At San Diego Comic-Con, cast members and writers from the upcoming season of DOCTOR WHO met with reporters for their first-ever press conference. Jodie Whittaker, who will star as the thirteenth Doctor, was joined by fellow cast members Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill, who will play two of the Doctor’s new friends (formerly known as “companions”), Ryan and Yasmin. Rounding out the panel were Chris Chibnall, DOCTOR WHO’s newest show runner, and executive producer Matt Strevens.
While keeping the discussion spoiler-free, the cast members and writers were happy to answer questions about some of the series’ biggest changes — particularly the decision to put the Doctor in a woman’s body.
Finally, a female Doctor. With DOCTOR WHO’s history of having the series’ hero portrayed by a white man, Whittaker felt that “it was obviously a nerve-wracking moment for the reveal [when it was announced that she would play the Doctor] to see how that reaction would land,” but she felt that, overall, the news had gone over well.
As far as the response of the many, many characters that the Doctor will encounter as she journeys through time and space goes, don’t expect very much to change. Past Doctors have always had a knack for arriving in the middle of a crisis and immediately taking over; and while that may not always be something that people on Earth — especially historically — respond to well when it’s coming from a woman, misogyny is no match for the name of the Doctor.
“In some situations, I would agree there’s gender issues. When we go into history, that might come up,” said Chibnall, “but, I think, generally, in contemporary worlds, alien worlds, the Doctor’s still the Doctor. And the Doctor’s very capable of walking into a room…I’m not sure that’s a gender-related issue. Certainly, for the way we’re writing it and for the way it’s being performed, the Doctor is that character who can walk into a room and, through force of personality, force of charm, force of being amazing, [the Doctor can still] solve the problem, diffuse the problem, make everybody happy, and get out alive.”
Chibnall also said that putting the Doctor in a woman’s body “felt simple and obvious. The world was ready, the show was ready, the audience was ready, the fans were ready.” He’s even received messages from former show runner Russell T. Davies, pointing out previous canonical mentions of Time Lords’ ability to regenerate from male to female. As far as bringing a female lead to DOCTOR WHO goes, “‘it was a no brainer’ is the short answer.”
Does stepping into the traditionally male role worry Whittaker? Not at all. “Actually, being the first woman to play the Doctor has been incredibly liberating.” Since, thanks to the Doctor’s very nature and ability to regenerate, there really aren’t any rules that dictate how to play the character, it’s possible to simultaneously bring something completely new to the role and incorporate everything the Doctor has experienced throughout his or her entire time-wimey existence.
Whittaker also explained that she didn’t approach the role in terms of wondering what it might be like to bring a female touch to the character. “My approach to this is coming from a very instinctive place, which feels genderless to me because it’s never been ingrained in me that there’s a specific way a woman behaves and a specific way a man behaves. But the best thing about the Doctor is I’m not playing either — I’m an alien. So, there are really no rules. And I’ve got two hearts, so I can do whatever I want.”
Even with the unique experience of portraying a character previously inhabited by the likes of Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, and David Tennant, it didn’t take very long at all for Whittaker to start to feel like the Doctor. Maybe that was just because she didn’t have time to waste on figuring it all out. “I was thrown into the deep end the first week of filming,” explained the actress. Although she wasn’t able to offer any specifics as to what that “deep end” was all about, Whittaker did mention something involving an “important speech.”
At DOCTOR WHO, representation matters, both in front of and behind the camera. Having that ability to still be the Doctor, even when inhabiting a woman’s body, brings with it the opportunity to send the important message to viewers of all kinds. Giving female DOCTOR WHO viewers the opportunity to see something of themselves — outside of the role of a companion — is meaningful in its own right. But that’s not where the message of inclusivity stops.
“As a girl born in the ‘80s, you know, the Doctor did not look like me,” said Whittaker, and not very many people on television looked or sounded like her cast mates at all. Now, in 2018, there are more opportunities. But there’s a long way to go. “As a woman being the front of a show, it will be really exciting when women aren’t treated as a genre, just as a cast member.” She’s looking forward to the day when people don’t think that a series with a female lead is just for women, something that she believes is part of the power of getting to play a somewhat genderless character like the Doctor. “But let’s not have this conversation in two thousand and twenty.”
Choosing a woman to play the leading role on DOCTOR WHO sends a very important message to little boys, too: “It’s okay to look up to a woman.”
And that idea of giving opportunities to as many different kinds of people as possible extends beyond what viewers experience. Not only will you see a woman playing the Doctor for the first time, but DOCTOR WHO’s latest season will also feature the series’ first two writers of color. Additionally, gender equality was a goal behind the scenes. Out of five guest writers, two are female and three male. And while, with two male EPs, the writing balance shifts a little bit more toward the male side, the male-to-female ratio of directors is an equal split (two and two). Not only that, but aside from one person, all of the editors are female.
While Strevens was explaining how important diversity behind the scenes was to both himself and Chibnall, Cole chipped in with, “amen. It’s 2018. Everybody deserves to work…Get with the times.” Following that, Chibnall brought the discussion back to DOCTOR WHO specifically, saying diversity was “a big priority for us” and stating that he and Strevens were doing a lot this year, but he realized they still had a long way to go — especially since one of DOCTOR WHO’s main messages is that “anybody can go anywhere and do anything.”
Later, when describing his version of the series’ general feel, Chibnall offered: “I hope it’s as inclusive, accessible, mainstream, entertaining a version of DOCTOR WHO we can possibly make.”
DOCTOR WHO premieres on BBC America this fall. Stay tuned for the second half of our press conference coverage closer to premiere date.