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Jodie Whittaker’s Regeneration

After five decades, Doctor Who has its first female Doctor. What took so long?

Photo: Erik Tanner for Vulture
Photo: Erik Tanner for Vulture

On a July afternoon last year, non-timey-wimey clocks across the universe stood still for a moment, upon the news that a 30-something lass from West Yorkshire would replace a sexagenarian Scottish chap in the long running British sci-fi series Doctor Who. The actress, of course, is Jodie Whittaker, whose prominence in British culture has been established for well over a decade thanks to her roles in Black Mirror, Attack the Block, and Broadchurch. But the character? That’s a little more complicated.

For the first time in the franchise’s five decades of Time Lord shenanigans, the role of the Doctor — traveler of both time and space, noted hater of creatures that yell “exterminate!” — is only now being played by a woman, despite the mythology of the series having frequently established that the Doctor can be any gender or race. As for why it’s taken so long, you can gander a guess, but Whittaker’s romp of a Doctor Who debut was filled with just about everything a Whovian could ask for, right down to a crash-through-the-literal-glass-ceiling entrance and a strong candidate for most terrifying monster in Doctor Who’s modern era. Three new companions have joined her in the TARDIS, too, for maximum mischief.

Unsurprisingly, Whittaker has answered question after question about her gender since the casting announcement, which is usually some iteration of, “How does it feel?” (It feels great, thanks for asking.) But ahead of her Doctor Who debut, Whittaker spoke to Vulture about the nuances of how a female Doctor will actually shape the show, in addition to the media’s role in sensationalizing her ascension to the role. She also discussed the surprising film character that influenced her Doctor, which Who-adjacent star she’d most like to share the screen with, and the importance of chic trousers. This woman knows her trousers!

How shrouded in secrecy was your audition process? Did new showrunner Chris Chibnall tell you from the very beginning that he wanted you for the role?
He was allowed to tell me, because we had a friendship that began with my Broadchurch days. He said, Don’t say anything, and I wasn’t gonna. From my own paranoia I wasn’t saying anything! When he talked about it during our initial meeting, it was a complete curveball because we were just chatting as friends. I said, knowing that he already signed on as the [Doctor Who] showrunner, Can I please play a baddie? Write me a role as a baddie with a lot off prosthetics! And he was like, Well, we’re actually auditioning women right now and that’s why I wanted to talk to you. It’s going to be a woman. It’s a part I hoped I would be right for, but I wasn’t guaranteed to get it by any means. Every other person on the list was a woman. And since I was with a friend, I could ask more openly about what it was going to entail.

What did it entail?
I was familiar with the show, but also not, if that makes sense. I’d seen a few episodes, but hadn’t followed a particular Doctor or watched a full season in total. Did I need to go home and watch every single episode? No. Chris said, Come in with fresh eyes. I’m going to write some scenes for the audition and I want you to approach it like you would anything. I was nervous because I felt like you had to “be” the Doctor, whatever that meant. Not knowing was a bit fearful. When I read it, I realized how incredibly engaging and inclusive it was. You get everything you need from the scenes. It was self-explanatory. I didn’t need to watch 100 previous episodes to learn that.

Did the sci-fi jargon come easily?
It did, especially with a character who has such strong character traits there for you to adapt and evolve. I didn’t know how funny it was going to be. I thought it would just be really fucking hard, but I had an ace time. You know what wasn’t easy? How long the audition was. I couldn’t even get a friend to self-tape me because they didn’t know they were auditioning. The whole thing was complicated, but rightly so, because the ambition of the reveal was incredible. I found the secret-keeping easy in certain respects, because I knew my life was going to change when it came out. But I found it hard for such daft things, like, a friend was planning a girls’ weekend, blah blah blah, and I knew I had to be [filming] in Wales. I had to pretend to be unemployed! What are you doing at the moment? Nothing. I also gave some really crap reasons for turning down other auditions. So when the reveal happened, it was like a massive weight lifted.

What was actually in your audition pages?
I’m not allowed to tell you that. But it was four or five scenes, and they all covered different energy. It was in-depth as you could imagine. The grown-ups needed to be sure of me. I don’t know which other women were on the list, but you can be sure they were the formidable group.

When you were announced as the Doctor last summer, a lot of articles tried stirring the pot with headlines about a backlash, but I didn’t see that much vitriol on social media. Do you think the media was complicit in making a big fuss out of your casting, when, in fact, the overwhelming consensus was positive?
My limited perspective comes from the U.K. and its media. Not social media, because I’m not on it, so all of that went over my head. Sure, there were concerns or strange interpretations from fans. I think the negative responses were relatively small. Of course, when any Doctor changes — David [Tennant] to Matt [Smith], Matt to Peter [Capaldi], Peter to me — there’s an inevitable loss of the familiar. The suggestion that I’ve “ruined the show” or have “gone against the show” are coming from people who aren’t necessarily Whovians. If they understood the world, they know that Matt and David aren’t aliens. Peter isn’t an alien! Their gender is as irrelevant as mine as. As a political moment, or as a moment as a woman in the industry, it is relevant. But within the world of Doctor Who, it really isn’t.

It’s hard because for some people, Peter was their only Doctor. They haven’t lived through a regeneration before. It’s like you’re letting go of something. But the wonderful thing about the show is a celebration of change and evolution. There’s no point in making changes if you’re not going to do new things. I think the biggest misconception right now is that a woman has “ruined” the show.

That reminds me of one of your lines in the season premiere, which is something like, “I haven’t bought women’s clothes in a long time.” It suggests that the Doctor has been a woman before, but we just haven’t seen it on-screen.
Yeah, and there are a lot of things that reference what the show has done before — you’ll have to wait and see. The Doctor has three friends in the TARDIS now, even though it’s been traditional in the modern era to be one or two. Chris gets asked why he wants to “break form” in that way, and he’s like, Uh no, going back, that was always how it was on the show.

Photo: Erik Tanner for Vulture

Chris has also spoken about why he decided to eschew past villains, characters, and planets in favor of world-building from scratch this season. Why was it important to start totally anew?
He’s been a Whovian since he was a kid. He’s been probably bubbling up these ideas for his entire career! It’s certainly not denying any of the worlds or monsters, but for him, it was really about going in a new direction and finding places in history we could go to. The interesting thing about being a woman is — although it’s irrelevant as the Doctor — it makes for interesting storytelling when it affects the time period you’re in, or the moment you’re in, or the interactions you have. It’s not the Doctor’s response, it’s other people’s response. And as a woman, that’s often the thing: We’re not surprised we can achieve things as women, it’s often other people who are.

I had the same thought after watching the premiere. Modern-day Britain is one thing, but what if the Doctor materializes in the European Dark Ages?
Exactly. What Chris wanted to do, particularly in the cast and in the story, is reflect the world we live in today. Very often, we’re only seeing stories being told through the white male gaze. That’s what Doctor Who always celebrated. The backlash is always the thing that gets focused on, but really, it’s so small. And also, for a true fan, they know it’s not warranted.

It’s one thing to have an anonymous Twitterbot spew stupid, misogynistic stuff about your casting, but when a former Doctor Peter Davison says he has doubts because it’s a “loss of a role model for boys,” does that give you pause?
I feel for him, because I feel he was misinterpreted. I don’t think it was a true reflection of what he was trying to say. Regardless of what was said, the mythology of “boys can only look up to boys” whereas “women are expected to look up to men,” it was never a question that our role models are men. But men have looked up to women their entire lives. Mothers, aunts, bosses — there are many versions of female heroes within our lives that are regardless of gender.

If someone actually came up to you and said, “I’m not watching the show anymore because the Doctor is a woman,” how would you respond?
I suppose I’d say, I think you have some internal issues that need addressing. I wonder if their mothers would be proud of that comment. [Laughs.] Some people are capable of change, but it isn’t worth engaging with, necessarily.

Let’s talk about your grand entrance! What were the conversations like surrounding that scene, especially in regards to the revelation of the Doctor discovering her new gender?
It was the second day on-set that I got to actually say all of those lines and do all of that jumping. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? Jumping? You bastards! That hero speech is when I remember who I am. When I’m like, I thought my legs used to be longer!, it was a joy to play around with. It’s a nod to the fans, but if you haven’t seen the show before it’s okay, because it adds to the mystery of the character. Watching it back, it’s the most extraordinary entrance I’ve ever had to do.

In the premiere, the Stenza warrior mockingly tells the Doctor that she has a “tiny mind.” I didn’t necessarily think it was a gender-specific slight, but it did make me wonder: Will the Doctor’s new gender affect the way she’s treated by her adversaries?
It definitely comes from things like history. I can’t speak to specifics, but there are moments when you venture into the past when relationships would be different. Like you said, we’re potentially going to times when women weren’t able to have a voice. The “tiny mind” thing was definitely character-to-character, not men-to-women. I don’t think gender played a role in the warrior’s motivation.

Are there motivations in future episodes when gender becomes more prevalent?
They do. There are times when we potentially go into history where gender is referenced, sometimes through others characters, too. But it’s irrelevant with the Doctor. The Doctor is the Doctor. The character isn’t lost because it’s in a female form. Maybe sometimes other people’s reactions are different because it’s a woman and not a man, but that’s as far as it goes.

I noticed is that all five modern era Doctors are completely inactive on social media
Once you join the show, that’s a route you don’t want to take. [Laughs.]

Why is that?
You give a lot of yourself over, because you become so well-known in the far corners in the world. I need stuff to be kept private. I wouldn’t have necessarily shut down my Twitter feed, but I never joined in the first place. For some people, social media suits them. It doesn’t suit me. There’s no reason to do it. You got bots that aren’t even human trolling people. I’m going to stick with text messages for now.

Were you involved in creating the Doctor’s new costume? It’s so snazzy!
The costume designer this season was the same who I worked with on Broadchurch, and we sat and discussed it a lot before the announcement. I came to the meeting with loads of different images, many of which I sent to Chris during the audition process. I loved this image, that coat, this earring, and other photos that I loved what they represented. Basically, I bullied Chris into giving me the job. [Laughs.] But these references made a great mood board for the costume. The use of color was very important to me, because I love color. Even though in today’s society, I’ve started to just wear black. There’s this social thing of not standing out too much or not wanting to be attention-seeking. It’s very human. What I love about the Doctor is that those rules don’t apply. I wanted that to be represented with what I wear, however small or subtle it was.

The use of color is inspired by this social and charity club called House of Saint Barnabas. I was there one day with a member, and I was like, This wallpaper color! This is it! We found a material that matched it. I love the use of the blue. I wanted the coat to represent where the Doctor came from. The lining is dark blue like space, and the world the Doctor is coming into, which is a dawn sky — a light cannonball of color. The lining of the cuffs, the seams, the stitching, every single item has meaning. And, of course, my costume has pockets. Can you imagine not having pockets?

Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, and Sharon D. Clarke in Doctor Who.
Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, and Sharon D. Clarke in Doctor Who. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC Studios 2018

For a brief moment in the charity shop, I thought we were going to witness Doctor Who’s first-ever makeover scene.
Everything in that costume would be at a charity shop! It fits, in a way that it shouldn’t work, but it does. It could fit a boy. But mainly, I can move in it and I’m not restricted. I can put it on in five minutes. I don’t get the point of latex.

I’m so amused that Peter found out you were the next Doctor because your trouser dimensions were sent to his tailor.
Oh God, we had a good laugh about that. I had to wear a version of his costume — I’m in his same jacket, actually, but I had to get new trousers. He’s slim, but it was still massive on me. When I started to go in for my fittings, I had to hide in the back corner so nobody would notice me.

Outside of Doctor Who, were there any pop-culture influences that helped shape your performance?
One of my favorite images is of Doc Brown in Back to the Future. He’s got a red shirt on with the white coat and glasses. And the hair! There’s chaos and there’s clarity. A childlike wonder and energy in a grown-up. Being a huge fan of the film, I adore that character. When I went in chatting with the premiere’s director, I was like, I really love the way Doc Brown bounces around the set. He’s never still, I want that freedom! I know it’s TV and I know it’s really quick, but I begged to not let him restrict me to static shots. I needed to move. This character has to be physically expressed from me. It’s movement, not just cerebral. If it’s articulated through my fingers or toes, I can do it. My memory of Doc Brown and what it evoked from my memory as a child was a great starting point for me. He’s still my favorite Doctor! Oh God, Whovians will kill me for that answer. [Laughs.]

Which returning characters would you like to act alongside, should Chris include some old favorites in a future episode?
I’d love to work with Billie Piper. Rose was a brilliant character. I love what she brought to that role — it was engaging and strong and vulnerable and dynamic. I’d like to meet Rose. And River Song! There’s load of brilliant creatures and monsters, too. Can you imagine me meeting my first Dalek?

How do you think Doctor Who fits into the grander scheme of “superhero” culture? Do you consider the Doctor to be a superhero?
Doctor Who is about hope and adventure. Whether you think you’re a fan of sci-fi or not, you’ll fall for one of those themes. The Doctor’s a hero for everyone in a way that I really adore, because the people in the cast look like they live next door to you. They’re not these extraordinary gorgeous, god-like figures. It’s not a typical superhero that has an unattainable beauty. It’s a hero for everyone because they look like everyone. If you’re going to have this beautiful vocabulary or extraordinary explanations, why make it so only two people understand it? You might as well not make it at all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jodie Whittaker’s Regeneration