At 4.26pm, shortly after Roger Federer became the only man to have won eight Wimbledon singles titles, the BBC interrupted its tennis coverage to announce an even more audacious first: the casting of Jodie Whittaker to play the central character in Doctor Who as a Time Lady rather than a Time Lord.
Whittaker, 35, becomes the 13th performer to portray the intergalactic troubleshooter. She had long figured in speculation and betting because of a belief that Chris Chibnall – the new head writer and executive producer on the hit BBC1 show – might prefer an actor with whom he had worked previously. Whittaker played the pivotal role of Beth Latimer, mother of a murdered child, in Chibnall’s ITV crime drama Broadchurch.
When Peter Capaldi announced in January that he was retiring as the Doctor, a consensus rapidly built that it was time to break the glass galaxy. Those calling for the character’s latest regeneration to involve a change of gender as well as actor included Billie Piper, who played an assistant to the ninth and 10th doctors, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.
Piper suggested that a 13th bloke at the helm of the Tardis would be a “snub”, a view supported by the Labour politician Harriet Harman, and other high-profile women. Although Chibnall insisted that punditry would have no impact on his decision, he and the BBC seem to have concluded that the logic towards equality had become irresistible.
Yet this significant piece of TV news was broken rather curiously. Four years ago, Whittaker’s predecessor, Capaldi, was revealed in a prescheduled standalone special programme. The latest unveiling was more casual and unanchored, suddenly revealed this weekend to follow the match between Federer and Marin Cilic at Wimbledon which, given the potential length of a men’s five-setter, meant any time from 4-7pm. Tennant was in the royal box for the final, giving his latest successor a hint of the sort of social privileges playing the part can bring.
In the event, Cilic struggled with a foot injury, twice requiring medical attention on court. “Not much the Doctor can do for him,” commiserated Sue Barker, in what may have been an attempt to make the BBC’s strange juxtaposition of sport and fantasy television seem neater.
Once Federer had shown his trophy to the crowds, Barker declared that viewers would now find out the identity of the latest two-hearted time-traveller from the planet of Gallifrey. On film, a figure, face obscured by a hooded cloak, walked through woodland towards the blue police box in which the Doctor travels. A feminine-looking hand holding the Tardis key then flicked back the hood to reveal Whittaker.
The brief teaser film coincided with the dropping of a press release, in which Chibnall said: “After months of lists, conversations, auditions, recalls, and a lot of secret-keeping, we’re excited to welcome Jodie Whittaker. I always knew I wanted the 13th Doctor to be a woman and we’re thrilled to have secured our number one choice. Her audition for the Doctor simply blew us all away.”
The series, which was first shown in 1963, has often explored alternative universes, and many will suspect that – in any parallel world in which the BBC had announced a man to follow Capaldi – the show would be in serious trouble, its ratings having recently fallen to around half of the 10m or so who tuned in when Russell T Davies relaunched and repopularised the franchise in 2005.
But the choice of Whittaker creates a fresh buzz around the series, the feminisation of the character automatically offering exciting new possibilities. In opting for a previous collaborator, Chibnall has also followed the example of Davies, whose two Doctors, Eccleston and Tennant, were both former colleagues.
The revelation was good news for the Mail on Sunday, which had floated Whittaker’s casting on its front page that day, but tricky for BBC2’s Newsnight, which had seemed to heavily suggest in a recent item that the first Time Lady would in fact be Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the Bafta-winning star of the sitcom Fleabag.
The problem with attempts to predict successors to the Tardis is that gamblers and fans tend to work on the basis that every member of Equity who is available would accept. In reality, the producers are picking from a much slimmer list of performers who would consider the role career-advancing and are available to spend most of the year filming in Cardiff.
Several of those floated were, in reality, never within reach: Waller-Bridge has movie and TV commitments and has generally written her own material. Olivia Colman, also regularly named because of her own Broadchurch connection, is about to open in a play at the National Theatre in London.
It may still be, though, that Colman and Waller-Bridge will turn up in cameo roles in Doctor Who, as villains or other supporting personnel. Chibnall has also hinted at possible big changes in the shape and tone of the show overall.
His first crucial decision, however, is promising. Whittaker’s work – she’s due to be seen soon in a BBC1 medical thriller, Trust Me, that will now attract extra attention – has shown an ability to play tragedy, comedy, warmth and mystery, all of which will be useful in the role.
It remains to be seen whether the UK still has a woman prime minister when Whittaker makes her debut on Christmas Day, but the first female in this other key position has the potential to be popular in a way Mrs May can only dream of.