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16 July 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 5:36am

“This will annoy exactly the right people”: why casting Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who is a brilliant decision

It's about time for a female Time Lord.

By Jonn Elledge

You know, I’m not proud of this, but if you’d asked me five years ago, I’d probably have said that casting a woman as the lead in Doctor Who was a completely terrible idea.

It’s not, of course, it’s going to be brilliant: to be clear, I have changed my mind, and now think my argument against was complete and utter bullshit. But just for the record, it was this:

The Doctor is supposed to be a slightly patriarchal old sod. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature: you’re not meant to think it’s good, but it is one of the few things that has stayed consistent through 53 years of this thing. The character is inherently male, in roughly the same way he’s inherently British: a female Doctor made no more sense than a female James Bond who happened to be French.

Look, I did warn you it was bullshit.

Anyway: I’ve changed my mind, obviously. Having been slightly meh about next year’s season of Doctor Who, on the grounds I’m not a huge fan of new lead writer Chris Chibnall, the fact he’s cast Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor means I’m suddenly excited about it all over again. At time of writing, we know absolutely nothing about Chibnall’s take on the show, except that he’s claimed that he’ll shake things up a bit, and that he’s cast as his lead a woman with a northern accent. Okay. Now I’m listening.

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How did I get turned around on this? The longer version is that it dawned on me that the fact the character has always been played one way is the strongest argument for doing something completely different. One of the reasons Doctor Who has survived as long as it has is because it can change almost anything. The weakest periods of the series have often been those when it stopped trying to move with the times.

More than that, though, the fact the Doctor has always been played as a patriarchal old sod is bloody good argument for casting someone who, by definition, can’t play it that way. You can suggest that being a POS is A Bad Thing by showing your grey-haired, middle aged leading man making a fool out of himself whenever he tries to act patriarchal. But you’ll still struggle against the fact that that Doctor is the hero: it’s written into the structure of the show that he has to be right quite a lot of the time. If you really want a version of Doctor Who that challenges patriarchal assumptions, then casting a woman will be a much more effective way of doing it.

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That’s the more thoughtful and self-serving explanation for why I decided I wanted a female Doctor. The more honest one is this: I looked around at all the manbabies whining about what a terrible betrayal of their childhoods it would be, and decided I really didn’t want to be one of those people.

Today’s announcement, I’m sure, will annoy exactly the right people. The sort of purple middle-aged men who go on Question Time to lay into Jeremy Corbyn for his reluctance to nuke Tehran, or who sit on social media all day saying things like “Actually it’s about ethics in games journalism”. People who use words like “feminazi” or unironically blame “political correctness gone mad”. People who genuinely think that white men are the true victims in this world. The more that happens to irritate people like that the better, as far as I’m concerned.

There are many reasons other I’m pleased about this. One is that, while Whittaker is clearly a great actress, I haven’t seen her in any role that’s even slightly like this so I have no idea how she’s going to play this. Another is that it shows that – 12 years, 10 seasons, five Doctors and three production teams in – Doctor Who is not going to start playing it safe: it’s still pushing boundaries, it’s still trying new things. Yet another is that it’s not bloody Kris Marshall.

The big one, though, is that representation matters: a female Doctor will tell little girls they can play the lead, just as Wonder Woman told them they could be a superhero. There’s a video going round Twitter at the moment of a girl, perhaps nine years old, watching the BBC as the casting is revealed, completely silent until the very end. Only then does she turn to the camera with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and scream, “The new Doctor’s a girl!” That is why this is a great day, right there.

Doctor Who is at its best when it’s progressive, both in the sense of changing and expanding, and in the sense of advocating for social progress. Casting Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor fits both criteria. It’s about time.