free from these two worlds that have trapped her. Throughout the episode, we see Jodie Whittaker shrink to a tiny particle of the doctor from a 7-year-old, pinching herself, and finally, the doctor who can jump and shoot and has jumped forward in time. Through these moments, she is setting herself up for vulnerability. What the Doctor doesn’t yet know, and what the reader doesn’t yet know, is that those moment will not last.
“Religion” ends with the alien apocalypse ruining the Day of the Doctor. No need to wait for the new season premiere next month to hear more from the Doctor