The king is dead, long live the king. After three seasons in the role, Peter Capaldi is destined to make his final appearance as the Twelfth Doctor this Christmas, and showrunner Steven Moffat will leave the show at the same time. In the latter’s place is Broadchurch creator and Doctor Who scriptwriter Chris Chibnall, and starring as the Thirteenth Doctor — as we all learned from a minute-long teaser screened after the men’s final at Wimbledon this Sunday — will be Jodie Whittaker. An actor in her mid-30s with some decent small- and big-screen appearances behind her, Whittaker isn’t exactly a household name, but she’s clearly capable, if her credits are anything to go by (Broadchurch, St Trinian’s), and certainly outstrips, say, Matt Smith in terms of her previous experience.
From a certain perspective — that of some alien thespian newly landed on Earth; let’s say in the London area for the sake of argument, in Perivale perhaps, or Pease Pottage — one could well conclude that there’s nothing to write home about in any of the above. In long-running franchises, leading actors as well as showrunners have to change some time. Capaldi had his shot at the role — and has done very well, by most accounts — while Moffat’s contribution to the show will be debated for years to come.
Yet, like dinosaurs on spaceships, elephants in rooms are hard to ignore, especially in the Whoniverse. Social media went into meltdown in the minutes and hours after the announcement, and the amount of negative reaction to Whittaker’s introduction was surprising. At the time of writing, the BBC’s official YouTube video of the trailer had approximately 55,000 likes, and a massive 34,000 dislikes. The right-wing tabloid press were quick to weigh in with stories of the “another sacred cow slaughtered” variety that offered broadsides of the so-called “PC brigade” while extolling the “traditional” male Doctor, while others commented on the loss of a prominent moral and non-violent role model for boys. Comment on Twitter and elsewhere ranged from the predictable “they’ve ruined the show”, to attacks on Whittaker and women in general that would put the most hardened misanthrope to shame.
Fans do not like to admit it, but Doctor Who has been guilty of reflecting the misogyny of British society since its inception, typically through the positioning of the Doctor’s female companions. In the ’60s, characters such as Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) were often reduced to making cups of tea or holing up in the TARDIS or somewhere else “safe” — when they weren’t screaming, getting captured, and being rescued, that is — while the male leads such as Ian (William Russell) or Jamie (Fraser Hines) stayed with the Doctor and got in on the action. Attempts to cast companions in other than “screamer” role began in earnest in the ’70s, but characters such as UNIT scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John) were quickly dispensed with, and Elisabeth Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith, the feminist investigative journalist that accompanied the Third (Jon Pertwee) and Fourth (Tom Baker) Doctors in the middle of the decade was rendered problematic by an underwritten part — Sladen later recalled improvising most of the character notes herself — and occasional tendencies to “screamer” mode.
Even post-2005 companions have been hobbled by a lack of agency: Rose (Billie Pier), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) all fall for the Doctor, and therefore essentially act as love interests, their own skills and other roles notwithstanding.
All the same, the year is 2017, and the outrage in some circles at Whittaker’s casting is hard to fathom. Even allowing for the fact that the idea of a female Doctor has been around since as early as 1980 (the result of a jape by outgoing Doctor Tom Baker, subsequently exploited by publicity-savvy producer John Nathan-Turner), the zeitgeist has been pointing Doctor Who in this direction for some time now, with the roaring success of this year’s Wonder Woman reboot merely the latest in a string of prominent female heroes to hit the big screen.
The Star Wars franchise received a welcome fillip in 2015 with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, starring Daisy Ridley in the lead role as Jedi knight-in-waiting Rey. Michelle Yeoh first came to the attention of Western cinemagoers as that rarity — a Bond girl included as something other than as a sex object — in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), where she played a secret agent, while critical acclaim followed her incomparable performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as the sword-wielding Yu Shu Lien; this autumn she’ll appear in a starring role in Star Trek: Discovery as a captain of a Starfleet vessel. Isn’t it about time Doctor Who followed suit?
Male viewers incensed at the prospect of a female Doctor would do well to put themselves in the shoes of young female science fiction and fantasy fans, who have for decades been placed in the peculiar position of having to role play as a male character when acting out their favourite films and TV programmes. Now they can save the world — indeed, the universe — without having to perform that mental sleight-of-hand; they’ll surely benefit from receiving the message, week in, week out, that women are not there to go gooey-eyed over the nearest heartthrob or merely to help out while the boys get to do all the exciting stuff.
Meanwhile, the argument that casting a female Doctor robs boys of a role model insults boys everywhere, as though they were incapable of pulling the same trick and imagining themselves occupying the role of a female character in this or that adventure. (The only comic I ever read as a teenager — the only one worth reading, or so I arrogantly thought — was Tank Girl.) As for those worrying about “tradition” and continuity, it should be remembered that a female Time Lord was first seen on our screens back in 1979 in the guise of Romana (Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward), and that the Doctor’s archenemy, the Master, has spent the last couple of seasons popping in and out of the Doctor’s adventures in the guise of Michelle Gomez as Missy.
All else aside, a female Doctor will do good, both for the show (ratings have fallen of late) and more generally. At this febrile moment in our history, when a retrenchment of women’s rights is underway across much of the globe, strong female voices in the prominent stories and sagas of our times are more important than ever.
None of this means that Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor should be impervious to scrutiny. But let that scrutiny take as its starting point the only thing that matters: whether she does the role justice. If Chris Chibnall can deliver the scripts, I believe she will. As the Doctor him — or her — self once said, “It’s not the time that matters — it’s the person.”