The casting of a new Doctor is a beautiful thing. It’s like a less frequent Christmas: feverishly anticipated, commodified, met with disappointment and then sadness when it’s gone, and then feverishly anticipated as the cycle begins again.
But it turns out that it’s a bit special this time. After decades of constant speculation, the role of the Doctor has passed not just from one actor to another, but also one gender to another. I genuinely thought four years back that we’d never see a female Doctor, but here we are, with Jodie Whittaker confirmed as the Thirteenth Doctor.
This is a really big deal. It’s hard to understate that. The role has been male for 54 years, and for obvious reasons, it’s become entrenched in the minds of the public that it has to be male. For it to be a woman is to blow up that widespread perception entirely, and that’s huge; you’re redefining one of the most iconic characters this country has created in a way that has never been done before.
I should step back here and say that I think that this is a really good thing. I’ve loved Peter Capaldi’s take on the Doctor, and have enjoyed the last few seasons of the show, but it’s passing into the hands of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, amidst a widespread surge of support for greater representation in pop culture, in a political climate where defaulting to a white male template just isn’t that acceptable anymore.
Obviously, we have to be a tiny bit cautious about proclaiming this as the world’s greatest victory for diversity. It’s a fantastic and subversive change, but Jodie Whittaker’s casting does not change the fact that the Doctor has always been white. The BBC can do better on that front, and I hope they will next time. We’ve broken the white male mould now, so I really hope the powers that be keep striving for more, rather than making this a one-off experiment.
And, let’s face it, Doctor Who has been building to this for years. Like him or not, Steven Moffat’s era of the show has funnelled into this choice. It’s taken pains to establish the gender-fluidity of the character and their race by turning the Master, his arch-enemy, into a woman and later putting her up against her male predecessor. At one point, in the season nine finale, the show stopped to show a white male Time Lord regenerate into a black woman for a tenuous plot purpose. A recent episode contained an extended discussion of how the concept of gender is petty and irrelevant to the Doctor. These weren’t pointless asides; they were big neon signs pointing to an announcement of the kind we got today.
So, yeah, I’m happy. I’m happy that the BBC and new showrunner Chris Chibnall have given the role a new lease of life. I’m happy that there’s a new and iconic heroine running about fighting evil, inspiring girls and boys alike and reminding them that gender is an irrelevance when it comes to heroism. I’m happy the BBC chose not to care about that angry, small minority (and it really is small) harping on about the scaredness of the Doctor’s masculinity.
I’m happy, too, that they gave the role to a genuinely accomplished actress. I can’t claim to be an expert in Whittaker’s work, but she was terrific on Broadchurch given how difficult and searingly emotional her part was, and she aced her guest appearance back in the first season of Black Mirror. She was also a big part of Attack the Block, co-starring with new Star Wars lead John Boyega, which I guess makes that tiny little cult favourite a breeding ground for two of the biggest heroes in pop culture right now. And just look at her in that above photo – she just looks like the Doctor.
What kind of Doctor will Whittaker be? I can see her emulating a bit of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor – they’re both Northerners, and famous for emotionally grounded performances with minimal quirk, but funny and warm all the same. I can see her having some of the serious gravitas of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, or the youthfulness of Tennant. But, hey. Comparisons only go so far. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, at the end of the day, is going to be Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. The Doctor has never been a patchwork made up from the past – it’s a role defined by renewal and transformation. This feels, to me, like the kind of renewal that the show needs as it strives forward into the future.