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It’s About Time: Joy as ‘Doctor Who’ Casts a Woman as Lead (Column)

Variety logo Variety 7/16/2017 Maureen Ryan
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Oh, thank goodness: Hooray for the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor on “Doctor Who.”

The last thing I wanted to write today was an angry screed about “Doctor Who.” I’ve been watching the show loyally for four decades; I’ve been through every up and down and alien invasion. No matter how much it may frustrate me in a given episode or a season, I love it so much. It’s about people without guns who roam around trying to do good and save people. With a screwdriver. At its best, “Doctor Who” irreverent, whip-smart and deeply humane.

So I was going to be disappointed and not a little furious if the Thirteenth Doctor was yet another white man.

For more than 50 years, every Doctor has been from that demographic, and of course, some versatile actors have done wonderful work in the role. I’d have a tough time picking my favorite: Is it Tom Baker? Peter Davison? David Tennant? Peter Capaldi? Matt Smith? Jon Pertwee?

(It’s Baker. They’re all fantastic, but of course, it’s Baker.)

The fact is, we’re living in a time in which a lot of people feel frustrated and fearful about the state of the world. Women, people of color and the LGBT community feel especially under siege. The daily headlines are like something out of a “Doctor Who” (or “Black Mirror”) dystopia. 

So if women were once again going to be asked to go to the back of the line and wait their turn when it came to the idea of seeing themselves as one of the iconic interstellar heroes — well, many people would have been upset. Even some white guys. 

But no one had to wake up to that disappointment, thank Gallifrey. Coming from one of the biggest media franchises on the planet, the news that the new “Doctor Who” is female is huge — and almost completely delightful. 

Some might be disappointed that this makes for the thirteenth white Doctor in a row. I do want to see a woman of color, or a non-white man, as the Doctor, of course. Those fans are still being asked to wait, and it would be hypocritical not to note that that is still not ideal. 

But the fact that Jodie Whittaker has been named the Thirteenth Doctor is cause for celebration. Not only is Whittaker a fine actor — she was fantastic in “Broadchurch” and “Attack the Block” — her casting sends a message.

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are — and who gets to be a hero — matter a great deal. Witness the huge success of films as varied as “Wonder Woman,” “Get Out,” and “Hidden Figures,” not to mention the slew of vital and terrific TV shows created by those who’ve been traditionally shut out of the showrunner role. We truly engage with the present through the fictional worlds we create, and we change the future in part through the people who populate those worlds. Clinging to the same old patterns, especially at this moment in time, would have been a big step backward. 

Those who’ve been shut out of seeing themselves on screen in the plum roles — as the problem-solvers, the heroes, the romantic leads, the witty ones who think of the brilliant solution — have won a victory. What a relief it is to see the Doctor added to the growing roster of role models for young girls (and boys).

How cool that a woman will now have a chance to not just explore the future but travel through all of time and space? Fixing disasters and outsmarting bad guys with a sonic screwdriver, a brilliant plan and a quip?

It’s worth noting that a queer black woman has also taken up residence in the TARDIS (though it’s not clear how long she’ll stay on). As the Doctor’s companion, Bill Potts, Pearl Mackie has been a breath of fresh air and a very welcome addition to the roster of companions, and I hope she sticks around. She’s lively and smart and challenges the Doctor in all the right ways.

Months from now, in the hands of new showrunner Chris Chibnall, we might see two women have wild, unpredictable adventures all over the galaxy, in a TARDIS that has thus far been the property of a guy. This is one very British changing of the guard that I cannot wait to see.

As Tennant’s Doctor would say, “Allons y!”

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