The Thirteenth Doctor: Lucky for Some?

Dr Lorna Jowett, reader in Television studies has written widely on Television and film, including work on Doctor Who. Here she speaks about the new Doctor!

Many people, including Colin Baker who played the sixth Doctor, thought the BBC would not take the ‘risk’ of casting a woman, so it was a major surprise when Jodie Whittaker was announced at the thirteenth Doctor. She will take over from Peter Capaldi when he steps down from the role in this year’s Christmas special. Whittaker has already taken steps to deflect criticism and trolling by calling on fans not ‘to be scared’ of her. “I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender,” said Whittaker. “Because this is a really exciting time, and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.” Chris Chibnall — who is taking over from Steven Moffat as head writer and showrunner after the Christmas special — is certainly not being shy about taking the credit for the decision:

“I always knew I wanted the Thirteenth Doctor to be a woman and we’re thrilled to have secured our number one choice. Her audition for The Doctor simply blew us all away. Jodie is an in-demand, funny, inspiring, super-smart force of nature and will bring loads of wit, strength and warmth to the role. The Thirteenth Doctor is on her way.”

But what will casting Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor mean for the character and the series? If this is successful then it opens up casting of all kinds of roles to women and hopefully to actors of colour too. It’s not a coincidence that even writers arguing that Whittaker shouldn’t have to defend her gender, like Sarah Doran in the Radio Times are describing the new Doctor as’ best known to UK TV viewers as Danny Latimer’s mum, Beth, from Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch’. Whittaker is clearly not daunted at the thought of taking on a role that will be more than just someone’s mum, though the fact that she is someone Chibnall has worked with successfully before speaks volumes about how the industry works, even in the twenty-first century. Doctor Who is just one high-profile example of how UK television jobs in front of and behind the camera tend to be offered to known quantities, rather than those who might seem to be a ‘risk’ in terms of pulling in an audience and having a convincing back catalogue. As Idris Elba said in his 2016 address to the Houses of Parliament on diversity in the British media, ‘Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t… Too often commissioners look at diverse talent, and all they see is risk. Black actors are seen as a commercial risk. Women directors are seen as a commercial risk. Disabled directors aren’t even seen at all.’ Doctor Who is a flagship series, know across the world, so setting this example (too late, and too white, maybe, but still) may encourage similar ‘risky’ decisions.

And now that the Doctor is to be played by a woman, we should be celebrating that, rather than asking, what’s the worst that could happen? So… what’s the worst that could happen? Some of the comments, and I mean positive comments, not online trolling, give some hints. The BBC’s Doctor Who webpage gives a number of ‘endorsements’ of Whittaker, including this from Piers Wenger, Controller of BBC Drama. ‘Jodie is not just a talented actor but she has a bold and brilliant vision for her Doctor. She aced it in her audition both technically and with the powerful female life force she brings to the role. She is destined to be an utterly iconic Doctor.’ Yes, I can’t wait for that ‘powerful female life force’ to be seen on TV. Will the thirteenth Doctor be given a string of male companions who fall in love with her? Will she keep having to explain why she’s a woman and can do this stuff?

The recent, hugely successful Wonder Woman movie certainly had almost every male character tell the titular superhero, at some point, ‘Diana, no — ‘ usually with reference to some heroic act that Diana went ahead and did anyway. If Whittaker is to become that ‘utterly iconic Doctor’ she needs to be the Doctor, not the (or, hopefully, a) ‘female Doctor’. My hope is that the thirteenth Doctor will be doing all the things the Doctor usually does — getting into trouble, saving worlds, showing off, and wielding a sonic screwdriver with aplomb — without gender being an issue. After all, the Doctor is an alien so ‘quaint little categories,’ as the Doctor’s sometime companion Captain Jack Harkness describes human definitions of sexuality and gender, need not apply.

What has already made the thirteenth Doctor iconic and ground breaking is the reactions she got from female viewers. Many of these have been included in the press coverage: celebrities and Doctor Who actors like Alex Kingston publically acknowledge how ‘marvellous’ Whittaker’s casting is and are visibly delighted by the news. But the responses that should really tell the world that this is going to make a difference are the reactions of girls like this 11 year old (tweeted by her mother Jenny Trout).

And this is just the trailer — imagine how these girls will react when the thirteenth Doctor is on screen every week.

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