We knew Jodie Whittaker was right to play the first female Doctor when we saw her handwriting. All over the shop.
If you were to list influences for Doctor
Who, how long would it be before you got to Forrest Gump? Because as strange as it may seem, that’s the reference point of new executive producer Dan Strevens.
“It’s a box of chocolates of a series,” he tells us. “There’s something different in every episode.”
This new season, the 11th (or the 37th in old money), will have no twoparters, and the first episode will act as something of a reboot, in the same way Matt Smith’s first episode ‘The Eleventh Hour’ did in 2010. A “jumping-on point” Strevens calls it, but also “a restating of what the show is”. Or, particularly, what the show is under new showrunner Chris Chibnall (writer of Broadchurch), who has already bucked more than five decades of tradition by hiring Jodie Whittaker to be the first female Doctor. Which seems an ideal place to start.
We’ve glimpsed Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor twice already: in a specially shot reveal clip that played on BBC One after the 2017 Wimbledon Men’s Singles final, and then at the very end of 2017’s Christmas Special — regenerating from Peter Capaldi before being flung out of the TARDIS and left plummeting towards Earth. (Presumably she survives.)
But this series was the first time Whittaker had anything substantial to do. And she found it terrifying. “There are 55 years of history and that’s a lot of pressure,” she says. “You’re deciding things on that first day that are going to be tattooed on film forever — the idea of that is awful.”
It didn’t help that The Doctor is unlike any character she’s ever played before. “I’m usually just having to be very depressed in the corner of the set… In one of the audition scenes I had to diffuse a bomb and every single word I had to Google. The line-learning is really hard. It’s an absolute joy to wake up now and not have to learn lines. But we had so much fun on set — you look around and think, ‘We’re grown-ups. How are we allowed to be doing this?”
Not that she should have worried. “We knew she was good,” says Strevens, “but she’s taken it to a whole new level. What you get from Jodie is a sense of joy, a sense of wonder and a multi-faceted performance that is instantly The Doctor.”
It’s been some time since Doctor Who was synonymous with wobbly cardboard sets and men-in-shonky-rubber-suits chic, but the feeling was, despite making vast strides in recent years, there was still some way to go.
“We wanted to make sure we were in step with our contemporaries,” says Strevens. “The kids don’t differentiate between watching Stranger Things and Doctor Who. They aren’t saying, ‘Oh, this is a BBC show so it has this much budget.’”
There are technical methods to making sure it looks as they want. It involves changing the aspect ratio (from 16:9 to 2:1), which gives them more space to play with in the frame, and filming with a set of anamorphic lenses to add a cinematic quality.
The person responsible for making this happen (in four of the ten episodes at least, including the first) is Jamie Childs (who directed that Doctor-revealing promo). And he has a very specific influence in mind.
“I tried to Spielberg it up a bit,” Childs says. “[His ’80s films] were a big reference. And that stuff’s massively come back into fashion. The thing that most inspires me about Spielberg is how he moves the
camera through the scenes with the characters and the shot tells a story.”
What does the term ‘meniscus membrane’ mean to you? Possibly nothing, but it’s the part of the knee Peter Capaldi injured on set of Doctor Who, requiring surgery. Not coincidentally, it’s also the part of the knee Matt Smith injured on set of Doctor Who. Jodie Whittaker, however, is okay. For now.
“I’ve been fine, but you’ve completely jinxed me,” she laughs. “This is the most energetic role I’ve ever played. There is a window though — during this season I’ve crept into my late thirties. ‘Keep it together, body. Don’t let me down.’”
Tho things the Doctor is running from (or sometimes to) have changed a lot over the show’s history. But while Strevens is keen to stress many of the monsters will be practical, sometimes it won’t be possible. And running from CGI creatures was a first for Whittaker.
“There have been times when you’re hoping your reaction is big enough,” she says. “And then we’ve gone to ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording] and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s terrifying. Thank God I reacted like that. But there were also times when I’d look over and be like, ‘Oh, I’m looking in a different direction to the rest of them.’” Where exactly in the universe these action scenes (or any of the scenes) will take place, no-one’s saying. The cast and crew are tightlipped on details for much of the series. Even over whether the lost TARDIS returns — although surely it must. Still, even when the blue police box returns, this is still a bold new beginning. Which has always been the show’s secret — keep changing, stay fresh. There have been 12 iterations before this one. Here’s to number 13.
Above: Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in extraterrestrial peril from episode one, still wearing the battered remnants of Peter Capaldi’s costume. Left: The Doctor is joined by three new companions: Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole).