It’s fair to say that Jodie Whittaker’s unveiling as the new star of Doctor Who last summer was a bit of a shock, with most viewers still expecting Peter Capaldi to regenerate into another male incarnation in the finale scenes of the 2017 Christmas special.
And now it’s emerged that the BBC were so keen to keep the Doctor’s exciting gender change a secret that they even misled some of the people working on the series. That’s right – Doctor Who production team members (specifically the special effects vendors who don’t work exclusively for the BBC) were told the new Doctor would be a man, in an attempt to keep Whittaker’s casting a secret.
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“We were kept in the dark when it came to the reveal of who the new Doctor was,” Louise Hastings, a Visual Effects Producer at Milk VFX (a team who have looked after Doctor Who’s visual effects needs since 2005, when they were part of another company called The Mill) told the crowds at the VFX Festival in East London last week.
“We found out it would be Jodie the same time as everybody else, watching the Wimbledon final.”
And just in case they did get an idea of who was in the frame, the BBC took an extra precaution by blocking out the final regeneration scene as if the Thirteenth Doctor would be played by a man, throwing the Milk team “off the scent” of Whittaker’s casting.
“The BBC actually had us quote her first scene before we knew it was gonna be Jodie, via storyboards,” Hastings explained. “And the storyboards had been drawn with a man as the Doctor, so that was a bit of a surprise!
“I was looking through a list of the favourites to be the Doctor and comparing them to the pictures, but I was wrong, I couldn’t figure it out. They threw us off the scent.”
Speaking to RadioTimes.com after the talk, Hastings went on to explain the pressures of creating a regeneration scene, especially at such a pivotal moment in the series’ history.
“They were one of the last shots to be finished,” she told us.
“I think that’s mainly because they really wanted them to be right, so there was a lot of back-and-forth of notes. And they were shot not with the main unit – the main unit finished, and then I think it was a couple of weeks later they revealed it was Jodie and then literally the next week they went in and shot her scenes. I think it was a day or two.”
“They were definitely being more specific this time round,” CG supervisor Dominic Alderson added.
“Because we’d done this effect before, obviously, so we’ve got the set-up already. But we did start from scratch, and build them all up again, and there were quite a few notes backwards and forwards.
“The original artist who’d done the regeneration I think, [did it] two or three times before – it’s the same guy all the way through.
“His name’s Nick Webber. He’s an effects artist who’s been there since the Mill days all the way through to Milk.”
Sadly, it might also be his last regeneration, as Milk VFX are stepping aside in the new Chris Chibnall/Jodie Whittaker era in favour of Double Negative, a firm who recently worked on the effects for Blade Runner 2049.
“The decision was made that when Steven Moffat and the rest of his team stood down from Doctor Who and the new team came in, that they would also mix up the vendors as well,” Hastings explained.
“So we’ve handed the baton over to our friends at DNEG for the next series.”
Still, both Hastings and Alderson say they’re excited to see what’s next for the sci-fi series in this new age. Hopefully, it won’t be another regeneration scene too soon.
The VFX Festival took place at Rich Mix Shoreditch and was created by Escape Studios, part of Pearson College London