Doctor Who's Long, Long Road to a Female Star

Jodie Whittaker is about to make her debut as the BBC America show's first female lead after years of less-than-satisfactory excuses as to why that would never work

By Lauren Piester Oct 05, 2018 3:00 PMTags
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After 55 years, it's about time.

This weekend, Doctor Who is finally about to debut its first female star. Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker will be the first woman to officially take over as the franchise's lead, following in the footsteps of Peter Capaldi, who left last year. It's a monumental moment for the series, which has been a pop culture mainstay now for five decades.

Before Whittaker, 12 (or 13, sort of) British white men have taken on the title role of the time-traveling alien who is thousands of years old, and who can technically, canonically regenerate into anyone or anything.

The first run of the series was from 1963 to 1989, always starring a man surrounded by mostly female companions. It was a kid's show, and the Doctor was a bit more like a goofy uncle or grandpa (literally in the first two seasons), taking his friends on space adventures and getting everyone into trouble. As the Doctor saved the world more and more and younger actors took over the role, the dynamic changed.

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Women were cast as the companions "for the dads," as star Janet Fielding said in a 2013 interview with Sabotage Times, remembering what she was told when she joined the show as flight attendant Tegan Jovanka in 1981.

But the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were a different time, right? Surely, things had changed when the show returned in 2005?

The show made its comeback led by new showrunner Russell T. Davies and new star Christopher Eccelston. Eccleston was then replaced by David Tennant after one season, and Davies left in 2008. At the time, he told The Guardian that while he thought Amy Winehouse or Judy Dench might have been "brilliant" Doctors, a woman could never actually play the part.

"I am often tempted to say yes to that to placate everyone, but while I think kids will not have a problem with [a female doctor], I think fathers will have a problem with it because they will then imagine they will have to describe sex changes to their children," Davies said, going on to explain that he worried about "introduc[ing] genitalia into family viewing."


"You're not talking about actresses or style, you're talking about genitalia, and a lot of parents would get embarrassed."

Questionable quotes from the show's creative team did not end there. Steven Moffat took over showrunning duties from Davies, and offered some equally strange reasons for the Doctor being a man. He offered so many, in fact, that there are entire collections of his various quotes.  

"It's absolutely narratively possible," he told Digital Spy in 2013. "When it's the right decision, maybe we'll do it. It didn't feel right to me, right now. I didn't feel enough people wanted it… Oddly enough, most people who said they were dead against it…were women. They were saying, ‘no, no, don't make him a woman!'"

In 2014, he blamed it on the casting process.  

"It will not happen that somebody sits down and says we must turn the Doctor into a woman. That is not how you cast the Doctor. A person will pop into the showrunner's head and they will think, ‘oh, my god, what if it was that person?' And when that person is a woman, that's the day it will happen."

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"You don't mess around with that; you don't cast for any other reason than for passion and for aesthetics," he continued. "It's not a political decision, it's an aesthetic decision and always will be."

In 2015, he explained that the Doctor is not the "role model" of the show, and that job actually goes to the companion, who is usually a woman.

"You can't really base yourself on the Doctor. He's off the spectrum, barking mad, from space and has lots of mysterious abilities that we do not. How do you base yourself on that? The role model is actually the other character, his best friend, the person who deals with this out of control, overgrown schoolboy…"

Later in 2015, Moffat did not understand why Doctor Who would ever be accused of sexism.

"Maybe this is my dim-wittery but I do not understand why Doctor Who of all shows is singled out as a misogynist show. And I'm really not like that."

As Moffat made his exit from the show last year, he handed over some advice to new showrunner Chris Chibnall to cast a "friend."


"Just choose the best person for the job and any other agenda, however worthy, should be ignored," he said to Digital Spy. "It has to be the best person for the Doctor that Chris is writing for. Chris is going to be working with the actor for quite a few years and it is a pressure cooker. It can be tough, so you need to choose your friend wisely."

(For the record, Whittaker and Chibnall were friends, since he created and cast her on Broadchurch.)

Even after Whittaker had been cast and announced and was about to make her debut in the December 2017 Christmas special, Moffat wasn't done. In an interview with Radio Times (as reported by io9), Moffat said that casting a woman as the Doctor would have upset "Daily Mail-reading viewers."

"This isn't a show exclusively for progressive liberals; this is also for people who voted Brexit," he said, referring, of course, to the surprise vote for Britain to leave the European Union. "That's not me politically at all—but we have to keep everyone on board."

To recap, casting the Doctor is not a political decision, but not casting a woman as the Doctor was a political decision.

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As soon as Chibnall was announced as the new showrunner and Capaldi announced his exit, the immediate question was whether or not the new Doctor would be a woman. Early on, he said that anything was possible, but he didn't want the casting to be "a gimmick," which made fans fear a woman would never be cast.

But apparently the fears were totally unwarranted. Executive producer Matt Strevens later told Digital Spy that Chibnall only took the job on the condition of being able to cast a woman in the role.

"Once Peter had decided he was leaving, the next Doctor was always going to be a female Doctor," Strevens said.

"We knew in our gut it was about time and it felt like the right decision, and the character is not gender-specific in any way really," he continued. "If ever there was a character that was never defined by gender, it's the Doctor. The Doctor is gender fluid in that sense."

"It felt like a straightforward decision, it's not that controversial," Chibnall said. "It's very hard to think of many examples in its 55-year history where the Doctor takes a decision based on gender."

Even Davies changed his tune from back when he first worried about casting a woman due to "genitalia."


"I've grown up, I've learnt, and I hope I know better, and the world has grown up too," he wrote in Doctor Who magazine after Whittaker's casting. "Consider now; if you have problems, or fears, or doubts about the future, then Doctor Who will come to you, and make you laugh, and give you a thrill, and take those terrors away."

Not only is the show led by a woman, but it's also got an all-new cast of people of color, and the basic explanation for that is that "it's 2018."

"It's 2018, it's the right time," Whittaker told E! News at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. "So yeah, it's exciting."

"It's about time we start reflecting real life," star Tosin Cole told us.

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"Representation really matters, and I wanted to make sure that Doctor Who's a big, inclusive mainstream accessible show with a point of access for everyone," Chibnall says in the video above. "So everybody in the world who's coming to this show in this season should have a character they can fall in love with, they can relate, to, and also, they're just great actors."  

In the end, despite this casting decision that's long overdue, the show will still be the Doctor Who we all know and love.

 "The whole journey of the show has been reinvented every new Doctor, so although this is obviously a different direction with me being a woman, it's not a different direction for the show at all, so it's very much in keeping with that world, so it's exciting," Whittaker explains. "For me, it's following in 12 wonderful footsteps that I hope I can fill."

Click play above to see video of the cast before and after their first major Comic-Con experience, and to hear more about what it's like to usher in a new era of the show.  

Doctor Who premieres globally on Sunday at 10:45 a.m. PT, 1:45 p.m. ET. It will then reair at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

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