People started freaking out when it was revealed that the new Doctor in Doctor Who would be played by a woman, but that reaction is nothing new at all.
Most people know about Doctor Who – a sci-fi show where the main character travels through space and time, “regenerating” and changing his face and personality every few years upon sustaining a mortal injury, and thus allowing a new actor to step into the part. What most don’t know is that the UK has a very interesting tradition it obliges right before a new Doctor gets announced – they place bets on the actor they think will bag the role. The UK tends to be extremely gambling-friendly, with a ton of online casinos and betting sites scattered about (hell, a single glimpse at a casino site like www.bestcasino.co.uk should prove that to you), so naturally, if they can bet on something, they will, even if it’s as ridiculous as, say, the royal baby’s gender. The reason I’m telling you this is because, on the night of July 15th, a full day before the new Doctor was to be announced, Jodie Whittaker’s (above) odds suddenly shot up to the top, revealing that most likely an inside source had leaked her casting to casinos and bookies. The following day, the prediction proved to be correct – Jodie Whittaker would become the first female Doctor Who.
The reactions to that casting were… Mixed. Some were overjoyed, with one commenter on a website that posted the announcement claiming “I have watched the [announcement] clip half a dozen times, and I’ve cried every time.” Most people, however, were worried. Could a woman embody such a traditionally masculine role? Would Doctor Who just turn into feminist propaganda? Were the stories told from a female perspective going to be as exciting as those from a male one? And more particularly, could Jodie Whittaker – a very dramatic actor who made a name for herself as the mother of a murdered child on Broadchurch, possibly embody a role that’s quite often goofy and comedic just as it is serious and dramatic? Well, believe it or not, but this isn’t the first, second or even third time the world has freaked out over the casting of the sci-fi series.
Let me take you back to 1966. William Hartnell, the first Doctor (or, as far as audiences at the time were concerned, THE Doctor), was struggling with his role. He suffered from undiagnosed arteriosclerosis, which often left him too sick to shoot and prevented him from effectively memorising his lines. On top of that, Hartnell was notoriously racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic (which makes sense, since he was born in 1908 – his views were a product of their time), which made him difficult to work with. A decision was made to recast him, and while some executives wanted a look-alike, Hartnell himself had a different idea – “There’s only one man in England who can take over, and that’s Patrick Troughton“, he said, citing his extensive work as a character actor.
Naturally, Troughton’s casting caused a bout of controversy among both the children that Doctor Who targeted and the adults that had grown to like it. He was a full twelve years younger than Hartnell, and while his predecessor embodied a more fatherly role to his companions (one of which has his granddaughter), Troughton took on the role of a space hobo, which was a drastic departure from the character many had grown to like. But, believe it or not, Troughton proved to be a huge success, inspiring future actors like Peter Davison (the fifth Doctor) and leaving an unmistakable mark on the role. Troughton retired from it after three years, giving the reins over to Jon Pertwee – a man much closer in age to Hartnell, so the transition went relatively smoothly, even if the show struggled a bit with its format due to budgeting issues. But when it was time for Pertwee to exit stage right, things were about to get bumpy again.
In 1974, the death of Pertwee’s close friend Roger Delgado (who played The Master) prompted the actor to leave the show, at age 55 – same age that Hartnell was when he began. His replacement, a man called Tom Baker, was only 40, making him the youngest actor to have embodied the role until that time. And boy, did that not go over well with the public at all! In the mind of the fans, the Doctor was an old man, so what was this middle-aged dude doing taking up the mantle? Of course, it goes without saying that Tom Baker’s portrayal quickly became iconic, shutting up the nay-sayers and becoming the longest-running incarnation of the Doctor to date. Many of the classic elements that fans associate with the show, like the long scarf, come from his incarnation. He proved to be so popular that the next actor to take on the role, Peter Davison, was even younger than him!
It was Davison who established the trend of casting young, attractive men in the role, which, as you’re likely well-aware, continued for quite a while. With the exception of Sylvester McCoy, who was 44, every single actor to have been cast from Davison (Fifth Doctor) all the way to Peter Capaldi (Twelfth Doctor) was under 40 years of age at the time of casting. But even that had its limits when the doctor to surpass David Tennant (Tenth Doctor), who was 39 when he departed the show in 2010, was revealed to be Matt Smith – the youngest Doctor ever, at only 28 at the time of casting. That fact, combined with a particularly unflattering reveal picture, got the torches and pitchforks going once more. Naturally, once again it turned out to have been for nothing, as Matt Smith proved to play one of the most popular incarnations of the character, with the show finding newfound success worldwide during his tenure.
The fact of the matter is that every time the Doctor has been cast as something different from the status quo, there has been an outcry from the public. Some of these changes were necessary risks, while others proved to be so successful that they changed the face of the show forever. Who knows, maybe Jodie Whittaker will be totally terrible, spending her time teaching Daleks the virtues of feminism and getting angry over microaggressions… But judging by Doctor Who’s track record, it’s far more likely that she’s going to be a spectacular Doctor that, much like Tom Baker, we’ll likely be looking at as a turning point for the show a couple of decades in the future.