Let’s get one thing out of the way: Jodie Whittaker is the first woman to take on the role of the Doctor in the British television staple Doctor Who, a pivot in the historically male casting that’s 55 years in the making. But we don’t talk about that much when the newly minted Time Lord visits Bustle HQ during her whirlwind NYC press tour. While it’s an admittedly huge step for the franchise to finally hand the TARDIS over to a woman, there’s so much more to celebrate and analyze about the new season (which kicked off Oct. 7 and airs every Sunday on BBC America) and its new star.
But if you’re a little confused by the terms “Time Lord” and “TARDIS” or unsure how exactly to jump in to a series that aired its first episode back in 1963, know that Doctor Who’s rich history is based on reinvention: the arrival of a new Doctor always starts a new chapter in the series, which makes for easier entry. The idea of presenting a fresh start was heartening to Whittaker, who was new to the fandom when she decided to throw her hat in for the part.
“I’m a new Whovian, and I’m new to this whole world,” she says. Thankfully, being a die-hard fan is not a prerequisite for joining the cast. The show’s eponymous character literally regenerates every season, meaning each new version of the character — Whittaker is officially No. 13 — is unique in personality and appearance while retaining the same memories. “Doctor Who celebrates change and inclusivity and regeneration, and that has to be for all,” she says. “It can’t just be for people that know it.”
It’s a little surprising that, unlike several past Doctor actors, Whittaker didn’t grow up following the show and idolizing the time-traveling alien who picks up strays and shows them the universe. Because despite a schedule packed with appearances — including premiering her first episode in front of 5,000 people at New York Comic-Con — she’s all friendly energy and excitement on this Friday morning, much like her incarnation of the character. And, also like the Doctor, Whittaker immediately makes herself at home. The first thing she does when she steps into our studio is make a beeline to the computer’s Spotify to pull up some music for the shoot (it’s electronic artist Pete Tong, whom she raves about between the photographer’s flashes).
I think to limit it to a sci-fi genre in its label does it a disservice because it’s its own genre, in a way.
Considering the worldwide reach of the show and its long legacy, a lot is asked of the person playing the Doctor beyond simply showing up to set and delivering lines. As the face of the series, the actor is taking on the duty of being an ambassador for the show, and Whittaker is clearly embracing every aspect of that. Plus, being open to new experiences is perhaps the most dominant characteristic of the time-traveler. It’s partly why Whittaker was thrilled by the show’s established universe once she started to dive in.
“The Doctor, particularly the way [new showrunner Chris Chibnall] has written, is so full of hope and has that amazing ability to continually learn even with this extraordinary hindsight,” she says. “And that’s a life lesson, to never feel like you know the answer. And I think as adults we can often prejudge a scenario… [we’re] sometimes closed off to the openness of what could happen, and I think that’s the opposite of the Doctor. That’s an extraordinary thing to play.”
She talks a lot about the freedom of this role, which gives her a break from depicting some of the most achingly human faults and anxieties. The Doctor isn’t concerned with what anyone thinks about her, for one, though she’s pretty much always the strangest being in the room. She isn’t weighed down by inhibitions.
“Not everyone — there are some lucky people out there that continue well into their 80s without being self-conscious,” Whittaker concedes. “But there’s a part of you that doesn’t necessarily always want to stand out. But the thing with the Doctor is that they’re not trying to!”
They do anyway — each and every one, including Whittaker’s. And while that childlike lack of restraint could be seen as a sign of naivety in the real world, the actor assesses that it’s actually “quite brave.”
There’s more to the ongoing narrative of the show than the traits passed down from Doctor to Doctor, however. Doctor Who is serialized; there are storylines that carry through, and the Doctor has experienced several lifetimes worth of loss. But it also essentially reboots every few years, and the Doctor herself is all about forward motion and her breadth of experience.
To demonstrate what that means, Whittaker brings up another of her most famous roles as a contrast: her devastatingly grounded portrayal of grieving mother Beth Latimer in the crime drama Broadchurch (the project on which she first worked with Chibnall.) For that person, the event of her child’s death “dictates everything,” she explains. “Well, that isn’t the case for a character like the Doctor.”
In this part, she’s not beholden to playing one set of circumstances, which is a playground for an actor, according to Whittaker. Its message of connection and exploration also makes the show accessible for newcomers, even those who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves science fiction fans.
“You’re playing an alien, you are not restricted to social etiquette or time periods or anything like that. You are a traveler who is there to experience and has this extraordinary way of viewing worlds and life and time and science and space and everything,” Whittaker says. “And I think to limit [the show] to a sci-fi genre in its label does it a disservice because it’s its own genre, in a way. And yeah, it’s beautiful.”