Image courtesy of the BBC

Casting a female Doctor Who wasn’t so bold – choosing another white male would have been really risky

The casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor has been celebrated by some and condemned by others as overly politically correct – but was the decision by Doctor Who’s latest showrunner Chris Chibnall truly such a risk for the programme? In a recent interview, Chibnall suggested that “the BBC was after … risk and boldness” – something that might tally with Whittaker taking the role after more than 12 men have tackled the job.

Risk rhetoric is part of the BBC’s raison d’etre as a public service broadcaster – the broadcaster should be taking creative risks that the market won’t countenance. But to accept Chibnall’s “risk and boldness” comment is also to accept an auteurist stance – the new showrunner’s vision for transforming the show included bringing the lead actor with him from a previous hit (Broadchurch). So the casting of Whittaker as the 13th Doctor is apparently not just a feather in the BBC’s cap (feminism-as-public-service) but also in that of Chibnall’s (feminism-as-showrunner-vision).

Viewing Whittaker’s casting outside these strategies, however, it may not be such a risk after all. Following the regendering of Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica and the cast of Ghostbusters, Doctor Who is hardly bucking market trends.

It could even be argued that the new team is following the market rather than enacting bold public service programming. The real risk would have been to cast yet another white male, consigning Doctor Who to a sense of being yesterday’s brand.

Preaching to the choir

Given the controversy that has swirled around Whittaker’s emergence as the 13th Time Lord there has been a desire for some objective measure of cultural response. The Doctor Who fan forum, Gallifrey Base, canvassed fan sentiment (80/20 in favour), and the Radio Times ran an online poll which showed that 85% were in favour. Neither generated robust data, but Brandwatch assessed social media trends and YouGov polled 3,616 respondents on July 17, finding that Labour party supporters, ABC1s (the top half of the social classification system) as well as Londoners and people in Scotland were all more positive about a female Doctor than other demographics. Overall, YouGov polling and Brandwatch analysis both showed that negative reaction was restricted to a small minority.

A victory for the Doctor, then? If so, it is one coloured by the #RIPDoctorWho style of responses from some, including one “big name fan” who worked as an unofficial consultant on the 1980s programme. It seems as if certain fans don’t get the fact that the Doctor has always been a “social justice warrior” him/herself. And just as a section of fandom bemoaned an alleged “gay agenda” in the Russell T Davies era in 2005, now some have been vocally against what they seemingly imagine to be a “gender agenda”.

Sadly, particular press reactions to the news were rampantly sexist, with screengrabs of Whittaker from the film Venus appearing on page three of The Daily Star and elsewhere.

Arguably, everyday sexism also made it into some unexpected places: Piers Wenger, controller of BBC Drama, said in his press release blurb (reiterated in the BBC’s response to complaints) that Whittaker “aced it in her audition both technically and with the powerful female life force she brings to the role”. I don’t recall the “technical” auditioning of male Doctors ever being dwelt upon as much before, nor their gender-specific life forces. Although Wenger’s comments are celebratory on-brand stuff, they indicate that Whittaker is likely to be represented very differently to the Doctor’s previous incarnations, and not just in the tabloids.

Institutional sexism

Doctor Who’s retooling also necessarily leaves untouched the TV industry’s ongoing structural and institutional sexism. This includes issues raised by the BBC’s different pay levels for senior men and women and by the numbers of women working in senior creative roles on Doctor Who itself. Will the days of the 13th Doctor usher in far more female writers and directors? According to recent reports, Whittaker’s salary will have “parity” with Peter Capaldi’s. BBC Worldwide and BBC Studios are exempt from BBC salary reporting though, so this may never be officially verified.

There’s a temptation to celebrate the Doctor’s new identity, but perhaps the change shouldn’t just be seen as an obvious “risk” or a simple “win” (that the Doctor remains white, for instance, has been challenged by those wanting more intersectional and racial awareness).

What this regeneration is, however, is the opening up of new possibilities. Series 11 of Doctor Who will no doubt inspire new audiences and fans (women and men, girls and boys) while shedding a reactionary minority, along with those remaining wholly averse to cultural regeneration. Even the Daily Telegraph agreed with Whittaker’s casting, putting commerce ahead of conservative views on gender.

While past actors to have inhabited the role can’t quite reach consensus, as the Doctor herself might say, it’ll be an audience “change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon” for the brand’s revitalisation.