How Doctor Who kept Jodie Whittaker’s casting secret for so long

A year on from Jodie Whittaker’s unveiling as the first female Doctor, we take a look at how the BBC pulled off one of the TV events of the year

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During 2017’s Wimbledon Men’s final on 16th July, a whole lot of viewers were glued to the TV for something other than the tennis.

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You see, while most people watching were there to see who’d triumph between Roger Federer and Marin Čilić to claim the coveted prize, a significant minority had tuned in for what was essentially an advert – a short clip, teased two days earlier, which would reveal the identity of Doctor Who’s newest Time Lord to the world.

Spoiler alert: it was Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker, and it’s fair to say that the reaction to her casting was extreme.

But how did we get to that point in time (and space)? What led up to Whittaker’s unveiling, as she drew back that black hood in front of millions and made history as the first female Doctor?

Let’s turn back the clock and find out…


The beginning

Arguably this story begins a long time before that July day, way back in January 2016 when the first signs of change began to come to Doctor Who.

It was then that it was revealed that long-running series showrunner Steven Moffat would stepping down in favour of Chris Chibnall. Speculation was rife that Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi would be leaving too.

After all, the last time Doctor Who had such a momentous behind-the-scenes change (when Russell T Davies handed the reins over to Moffat in 2010), a whole new cast was introduced as well. Well, the suspicions were proven correct: there would be a new Doctor after all.

“One of the greatest privileges of being Doctor Who is to see the world at its best,” Capaldi told Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley a whole year later in January 2017.

“From our brilliant crew and creative team working for the best broadcaster on the planet, to the viewers and fans whose endless creativity, generosity and inclusiveness points to a brighter future ahead. I can’t thank everyone enough. It’s been cosmic.”

With Capaldi’s departure confirmed, the rumour mill went into overdrive as to who could replace him.

However, few initially thought of Chris Chibnall’s former Broadchurch leading star – despite the fact that the screenwriter had actually talked to her about the part before Capaldi had even left.


Casting Jodie Whittaker

Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall together in 2014 (Getty, HF)
Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall together in 2014 (Getty)

Chibnall initially began to gauge Whittaker’s interest in late 2016, inviting her for a dinner conversation that quickly turned to the matter at hand.

“He tricked me into thinking we were talking about Broadchurch,” Whittaker later said, specifically believing they were there to talk about a junket for the then-upcoming third series.

“And I started to quiz him about his new job in Wales, and asked him if I could be a baddie! And he quickly diverted the conversation to suggest I should consider auditioning to be the Thirteenth [Doctor].

“It was the most incredible chat because I asked every question under the sun, and I said I’d take a few weeks to decide whether I was going to audition. He got a phone call within 24 hours. He would’ve got a phone call sooner, but my husband was away and there was a time difference!”

For his part, Chibnall described the early process as “months of lists, conversations, auditions, recalls, and a lot of secret-keeping,” and despite he and executive producer Matt Strevens auditioning a few female actors it was clear that Whittaker was an early favourite, with the writer describing her as their “first choice”.

“Her audition for the Doctor simply blew us all away,” he said.

Among the auditions was a self-tape where Whittaker was given some “sci-fi gobbledygook” to spout, which the actor took to with aplomb.

“I had an iPhone, wires, in a box,” the actor told Entertainment Weekly. “I pretended to defuse something, and I loved it.”

Whittaker was officially cast in the role in March, just a few weeks before Capaldi’s final series of Doctor Who began airing.

“There was no persuasion needed,” Whittaker said. “If you need to be persuaded to do this part, you’re not right for this part, and the part isn’t right for you.

“I also think, for anyone taking this on, you have to want to fight for it, which I certainly had to do. I know there will have been some phenomenal actors who threw their hats in the ring.”

However, the build-up wasn’t quite over yet, with the slight matter of a four-month wait where Whittaker, Chibnall and all the team had to keep the new Doctor’s identity a secret…


Keeping the secret

Jodie Whittaker's Doctor and the new Doctor Who logo (BBC, HF)
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and the new Doctor Who logo (BBC)

“I’ve told a lot of lies! I’ve embroiled myself in a whole world of lies which is going to come back at me!” Whittaker later recalled of the period following her casting, when she had to keep her Time Lord status a secret from the world even as the press and public frantically debated who could follow in Peter Capaldi’s footsteps.

While Whittaker was able to tell her husband (actor Christian Contreras) pretty much everyone else was kept in the dark, with the pair adopting a codename for the role.

“In my home, and with my agent, it was ‘The Clooney’,” she explained.

“Because to me and my husband, George is an iconic guy. And we thought, what’s a really famous iconic name? It was just fitting.”

For his part, Chibnall had already hinted in a February interview that he wasn’t overly keen on the idea of a female Doctor, which may have been an attempt to deflect attention from his big change.

“Nothing is ruled out but I don’t want the casting to be a gimmick and that’s all I can say,” he said at the time.

In the last few days before the announcement, though, certain insiders were given the inside scoop, including former Doctor Matt Smith, who rang her to sing the Doctor Who theme tune on her answer phone shortly before the announcement.

“And I just did the whole song, so she must have been thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’” he recalled later. “And then I said ‘it’s Matt, call me.’”

Eventually, the news did start to leak out the day before the announcement, when Death in Paradise’s Kris Marshall was replaced as the bookies’ favourite by Whittaker.

However, it’s a mark of the new Doctor Who team’s dedication that they managed to keep the secret as long as they did – especially considering they actually had to film a scene featuring Whittaker’s Doctor before anyone knew she had the part.


Filming the reveal

Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who
Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who (BBC)

In spring, just a couple of months after she won the part, Whittaker and a select crew found themselves at a mysterious forest location in South Wales, shooting something that was far more low-key than the Doctor Who team had become used to in recent years but arguably even more crucial to get right.

Director Jamie Childs (who has since directed the opening and closing film blocks of Whittaker’s first Doctor Who series) shot a short clip of Whittaker, hidden beneath a black hoodie and dark grey coat, as she walked through a forest, held a key and climbed through a gap in a wall.

“It only worked for me to be sneaky and have a big hood reveal, that looked so cool,” Whittaker later said in an interview on BBC Radio 2.

In the finished clip Whittaker is seen walking towards the Tardis, but this was actually added in later digitally, limiting the chance of anyone discovering exactly what they were shooting.

And amazingly, in this age of set reporters, long-lens cameras and intense fan scrutiny, no-one did. It wasn’t until a couple of months later, in fact, that the general public saw anything of the footage at all.


The grand unveiling

On Friday 14th July, the BBC released a short clip online that took almost everyone by surprise, announcing to the world that the identity of the Thirteenth Doctor would soon be revealed.

Betting odds changed, speculation was rife, and as the day itself approached there was still little clarity about who the frontrunner was. Sure, Jodie Whittaker was in the frame thanks to some last-minute bets – but she was far from the favourite in this race, and not the first woman mooted for the role in recent months (fellow Broadchurch star Phoebe Waller-Bridge had been the favourite for a while, and others suggested Hollywood star Tilda Swinton).

And as the announcement approached, the atmosphere was electric. Fans who normally wouldn’t take much of an interest in tennis found themselves desperately waiting for the final moments, their excitement only egged on by the surprise presence of another former Doctor – David Tennant, who played the Time Lord between 2005 and 2010 during the modern series’ most popular years – among the crowd.

Suffice it to say, some fans were pretty impatient.

But then after the match finished, the clip suddenly arrived, announcing not only that a new Doctor was coming but that she would be the first female incarnation of the Time Lord in the series half-century run.

“I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender,” Whittaker said at the time.

“Because this is a really exciting time, and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”

For the most part, fans shared in her excitement, and though there were plenty of negative reactions (perhaps most famously the viewer who complained about a “Tardis full of bras”) it was estimated later that around 80% of social media responses were positive.

For Whittaker, though, there was little time to enjoy the reaction – because almost immediately, she was whisked away to actually begin the job she’d been thinking about for so many months.


The next step

“As soon as they made the announcement I was in the studio,” Whittaker later recalled to Doctor Who Magazine.

“I think the announcement happened so they could get me to the Tardis set to do the regen without it being leaked.

“If I’d been seen in Cardiff, being taken to Roath Lock [studios, where Doctor Who is filmed], it would have been very obvious that I was playing the part! So they announced it the day before.”

In a way then, all the build-up, excitement and stress around the reveal was based on a practical consideration – how best to keep a secret to stop the spoiling of a secret – which the Doctor Who team pulled off with aplomb.

The reveal ended up nominated for a Bafta, was ranked as one of the most significant moments of the TV year and definitely left an impact on Who fans around the world.

It’s probably no coincidence that the very first teaser trailer for the series – which gave fans their first proper look at Whittaker in action since her Christmas special debut – was released during a sporting event almost a year to the day after the Thirteenth Doctor first pulled down her hood.

Of course, since the reveal was aired we’ve learned a lot more about the new series, seen new photos and met new cast members, and there’s bound to be plenty more trailers, previews and promotion to introduce the new Time Lord before the series starts this autumn.

But it’s hard to imagine any of them will have the impact that a low-budget, uncostumed clip filmed in the woods managed to have on Sunday 16th July – the day Doctor Who made history all over again.

Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor on the cover of the Radio Times magazine
Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor on the cover of the Radio Times magazine
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Check out Radio Times exclusive Doctor Who series 11 preview issue, on sale from Tuesday 17th July and featuring interviews from Jodie Whittaker and her Tardis team