As I write this, the announcement has just been made that Jodie Whittaker will be the Thirteenth Doctor. She’s the first woman in the show’s history to (officially) take on the role, and as I mentioned earlier in the year it’s a change which, now more than any other time in Doctor Who’s run, is desperately needed.
That’s the intellectual response.
The emotional response has involved jumping up and down, typing in ALL CAPS, and getting slightly weepy.
Because here’s the thing: change is hard. Always. And for a show that’s based around the twin concepts of change and mortality, Doctor Who has been very reluctant to embrace change in terms of its casting philosophy. While the idea of the Doctor being female has been in the show’s DNA from the start, it’s never been seen on screen.
Of course, the “But is she the best person for the role?” questions will be rolled out again. The answer is twofold, and both of them are “Yes.” The first yes comes from the simple, inescapable truth that Whittaker won the role, beating out everyone who was under consideration for it. In the eyes of the people making the decision, she’s the best choice. You can question that if you want, but given that this has been the process that brought us everyone from Hartnell on down, doing so now feels more than a little disingenuous
The second yes comes from the fact that, to embrace one of the show’s favourite dad jokes (or perhaps it’s now a mom joke?): it’s about time. Doctor Who’s central concept is both indestructible and genderless: the figure at the heart of the show is a brilliant, compassionate, wildly odd time traveller who is never cruel or cowardly and is always, without exception, here to help. To have made the thirteenth iteration of that concept a white man would have worked, there’s no doubt—after all, we now have twelve examples of this to look back upon.
But to break from expectation and tradition? To cast a woman for the first time in a role that’s been placed on both a pop cultural and cultural pedestal for decades? To do the absolute last thing anyone expected but a lot of people have hoped for?
That’s Doctor Who to a tee.
There’s also the fact that Whittaker’s genre credentials are impeccable. She was the female lead in “The Entire History Of You,” an early Black Mirror episode and still one of the best in the show’s run. She was also the female lead in Joe Cornish’s wonderful Attack The Block. Somehow, this is a movie that’s still something of a cult classic and if you haven’t seen it, go now. It’s an amazingly fun, low-tech John Carpenter-esque story of a group of teenagers and tower block residents fighting off an alien invasion. Whittaker’s great in it, Nick Frost is great in it, and John Boyega’s star-making turn anchors the whole thing.
And then there’s Broadchurch, which is where things get really interesting.
Broadchurch is a three-season-long detective series created by Chris Chibnall. Chibnall is the incoming showrunner on Doctor Who. He was the head writer and co-producer of the first couple of seasons of Torchwood, as well as contributing several episodes to Doctor Who itself. You’re going to read a lot of discussion of that work across the next few months and, I’m guessing, some of it’s going to be pretty unfavourable. Because when it comes down to it, a lot of the time geek culture seems far more willing to dwell on people’s failures than accept that they may have learned from them. Suffice to say, some of Chibnall’s work has been actively bad, some has been great, but his most recent genre (albeit crime) work, Broadchurch, brings pretty much nothing but positive news.
Broadchuch is set in a small, coastal town in Dorset in the UK. When the body of Danny Latimer, a local child, is found at the base of the cliffs, family friend Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller is caught up not only in the investigation but in helping her friends Beth and Mark Latimer deal with the loss of their son. Matters are further complicated by the fact Ellie’s gruff new boss, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, got the job/promotion that had been promised to her. As Miller and Hardy struggle to work together, Hardy’s past, the town’s numerous secrets, and the media attention all turn Broadchurch into a pressure cooker of tension and paranoia.
It’s a great, tightly plotted show that’s anchored by three primary performances. Olivia Colman as Ellie is endlessly charming but rock solid under the country bluster. David Tennant’s Alec Hardy is an impatient and erratic man stretched thin to the point of breaking, whose total lack of social skills is matched only by his abilities as a copper. And Beth Latimer, played by Jodie Whittaker, is an open wound of a grieving parent, struggling to understand the incomprehensible and cope with the terrible secrets her child’s death brings to light.
Broadchurch is also an unapologetic serial, unfolding a single story across one season. Even the two seasons that followed have their own distinct arcs, as well as carrying on threads from their predecessors. It’s tightly plotted, character-driven, and compulsive television. And it’s Chibnall’s most recent project, prior to Doctor Who. If you want an idea of what his era of Doctor Who is going to look like, Broadchurch is probably the best place to start.
This is clearly where his working relationship with Whittaker began, as well, and the way her casting has been handled speaks to the level of care Moffat, Chibnall and his incoming team of writers are taking. For months, Broadchurch series lead Olivia Colman has been one of the names most commonly mentioned (and, subtly, pushed by her castmate and former Doctor himself, Tennant). So, the expectation from the get-go has been that Chibnall might well cast a woman. But by focusing on the endlessly busy Colman, they’ve been able to keep fandom attention focused on the right hand, while the left has been doing the work of getting everything in place. And, judging by that announcement trailer, shopping for a seriously badass hoodie.
Then there’s the fact that so much of the previous series was about Missy and The Master and, through that, pointing back toward the idea of Time Lord Identity not being defined by gender or race (as previously discussed in my earlier post). Looking back at Series 10, a huge amount of it now clearly functions as a narrative on-ramp for this casting. To paraphrase the last words of the Fourth Doctor, this moment has clearly been prepared for.
And it changes everything—while keeping everything the same, in new and meaningful ways. This is what Doctor Who does best and, arguably, not often enough: takes a risk in a way that keeps the show exactly what it is, but approaches everything from a fresh, and much needed, new angle.
Of course, I am basically made of questions right now. Is Whittaker’s Doctor going to be Northern? How will the character’s personality change? Male companion? Female? Both? Neither? Will Chibnall go for a series-long arc, as he’s hinted, or something more modular? What will the inside of the TARDIS look like? When will the new LEGO be out?!
But what’s most interesting isn’t these questions, but the single definitive answer that Whittaker represents. Her casting proves both the Doctor and Doctor Who have both taken a very definite, and irrevocable, step forward. There will never be a first female Doctor again. There will probably never be a 12-incarnation-long tradition to break through again. There will never be decades of accrued apathy to chip through again.
But for all that, there are still justifiable complaints. A person of colour is decades overdue in the role, and the frustration many fans feel at being denied a non-white Doctor yet again is as tangible as it is entirely valid. Likewise the show’s treatment of LGBTQ issues is going to be front and centre, moving forward. Handled correctly, the show could be a barnstorming example for the rest of British drama to follow. Handled wrong or insensitively, it’ll be a mess.
We have no idea which one we’ll get, yet. But we do know that a journey that is decades past due has finally begun, and I can’t wait to see where the Thirteenth Doctor, and her show, goes next.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.