It’s fair to say that Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the official Thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who took nerd culture by storm when it was revealed back in 2017. In fact, almost a year to the day of that announcement, the creative talent behind this fall’s Doctor Who Season 11 gathered in San Diego Comic-Con’s cavernous Hall H to discuss the series, as well as reveal the first teaser trailer for the new series. And yet so much of the conversation is still about the transition of one Doctor to another, and from one male actor to a female one.
Between breezily amusing stories of Whittaker cryptically turning down other work after being secretly cast as the new Doctor—as well as the shock her own Broadchurch co-star, and the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant had when he learned of her casting on the internet—there was an obvious need to emphasise that the beauty of Doctor Who is that the Doctor is of course maddeningly unique. But anyone could and should be able to channel that madness if they look as comfortable holding a new sonic screwdriver as Whittaker does.
It is also a message that apparently came through loud and clear during Whittaker’s first day on the set… which as it so happened was also the final day for Peter Capaldi as the Doctor during 2017’s Doctor Who Christmas special. Admitting it was a bit bizarre to do press for a character before she played that person, it felt like a moment of truth being on the set of Capaldi’s version of the TARDIS.
“My first two days shooting, I was in somebody else’s costume,” Whittaker recalls. “I was on their set, I was in their TARDIS, and I was nervous to touch anything. I felt as if I was very much in someone else’s shoes, which is a wonderful way to start this journey.”
Yet new Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall (who also created Broadchurch) added an interesting layer to that memory. For him, it was the acceptance of some hardened crew members on the Doctor Who set in Cardiff, Wales, where many craftsmen have worked on Doctor Who since its revival in 2005, that best indicated they had maintained the intangible spirit of the series.
“The most extraordinary thing that happened that day, which Jodie’s too modest to say,” Chibnall says. “We were on set… and Jodie [did] the take, and a lot of the crew gravitated towards the monitor. And the ones who worked on the floor, they all sort of came up to us—and we were just sitting there silently crying [at the emotion of the scene]—and all of the crew who’ve been working on it for years just went, ‘Oh she’s the Doctor.’ And everybody just came around and said, ‘Oh she’s the Doctor now.’ And it was a really magical thing. It’s the amazing thing about that show, this sort of the spirit that just passes through. And the crew are a massive part of that, the production team in Cardiff, and it was a special day. It was the moment where you felt we’ve got a chance here, because they’re the harshest it’s ever been, and they would tell us if she didn’t look like she was the Doctor.”
Meanwhile, Whittaker is happy to note again that the gender of who plays the Doctor is irrelevant. In fact, after conferring with Chibnall away from the mics, she even teases the more intriguing thing to write and play is how other people react to a now-female timey-wimey alien with a wee bit of a super-god complex.
Says Whittaker, “I’ve never approached a role from thinking, ‘How would a woman do this?’ I just did it from my perspective. But the wonderful thing about playing the Doctor is I’m playing an alien, so all those rules are kind of irrelevant to the approach, but what you do notice… Sometimes within episodes, other people’s responses are different because they’re speaking to a woman. And that’s interesting, and that’s why this role will continue to be layered and fascinating to play.”