It was like watching a champion boxer enter the ring. To a cacophony of cheers and rapturous applause, a hooded figure strode on stage at San Diego’s entertainment extravaganza Comic-Con on Thursday, waved, and bowed. If Jodie Whittaker hadn’t realised what a big deal it was to be the first female Doctor Who, she did now.
What she did next, though, gave fans of the enduring British science fiction series the greatest clue as to the kind of show the new Doctor Who will be when it begins its run on BBC First (OSN 215) later this year. Whittaker smiled. A lot. “To me, the Doctor is a pillar of hope,” she said. “She’s striving for brightness and inclusion.”
Whittaker looked up and across at new showrunner Chris Chibnall for reassurance. She received a pleased nod from him - and another ovation from the crowd. “Phew,” she laughed. She’d got it.
The 13th incarnation of the Doctor is surely one of the show’s most important. Previous showrunner Steven Moffatt’s work with the most recent Time Lord, wise old man Peter Capaldi (and before that the manically cheeky ‘schoolboy’ Matt Smith) was often sublime. But there was also the sense that Doctor Who had become a little too pleased with itself, self-referential, even. Whittaker, in the trailer premiered at Comic-Con, took us back to the days when David Tennant was joking his way through the Universe as Doctor Who; a much more relatable Time Lord.
“All of this is new to me,” says Whittaker’s voiceover as she’s pictured running through 1950s America, past smouldering spaceships and clambering up cliffs. “New faces, new worlds, new times. So if I asked really really nicely: would you be my new best friends?”
She talking to her new companions Yasmin (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tohsin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) but also to the audience – in just the kind of way Tennant used to connect with viewers; less alien, more human. Perhaps that’s no coincidence; Whittaker worked with Tennant on award-winning crime drama Broadchurch, created by none other than Chris Chibnall. On Thursday, Whittaker recounted the story of calling Tennant for advice. He told her: “This is the most amazing thing that can happen to you, and there’s only a few of us who know how it feels.”
“And it’s such an exciting world to be in,” she added. “It’s brand new every single day for me. There is no role I have ever played that has, or will ever, come close to this. It’s an absolute joy.”
Chibnall told the Comic-Con audience that Whittaker is definitely a joyful, effervescent Doctor – which is refreshing given the trend to make science fiction and fantasy ever darker. He also talked of the new season being the perfect jumping on point for people who have never watched Doctor Who, and it’s interesting that it will comprise “ten varied, exciting, stand-alone episodes” rather than rely on suffocating series-long story arcs – perfect for people who want to dip in and out of the show, too.
All of which might concern loyal fans – there were no shots of Daleks in the trailer, for example – but Chibnall says there’s no need to worry even though “you won’t see very much from the past”. There was still a new Sonic Screwdriver to unveil (and from the trailer, it looks as if the new Doctor may have constructed it herself).
“It’s still the same show you love, just with new characters, new monsters, new stories, new friends” Chibnall explained.
One of those “friends” – and Whittaker was keen to stress that terminology, rather than call them companions – is Yasmin, and Sandeep Gill told Comic-Con that the new series is “big, bold and funny, with lots of emotion and truth”. And as someone who watched Doctor Who growing up in the 1980s, Whittaker did admit that Doctor Who often has a higher purpose than merely being hour-long, throwaway entertainment.
“I hope we as friends are what young kids can now look up to and go, ‘Oh man! I want to do that.’ Well, you can… we want you all on our journey.
“Being the first female Doctor and showing children that their heroes in shows don’t always look the same is a huge honour for me,” she said. “But it’s 2018, it’s the direction that Doctor Who was always going to go in.”
“And you don’t write the Doctor any differently because she’s a woman,” added Chibnall. “The through-line of the Doctor continues. It’s just a brilliant new actress playing her.”
And with Comic-Con suitably wowed, the 13thTime Lord returned to her Tardis. The final words on the trailer read “The Universe is Calling”. The Universe is certainly waiting, with baited breath, for the long-overdue first female Doctor Who.
BBC First on OSN channel 215 is the home of Doctor Who in the Middle East