In the end, as with most of the so-called scandals that leave the commentariat wringing their disapproving hands at the rest of us, the transition of Doctor Who from boy to girl was spectacular but brief.
In keeping with the modernDoctor Whotradition, the regeneration of one Doctor into another is accompanied by a spectacular malfunction in the time-travelling Tardis.
So television audiences got their first glimpse of Jodie Whittaker, who replaces Peter Capaldi in the iconic role, set to the backdrop of the Tardis’s systems exploding and its console room catching fire. It was short. And she said just two words: “Oh, brilliant!”
And it went over well with the fans. “I mean if I was Jodie Whittaker and I looked at myself in a mirror for the first time those would be my first words too,” wrote one wag on Twitter
Jodie Whittaker in her first appearance as Doctor Who’s first female incarnation in the Twice Upon a Time Christmas special. Photo: BBC
The regeneration scene came in the wake of a Christmas episode that managed to be both gentle and affecting, suffused with melancholy and dipped deeply into the themes of life and loss.
In it we said goodbye to Capaldi’s Doctor, and also to the very first Doctor, played by actor David Bradley, who was reprising a character originated by William Hartnell in the very first episode ofDoctor Who in 1963.
In the episode, we met both men on the eve of their regenerations.
Having the first and the latest on stage together gave this baton-change an unexpectedly poignant feel; Hartnell’s Doctor –originally described as “a crotchety old man in a Police Box”–is properly iconic.
It was time to bid farewell to Peter Capaldi (centre) and David Bradley. Photo: ABC
One of the episode’s lightest touches,the gentle mocking of the 1960s-era ofDoctor Whofor its subtle misogyny and its expectation that the Doctor’s female companions were there for little more than to scream at Daleks and make the tea,served as a cute foreword to what lay ahead.
By episode’s end a woman was not just centre stage, she was stepping into the role of The Doctor, the exclusive domain of male actors for its more than five-decade history.
Three Doctors: (l-r) Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt. Photo: Supplied
The announcement of the casting of Jodie Whittakerin July was greeted as a controversial event by a minority of fans and a vocal chorus of mostly conservative commentators.In truth, though the media headlines may not have always made it clear, in the mainstream of Doctor Who fandom the news was met with cheers of approval.
One of Whittaker’s predecessors, actor Colin Baker (the sixth Doctor), offered the simplest of explanationfor those wrestling with the idea that young boys had been robbed of a role model. “You don’t have to be of a gender to be a role model,” he said.
The change of actor within theDoctor Whonarrative was a plot conceit established in the 1960s when the actor who originated the character, William Hartnell, became ill and was unable to continue working on the series.
As a result, more than a dozen actors have now played the part on television, and a handful more in spin-off projects, standalone movies, radio serials and stage plays, among them Tom Baker, David Tennant, Jon Pertwee and Matt Smith.
But in historical terms two factors were consistent: the Doctor’s childish, obstinate nature, and his gender. The latter has now been torn to pieces with good humour, a wry smile and a touch of style.
There are now 13 official Doctors Who: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.
But there are others, from Richard Hurndall and David Bradley, who played recasts of the Hartnell Doctor, to John Hurt’s War Doctor (a between McGann-and-Eccleston Doctor), Adrian Gibbs’ The Watcher (a projection of the future Baker-to-Davison regeneration), and Michael Jayston’s Shadow of the Valeyard, an evil future Doctor.
Throw in Peter Cushing, who played Doctor Who on the big screen in the 1960s, and Joanna Lumley, who played The Doctor inCurse of the Fatal Death, plus a half-dozen more, and you have a long and impressive honour roll connected officially and unofficially to British television’s most iconic character.
Whether Whittaker becomes the equal of the best – Baker and Tennant, has always been the prevailing thought – remains to be seen. But falling from the burning Tardis, in a classicDoctor Whocliffhanger, she’s off to a flying start.