The times may be a-changin’ for Doctor Who, with incumbent Time Lord Jodie Whittaker – aka the Thirteenth and current iteration of face-changing alien the Doctor – reportedly set to hang up her sonic screwdriver at the end of her next series.
While the BBC has yet to officially confirm Whittaker’s exit, the regeneration rumour mill has already begun, with all sorts of actors (Michaela Coel! Kris Marshall!) put forward by fans to succeed her ahead of any official recasting.
Assuming, of course, that the next Doctor is announced – because recently, we’ve been wondering. Could the next Doctor actually, for the first time in history, be a total surprise in Whittaker’s last episode, only revealed to viewers when he or she first appears?
After all, a surprise regeneration has been something Whovians have hoped for many years. Every time a new Time Lord is announced there’s some minor grumbling that the series should have just unveiled them in their first episode, making the reveal as big a surprise for the viewers as it is for the characters within the story.
Sadly, production considerations have meant that this has never really been possible, with the new Doctor usually filming their first series publicly before the previous Doctor has moved on (and so making it nigh-impossible to keep secret). But this year, something’s a little different.
When Doctor Who kicked off series 13 filming in November 2020, many assumed that the 10-month shoot would debut in early 2022, giving the series plenty of postproduction time before it came to screens. But surprisingly, the BBC have instead confirmed that series 13 will kick off in late 2021 (presumably in October/November), giving quite a quick turnaround between the end of filming (estimated to be around August) and the airing.
With this in mind, assuming a new Doctor is revealed in Jodie Whittaker’s final episode it’s extremely unlikely that filming for the next series would have begun already. Filming on series 13 would have only wrapped a few months before and the production team would likely be on a break.
In other words, the next Doctor wouldn’t be at as much risk of discovery – and this could offer a golden opportunity. If all the production team had to do was sneak the next Doctor into the studio for regeneration filming, possibly closer to broadcast, couldn’t that be kept under wraps?
After all, a big-name return like John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness was kept largely secret back in early 2020, despite some location filming. And from the team who also managed to shoot Jodie Whittaker’s introduction video in complete secret, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for a quick final post-regeneration scene to be pulled off in a similar fashion.
In fact, the current restrictions on filming thanks to the pandemic – which include a close tracking of all crew members and a more limited number of people on set – could even help keep such a secret, with less chance of ancillary crew members picking up a tidbit or a random member of the public spotting a key scene.
Certainly, it’s easy to see the appeal of such a surprise for showrunner Chris Chibnall. Over the course of his time at the head of Who, Chibnall has shown a propensity for exciting shock casting reveals, from Whittaker’s aforementioned Wimbledon unveiling to the twist ending of Spyfall (which revealed the Doctor’s ally O was the Master in disguise).
And of course, it’s impossible not to look at series 12 episode Fugitive of the Judoon – which unveiled a surprise new incarnation of the Doctor, as played by Jo Martin – and wonder whether Chibnall might be looking to repeat the trick for the series lead.
If any era of Doctor Who could manage it, it’s this one. Under Chibnall, Who has become adept at secrecy, holding back its biggest surprises and misdirecting the fans ever since he took the reins and often surprising even the most spoiler-friendly corners of the internet.
And it’s easy to see the appeal of a new Doctor making their debut on-screen. When Peter Capaldi companion Pearl Mackie was revealed in a special release scene, it was a TV event – likewise, Jodie Whittaker’s unveiling just over a year later.
But this would be even bigger. If you had to watch a full Doctor Who episode to see who the next Doctor is, it’d be a publicity masterstroke, hugely increasing interest in the episode and making history for the series.
Frankly, if the quirks of production this year make it easier to pull off a grand reveal, why wouldn’t they at least try it? At worst, if people found out you could announce a new Doctor as normal. At best, you’d pull off something fans have wanted for years – and set a high bar for regenerations to come.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that we’re seeing smoke signals in bonfires here, and that Whittaker’s replacement (assuming that she is really leaving) will still be announced as normal at some point before they’re revealed on-screen. Really, there’s no sign that the BBC are planning everything different.
But looking at the lay of the land, it’s easy to imagine the production team being tempted to try for a genuine Doctor Who first – which could mean we all have to wait a little longer to meet the next pilot of the TARDIS.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One later this year. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.