Like everyone else – well, almost every one else – I found out that Jodie Whittaker had been cast in Doctor Who in July 2017, when the glorified trailer Meet The Thirteenth Doctor was broadcast by BBC1 in a peak viewing slot directly after the Wimbledon Men’s Finals. Although I hadn’t really been enjoying Doctor Who as much for a while by that point – for reasons that I made at least some attempt towards explaining here – I was still invested enough to willingly use up some of my mobile data to watch it live on iPlayer in the middle of a noisy train station while some kind of public order infraction was being addressed in an adjacent branch of Upper Crust. The teaser – if we can even call it that – essentially involved little more than Jodie walking through a forest, pulling back her hood to reveal herself and then opening the TARDIS door with a glowing key and a massively infectious smile, but it still had a sense of surprise and occasion that Doctor Who seems to have frustratingly mislaid since then. This was about more than the fact that the BBC were making a suitably hyped-up big deal about a traditionally newsworthy casting announcement, though. It felt like, as those who would have us refer to pivotal cultural moments and even some that aren’t in shareable phatic terms for the sake of orchestrated publicity would put it, ‘a moment’.
Although I had personally long championed the idea of a female Doctor, a lot of Doctor Who enthusiasts had not been quite so enthusiastic about the possibility of that kind of Doctor Who, and in retrospect their reticence is actually quite understandable. When the debate first began in earnest in the eighties – which, it’s seldom acknowledged, was originally set in motion by a mischievous Tom Baker – there were two parties that seemed disconcertingly more invested in it than any of the actual Doctor Who fans were. On the one hand, there were those who beligerently argued that he had always been a man and should always stay a man because that’s how it is, isn’t it, usually then going on to list all of those men in entirely the wrong order and resisting any attempt to correct them because ‘I should know, I used to watch it’. On the other, there were those who believed that the role should go to a woman because it had always been a man, but had literally nothing to back that up from any artistic, commercial or cultural consideration, and who never seemed quite so keen to campaign for the next Juliet Bravo to be a man despite the evident dramatic potential of a man trying to make it in a woman’s role in a man’s world. Meanwhile, neither side had any intention of watching Delta And The Bannermen. The fans, who at that time already felt like they were being given detention for daring to like a programme that they enjoyed – and had been actually literally fighting to keep it on air – suddenly found themselves in the middle of a furious row about a show that only they cared about but apparently had no say over. In all fairness, it’s no wonder that they got a little protective of the status quo.
The debate largely subsided when Doctor Who took an unceremonious stroll off screen in 1989 – and barely even surfaced around the 1996 movie, possibly because the tabloid press were attaching so many names to the role that nobody could really keep up – but it returned with a vengeance when Doctor Who itself returned in 2005. The same two sides reared up larger and louder than ever – one of them now with a full-scale made-up-in-their-own-head ‘Culture War’ to wage in the apparent belief that if James Bond wasn’t allowed to so much as do a slanty-eyed gesture then rack and ruin would surely follow unlike what would happen if we acceded to their ‘legitimate concerns’ and left a stable trading block and then put vain gibbering idiots in 10 Downing Street to facilitate it, and the other relentlessly pushing patently unsuitable prospective names who met their own highly personal and selective criteria with a worryingly violent zeal in apparent blissful unawareness of the fact that if somebody who couldn’t carry the role had been cast and had failed spectacularly, that would almost certainly have been the end of the entire idea and maybe even Doctor Who itself for good – but in an entertainingly embarrassing giveaway that they still neither knew nor cared about Doctor Who and just enjoyed just arguing with people, they had reckoned without a powerful and influential third party. While Doctor Who wasn’t actually being made, fan discussion – and they were pretty much the only people discussing it in any context anywhere – had inevitably turned to the question of how you would ‘bring’ it ‘back’. More of the responses than anyone had expected were enthusiastically open to the idea of a woman in the lead role, and some of those fans doing the enthusing went on to work on Doctor Who in various capacities themselves, so it was only a matter of time frankly. You can shout as loud as you like, but when it comes down to it, sometimes you just can’t beat the people who just roll up their sleeves and get on with it.
Although I wasn’t actually directly working on Doctor Who itself, I was still in a position where I could loudly and persistently advocate for a female Doctor in a relatively measured manner that at least took the fact that it still had to result in a transmittable programme enjoyed by the widest possible viewing audience into account, and although my personal inclination towards either Belinda Stewart-Wilson or Archie Panjabi was evidently not shared by the production team, I would still like to feel that I was at least a small part of that momentum. In acute awareness of the fact that I really do sound like I’m trying to make it all about myself but am not really able to think of a better way of expressing it, Jodie Whittaker’s arrival felt both revolutionary and something of a victory, with a real sense of remarkable possibilities ahead. It is slightly difficult now to accurately convey just how mindblowingly off-the-scale exciting the anticipation for her debut felt at the time, but handily I was interviewed about that very subject by the politics meets pop culture podcast The Zeitgeist Tapes, which you can listen to here if you want to get some sense of just how wildly I was enthusing to anyone who would listen, and probably some who wouldn’t too.
As it turned out, Jodie would have her already daunting work convincing the general public cut out for her further still. The move to Sunday evenings initially felt like an inspired decision, but it rapidly became all too evident that it just did not suit the pace and atmosphere of that timeslot at all, particularly with the harsher opening titles and theme music arrangement which, as good as they were in their own right, must have had much the same effect on some casual viewers as when HMV rearranged all of their stores to have phones and tech front and centre, stuck up big massive dull-hued portraits of ‘cool’ people in headphones staring at you in a disdainful manner and replaced all of their proper lighting with the occasional fluorescent strip and then wondered why nobody was buying anything any more. There were off-puttingly misfiring episodes like Orphan 55, Praxeus, Arachnids In The UK – and to think people make fun of that Doomwatch episode with the rats – and The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos which proved every bit as overlong and underwhelming as its title. While a handwringing weekly exploration of how difficult it was to be a woman now would have been a bit much, the series seemed to veer a little too far in the opposite direction and ended up scarcely mentioning it at all. Even some of those who had looked past all of the above in a show of optimism and good faith must have felt a touch short-changed by the Dalek stories where it was apparently too much to want them just to go round shouting EXTERMINATE a lot, and of course The Timeless Children, which posed problems so vast and complicated that it simply is not worth going into them here other than to say that if you’re going to tear up continuity to the extent that hopeless planks can claim their witless fan fiction about the twelfth segment of time to be legitimate Doctor Who ‘canon’ then you had better have a decent artistic reason for doing it, or even actually a discernible reason at all. Though a fully paid-up Team Morbius hardliner would say that.
Even that overload of baffling claptrap was mitigated by Jo Martin being absolutely fantastic though – even if they should have found a more inventive way of bringing her in – and overall the good vastly outstripped the bad. Jodie proved to be a an engaging and hugely likeable lead performer and brought a subtle but pronounced female spin on the character’s traditional emotional reactions and eccentricities with more than a hint of Victoria Wood, and worked particularly effectively with the revamped steampunk stylings, although some episodes left her with so little to work with she never really seemed to have the opportunity or momentum to really take off. The regular cast were uniformly great, especially Bradley Walsh, and John Bishop effortlessly exceeded a good deal of underwhelmed expectations, while Sacha Dhawan more than proved himself against the very high bar set by all of the other previous incarnations of The Master, although anyone who had seen his turn as Davos in Iron Fist would have known that already… but more about that here.
Then of course there were all the genuinely great episodes, with standouts including Demons Of The Punjab and its refreshing adoption of ‘folk horror’ from a different culture in place of the usual ‘Haunted Scarecrow Climbing Pylon Outside ICI Branch Offices’ clichés, the interesting spin on a well-worn tale in The Witchfinders, the triumphant return to weekly cliffhanging family audience excitement in Flux which was brilliantly bolstered by Chris Chibnall’s local knowledge and deft interweaving of locations well-known to Liverpool-based Doctor Who fans of a certain vintage – although I’d still like to know why Dan and Diane were going all the way to Lark Lane for a date when Hope Street would have been way more convenient – and Kerblam!, which as well as being a story they’d tried to do several times finally done right, also managed to upset both the ‘doctor who has gone woke! : (‘ blowhards and those that annoyingly argue that it is traditionally ultra-left in equal measure, and so in that sense probably took entirely the correct approach. In order to challenge what is wrong about big systems, you have to acknowledge what works about them first as without that, there’s no strategy. Not that Doctor Who will change Amazon’s working practices, but even so. Over and above all of them, though, there was Rosa.
Other than reiterating my belief that it is one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, there is very little to say about Rosa that I haven’t already said in my review of it here; although that said, there is something said in the review that regrettably also still needs saying now. Even then, three weeks into Jodie Whittaker’s tenure, there was already a deafening chorus of men who could not and would not get used to the fact that a casting decision had gone against their preferences and were at great pains to tell everyone else about this, regardless of whether their thoughts on the matter had been solicited or not. They were also extremely keen to tell you – even if no direct accusation had been made – that it had nothing at all to do with her being a woman, just that they thought she wasn’t any good and that was that. Even now, despite the abundant clarification that none of the points raised in it are addressed at anyone who simply was not enjoying the new run of episodes as indeed they were quite entitled not to, whenever the review resurfaces there will invariably be a fresh round of indignant rebukes from complete strangers who have taken the comments on the ‘controversy’ as a personal slight and feel compelled to point out how unfair it is on those who have no problem with her being a woman – apart from all the ones that they list in relentless detail – but just aren’t enjoying it and that’s the long and short of it, which obviously is not remotely suspicious in any way, shape or form. It’s a very similar reaction, all told, to the one that you get when you casually mention Lenny Henry and a million mysterious strangers feel the apparent urgent need to tell you in quite emphatic terms that they have never found him funny and for no other reason than that he’s not funny and if you try to suggest otherwise then you’re the real racist. If you’re trying to stamp on something, it might help if you didn’t accidentally kick yourself in the face by mistake.
Even those who did not particularly enjoy Jodie Whittaker’s performance for reasons other than misplaced masculine insecurity will surely be sad to see her go, though, and as she bids farewell to whatever cupboard they keep the Ormolu clock in for now, it’s worth considering what has and has not changed on a more fundamental level between Meet The Thirteenth Doctor and The Power Of The Doctor. It’s fair to say that her tenure as television’s most widely-known renegade Time Lord has not exactly ushered in the enlightened age of tolerance, acceptance and equality that many appeared convinced that it would; the responses that I am still getting to a review from 2018 – and doubtless will also get in response to this feature – are testament enough to that. On the other hand, neither has it brought about the irretrievable collapse of gender identity, law and order and sanctity of the family that many screeched that it would – and if you think that’s an exaggeration for comic effect, it’s more or less exactly what Nick Fletcher MP predicted during a 2021 debate about the importance of International Men’s Day. It’s almost as if the entire debate was hijacked and then invented in that order by people who neither knew nor cared about Doctor Who itself but liked the sound of their own voices. Funny how that keeps happening.
Looking for bigger changes in a world where smaller changes tend to have the most effect, though, is exactly what both sides of the ‘debate’ kept getting wrong and bewilderingly still continue to get wrong even now, regardless of the fact that the argument is long since over. Like it or not, Jodie Whittaker was the thirteenth Doctor Who and there’s nothing that anyone complaining can do to change that. After all, to wilfully misquote one another incarnation of the character – and still the first, as far as I’m concerned – you can’t rewrite cultural history, not one line. What’s more, she made her first appearance wielding a key pulsating with energy – and, to once again wilfully that another incarnation of the character, keys are for unlocking doors, so stop dilly-dallying and unlock it.
Jodie Whittaker unlocked the door and walked through it. You might well believe that she was not your Doctor. But she was mine.
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You can find a lot more about Doctor Who past and present in Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features about the lesser-seen corners of archive television. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. You can buy me two if you’re still unaccountably furious about there being a ‘woman’ Doctor Who.
Doctor Who And The Thin Ice is a review of Peter Capaldi’s racist-punchingly thrilling standout episode of the same name, which you can find here.
You can hear me chatting with Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about the reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s debut, and politics in Doctor Who in general, on The Zeitgeist Tapes, the show where politics and pop culture collide, here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.