Doctor Who is back, baby, with Jodie Whittaker in the title role as the highly anticipated first ever female Doctor. Uther Dean talked to her about the beloved show’s history, and the weight of expectations.
In November, Doctor Who turns 55. Before that, the 11th season of the modern revival – and the 37th in total – of the family sci-fi adventure series about an alien with many faces saving the world returns to our TV screens. It’ll run on TVNZ OnDemand as soon as it has aired in the UK, starting from October 8 – which means the first episode is available to watch now – with free-to-air showings on TV soon after.
Let’s be honest, those numbers are daunting. Eleven seasons to catch up on of just of the modern version, 55 years of back story all up. And it’s all about time travel, right? That’s always complicated.
Now, I have loved Doctor Who for longer than I can remember, so I might be a little biased, but bear with me as I tell you that, in fact, the opposite is true. One of the many genius ideas built into the fabric of Doctor Who is that it perpetually reboots itself almost entirely.
New cast, new crew, new look, new style, new everything. Each new era of Doctor Who is built to be essentially a new show that people can approach with no knowledge whatsoever. And this new season, with Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch) as the new show-runner and Jodie Whittaker (also Broadchurch but also heaps of other great stuff – have you seen Attack the Block? You should watch Attack the Block) as the titular Doctor, is one of those reboots. A fresh start. If you want to watch it, all you need to know is that you want to watch it.
And trust me, you do want to watch it. The only thing that doesn’t change about Doctor Who is that each week is a thrilling new adventure (that can be anywhere, in any time period) about destroying hate and embracing hope. In a world full of strife, we need little bits of light. Doctor Who is always one of those bits of light and there’s never been a better time to get on board.
I talked with Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor, about this new season, how you play an immortal super-genius alien, and how she feels about being the first woman in the role.
Uther Dean: How would you pitch Doctor Who to someone who lived on the moon, someone who’d never heard of the show?
Jodie Whittaker: I think the thing about Doctor Who is that it’s the most inclusive welcoming show you could ever watch. But because it’s been going for so long it can seem like you need an encyclopedic knowledge to get through the gates of the first minute. You know, “I didn’t watch William Hartnell [the first Doctor], so how can I start now?”
Whereas we feel that anyone can start this episode at the beginning from any founding, be completely immersed and taken on such an exciting journey with a new Doctor or a new character if you’ve never seen it before.
But because it’s got all that wealth of history, it’s so wonderful because once you are hooked, which you kind of inevitably hopefully will be, you then, like a Whovian [Doctor Who fan], have this 55 year history you can jump into whenever you want.
We’ve got 10 standalone episodes this season, so for us it’s about engaging a family for this wonderful journey on a Sunday evening [in the UK] but you can come at it from episode four if you miss episode one. We want to engage you in that moment like you would if you went to the cinema and watched a film. You get everything.
Looking at your body of work as an actor, at all the roles you’ve played, the thing that unites them is this obsessive humanity. You approach your characters as real people and really engage with all of them. All of them except for, of course, the functionally immortal super-genius alien you’ve just played for a year in Doctor Who. So how did your approach to performance, to acting, change when it came to the Doctor and maybe through that could you tell us a bit about what your Doctor is like?
I’ve always been a very instinctive actor. The heightened intellect of the Doctor is very obvious in the techno jargon lines, the gobbledygook like that. At first I was scared because I thought I don’t really know how to approach this. And I said very openly to Chris [Chibnall, show-runner], “Okay so how do you approach this?”
And he immediately was like “You play the truth of the scene like you always play. You play the moment and you listen like you always do.” And I was like, “Oh yeah of course. It’s like every other job.”
It is like any other role but the wonderful things about this is this role takes me to other worlds, meeting creatures and people from every walk of life which is not the kind of role I’ve ever played before. I really loved the idea of the light switch going on for a child in a toy shop and that moment of pure joy so that everything is faced with excitement and energy.
I think the very human instinct as an adult, particularly for me, is the older I’ve got the more jaded or the more cautious and the more judgmental I’ve gotten. I really wanted this Doctor to have that greatness that never puts anyone into unnecessary danger but would always strive to learn.
And I think it’s in life, I definitely know at 36 that I don’t know everything. But to play someone who’s seen so many things and had so many experiences was really beautiful. You can’t guess from scene to scene how the Doctor will react because it such a peculiar role that the Doctor can react however whatever the moment takes them and it it isn’t very repetitive in that sense.
The character’s always regenerated. It’s always a big change for Whovians and with new fans coming in who’ve maybe not seen it they then will go back and see the 12 or 13, however you count them, previous Doctors. And it’s always different obviously being the first female, it’s different but essentially the Doctor is the Doctor – always a pacifist, you know, hopeful, a traveller. All those things remain the same. It’s just the point of view has shifted, but the point of view has always shifted. That’s the joy of the series and why it’s lasted 55 years.
As you say, you are the first woman to play the Doctor. That’s a big thing and obviously it’s about time. The response was incredibly positive. It felt like almost like a political moment. How did it feel to see what was essentially you taking a job as a big moment?
The journey of it was incredibly personal at the time because for much of it it was a secret and no one knew when I got the job. You know there’s like a feeling of excitement and, you know, personal achievement in some ways . Then the minute it’s announced you realise it isn’t just a moment for you, it’s a moment for a lot of people and that it’s an incredible honour and one that you don’t take lightly. What will be the most exciting thing is when casting like this isn’t as much of a moment because we really have moved on.
This is a really exciting moment for young boys and young girls whose heroes don’t always have to look the same. Girls now have someone playing the part that they can see themselves in.
I’m not a lot on social media. I missed a lot. When we were at Comic Con, it was really wonderful to see all these reactions from across all the rows of people, all different ages, genders from all over the world. I think you’d have to be pretty numb to not be moved by it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.