The 13th Doctor: ‘change is nerve-wracking!’

Looking up: “Everybody should have a character they can relate to,” said Chris Chibnall. © BBC

How much does representation matter? Last night, Doctor Who returned to BBC One. For the first time in 55 years, the time travelling, two-hearted, alien adventurer was played by a woman.

When Jodie Whittaker was first asked to audition for Doctor Who, she thought that she would play a villain. “I was like, ‘Can I play a monster with loads of prosthetics?’” she told The New York Times. The idea that she could be the Doctor simply “never crossed my mind.”

But the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall — who has now taken over from Steven Moffat — had only taken the job on the condition that he could hire a woman. “I was seeking a female Doctor. I was really clear.”

Last night, Whittaker finally made her debut in the episode “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”.

The new series has received strong reviews so far. “Any chat about gender is rendered wholly irrelevant before she’s finished her first sentence,” wrote the BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz.

“Her casting doesn’t feel remotely ‘radical’. It feels normal,” agreed Carol Midgley in The Times.

Whittaker is not the only new face; she was joined by three diverse new companions. Behind the camera, the show has more female writers, and its first writers of colour.

“Representation really matters, and I wanted to make sure that Doctor Who’s a big, inclusive mainstream accessible show with a point of access for everyone,” said Chibnall.

Or, as Whittaker herself put it in Radio Times: “Stories shouldn’t always be told from the same perspective… It’s a mistake to think that the only heroes are white men.”

Doctor Who is just the latest franchise to embrace diversity in recent years. Star Wars, Ocean’s 8 and Ghostbusters have all relaunched with female leads, and succeeded despite backlash online. Earlier this year, Marvel’s Black Panther broke multiple records with an almost entirely black cast.

Meanwhile, the BBC has pledged that women will make up 50% of its workforce on and off-screen by 2020, and that 15% of jobs will be given to people from BAME backgrounds.

But does a female Doctor really matter?

About time

Of course it does, say some. Girls need strong role models. There is evidence to prove it: in 2012, an American study looked at the effect of TV on the self-esteem of almost 400 children and found that only white boys experienced a rise in self-esteem. If you do not see yourself reflected on screen, or you only see stereotypes, you are bound to feel less important. That is why a female Doctor is a big deal — no matter your gender.

It does not matter that much, argue others. The new series should be judged on its storytelling, not the background of its actors. Besides, casting more women on TV is hardly the most important way to achieve gender equality. That will only really happen through education, politics and changes to the law. Doctor Who is just some light entertainment along the way.

You Decide

  1. Is Jodie Whittaker a good choice for the Doctor?
  2. How important is it to see people like you in films and on TV?

Activities

  1. As a class, take it in turns to list your favourite role models from TV, films and books. Sort them into men and women and discuss. Which side has more? Were the boys in the class more likely to nominate other boys, and vice versa?
  2. Write a 300-word review of last night’s Doctor Who. If you did not see it, write a review of the last TV show you watched.

Some People Say...

“When you don’t feel seen or heard, you don’t feel validated or valued.”

Oprah Winfrey

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Series 11 of Doctor Who will air on BBC One on Sunday nights until December. If you have not watched it before, now is a good time to start, as none of the previous storylines or characters (besides the Doctor) have been carried over from previous seasons. Earlier this year, a study for the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only a third of the top films in 2017 featured a female lead or co-lead.
What do we not know?
The long-term impact of representation in TV and film on a person’s psychology, or on society as a whole. For example, although some have suggested that positive LGBT role models helped to boost LGBT rights over the last two decades, many other factors were also at play — such as the work of activists, charities and politicians.

Word Watch

Doctor Who
The show began in 1963 and ran until 1989. There was a film in the 1990s, and the series rebooted in 2005. Whittaker is the 13th actor to play the role of the Doctor — and the first woman.
Chris Chibnall
Before Doctor Who, Chibnall was best known as the creator of Broadchurch, which starred Whittaker and a former Doctor: David Tennant.
New companions
These are Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill.
Backlash
Ghostbusters in particular faced a heavy backlash on social media before its release; its YouTube trailer received the most “dislikes” in history. In 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi received the lowest audience score for the franchise on the website Rotten Tomatoes.
Multiple records
Black Panther made $1.3 billion when it was released in February this year, making it the biggest superhero movie of all time. It is the third biggest movie ever released in the US.
American study
Published in Communication Research in June 2012. The study found that girls and black boys all experienced lower self-esteem after watching TV.

Subjects