Ten Things You May Not Know About the Recent Casting of a Woman to Play the Doctor

On July 16, the world was introduced to the 13th Doctor, female actor Jodie Whittaker. There’s been a lot of chatter about the new lead in Doctor Who, but here are ten things about the casting that you may not be aware of.

  1. It was a long time coming.  Some might think the idea of casting a woman is the product of a new-fangled leftist plan, the strategy of the modern PC police, but the idea has a history that goes way back into the recesses of time. The idea was broached first in 1981, after 4th Doctor Tom Baker had announced he was leaving the show. When asked in an interview what kind of man he thought he 5th Doctor would be, he replied, “Well, you’re making an assumption that it’s going to be a man.” This may have been said partly in jest, but the current showrunner at the time, John Nathan-Turner encouraged speculation that the next Doctor could, in fact, be a woman. In 1986, when the show was put on hiatus, Sydney Newman, the creator of Doctor Who, was consulted about how the program might get a shot in the arm. His recommendations? ” First, to “engage the concerns, fears and curiosity” of young viewers. Then, “at a later stage Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman. This requires some considerable thought – mainly because I want to avoid a flashy, Hollywood Wonder Women because this kind of heroine with no flaws is a bore. Given more time than I have now, I can create such a character.” He offered his services but was never engaged. More than thirty years have passed since then, and each time a new Doctor is cast, people brought up the idea of a female Doctor. The 6th Doctor, Colin Baker, has long been in favor of the idea, and over the years has seen the subject brought up numerous times at fan conventions. “When I have been asked that question at conventions,” he recalls, “I have taken the opportunity to take a show of hands (from large numbers of predominantly Doctor Who fans in most cases) about their view of whether the Doctor could or should be a woman. I confess to being surprised when about 20%, or sometimes more, have considered the notion unthinkable – and many of them were women, whom one might think would be offended by the exclusion of their gender from the Tardis.” Though he did not understand the 20% opposed, it is notable that on average 80% of fandom was accepting of the idea. Other who have in the past expressed their support for a female Doctor include 8th Doctor Paul McGann, Captain Jack John Barrowman, Amy Pond Karen Gillan, and Rose Tyler Bille Piper. The question is not why a woman Doctor has been cast so soon, but why has a woman been cast so late? 
  2. The BBC did not make the selection; Chris Chibnall did.  Never in Doctor Who history has the BBC told the showrunner who to cast as the Doctor. It is no different in this case. The BBC wanted Chibnall so badly, they did all they could to woo him, including allowing him to make some bold moves. In a recent interview, incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall revealed: “I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it. When I went to them and said, ‘This is what I would do’, I actually expected them to say, ‘Ooh, let’s talk about that’, but they said: ‘Great!’” If anyone is to praise, or blame, for the decision, it’s Chibnall.
  3. Jodie Whittaker auditioned for the part in early 2017 and was Chibnall’s first choice.  On January 30, 2017, Peter Capaldi announced he would be leaving Doctor Who after Series 10. Shortly thereafter, Chibnall approached Whittaker and encouraged her to audition for the role. She explained in an interview: “We had a strange chat earlier this year where he tricked me into thinking we were talking about Broadchurch. And I started to quiz him about his new job in Wales, and asked him if I could be a baddie! And he quickly diverted the conversation to suggest I should consider auditioning to be the 13th Clooney [her codename for Doctor].” Although Chibnall is the one who floated the idea to her, knowing of her acting chops, she still had to go through the process.  Piers Wenger, Controller BBC Drama wrote: “She aced it in her audition both technically and with the powerful female life force she brings to the role.”  Said Chibnall: “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.”
  4. The BBC video clip announcing the casting currently has over 16 million views, breaking all BBC records. It would seem that, no matter what one’s view of the decision, there is no question that it has created a lot of buzz. From a PR standpoint, this can only be seen as a success for the BBC, and it is encouraging for potential viewership of Jodie Whittaker’s first episode as the Doctor.
  5. The vast majority of fans and viewers are fine with the decision.  If you’ve been frequenting forums, threads on Facebook, or tweets that aren’t representative of fandom as a whole, you may have gotten the impression that a lot of people are upset. Not so. The Radio Times did a poll after the announcement was made, and of the 12,000 respondents, only 15% of them were against the casting of a woman as the Doctor. Of the rest, half said the decision was “fantastic,” and the other half said they would reserve judgment to see how she does first.  An analysis of social media stats from the U.S. and U.K revealed that in the day following the announcement, 80% of the mentions were positive and 20% negative. Despite this support, Chibnall doesn’t believe in consulting fandom when making casting decisions: “A TV show isn’t a focus group. It is great that people are speculating about who the Doctor will be… but it won’t affect in any way what we do with the show.”
  6. The casting is true to the character of the Doctor as established in the program.  No one who has watched the show regularly in recent years can deny that it is established lore that Time Lords can change their sex upon regeneration. From very early on, the program has shown that not a single vestige of the Doctor’s physical body remains after regeneration takes place. K’anpo tells Sarah in Planet of the Spiders that all the cells of the Doctor’s body were devastated and would regenerate. The Tenth Doctor tells Rose in “Born Again” (the 2005 Children in Need mini-episode) that every single cell in his body was replaced. The new body not only is new on the cellular level, the Doctor has a very different outward appearance each time it happens. Physical differences can include height, weight, hair color, skin color, eye color, voice, apparent age, and perhaps even species. That biological sex could not change would be surprising. But we know it can change, because it has been made explicit in the program since 2010. At the conclusion of The End of Time, a newly-regenerated 11th Doctor tugged at his hair and expressed fear that he may have changed sex– “I’m a girl!” he exclaimed. He thus was aware of the possibility. Neil Gaiman, in The Doctor’s Wife, wrote in a reference to a Time Lord named the Corsair, who became the first explicit example in the TV series of a Time Lord changing gender upon regeneration. In 2014 we were shown through the character Missy that the Master, whom had been male previously, had regenerated into a woman. In “Hell Bent,” we saw a Time Lord actually regenerate from a man into a woman. But perhaps, while acknowledging that it is possible for the Doctor to regenerate into a woman, someone might argue that it is still an affront to the Doctor’s character for the show to depict him as a woman. To this, I have to ask: what part of the Doctor’s character is damaged by a change in biological sex? Can you name me one aspect of his character that would suffer? I certainly can’t think of any. Let’s see…what are the main features of the Doctor’s character? Well, the Doctor is fundamentally an altruistic person. The Doctor  consistently opposes injustice, prejudice, slavery, inequality, authoritarianism, and legalism. Instead the Doctor stands for the values of tolerance, freedom, equality, justice, and individuality. The Doctor exhibits a desire to interfere in history in order to help people or set matters right. Love for family and friends, beliefs and convictions, an interest in all things scientific, in solving puzzles, in learning and coming to understand things better–all vital to the Doctor’s character. Which of these characteristics would disappear in a change of sex?  None. So clearly the Doctor’s identity is not directly tied with masculinity. The Doctor has a set of character traits, all of which can be passed on to the next body, whether male or female.
  7. Casting a woman was not a political statement. Although Chibnall committed to casting a woman from the get-go and likely did not audition any male actors, this does not mean that the choice was made for political reasons. He claims it was all about the story. “We’ll cast the role in the traditional way: write the script, then go and find the best person for that part in that script. You couldn’t go out and cast an abstract idea,” said Chibnall back in February. And that is precisely what he did. Casting is done for the service of the story, and the story that he developed works best with a female actor. It’s as simple as that. “You don’t cast for any other reason than for passion and for aesthetics,” said Steven Moffat. “It’s not a political decision, it’s an aesthetic decision and will always be.”
  8. Insisting that the Doctor should be a woman or man is a political statement. While a decision to cast the member of a certain sex, or race, or sexual orientation in a show is not inherently political, insisting that it be so is definitely political. There’s a difference between saying “I’d like the Doctor to be played by a woman” and saying, “The next Doctor should be played by a woman.” The former statement is an expression of taste or fancy. The latter is a judgment. Any judgment of this sort carries a political message, because it supposes that there are good and valid, and even moral, reasons for the position taken. Similarly, saying that the next Doctor should be a man carries a political message as well, even though it wants no change in the tradition. The status quo is a political position. It’s called conservatism. And it suggests that there are good and valid, and even moral, reasons for the Doctor to be played by a man. The only politically neutral position is to say, “I don’t care either way.”
  9. The Doctor character is not going to become a woman. Did you read that right? Yes, the Doctor character, even if played by a woman actor, will not actually be a woman–at least not in the sense we are accustomed to here on Earth. In describing the Time Lords, the Doctor revealed: “We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.” For Time Lords, sex exists (perhaps for procreative reasons, or simply because of their evolution), but they see gender, at least as exhibited on Earth, as a social construct that they have moved past. The Doctor has had a man’s body, but has never in that period thought of himself as fundamentally a male, and when he takes on a woman’s body next season, will not be fundamentally a woman. The Doctor is simply the Doctor. Always has been, always will be.
  10. A male actor is likely to return to the role in future. One of the great things about Doctor Who is that it is constantly changing. If there is a period when the show is not to your taste, you can rest assured that all you have to do is wait a few years, and it will be a much different show. It’s highly unlikely that all future Doctors will be women, or will be white, for that matter. So if you don’t like Jodie Whittaker (no judgments until you see her in action), do not fret. Someone to your liking will no doubt show up soon. Doctor Who is so ingrained in the cultural consciousness, it is likely to be around for a very, very long time.