We’ve seen enough of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor to begin sussing out some of her unique characteristics. Thirteen has a marked love of engineering, she’s incredibly cool under pressure, she doesn’t suffer bullies, she’s bad at smalltalk—but she loves company and lots of it. She’s also incredibly empathetic, tuned into her companions perhaps more than any Doctor in the New Who run. That shouldn’t be surprising as empathy is core to the Doctor’s character, but it’s a bit more obvious with Thirteen. She pays attention to how others are feeling, she apologizes when she sees them being mistreated. She works hard to make sure people realize their own potential, and recognizes more readily when given situations might be more stressful than average for the humans and aliens around her.
But what motivated this change? Why does this Doctor seem to notice—and care—more about how her adventures affect those around her? Where does this wellspring of empathy come from? In truth, we only need to amble back through the show’s 55 year history to recognize that one particular previous Doctor might be to blame.
At first glance, if fans find the Thirteenth Doctor a bit more concerned with the feelings of others, there’s a very clear reason for it—the Doctor has spent the past ten seasons of the show building up a reservoir of emotional knowledge, interacting with companions in a deeply personal manner that has facilitated better understanding. The Doctor fell in love, got slapped and told off by concerned mothers, became the son-in-law of his best friend, lost his next friend, then found her, then forgot her, reformed bonds with his very first friend/enemy from back home, checked in on every single former companion to see how they were doing. The point is, the Doctor’s experiences are collective. Even within the show’s more recent history, a lot has happened and he (and now she) has absorbed countless lessons when it comes to dealing with humans and their needs.
So it makes sense that the Thirteenth Doctor would be a bit more in tune with others; she’s spent the last multitude of centuries connecting with people, and each of those relationships has left a mark. She’s more sensitive to how racism might affect her friends because she recently encountered outright bigotry with Bill Potts. She’s more open to the question of whether or not she and Yas might be “seeing each other” because she’s had a couple relationships and a few more flings. She tells people that she’s sorry when they’re being treated poorly because her tenth incarnation practically used “I’m so sorry” as a catch phrase. She’s more supportive and aware of Ryan and Graham’s family dynamics because she used to be part of the Tyler family, and then the Pond family. She’s had a lot of practice, and it’s paid off.
But even without counting all of that, the Thirteenth Doctor’s aura as a facilitator, a teacher of many, a keen and caring friend, is actually quite familiar. Down to her inclination toward keeping a gaggle of companions, the Thirteenth Doctor resembles no other incarnation quite so well as the Fifth.
Whovians love comparing our Doctors. Truth is, there is a very clear core to the character, and the eccentricities that each performer brings to the role is the delicious icing-sprinkles combo on a very structurally sound cupcake. It’s fun to take note of which flavors seem to compliment each other—to see Who inspired Who, as it were. The Fifth Doctor was often namechecked while Ten was around, to the point where Steven Moffat wrote the duo an adorable little meet cute called “Time Crash,” which aired several weeks prior to the 2007 Christmas Special. In it, the Tenth and Fifth Doctors accidentally merge TARDISes, meeting each other for the first time. The Tenth Doctor is delighted to see his former self, and proceeds to point out all the little nods he’s maintained in reference to this particular version of him; the trainers, the “brainy specs” he occasionally breaks out, the way his voice goes all squeaky when he shouts. “‘Cause you know what, Doctor?” he says lovingly, “You were my Doctor.” And while it’s true that there are some similarities between the two on paper, this line was very clearly written to serve David Tennant as an actor more than the Tenth Doctor himself. After all, Davison was one of the Doctors that Tennant grew up watching.
So there are similarities, but Five is something of an outlier among the Classic Doctors. He was the youngest in the show’s original run, a bit more timid than his predecessors, and fond of wearing celery like it was a lapel pin. As Ten says, he spent his first incarnations trying to be grumpy and important, but then the Fifth Doctor was there to dash around and play the occasional game of cricket and gape awkwardly at the universe. And there was something else distinct about him: He preferred having a crew. (The First Doctor did as well initially, but he seemed to lose the taste for it the instant Ian and Barbara said goodbye.) Five collected friends everywhere he found them and tried his best to keep them once they’d, sometimes accidentally, stumbled aboard. He didn’t want a single companion to speechify at and impress, or a duo to bounce ideas off of, but a few people who made up a little family, who he cared for and who cared for him in kind.
That sound like anyone we know?
The Thirteenth Doctor isn’t a strange outlier in her desire to interact more fully and constantly with her friends. The Doctor has exhibited this kind of behavior before across several regenerations, but most notably in the Doctor who also preferred to be surrounded by people. Thirteen is a spiritual successor to Five—and that’s exciting to see because it’s an angle that New Who has yet to play with. Eleven had Amy and Rory, but that was a function of Amy’s relationship with her soon-to-be husband. Nine had Rose and Jack for a bit, but Jack was always his own agent who did whatever he pleased. Ten had Rose and Mickey, but that was a brief stint that saw Mickey finding greater purpose and leaving them almost immediately. The Doctor has never attempted to take on a group full time since the show’s relaunch in 2005. And groups seem to have an interesting effect on the Doctor’s tenor and vibe…
The Fifth Doctor’s tenure was marked by notable differences, caused largely by who he kept company with. There were many scenes set on the TARDIS in the show’s early years, but they were often relegated to the console room, and concerned with getting the Doctor and friends where they needed to go. (The only major exception was Fourth Doctor adventure “The Invasion of Time”, which served to showcase as much of the ship as possible.) The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS didn’t operate that way at all. People were always milling about; his companions had to usher him into the Zero Room right after he regenerated; Nyssa tinkered with all the science equipment; there were plants on the TARDIS (where did they get light?); the Doctor would barrel into Adric’s quarters to find out how he was doing; Tegan’s room was decorated with a woven wicker chair and shelves covered in tchotchkes. The TARDIS behaved more like a home because that was clearly how the Doctor thought of it at that point in time. And he behaved like an eccentric uncle or brother who was very good at getting everyone into trouble whether he meant to or not. (He mostly did not.)
Five was always checking in with people because he had a lot of them to keep track of. And it wasn’t just about companions having that tendency to “wander off”—though they did, frequently—it was about the Doctor being aware that not every adventure went over well. A lot happened to the Fifth Doctor without him needing to chase trouble, but he also enjoyed teaching and helping his friends. For Adric and Nyssa, he shared a love of science. For Tegan, he helped her discover her own inherent strength and bravery. For Turlough, he was a useful moral compass. For Kamelion, he tried to grant a robot the free will he deserved. The Fifth Doctor genuinely cared about the lives of his companions outside of the realm of their adventures. He wanted to show them the universe, but also to aid them in learning and to be there for the idle chats and tea and parties that make up life. What’s more, the Fifth Doctor was aware of the strengths his friends brought to the table, and mostly trusted them to keep each other safe when he wasn’t around.
Though the Thirteenth Doctor seems to be dropping her friends off at home between trips, she is similarly situated in how she interacts with Yaz, Ryan, and Graham. She doesn’t merely want to be a facilitator of new things for her friends, she wants to hang out, to see what their lives are like. She jumps at the chance to have tea with Yaz’s family, and she remembers to consider things like Ryan’s dyspraxia when they’re out and about in the universe. She’s great at delegating tasks to each of them, and quickly learns their strengths. When they encounter scenarios and settings that are upsetting, she makes a point of acknowledging what they’re experiencing and apologizes for their suffering. Whenever she waffles about what to call the group, she almost always considers using “fam” (only to have Ryan rightly shake his head) because they are her current family, and she knows it.
This is a Doctor who took Yaz to meet her grandmother seventy years in the past because Yaz pointed out that the whole point of having a friend with a time machine should be to take a few tricky trips. This is a Doctor who picks up her pals on their days off, because she doesn’t mind being in the neighborhood and waiting for them to come to her. This is a Doctor who realizes that each of her friends are hoping to get something different out of their time on the TARDIS: Graham is grieving, Ryan is looking for some direction; Yaz is bored with the typical ebb and flow of her life. The Thirteenth Doctor knows all of this, and she’s happy to have them along, whatever their reason for befriending her. It’s hardly a surprise that this would extend into her interactions with everyone else, that having adopted a crew of people rather than one best friend would keep her aware of the beings around her. She’s constantly shuffling a whole deck, rather than a few well-known cards. She wants her life to be fuller than ever, stuffed to the brim with people and experiences.
The Thirteenth Doctor is fully her own, but it’s fun sometimes to see what the show did before, and what it returns to again. And even without counting how the character has grown and changed over her past few incarnations, there is precedent for the Doctor handling a group differently than she handles a pal or two. The Fifth Doctor’s run was enjoyable because it was a change of pace, and that’s precisely what Thirteen is offering. With any luck, she’ll always have a full house while she journeys on throughout time and space.