“I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender. 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.” – Jodie Whittaker
It’s the groundbreaking casting decision that’s caused aftershocks to ripple across the internet: 35-year-old Jodie Whittaker, best known to U.S. TV viewers as Broadchurch’s Beth Latimer, will be the thirteenth actor to portray the central character in the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, marking the first time in the show’s 54-year history that the part will be played by a woman. Some will call it political correctness run amok, and they’ll be entirely wrong.
This development is something Doctor Who desperately needs — not even counting the 27 years of it that ran from ’63 to ’89, it’s an old series at this point. In its latest iteration, it’s been on for ten seasons across 12 years, amid a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero TV marketplace that gets more crowded every season. In order to stay relevant, Doctor Who must continue to reach for the stars and do things that make it stand out from the pack. It’s no longer enough just to be the oldest sci-fi series on TV. Making the Doctor a woman wasn’t just necessary, it was inevitable.
Ever since the episode “The Doctor’s Wife” in 2011, in which it was first confirmed onscreen that Time Lords have the ability to change sex, the series has pushed the notion forward, culminating in a three-season-long arc featuring the traditionally male character of the Master regenerated into a woman, Missy, played by Michelle Gomez. It was a resounding success, with Gomez quite possibly delivering the greatest portrayal of the character since he was first introduced in 1971. If you can buy the Master as a woman, you can believe that the Doctor is, too.
Of course, there will be pushback. Of course, people will say they’re going to stop watching the series. Truth be told? As someone who’s been a fan since I was a teenager, I used to be one of those people. But over the years, I evolved, and Missy and Michelle made me realize that not only can the Doctor be a woman, but that he should be. One of my old rationalizations was, “But how can she go back into the past without being discriminated against? How would she stride into the King’s Court in the 15th century and not be hauled away for insulting male royalty simply because she’s an outspoken woman?” Now I realize these are precisely the reasons to do it.
A smart series about a time-traveling Doctor in a woman’s body suddenly takes on a significance the series never had before. The Doctor will have to work to be taken seriously in ways that she’d previously taken for granted, in both the past and the present. Today, right now, a woman still has to work twice as hard as a man to get the same job. Indeed, if science fiction and fantasy in any way mirror reality, Doctor Who is set to be in better shape than ever. Women have led the past two Star Wars movies (with more to come). When Star Trek returns later this year, a woman will be its central figure. This is the summer of Wonder Woman. Now is unquestionably the right time to make the Doctor a woman. This is a series that’s at its best when it’s about something — when it’s reflecting real-world issues — and a series about the Doctor dealing with being in a woman’s body for the very first time has the potential to breathe a whole new life into it at a time when it’s been generally acknowledged that mainstream audiences have been losing interest in the program. Writing a program about a figure that’s lived for 2,000 years as a man suddenly becoming a woman also opens up the series to dabble into transgender issues. We’re on the cusp of Doctor Who potentially becoming important, closely watched television.
And what about Jodie Whittaker herself? She’s a serious, accomplished actor with nearly 50 credits on her IMDb résumé. In the cult favorite, Attack the Block, she played a nurse with a very Doctorish role – she was tasked with being the adult in the room during an alien invasion of London, giving a group of teenagers the courage to defeat the menace. In the standout episode of Black Mirror’s first season, “The Entire History of You,” she played a cheating spouse in a world where video-recording technology had gone crazy — a role so unlikable, it was all the more stunning to side with her halfway through the episode.
And of course, there’s Broadchurch, the series conceived and written by incoming Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall — the series without which she would have been unlikely to win the role of the Doctor. The shattered Beth Latimer kicked off the procedural when her murdered son is found lying on the beach. Here’s a woman who found the strength to keep it together while her husband fell apart. In the most recent and final third season, Beth takes her pain and uses it to help another person heal — a person whose life has also been shattered by an unspeakable criminal act. If ever there were an ideal audition for the role of the Doctor, that’s it right there.
When Peter Capaldi was cast as the Doctor four years ago, it was a terribly exciting development. He was the oldest actor ever cast in the role, at a time when the Doctors were becoming increasingly younger (his predecessor, Matt Smith, was the youngest ever to play the part). But this particular piece of casting is the most exciting yet, and it will allow the show to delve into brave new directions. We’ll get our first glimpse of Whittaker as the Doctor at the close of this year’s Christmas special — in which the two oldest Doctors join together for one last hurrah — after which, we’ll have to wait until autumn of 2018 to see her in action during her first full season. Until then, here’s your first sneak peek: