Midway through Sunday afternoon many of us in the UK were tuning into BBC One to witness the majestic Roger Federer breeze to a record eighth Wimbledon tennis crown, with a merciless dismantling of the injury-stricken Marin Cilic. It was a moment of history that would be exceeded just minutes later during the very same broadcast, though for reasons totally unrelated to what they call the ‘Sport of Kings’.
We were suddenly transported to a wooded area containing more shrubbery than the exterior of Centre Court. A hooded figure stepped carefully between the trees, holding out a hand to reveal a glowing Yale key. Then came the big reveal, as the hood was withdrawn to uncover long fair hair and the unmistakable face of Jodie Whittaker. It was official – the first female Doctor Who had arrived.
The response was as immediate and wide-ranging as it was predictable, and the issue quickly dominated the murky world of social media. Some were aghast at the casting, stubborn in their belief that the Doctor has always, and should always be played by a male actor. Meanwhile, others felt that those in charge of the show had bowed to pressure from prominent equality campaigners, dubbed the ‘PC brigade’.
These views accounted for about half of the general reaction, for the rest rejoiced in the knowledge that Doctor Who was standing up for equality and diversity, and was willing to embrace the notion of a female Doctor. It was indeed a groundbreaking moment for British television, let alone the programme itself, as a giant stride was made towards the long overdue bid for women to receive equal status alongside men in the world of television drama (even in the week when BBC salaries were disclosed, revealing a significant gender pay gap).
So, is the role of the Doctor one that can only be played by a man? The character is so unique and so shrouded in complexity, so definitely not; and for those that are still doubtful, only time will tell. You see, it is extremely easy to judge Jodie Whittaker by virtue of her gender than her ability as an actress, and even more importantly the material she is given by new show-runner Chris Chibnall and his band of writers.
Indeed, every Doctor to date from William Hartnell in 1963 to Peter Capaldi in 2017 has had *his* own unique persona. They have behaved in different ways, spoken in contrasting manners, and faced antagonists with their own unique approach – while at the same time never allowing us to forget that it’s still the same character that is being portrayed.
Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation will be no different. She will still carry that air of power and mystique; she will exhibit the sharpest of minds and the unique thrill of travelling through time and space. The dynamic of the show will change accordingly to accommodate the nuances of a female doctor, and the likely prospect of a lone male companion.
But ultimately it will still be the same show. In recent times we have seen what a massive success Missy (Michelle Gomez) has been, as the first known female incarnation of the Doctor’s fellow Time Lord, the Master. It was initially a shock to see the Master resurface as a woman, but Missy was such an intriguing and excitable character that we all seemed to herald her as a worthy successor to previous actors Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts and John Simm.
This – along with Ken Bones’ Time Lord General regenerating into T’Nia Miller in the series nine finale Hell Bent – was solid proof that gender is not a fixed status among the natives of Gallifrey, and it showed another way in which Doctor Who has broadened its horizons to reflect modern society and stand up for what is right.
And there is a valid argument to suggest that it has done so right throughout its history, both on-screen and behind the scenes, acting as a kind of trailblazer with regards to certain issues.
Rewind back to 1963, and the thought of a woman producing a new prime time drama serial was one to be scoffed at, but Verity Lambert defiantly made her colleagues take back their snide comments of scepticism. The first episodes were also overseen by an Asian director, Waris Hussein, something perhaps even more unheard of at the time.
Over the years, companions were chosen to appeal to a particular audience or more adequately reflect contemporary society. Sarah Jane Smith was a gutsy feminist; Peri Brown was a sporty American, and Ace was the tomboy who spoke out against the issue of racism.
More recently, we’ve had Captain Jack Harkness, the man who would flirt with just about anyone or anything. We’ve had the first BAME companion in the shape of Martha Jones in 2007, and the most recent series featured Bill Potts, the companion who was not only from an ethnic minority background; she was also openly gay.
That such a big deal continues to be made of the inclusion of such a character in an influential television drama shows that we are a long way off from achieving universal acceptance. Maybe such a thing is impossible, but the unwillingness of some to accept the rightful existence of diversity undeniably combines with historical attitudes in creating such a media furore.
Returning to Jodie Whittaker, she is now in possession of the role that will define her career as an actress, and certainly has the ability to thrive upon that and shrug off the inevitable scrutiny that will come her way. It should be an engrossing watch – just a shame that some will miss it due to the belief that the Doctor is role that should played exclusively by men.