Doctor Who Almost Had Its First Female Doctor Long Before Jodie Whittaker

Several female actors were considered for the titular role in Doctor Who long before Jodie Whittaker was cast in 2017. In her second collaboration with Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, after having previously portrayed Beth Latimer in Broadchurch, Whittaker became the first woman in Doctor Who’s 54-year-history to portray the adventurous Time Lord. Despite only being portrayed by men until Whittaker’s casting, the Doctor was almost played by a woman on two more occasions in the show’s history.

One of the key trademarks of Doctor Who is that the Doctor is imbued with the power of regeneration, allowing the character to renew every aspect of their body and personality when ailing or injured. Up to and including Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor, 14 actors have portrayed the character with varying eccentricities, with William Hartnell originating the role in 1963 and with others including Tom Baker and David Tennant becoming fan-favorites thanks to their performances as the Fourth and Tenth Doctor’s respectively. Following Whittaker’s final episodes in 2022, Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa will be the Fourteenth Doctor, noting a return to a male actor in the role and the first person of color to portray the Doctor.

The idea that the Doctor can change their entire physiology not only provides a fantastic plot device that has helped to keep the Doctor Who running for so long, but has also posed an opportunity for various actors with hopes of traveling across time and space. Whittaker’s casting in 2017 was followed by a huge amount of hype, with many seeing the change as hugely positive for the show while a « sizable minority » reacted negatively to the news. Despite this, it seems that Whittaker wasn’t the first woman to be considered for the part, with some female actors being suggested as far back as the 1980s. Specifically, the likes of Joanna Lumley, Dawn French, Frances de la Tour, and James Bond legend Judi Dench were all under consideration at one time or another. While the plans clearly never came to fruition, their consideration for the part proves the Whittaker was nowhere near as controversial a choice as some made out.

By the end of Colin Baker’s stint on the show as the sixth incarnation of the Doctor, Doctor Who had been running out of steam and becoming less of a staple in British television. Michael Grade, the then Controller of BBC One, wrote to Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman and begged for a change, with Newman suggesting an outlandish idea of bringing Patrick Troughton (who had previously portrayed the Second Doctor between 1966 and 1969) back for another season, who would then be replaced by a female actor in the role of the Doctor. Three budding female actors were pinned to take over the role: star of Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna Lumley, The Vicar of Dibley’s own Dawn French, and Frances de la Tour, who had made her name starring in Rising Damp.

There’s no doubt that any of these powerhouse women would have had the acting chops to take on the role of the Doctor. Lumley’s high-class acting would have played brilliantly on screen, and she even portrayed an incarnation of the Doctor in the 1999 Red Nose Day sketch « Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, » while French and Tour’s comedy experience would have changed the tone of the show, perhaps making for a more entertaining and gripping viewing experience. Unfortunately, one sour meeting with the BBC’s Head of Drama, Jonathan Powell, meant that Newman’s plans were dashed and the coveted role was gifted to Sylvester McCoy, who ended up seeing the series into its cancelation only three years later. Perhaps this could have been avoided if a woman had taken on the part.

2005 saw the return of Doctor Who as a series for the first time since its 1989 cancelation, though a TV movie had been produced in 1996 featuring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Years and Years and It’s a Sin creator Russell T. Davies brought the Doctor’s time-traveling adventures into the 21st Century with Christopher Eccleston leading the way as the Ninth Doctor along with Billie Piper portraying the fan-favorite companion, Rose. Despite Eccleston’s incarnation of the Doctor being mostly received with positive reviews, there was a chance that the series’ revival could have gone in a very different direction.

While actors such as Alan Cumming and Hugh Grant were considered for the role, it was famed star of stage and screen Judi Dench who some producers were drawn to. Dench would have brought a high-caliber performance as the Doctor, being by far the most well-known actor to portray the timeless character. Choosing Dench for the first incarnation of the Doctor after the series’ revival would have set the show off on a progressive foot immediately, so even though Eccleston’s Doctor was acclaimed, it’s a shame audiences were denied Dench’s Doctor.

It perhaps would have been difficult to imagine a female lead actor on such a huge serial as Doctor Who back in the 1980s as, even though times were changing, the idea of a female Doctor wasn’t at all in the public consciousness. There’s no doubt casting either Lumley, French, or Tour in the role in 1986 would have revolutionized not just Doctor Who, but the whole of British media, perhaps even avoiding the cancelation of the show, but it seems that people still just weren’t ready for such a change on their screens. At the time of Whittaker’s casting as the Thirteenth Doctor in 2017, audiences were desperate for that change, yearning for female representation in the media on par with that of men, so her casting perhaps came at the perfect time. Now that a female Doctor has finally taken the reins and has been a proven success, viewers are likely to see more and more women in Doctor Who’s leading role in the future.