Yesterday, viewers around the world finally got to see the Thirteenth Doctor in action (her cameo in last year's Christmas special notwithstanding)—and they watched in record-breaking numbers. In the UK, 9 million people tuned in to the Season 11 ...
When BBC revealed, back in July 2017 that Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi would be handing over the TARDIS to Jodie Whittaker, network executives expected some backlash. Resistance to a "new" Doctor is as much a part of the British sci-fi series' brand as sonic screwdrivers and Daleks. And they certainly anticipated that the decision to cast a woman in the lead role would rile even more naysayers, including loud-and-proud misogynists who wouldn't know a Cyberman from a Sontaran, but who are simply tired of Hollywood's newfound affinity for gender-swapping iconic franchises. They didn't care—the time had come.
Just hours after the initial casting announcement, the network released a second statement to make it clear that complaining about the decision was pointless: "The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey and it has been established in the show that Time Lords can switch gender… We hope viewers will enjoy what we have in store for the continuation of the story."
Yesterday, viewers around the world finally got to see the Thirteenth Doctor in action (her cameo in last year's Christmas special notwithstanding)—and they watched in record-breaking numbers. In the UK, 9 million people tuned in to the Season 11 premiere, making it the most watched "new Doctor" debut in a decade. (The only one who managed to best her is Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, who drew 9.9 million viewers, which makes sense as his debut was also the first episode of the show's 2005 reboot.)
As for the reviews, the consensus was pretty much unanimous: Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor.
Though the outpouring of praise will be a disappointment to the #NotMyDoctor cynics, one can only imagine that the stellar ratings and positive reviews brought a wave of relief to Whittaker, who has spent the past 15 months repeatedly answering for the fact that, yes, the Thirteenth Doctor has boobs. Though the 36-year-old actress admits that she doesn't "come from a Whovian household" and hadn't seen much of the show before her audition, she understands the importance of the legacy with which she has been entrusted. And it shows in her performance, which maintains the quirkiness and fast-paced cadence of her male predecessors—but is also uniquely her own.
"I, like every other Doctor, was given free rein to bring the elements that were instinctive to me to this role, regardless of me being a woman or a man," Whittaker says. "It was me being an actor, and that is the joy of this role like no other. The regeneration doesn't lose the aspects of the Doctors that we know and love from the past, but it gives the Doctor a new perspective and a new POV and literally a new body, regardless of the gender."
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Though the first episode acknowledges the Doctor's new anatomy—it's titled "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" and has a confused Thirteenth Doctor, after being reminded that she's a woman explain "half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman"—it doesn't dwell on it from a narrative perspective. Even though it is a huge step forward for the series.
"It's a moment," Whittaker says of her turn as the Time Lord. "It's a moment in my career and it's a moment in casting history. And to deny that would be to take away the importance of it in a way. What will be brilliant is when this kind of casting isn't so exciting, because TV is so representative of the society we all live in today."
The idea of a Gallifreyan sex change is nothing new. It was actually first proposed in the 1980s, when the original iteration of the series was in the midst of a ratings decline. When Fourth Doctor Tom Baker departed the series in 1981, he famously wished "good luck to the new Doctor, whoever he or she may be." And when Tenth Doctor David Tennant announced that he was leaving in 2008, showrunner Russell T. Davies wasn't shy about declaring Catherine Zeta-Jones his first choice to replace Tennant. Ultimately, it was new showrunner Chris Chibnall, best known as the creator of Broadchurch, who made it a mandate.
"It wasn't a long conversation at all," Chibnall says of his insistence that if he agreed to take over the show, the next Doctor must be a woman. The BBC was in absolute agreement. "I thought the audience was ready. I thought the show was ready," he says. "People keep asking 'Why did you do it?' 'Why would you do it?' Well, why wouldn't you?"
I think we thought that the reaction would be overwhelmingly negative with a little glimmer of positivity, and it was really the other way around.
Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall
It's a question that couldn't come at a better time. In the months since Whittaker's new gig was first announced, the world has watched on as powerful men in the entertainment industry (and far beyond) have faced charges of sexual misconduct and women have discovered severe pay disparities between themselves and their male counterparts. No longer content to remain quiet on the sidelines, women are actively working to take over more roles and increase their dismal behind-the-camera stats in Hollywood. While gender-swapping a time-traveling TV alien may not seem like a big deal, consider this: Doctor Who made its original premiere in 1963. In the 55 years since, a dozen different actors have taken on the role of the Doctor—all of them white men … until now.
"You'd have to be very naïve to think that casting the first female doctor was going to just pass by without comment," Chibnall says. But even he was surprised by the overall response. "I think we thought that the reaction would be overwhelmingly negative with a little glimmer of positivity, and it was really the other way around," he adds. "We expected 80/20, but it was 80/20 in favor [of Jodie], and I totally understand that."
Though placing a woman at the center of the Doctor Who galaxy was essential for the series' new producers, they knew that finding the right actor for the part would be the biggest challenge. "No matter how good an actor is, when you whittle it down, there aren't lots and lots of actors who can play the Doctor," says executive producer Matt Strevens, another new piece of the revitalized Doctor Who puzzle. "You're looking for an actor who comes in and isn't playing the part of the Doctor, but is the Doctor. There's a real distinction, and Jodie hit that distinction straight away."
Having only a limited knowledge of the series' DNA, Whittaker admits that she didn't go to her "audition with an encyclopedia of knowledge, nor did Chris want me to. He was very excited by the fact that I was taking the scenes and playing them as instinctively as I could. I was putting my instinct and perspective on the sides I was given, and I obviously showed something that he liked."
Viewers clearly agree. While some people took issue with the slower pace of "The Woman Who Fell to Earth," many critics appreciated the more grounded, character-driven approach that Chibnall is taking. He is, of course, a master of the suspect-of-the-week methodology, as he's proven with Broadchurch and Law & Order: UK. But he's no stranger to the Doctor's universe; in addition to writing episodes of the series over the years, he was also lead writer and producer of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Still, he sees his new role as Doctor Who head honcho as a chance to evolve the series. He has taken a different approach to the cinematography, given the iconic theme song a slight makeover, and promised that he'll introduce new monsters. We don’t even get to see the TARDIS in episode one, though the Doctor on the hunt to find it. But in the end, the "new" Doctor Who hinges on Whittaker.
"I hope when people watch the first episode, in the end, all the conversation is theoretical," Chibnall says. "When you watch that first episode, Jodie just is the Doctor. Gender becomes irrelevant very quickly."
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