Like a lot of people around the world, Jodie Whittaker is not an expert on Doctor Who, which returns on BBC America Sunday, Oct. 7. Whittaker, the 13th actor cast in the show's lead role and the first female Doctor, grew up knowing it as a mainstay of TV in the U.K, where she's from. As an adult, she occasionally watched it when her actor friends were on it. But she thinks that coming into the world of Doctor Who as a someone on a journey of discovery is, in some ways, a plus.
"When we were at [San Diego] Comic-Con, there was press from all over the world. There are fans everywhere," Whittaker said in a recent interview. "It's an honor to be in a show that touches so many people — but also, it touches so many people because it's inclusive, rather than exclusive. That's the most important thing for me, that it feels welcoming rather than off-putting."
Welcoming new fans and veteran Whovians alike are among the marching orders from new showrunner Chris Chibnall, who may be known to American TV aficionados for his work on the acclaimed crime drama Broadchurch. Chibnall, a Doctor Who superfan since childhood, has also occasionally written for the show since its revival in 2005. But when the BBC approached him about taking over for Steven Moffat, who decided to exit after a seven-year run that began in 2010, Chibnall says he hesitated. A bit.
It's understandable: Doctor Who is a complex beast, a long-running saga that mixes sci-fi scenarios and social commentary with wry humor, fantastical adventures, tragedy, whizzy action and a distinctly British, get-on-with-it sensibility. It has also, in the course of its 55-year history, gone from being a cult kid's show to one of the most well-known and profitable franchises on the planet. In the realm of U.K. television, few gigs are more high-profile — or more challenging.
After his first conversations with the BBC, Chibnall says he "actually wrote down a list of pros and cons. There were 10 cons. And the only pro was, 'It's Doctor Who! It's the best idea TV has ever had."
That's a big claim, but it actually holds up under scrutiny.
Doctor Who is, at its best, a deft combination of serial and anthology: Each episode tells a self-contained story but may be linked to a larger, season-long or even multi-season narrative. The Doctor, a long-lived Time Lord usually accompanied by a companion or three, can take a jaunt to anywhere in time or space. The Doctor and her (or his) posse travels in the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a blue police call box that is, in the oft-repeated phrase, "bigger on the inside."
"The story has limitless possibilities, in that it can really happen anywhere and anything can be explored," says Alyssa Franke, who runs the site Whovian Feminism.
Moreover, Doctor Who is the rare ongoing show where fans not only accept major changes behind the scenes and in front of the camera, but expect and even look forward to them during frustrating or slack periods.
Way back in 1963, it was created as a kid-friendly program with a slightly educational bent, but it didn't take long before it had an avid following of all ages. When original Doctor William Hartnell moved on from the role in 1966, the character regenerated into a new version of himself, played by Patrick Troughton. This was one of the show's greatest strokes of genius: Fans do miss their favorite Doctors, but it's also exciting to see what each new actor can find within the role.
Over the years, an impressive array of actors put their distinctive spins on the Doctor (and the favorite Classic Era TARDIS inhabitant of yours truly is Tom Baker, but well-intentioned fans can and do disagree on this point). In any event, the willingness to change Doctors every few years continued when, after a period of dormancy in the TV realm, Doctor Who was rebooted by the BBC in 2005. BBC America began to promote it systematically — and cleverly — in the U.S. around that time, and it became a flagship show for the up-and-coming network.
The endurance of the character — who is from the planet Gallifrey and boasts two hearts — and the versatility of the premise go well beyond the ability to switch lead actors (an event that is often, though not always, accompanied by a transition in head writers and key producers behind the scenes).
"It can tell stories in almost any genre and can always wriggle free of the burden of too much continuity by resetting the timeline," says U.K. sci-fi commentator and critic Adam Whitehead. "It's also a show where the protagonists have to overcome problems by their wits and through their courage, rather than blowing up everything in sight. It can be very comedic, very dark, or very light or tragic. It can constantly adjust and refresh itself, which is a huge advantage at a time when television is constantly shifting and changing."
It certainly can get dark — in the U.K., it's a rite of passage for younger Doctor Who fans to "hide behind the sofa" during some of the scarier episodes — but the long-running drama is also a beacon of humane, compassionate storytelling. It's escapist, sure, but it frequently spins gripping yarns about various kinds of resistance to oppression and has often told stories about the ability of one person to change not just the world but the universe. That person can be the Doctor or one of his or her companions, ordinary people who are often given the chance to be heroic or altruistic.
"It was a combination of fun and strange and scary that always got under my skin," says Sarah Dollard, who grew up watching Doctor Who in Australia and who has written for the show in recent years. "Then when it came back when I was an adult, it was all of those things again, and gorgeous and sexy as well."
The key to the show's appeal, Dollard notes, lies behind its wit, its brisk pacing and its clever problem solving: "It romanticizes and celebrates being curious," she says. "It's really about being open, and understanding things and people other than yourself."
One of the most quoted remarks about the show came from Steven Moffat, who ran Doctor Who from 2010-2017. "When they made this particular hero, they didn't give him a gun. They gave him a screwdriver to fix things," he said at a 2013 panel celebrating the show's 50th anniversary. "They didn't give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter. They gave him a call box from which you can call for help. They didn't give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray. They gave him an extra heart."
And the companions are often just as beloved as the Doctor (Whitehead's favorite is Ace, "mainly for the time that, when attacked by a Dalek, she promptly started beating it up with an energy-enhanced baseball bat."). "The Doctor himself or herself is fascinating and intoxicating, but added to that is this idea of somebody coming along and taking you outside of your life," Dollard says. "It's like going on the TARDIS is the ultimate gap year."
Of course, not every episode (or season) is a winner, but the show's ability to shift between storytelling styles, villains and tones week after week gives fans a greater ability to ride out the tough spots. And in the past 55 years, there have been more than a few of those.
"Unlike the whole 'jumping the shark' idea, where it's like, 'All right, once you've jumped the shark, nothing after that is good,' it's different with Doctor Who. With another show, you might think, 'Oh, it's not going to recover from this problem.' But Doctor Who will do something new, and you're into it again," says Constance Gibbs, a pop-culture writer and critic and the host of the TARBIS podcast (Time and Relative Blackness in Space). "I quit after season seven [of the revived series] — some of the storytelling had been a bit repetitive, and it was just not drawing me in. Then they introduced [the companion] Bill before Season 10, and being a black girl with a 'fro, I was like, 'Yes! All right! I guess I have to catch up on Doctor Who now.'"
That ability to get fans to get back on board, or jump in fresh even if they don't know much about Doctor Who, is a key part of Chibnall's strategy as the show's new creative leader. He's announced that the old-school villains like the Daleks won't be part of Whittaker's first season. And when he began talking to BBC executives, it wasn't known yet when Peter Capaldi would choose to exit the role. But Chibnall says he told the BBC that he wouldn't take the gig unless the Doctor after Capaldi was a woman.
"Part of the discussion was, 'If you want me to do this, this is where I would envision the show going next,'" Chibnall says. "I felt that if we cast another man, the show would be behind the audience and behind popular culture."
The BBC was very open to the idea. "They were totally fine with it," he says. "It was a short conversation."
When Whittaker was announced as the next Doctor in July 2017, the response around the world was ecstatic, for the most part.
"I didn't want to be restricted in my professional career or in my imagination because other people thought women couldn't do certain things."
"I'm excited for kids, for both boys and girls to have a Doctor that presents as a woman," Dollard says. "I'm really excited for what it means for the fandom. Like, the explosion of fan art for her. I'm actually ... I'm welling up. Every new piece of art for her that comes out just makes me really emotional in a way that isn't intellectual at all."
Dollard wasn't the only one who cried. Franke says she wept when she heard the news. And when Whittaker found out she'd been cast, she shed tears as well.
"I really cried when I found out, and I'm not ashamed," Whittaker says. "I'm 36, and when I was growing up, all of my heroes on TV and film, the parts I wanted to be doing, were not the ones that looked like me. They were on the sidelines — the girls who were clapping at the side and waving at the boys, who were doing all the fun bits of action and having the heroic moments. I didn't want to be restricted in my professional career or in my imagination because other people thought women couldn't do certain things."
"The thing that's brilliant about Doctor Who is you've got 55 rich years of history to honor," Whittaker adds. "But why keep doing the show if you're not going to invite change and celebrate that change? There's just no point."
Of course, she knows it's important to keep a sense of continuity with the past, and she says she counts on Chibnall to be the keeper of the fan flame: "Chris Chibnall has been a Whovian since he was born, and he knows and honors everything that's gone before. And [the cast is] respectful enough to do our homework and to know what we're saying, and to know the intricacies of the relevant moments."
Still, despite the excitement in many quarters about the first-ever female Doctor, there were detractors as well. A small but vocal subset of fans made their whiny feelings known when the announcement about Whittaker finally came.
"There are some people who are a bit lacking in empathy," Dollard says. "If media has always catered to them, they haven't noticed that anything needed to change. And now they have a failure of imagination, and they can't see why it's so important for other people to have media suddenly cater to them for a change."
And it's not like Doctor Who fans who continue to want a white guy in the main role are lacking in choices. "There are 10 other seasons plus the 26 or so classic Who seasons, there are audiobooks, there are comic books — there's so much content starring the people that you like. You can go consume that, as opposed to being upset about this one actress," says Gibbs.
All things considered, both Franke and Gibbs say they're glad that issues of inclusion are being more vigorously discussed within the world of Doctor Who, a development that reflects conversations about representation that are going on in many different sci-fi and fandom communities.
As Gibbs notes, a white woman getting a prominent job after years of a white man filling the position is a fairly common pattern across many industries, not just in the world of entertainment.
"I think Jodie's going to be great. But the trajectory usually is 'white guy, white woman, and then maybe a black man, and then other people of color.' So it felt like they were doing something new, but with me being a woman of color, a black woman, it was like, 'Well, this is predictable,'" Gibbs says. "The Doctor could've remained a man — even could've remained a white man — but the show needed to be better both behind the scenes and with the supporting cast, in terms of inclusion for women, writing for women — and writing for women of color and characters of color in general."
"I think that they can still address racism and how it affects those characters in their actual present-day lives while still traveling to the future and still have a positive show or scary show — whatever a given episode is trying to be."
That's a set of concerns — many of them expressed for years by Doctor Who fans and critics — that Chibnall has addressed with the roster of writers and directors he hired for the upcoming season. For the first time in the history of the program, writers of color (Malorie Blackman and Vinay Patel) will be penning episodes of the show, in addition to Joy Wilkinson, Chibnall, Pete McTighe, and Ed Hime (all of whom are white). Two of the four directors for the 10-episode season are women, and one, Mark Tonderai, is a man of color.
"While this is exceptionally good news, it's hard not to feel frustrated by how limited these victories are," Franke wrote on Whovian Feminism when these rosters were announced. "Two women writing and directing per season seems to be a high-water mark that Doctor Who can't climb over. And there has still never been a [woman of color] director on Doctor Who."
There's no doubt that, in front of and behind the camera, Doctor Who has been strongly dominated by white men. Between 2005 and 2017, they got 90 percent of the show's directing jobs, and only a handful of episodes of the revived series were written by women (all of them white). Given how male-dominated the world of Doctor Who has been, it was not surprising, ultimately, that a February panel at the Gallifrey One convention turned into a painful and yet cathartic #MeToo reckoning with harassment, bias, abuse and worse faced by women associated with Doctor Who.
There have been a few LGBT writers, directors and producers in Doctor Who's long history, including showrunner Russell T Davies, producer John Nathan-Turner and writer Mark Gatiss. But until 2017, when Pearl Mackie's Bill, the show's first openly gay companion and one of the few women of color to appear in multiple episodes of Doctor Who, was introduced, finding recurring characters who were non-white or queer was difficult, if not impossible, for long periods.
Hard as it is to believe, things were worse — in terms of representation and inclusion on screen and behind the scenes — during the show's Classic era, which ran from 1963 to 1989 (a one-off movie was the only major TV outing for the Doctor in the '90s). That lack of systematic representation for women behind the scenes led to a number of unfortunate and frankly sexist storylines for the women in the TARDIS.
"There are definitely times where it seems they were trying to objectify a very attractive woman on television, and they were not shy about that at the time," Franke says. "There was a quote at some point where one of the showrunners at the time talks about hiring a companion to be something for the dads to look at while the family is watching Doctor Who. So that's something that should be acknowledged as disappointing, but even under those circumstances, many of the women playing those companions did their utmost to give them thoughtful, deep portrayals. It's really kind of incredible what some of these women did with the material that they were given, and how they gave some real depth to the characters."
That said, the way the show handled the writing for Bill — and especially her tin-eared, disappointingly cliched exit — demonstrated that having an inclusive array of characters is not a panacea if the writing for them lacks context and nuance.
"People of color, black people — we can tell when you don't have any black writers on your staff, even though you have characters of color on screen," Gibbs says. She notes that though she is "cautiously optimistic" about the upcoming season, in which Whittaker's Doctor will be accompanied by three companions — two of them non-white — she hopes the show will not completely ignore the realities that the show's viewers face in their day-to-day lives.
"I get it. They have 42 minutes or so to tell a story. But sometimes I think one line, where it made sense, could let it be known that you are paying attention," Gibbs says. "It doesn't always have to be, 'No one's talking about race because there are aliens.' I think that they can still address racism and how it affects those characters in their actual present-day lives while still traveling to the future and still have a positive show or scary show — whatever a given episode is trying to be."
The ironic thing is, the first director of Doctor Who was a LGBT man of color, Waris Hussein, who went on to direct key episodes early in the show's run, and the BBC producer most responsible for the birth of the series was a woman, Verity Lambert.
"Without her, we probably wouldn't have the Daleks," Franke notes. Sydney Newman, then Head of Drama at the BBC, didn't want "bug-eyed monsters, and he felt the Daleks fell under that classification. Verity championed them, and she said, 'This is going to be a hit.' And it was."
Despite the fact that an inclusive array of artists were present at the creation of Doctor Who -- events that the 50th anniversary TV movie "An Adventure in Space and Time" lovingly depicted — the clubby, mostly male U.K. TV industry's lack of inclusivity quickly reasserted itself. People from marginalized communities were often denied opportunities not just at Doctor Who but throughout U.K. TV productions, a history that TV commissioners across the pond are only starting to reckon with. The biases have been so persistent that in February, 70 female TV writers in the U.K. published an open letter titled "Why Won't You Work With Us?"
In the post-2005 era, "it was only when Doctor Who took off in the U.S., and U.S. writers and critics began writing about it, that anybody pointed out in the press that there weren't any female writers or directors. In the U.K., it wasn't even thought worthy of comment," says one source close to the show who did not want to be identified due to fear of professional repercussions.
Also, "it was fans on the internet — they pushed on this and they made people more aware," says Rachel Talalay, who has directed multiple episodes of the show.
Chibnall says he wants to expand on the steps toward inclusion that were taken under the previous showrunner, Steven Moffat, who, in some ways, set the stage for a female Doctor. More than once, Moffat put his foot in his mouth when discussing the possibility of casting a female Doctor. But by introducing Missy (Michelle Gomez), one incarnation of the Time Lord known as the Master, and giving a fair bit of screen time over the years to River Song (Alex Kingston), a fan favorite who was just as engaging and complicated as the Doctor, the Moffat era did help pave the way for Whittaker's casting.
"This is just the start of a process. We'll keep improving. We're not yet where we want to be," Chibnall says.
"For a lot of Whovians, and for a lot of people who've never watched the show, this could be a moment that invites them in or it could make them re-fall in love with the show."
One of Chibnall's strategies for opening up Doctor Who to new voices included running what he calls "a bespoke version" of a writers' room that met for several weeks.
"Writers here can be isolated, just geographically," Chibnall says. "I wanted to foster an ensemble team and have discussions about the version of the show we were going to make — and interrogate those ideas."
Of course, however far afield those discussions — or the episodes themselves — go, everything comes back to the charismatic Time Lord from Gallifrey, a character who has, to some extent, stayed the same — whip-smart, heedless, compassionate, amusing and brave — even as the show has evolved with each actor's performance. Fans love to rank their favorite Doctors, but it's a difficult task, given how many of the men who played the role in the past gave their utmost to infuse the best scripts with heartbreak, pathos and a zest for ripping adventures.
"I think it's also important to note that part of the joy of the fandom is reacting to new Doctors, but as with any change, part of the moving on is the feeling of loss and the adjustment to the new," says Talalay, who directed the episode "Twice Upon a Time," in which the regeneration baton was passed from Capaldi to Whittaker. "It might take longer for some diehards (or blowhards) to accept Jodie, but for me, the second she stepped on set for her regeneration scene, she was the Doctor. I had no idea I would feel this way, nor did the crew. But I knew it would be OK, because, although she was wearing the previous Doctor's clothes, she was the Doctor — utterly and completely inhabiting the role."
When the show returns this fall, part of Chibnall's vision for the character amps up the Doctor's a sense of adventure, and throws in a bit of glee as well.
"She runs toward danger and trouble. She's excited and she's telling everyone else to keep up," Chibnall says. The reason for the bigger-than-usual posse in the TARDIS — three new companions played by Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh — is that it'll give him more storytelling possibilities as a showrunner, and allow Whittaker to show more of her range.
"You want to be able to explore a lot of emotional dynamics that you can develop over the course of the series," Chibnall says. "Also, I wanted to make sure we had access points for everyone."
Though their previous endeavor, Broadchurch, was not what anyone would call gleeful, having worked with Chibnall over a period of years was helpful to her when the Doctor Who casting process began, Whittaker says.
"I think if Chris had only known my work, I don't think he would've necessarily thought of me as right for the role, because a lot of my work has been emotional or heavily traumatized, with a quite heavy energy," she notes. "But in real life, I'm quite hyperactive and manic. So I think he saw qualities in me that lent themselves to the role."
And though she's heard that there's a small subset of fans who aren't necessarily excited about her take on the role, they're not much of a factor in her day-to-day life, in part because she has never had any social media accounts. In any event, "the overwhelming response to this has been positive," Whittaker says.
"Also, it doesn't matter either way really, because it is what it is, and I'm having the best time of my life. I know that for a lot of Whovians, and for a lot of people who've never watched the show, this could be a moment that invites them in or it could make them re-fall in love with the show," Whittaker says. "Because it does tick all the boxes of what you love about it: It is about optimism and change and hopefulness. Everything's regenerated."
Doctor Who premieres Sunday, Oct. 7 at 1:45/12:45c. An encore presentation of the episode will also air later that night in the show's regular time slot at 8/7c.