A leap for gender equality… Or a clever PR campaign?

19 July 2017 | Pic PR

For the first time in quite a while, Doctor Who has made headlines after revealing that the 13th Doctor will be played by a female actor.

On Sunday, the official Twitter account for Doctor Who posted a short and suspenseful clip of the new Doctor approaching the Tardis, key in hand. At the end of the video, the actor in question is revealed to be Jodie Whittaker – well known for playing Beth Latimer in Broadchurch. Gender aside, this is perhaps not an unsurprising casting decision, as the forthcoming head writer had previously worked with her on Broadchurch.

Predictably, the decision to cast a woman as the 13th Doctor has been hotly contested. The show has spanned over fifty years and twelve doctors, each regeneration safely and consistently revealing a white man. While many have applauded the change as a giant leap forward for gender equality, others have bitterly remarked that this fundamentally alters the nature of the show. Some have derisively wondered whether the Doctor will be paired with a comparatively meek, male companion. While this change will certainly affect the gender relations within the show, I fail to see how it can alter the basic formula of Doctor Who. Male or female, the Doctor will always be a time-travelling alien. Whether fans continue to watch the series largely depends on how important the gender of the doctor is to them.

For those who watched the last few seasons, this decision should not come as a surprise. The Master, a long-term adversary of the Doctor and fellow Time Lord, was revealed to have regenerated into a woman in Season 8. Therefore, few can argue that the casting decision was not at least plausible. Moreover, the season which finished in July was notably more political than previous seasons. For the first time, a black, female, LGBT character was cast as a companion. Accordingly, several pertinent references addressed racial privilege and the perils of hyper-capitalism across the season. Therefore, the argument can certainly be made that Doctor Who has become noticeably more left-leaning over the years. Indeed, many have blamed the ‘ruin’ of this long-term TV series on social justice warriors and the so-called snowflake generation. Perhaps, therefore, the problem is not so much with the casting decision, but rather that Doctor Who have taken a stance that some fans are unable to stomach.

While Doctor Who certainly appears genuine in its embrace of topical issues, it could certainly be argued that casting a woman as its main lead is first and foremost a PR stunt. Viewing figures for Doctor Who have been in decline for some years now. David Tennant-era episodes regularly attracted more than 10 million live viewers, whereas a mere 6.1 million people tuned in to watch the live broadcast of the last Christmas special. Along with a new writer, the show could certainly do with a good publicity campaign to boost viewings for the next season.

The decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor has undoubtedly generated that much-needed publicity around Doctor Who, which effectively guarantees higher viewing figures for the opening episode of next season. Of course, this is still a tremendous gamble; many long-term fans are adamant that they will not be watching. If viewers are unable to acclimate to the change, or Whittaker is unsuited to the role, Doctor Who may well face cancellation in the next few years.

Ultimately, this change indicates that it will not be uncommon for female actors to lead TV shows in years to come. Many have argued that a powerful female Doctor will make Doctor Who more accessible to young girls, rather than being written off as a ‘nerdy’ show for boys. To some extent, therefore, it doesn’t matter whether publicity or gender equality was the primary motivator for the producers of Doctor Who. What matters is how this will affect long-term female representation in television.