“Oh, brilliant!” was the Doctor’s reaction at finding he’d regenerated into a woman at the end of “Twice Upon a Time”. The 2017 Christmas episode of Doctor Who saw the demise of 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi and the rise of Jodie Whittaker as lucky number 13 – or unlucky, possibly, since she promptly fell out of the TARDIS (cue all the “female driver” jokes).
Of course, “brilliant!” wasn’t the reaction from some fans, who found the idea of a 1500-year-old Time Lord with two hearts being FEMALE just too hard to believe. But many fans have expressed delight at the introduction of a woman Doctor – and especially at the casting of Jodie Whittaker.
The Yorkshire actress (who will be keeping her accent for the role, just as Capaldi kept his Scottish brogue) has built up a solid fanbase through her years appearing in (mostly) British dramas, most notably in the popular Broadchurch and in Trust Me, the series she made just before transforming into the Doctor. In Trust Me, ironically, she is pretending to be a doctor – so it was good preparation for playing a sci-fi one!
Whittaker's character in Trust Me is dedicated nurse Cath Hardacre, who blows the whistle on patient neglect at her Sheffield hospital. Instead of being thanked, she is suspended. Desperate to provide for her daughter, she steals her best friend’s identity, moves to Edinburgh and, posing as Dr Alison Sutton, takes a job as an ER doctor.
It’s testament to Whittaker’s essential trustworthiness that it’s believable she’s able to fool her colleagues, her doctor boyfriend and the hospital’s apparently sloppy HR department. Sceptical viewers who doubt an unqualified person could be hired as a doctor in a British hospital might be interested to know that series writer Dan Sefton is actually a doctor who worked at a hospital where an impostor was discovered. And Australia also has quite a history when it comes to pretend doctors.
Of course, the pressure of living a lie takes its toll on the otherwise-honest Cath, and the tension builds throughout the series, raising the questions: will she be discovered, will she confess the truth or will she get away with her deception?
In what could have been an unsympathetic role – Cath/Alison is, after all, putting patients’ lives at risk – Whittaker still manages to generate sympathy. A warm and engaging actress, she’s built a career playing a wide variety of characters, including an unfaithful wife in Black Mirror, a dowdy spinster who captures Tom Hiddleston’s heart in Return to Cranford and a grieving mother in Marchlands.
But it was another grieving mother which brought her to the attention of a much wider audience. In Broadchurch, Whittaker and fellow Return to Cranford star Andrew Buchan played Beth and Mark Latimer, whose son Danny was found dead in the first episode. Seasons one and two dealt with the hunt for and trial of his killer, but in season three, Beth channelled her pain into helping others, becoming a rape counsellor.
It’s this transformation from grief-stricken mother to steely-eyed defender of women that seems to have made her the perfect choice for the Doctor, who in past incarnations has often mixed extreme tender-heartedness with extreme prejudice. (There’s a reason the very name “The Doctor” strikes fear into many an evil-doer’s heart around the galaxy.)
Those expecting the Doctor to be all warm and fuzzy just because he is now a she should bear in mind that “The Master” (John Simm) got up to just as much, if not more mischief when he became Missy (Michelle Gomez), so it will be fascinating to see how this new female Doctor evolves. And, of course, if she needs any tips, Whittaker can always ask Broadchurch co-star and 10th Doctor David Tennant.
Interestingly, Whittaker admits that, while keeping news of her new job secret, she had to “tell a lot of lies”. We’ll have to wait until later this year to see her in the new season of Doctor Who, but in the meantime, we can enjoy watching her tell a lot of lies in Trust Me.