In a warm studio in south Wales, Jodie Whittaker is having fun. Posing for a Radio Times Doctor Who cover shoot just metres from a looming blue police box, the 36-year-old swirls her coat, bops to Beyoncé and, with a smile on her face, jumps into the air and swings her arms.
Given the carefree scene, you could easily forget she’s about to make history and that the success of a hit TV global franchise and the reputation of its new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, rests on her shoulders.
“I felt the time was right for a female Doctor – I felt the audience were ready for it, the world was ready for it,” says Chibnall of his decision to cast Whittaker as the timetravelling, millennia-old alien who for more than half a century has been exclusively played by men – most recently Peter Capaldi.
“I think if we hadn’t done it, we would have been behind the world – and Doctor Who has to be out front leading the world, showcasing all the amazing things out there. So it was never a question in my mind. It was time.”
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“There’s the chiselled superhero that we’re used to seeing and we’ve all grown up with,” Whittaker adds after finishing her photo shoot, in her new Doctor’s rainbow T-shirt, gold braces and high-waisted culottes, “but Doctor Who has never been that, which is wonderful. It’s attainable in so many ways.
“And now it isn’t just attainable for half of the population. The other half can be the Doctor as well. Girls will no longer just think, ‘Oh, I could be a companion.’ Being the first female Doctor and showing children that their heroes in shows don’t always look the same is a huge honour for me.”
Whittaker will make her full debut when the series starts in the autumn, but when she was unveiled as the 13th incarnation of the Time Lord after last summer’s Wimbledon men’s final, the short introductory clip was viewed online more than 16 million times in just three days.
The film, which saw a hooded Whittaker emerge from a forest and stride purposefully towards the Tardis, made headlines around the planet and ignited interest not only from die-hard fans but from both new and lapsed viewers, too. Did Whittaker immediately feel the pressure of expectation?
“The pressure on any actor coming into the role – man or woman – is huge because they’re big boots to fill. And for me there’s been 12 pairs of boots. Well, 13 if you count [50th anniversary guest star] John Hurt. Then we could throw in David Bradley [from the last Christmas special]! That’s a lot of boots!
“But I was obviously delighted that when my name was announced, I wasn’t completely slated – although maybe I was? Maybe I was just given sugar-coated information because everyone I spoke to was like, ‘People love you!’ As long as most people are happy, I’m all right with that because the fans are so loyal and so passionate, and it’s a huge deal to them. And obviously for Whovians this time the change has taken a very different direction than it has before.
“In a way, though, there is liberation in that new direction: the pressure is less for me because I can only do this my way. All the rules are out the window! That’s what makes it so fun.”
A special Doctor Who teaser trailer was aired during the 2018 World Cup final
According to Chibnall, that sense of fun is reflected in the new Doctor’s personality. “Jodie came in and read for the part and blew us all away,” he says. “She was the Doctor straight away. She brings a fresh perspective to the role – a lot of fun and energy. When you’re casting the Doctor, you instinctively know when you see something Doctor-y – and there’s also an excitement you get with a Doctor you haven’t seen before.
“That’s what Jodie brings. She’s absolutely the Doctor. But there’s a new calibration, a new mixture of Doctorishness. Her auditions were so good they made casting her incredibly simple.
“The Thirteenth Doctor is incredibly lively, warm, funny, energetic, inclusive – she’s the greatest friend you could wish to have as your guide around the universe.”
Look Who's on our cover this week…The Thirteenth Doctor makes her Radio Times cover debut!
— Radio Times (@RadioTimes) July 16, 2018
But for Whittaker that’s all part of the experience: “I love all the secrecy. It was like that when I worked with Chris on Broadchurch, too. I’d ask, ‘Can I see that?’ – ‘No’ – ‘OK’.
“But I don’t want to know. I never watch trailers of films I want to go and see. For me, the unknown is the most exciting thing. The best times I’ve had with television or film, or theatre, is walking in and not knowing anything about it. Although hopefully the first time I see it won’t be when it airs. We’re obviously terrified of leaks, but hopefully we’ll be able to see it beforehand.
“But this is Doctor Who, so we know there will be a Tardis, a sonic screwdriver – and me and my new friends [which is what companions are now called]. We’ve all had the best time making it, so hopefully you don’t hate it!”
On the day the revamped Doctor Who does emerge from the shadows, the team are hoping a whole new generation of fans will be tuning in.
“If you’ve never seen Doctor Who, or want to introduce your children or family and friends to it, this series is the perfect point to start,” says Chibnall. “It was really important to me that there’s no barrier to entry. You don’t need to know about anything that’s come before. We’ve got a new Doctor, all-new characters, all-new monsters, all-new stories. It’s going to be exciting, emotional and the most enormous fun.”