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James Pardon, Copyright: BBC Studios. Photographer: James Pardon

'Doctor Who' Stars Unpack Season 12's Deep Dive Into the Doctor's Past

Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole weigh in on how the dynamic in the TARDIS is shifting this year

The runaway Time Lord can't run from her past anymore. After mostly steering clear of the Doctor's backstory for Jodie Whittaker's first season in the TARDIS, Doctor Who has switched gears this season, setting the Doctor on a thrilling collision course with her own history. The first half of Season 12, airing Sundays on BBC America, has already delivered a new Master (Sacha Dhawan), the second destruction of Gallifrey, hints of a long-buried Time Lord secret, the return of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), and a never-before-seen incarnation of the Doctor played by Jo Martin. Time is "swirling around" Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor, and the stakes in her era have never been higher.

As the show shifts its focus to the sore spots in the Doctor's past, the balance inside the TARDIS is shifting as well. When series stars Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole stopped by TV Guide's New York offices in January, they weighed in on how the Doctor's secrets are leveling the playing field in her relationship with her "fam," Yaz (Gill), Ryan (Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh). "It's always felt for us, particularly our first season, that the dynamic was: We all needed each other, but particularly [Yaz, Ryan, and Graham] needed something from the Doctor," said Whittaker. "But I think in this [season] there are absolute moments of, she needs them."

Doctor Who Makes History With Its First Black Doctor

Fans have been clamoring for Whittaker's Doctor to open up to her companions since her first season, a fresh start for the series that went light on Doctor Who lore. But the cast has been content to wait, attributing the Doctor's slow-burn relationship with her friends to the patience of showrunner Chris Chibnall. "We haven't had to give you everything all at once," said Whittaker. "We have this opportunity to pepper things throughout all of Chris's tenure." She and her co-stars pointed out that it's to be expected that their characters are still getting to know each other at this stage.

"Would you really just meet somebody and they tell you everything?" Gill asked.

"I do," Whittaker admitted.

But Whittaker is a far cry from the Doctor, an alien with thousands of years of history to unpack. The actress compared exploring the Doctor's identity to opening Pandora's box. "Who you are and where you're from is, for a lot of people, a very big question," said Whittaker. "Particularly for the Doctor, I think." The actors also pointed out that Season 11's honeymoon period went both ways: The Doctor's friends have been happy to get swept up in traveling with her. "I don't think we've ever had the time to just kind of sit down and ask [about her past]," Cole said.


Still, the Doctor's past has come crashing back into the picture this season, starting with the Master. In the final minutes of the season premiere, the Doctor's supposed ally, MI6 agent O, revealed that he was actually the Doctor's "best enemy" in a new face. His unveiling was not only a shock for the characters, but an abrupt about-face for the cast, who didn't film the scene until they'd already spent weeks working with Sacha Dhawan as the bookish O. "We'd all fallen for O," Gill recalled. "And then the big reveal, for us, was also really exciting because we saw his switch. We saw all these bold choices he'd made, and we were like, 'Oh my god, I really liked Sacha up until then.'"

Whittaker agreed, praising Dhawan's gleefully sinister performance. "What he physically brought to the role was extraordinary," she said. "Because you're crammed into this airplane cabin, and that transition from out-of-breath comrade to ultimate foe in the kind of twist of his hands and the blink of his eye -- I just thought he was amazing."

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The twist, which the actors were thrilled was kept under wraps, could have easily been the biggest surprise of the season. But there's no way to open Pandora's box halfway. The hits from Doctor Who's 56-year mythology keep coming: The Master has apparently destroyed Gallifrey again, claiming that the Time Lords based their society on a lie that ties back to the mysterious "Timeless Child." And last Sunday's game-changing episode added even more pieces to the puzzle, as the Doctor's old friend Jack Harkness returned with a warning about a "lone Cyberman" and a new regeneration of the Doctor entered the picture. It's still unclear where she falls in the Doctor's timeline, but in the timeline of the show, she makes history: Jo Martin is the first black actor to play the Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker, Jo Martin, Doctor Who

James Pardon, Copyright: BBC Studios. Photographer:James Pardon


Doctor Who has stayed refreshingly cool about its groundbreaking casting moves under Chibnall's tenure; there's only so much a show can pat itself on the back for taking over 50 years to cast someone other than a white man as its lead. "The Doctor is an alien, so nobody's qualified," Whittaker laughed. "Nobody's more qualified to play it, it's just the right actor... -tress." The fact that the show refuses to wink at their significance makes it even more electric to see two women face off in the TARDIS. Each is making history, but neither is asked to be anything more than herself.

It's that sort of unburdened approach to progress that keeps Doctor Who feeling hopeful even as it raises the dramatic stakes. That creative energy has been contagious for Whittaker, who was best known before Doctor Who for her devastating turns in heavy dramas like Chibnall's Broadchurch. "I'd always played people who either suffered something incredibly traumatic or traumatic things were happening around them," she recalled. "[There was] the sense of always being on the brink of some kind of emotional fallout. And you don't really realize how much that bleeds into your life, when it's like 10 years of acting, or whatever, and you're like, 'I'm always nearly ready to cry!'"

"What I really noticed when we started to do [Doctor Who] was the playfulness and the hopefulness and the adrenaline that carries on into your evening or into your weekend," said Whittaker, who has already confirmed she'll return for at least one more season in the TARDIS. "There's something really addictive about playing somebody so fizzing with energy."

Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America.

(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)