Jodie Whittaker says Doctor Who can’t please everybody: “There’s bits people love, and bits people don’t love”
As the BBC sci-fi drama returns for a new series, can it satisfy new fans and old fans together?
Doctor Who can never be all things to all people. At least, that’s what Jodie Whittaker thinks, with the current series lead – the Thirteenth Doctor to you – admitting as much when we caught up with her a few weeks before the debut of the new series.
“It is a show that’s run for so many years,” Whittaker told RadioTimes.com.
“And with history and hindsight, there’s bits people love, and bits people don’t love. But you can’t cater for all of that. You’ve just got to tell the stories you want to tell.”
In other words, if all the Doctor Who team did was slavishly try and anticipate the desires of Whovians, they’d hardly get anything done. Instead, Whittaker, the other cast and everyone behind the camera just have to work on making the best, most compelling TV they can within the constraints they’re given – and hopefully, just making a good series will be enough to satisfy those watching at home.
“Under the leadership with the writers and with [showrunner] Chris Chibnall, we feel like we’re in very safe hands,” Whittaker said.
“We’re guided from the point of view of one of the biggest Doctor Who fans I know.”
This fan/creator tension seems like a salient point to bring up in the second year (well, technically third, but second full series) of Whittaker’s tenure as the Doctor, a few years after her announcement as the first female incarnation of the body-changing Time Lord caused a small section of the fandom to object, claiming the change as a loss of role models for young boys or ranting at the (memorable) prospect of “a Tardis full of bras”.
“[Jodie] being the first female Doctor - there was no way we were going to let that fail,” Chibnall told me in an earlier interview.
“That was the pressure. There was no way we were going to let people say, as a female Doctor it's rubbish. Absolutely not.”
While Whittaker has won over a lot of fans since, many others haven’t taken to her – often for reasons nothing to do with her gender, it should be stated – but in 2020, this just doesn’t seem to bother the Doctor Who team any more. In fact, in general they seem much more relaxed about this new series for a lot of different reasons.
“There’s less pressure because we know what we’re doing now,” Tosin Cole, who plays Ryan in the series, tells me.
“Last year, it was a new showrunner, a new Doctor, new companions, a new time on the show. So everything was just brand new. Now that we’ve done that, everyone’s survived and everyone’s OK.”
“There was a bit of uproar or whatever while we were doing it. But the fans proved that they do change with the Doctor,” Mandip Gill, who plays Yaz, added.
“They stay. So for us, they proved that throughout the series that they were going to watch it, and that they still were loyal fans.
“So now there’s not that pressure of like: ‘Are they going to leave now?’ They’ve already committed to this journey with us.”
It seems that for the Doctor Who team, at this stage you’re either in or you’re out when it comes to their vision for the series – broadly speaking bright, upbeat and accessible stories with a renewed focus on the series’ traditional social justice themes – and those who are “out” might not be lost causes anyway.
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After all, if they make good enough episodes those people who aren’t currently “in” might find themselves tempted back, assuming they’re not still watching out of obligation anyway (or for an opportunity to slate the show online, less positively).
Altogether then, the Tardis team onscreen and off have turned their process into a no-lose scenario, where they gain new fans even if they turn off a few older ones, who are unlikely to stop watching no matter what. But looking at what’s coming up in the new episodes, perhaps it’s not as simple as all that.
Today, we’re facing a series that promises to up the ante and action, focus more on team interpersonal dynamics and bring back some classic monsters, all of which feels like a response to regular critiques brought by fans at the close of the last series, including readers of RadioTimes.com.
“We start with a big two-part episode, and we can confirm that Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry will appear at some point in one of those episodes, and we’ve got loads of new monsters,” Whittaker says.
“We’ve got old monsters returning. We have got some challenges ahead for the Doctor and for the family, and it’s as epic and dramatic and as funny and as scary as you want it to be.
“I think we discover things about the characters that we haven’t seen before,” she adds.
“It’s a natural progression, and it doesn’t regurgitate ground that’s been covered. But it also isn’t a complete curveball to the world that you know, and the characters that you know.
“In that comes the questions of who we all are. How well do we all know each other? How well can we gauge when somebody needs something? Yeah, I think the new series takes us on that emotional journey.”
From this, it sounds like a series ripe for emotional drama and exciting adventures that tip their hat to Doctor Who past – but without a crystal ball, it’s hard to know just how much of this was always the plan for Whittaker’s second year, and conversely how much did actually come from taking notes about what fans wanted for the new series. Because frankly, all of this sounds exactly like what fans wanted for another series.
But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Will this new series of Doctor Who be a desperate race to satisfy a rabid fanbase, like the recently-released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? Maybe. Will it be an avant-garde, challenging take on the status quo? Well, possibly in small ways.
The most important question to many fans, though, is simpler – will it be Doctor Who? And happily, the answer is just as simple: yes. No matter what changes, so matter what returns or what leaves forever, Doctor Who has evolution and regeneration built into its DNA and can weather any storms. If it didn’t change we’d have more to be worried about, frankly.
Or, to put it in Whittaker’s own words: “If you don’t go in different directions, what’s the point of keeping making the show?”
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 on Wednesday 1st January at 6.55pm