Things feel different this time as we might be on the cusp of the first female actor being cast as the Doctor. As I write this, Jodie Whittaker is currently the favourite with the bookies (the same position Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi were on the day of their announcement) while she’s also on the cover of the Mail on Sunday as the likely new Doctor (a similar position to the one Bill Nighy was on the day Christopher Eccleston was announced). While she’s not first on my list of women I’d cast as the Doctor – I’m still holding out hope for Tatiana Maslany or Natalie Dormer – i do hope it is her, because she’s a far more interesting choice than any of the men who’ve been suggested this time around, all of whom can be described as Quirky White Blokes.
The problem for me is that all the various male names that are being put forward all reek of looking to the past. In the same way that when the new series was announced people were sure Alan Davies would be the new Doctor – ‘he’s got curly hair, just like Tom Baker!’ – we’re now being treated to a succession of pound shop Tennants and focus group picks of alternate Smiths being seriously proposed for the role, entirely missing the point that those two were complete departures from what has gone before.
One of the reasons I think there is a big change coming this time is the fact that Steven Moffat has chosen to end his era as showrunner with a visit back to the show’s first ever regeneration. The end of The Doctor Falls saw Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor protesting that he wasn’t going to change just as the TARDIS took him to Antarctica to encounter David Bradley (replacing William Hartnell)’s First Doctor complaining about the same thing as he headed back to the TARDIS having also just defeated the Mondasian Cybermen. It feels to me that one of themes of the Christmas special featuring the two is going to be each Doctor having to persuade the other to accept the necessity of major change, and while Moffat hasn’t been involved in planning what comes next, he has spoken about discussing next showrunner Chris Chibnall’s plans with him.
The important thing about that first regeneration from Hartnell to Patrick Troughton is that it was an idea the production team stumbled upon in order to keep the series going when Hartnell’s health meant he had to leave. They’d discussed simply recasting the role, or doing the change quickly in a story where the Doctor would find his face had been changed by a bad guy, but the initial thought was to replace Hartnell with someone similar. It was only after many discussions that they hit on the idea of ‘renewing’ the Doctor (‘regeneration’ didn’t come around as a term till the 70s) into a completely different form and bringing in Troughton, who’d play the Doctor completely differently from Hartnell. That set the tone for all the changes to come, where the Doctor would change radically (often also marking a change in the team behind the scenes) and not just become a new take on an old version.
Chibnall’s era on the series has been spoken of as being a relaunch with a new direction, just like MOffat’s was in 2010 and Russell T Davies’ was in 2005. The announcement this afternoon is the first statement of intent for the new era of the show and the first and best chance to grab the public’s attention and build their anticipation for it. One of the important things about Eccleston’s announcement as the new Doctor back in 2004 was that it told people this wasn’t going to be the Doctor Who of nostalgic folk memory, but something new, different and worth paying attention to. If this afternoon’s announcement is yet another quirky white bloke picking up the TARDIS key, then it’s saying that if you didn’t watch the series before, it’s not going to be much different in the future, so don’t bother. If it is Whittaker, or someone else similarly unexpected and different, then it will make people pay attention and want to know more about what’s coming next. Like Hartnell becoming Troughton in 1966, it’s saying that this is a series where you don’t know what you’re going to end up with when you tune in, rather than one that’s wearing a bit thin and content to plough the same old furrow until it dwindles away from your screen.