Tony Black on Jodie Whitaker’s casting as the Thirteenth Doctor…
So there we go. The 13th (or should that be 14th?) Doctor, hero of legendary British institution Doctor Who, is for the first time in history going to be a woman. More specifically Jodie Whittaker, who just went from being a critically acclaimed British TV and occasional film actress to global household name in the space of a tennis-filled afternoon.
Let’s be honest – this is a great thing, right? That’s not even a question. It *is* a great thing. End of. Doctor Who is a show that prides itself on positive messages for children and adults alike, messages of hope and freedom and liberal thought; it prides itself on the central hero, effectively a wizard in space, refusing to use weapons to fight his enemies, rather using words and where possible compassion. Most recently, it’s a show that has prided itself on a strong pro-feminine message in terms of gender fluidity, even if outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat has been often pilloried for writing women poorly.
Doctor Who in the last two seasons has introduced several key mythological points regarding Time Lord biology. Time Ladies have always existed (take the Rani who menaced the Doctor in the form of Kate O’Mara in the 1980’s) but in 2014, Michelle Gomez became the first ever incarnation of his arch nemesis The Master to be female, in the form of ‘Missy’. Though she recently bowed out of the role, she was so good as a foil to Peter Capaldi that she experienced a far deeper, rounded character arc than John Simm’s entertaining but cartoonish predecessor did during the Russell T Davies years. Missy proved the now canonical fact that Time Lords can regenerate into Time Ladies wasn’t just a progressive idea but that it *worked*.
Enter new show runner Chris Chibnall, and enormous kudos to him for picking up Moffat’s pro-gender baton and running with it in an unprecedented and, right now, controversial way. His decision to make the thirteenth Doctor female is, no question, brave. What he’s done, and this is the sign of a progressive creative who would make the Doctor themselves (because now that’s how we will address ‘him’) proud, is choose the right actor for the role. No doubt Chibnall at least had male actors lined up, even if he didn’t test them. Kris Marshall has been heavily rumoured (or should that be feared?) for months, and even David Tennant being spotted at Wimbledon Centre Court before the announcement whipped fans up into a frenzy that he might be returning – something, again, Moffat has quietly made possible canonically after ‘The Day of the Doctor’.
Ultimately, with Jodie Whittaker, it came down for the right *person* for the kind of Doctor that Chris Chibnall has envisaged. Someone he has worked with before on Broadchurch and clearly respects. Someone with a sci-fi pedigree in Attack the Block. It would be hard to imagine he wasn’t receiving pressure from within certain elements of the BBC to ‘play it safe’ and revert to the successful Tennant or Matt Smith model of cool, swaggering young white male Doctor, but he didn’t. Chibnall has ignored a vast, unfortunate swathe of fans who resolutely refuse to accept a female Doctor and charted his own course, based on Moffat changing the rules of a universe which is so mad and ridiculous, it’s crazy to think any rules existed in the first place!
SEE ALSO: 13 Questions for the 13th Doctor
We currently live in difficult times for anyone who feels marginalised in society. The epitome of ugly white privilege is currently Commander-in-Chief of the biggest power on the planet; LGBT rights are being crushed in Russia and other parts of the world; Muslim communities are being treated with suspicion and vilification in supposedly forward thinking Western democracies, based on far-right propaganda in many cases. Right now, art, storytelling and creativity are the bastions of liberal thought, one of the few areas in an increasingly hard-line Western democratic capitalist society that has the freedom to represent these kind of minorities.
That’s why, right now, Doctor Who making this choice is *important*. It’s important for young women, whether a nerd or geek or remotely interested in the silly science-fiction it delivers, to see a true hero defying the label of one particular gender. For the Doctor, someone who even in the most recent episode ‘The Doctor Falls’ described why he travels and helps people because it’s “kind”, to move past the label of being a traditional white male is a wonderful wonderful thing. It’s what we need right now in a world filled with people who, perhaps more out of fear than hate, don’t deserve it. We love and respond to the Doctor not because he’s better but because he is honest, and true, and good. There’s no reason he should be defined by anything as limiting as gender.
One day, hopefully, none of this will matter. One day, in many such iconic and time-tested roles, gender won’t be an issue. Someone like Jodie Whittaker becoming part of Doctor Who won’t be met with excitement because she’s a woman entering a man’s science-fiction world, but because she’s a fine actor who will make the role her own. That’s how many of us already are thinking about the next Doctor and that’s great too. Always remember – it would make the Doctor them self very very happy.