❉ Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor? There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.
Since it was announced nine days ago that the often-floated Doctor Who press speculation had become fact, as 35 year-old actress Jodie Whittaker was cast as the 13th Doctor, it’s been a funny old week. On Facebook, vitriol was spat from the anti camp into the pro camp and vice versa, a social media slugging match that, alarmingly, ended with several people I know defriending each other.
This sort of thing happened during the run up to the Brexit vote – perhaps understandably, as the question of membership of the European union was, with long-term implications for the UK’s future, a highly emotive subject – but to see it happen over the new star of a TV show was quite the eye-opener. Aggrieved enthusiasts started a petition to ‘save Doctor Who’ while a well-known, long term fan called the new producer, Chris Chibnall, something very rude on Twitter and announced he was done with Doctor Who for good (although it wasn’t the first time). The negative comments gained such traction in the media that the BBC had to issue a statement rebutting the complaints.
Being charitable, this behaviour does show how much ownership fans believe they have over their favourite series. Less charitably, just why is a female Doctor so contentious for some people?
We live in a very different media culture to when Doctor Who was created in the 1960s. Back then, as everyone who’s watched vintage TV dramas will know, from The Saint to Z-Cars to The Power Game, male protagonists were front and centre, mainly because television then was largely written, produced, directed (and owned) by men. In this TV landscape, The Avengers was an exception as it fielded strong martial arts-savvy heroines. It says a lot, though, that the series was marketed under the novelty of women who were the equal of men.
As women’s rights gradually became more equal with their male counterparts, there was a concurrent impact on popular culture, with female-centred TV dramas beginning to appear distinct from soap operas (generally speaking the preserve of strong female characters on television, as they’re based around family). In genre TV, the mould was broken forever with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Although created by a man – Joss Whedon – the live action comic strip presented an emotionally complex action heroine who was smart, funny and compelling. Since then – to name only a few subsequent series with pro-active female leads – there’s been La Femme Nikita, Alias, Jennifer Jones, Orphan Black and Homeland, while this year on the big screen Wonder Woman broke the bad run of DC Comics film adaptations.
Given this cultural shift, perhaps it was inevitable that Doctor Who’s writers would begin playing with the notion that the Doctor – an alien but not, categorically, an alien man – might one day be female. During the regeneration from the Tenth Doctor to the Eleventh in 2010, the new Doctor announces in a falsetto squeal, ‘I’m a girl!’. He wasn’t, of course, but over the coming years, Steven Moffat offered teasing hints that the Time Lords were genderfluid. This culminated in 2014 with the unveiling of The Mistress, or more commonly Missy, a female regeneration of the Doctor’s previously masculine foe The Master. This was the clearest indication yet that the role of the Doctor was headed in the same direction. In July 2017, the first actress cast as Doctor Who’s lead duly arrived.
While Missy’s character – a manic, malevolent Mary Poppins with an appealing line in gallows humour – was, in many ways, a logical extension of previous Master John Simm’s insane court jester, at this moment in time there is absolutely no precedent for speculating on how a female Doctor might behave.
That, I think, is the fundamental problem, and why some people are so unsettled.
With my fanboy head on, I’m the kind of guy who, once a new Doctor’s casting is announced, has scrutinised everything from All Creatures Great and Small, Withnail and I and Our Friends in the North, for possible hints about the direction of the new Doctor’s character. I’ve spent an enjoyable weekend going through the second series of Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch, an experience that’s made me more excited than I was at the initial announcement of Jodie’s casting.
First off, she has a distinctive look – a round, English Rose-style, angelic face with bright, intelligent eyes. Combined with her character Beth Latimer’s direct and forceful personality, this sets her apart with an arresting – otherworldly? – look.
Beyond that, Whittaker plays so many emotions and moods that I can only visualise great things for her Doctor. Emotionally anguished in court during the trial of the man who killed her son; showing great dignity, exasperation and anger under cross examination; screaming bitterly at the friend she feels let her down; acting out a convincingly realistic and painful birth scene and – notably – wailing and crying in the court stairwell, then confronting the acquitted murderer with chilling force in the line: “Do you know how many knives there are in here?”…. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot of lightness in Broadchurch, but at the other end of the emotional scale, when reminiscing about a family party, Whittaker is engagingly wistful, affectionate and warm. (Check out the rebooted St. Trinians films to see just how funny she can be, too). No wonder she got a BAFTA.
In short, if Broadchurch was Jodie’s unwitting audition for the Doctor – just like Casanova’s was for David Tennant under Russell T. Davies – her performance is such a tour de force that I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Of all the actors to be cast as the Doctor, Jodie is, in my opinion, the most emotionally honest, brave, natural and expressive.
And that may be because she is, y’know, a woman.
A feminine take on the Doctor will add to the character rather than detract from it. I think we’re in for great things from our first female consultant.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.