A fun game if you ever find yourself at a comics convention: Try to spot as many gender-swapped cosplayers as you can. Throughout years of going to Comic-Cons and other fan gatherings, I’ve spotted women in drag as Loki, Harry Potter, and—before Paul Feig's reboot—various Ghostbusters. (However, this tends to be a one-way phenomenon; rarely, if ever, have I seen men dressed as Catwoman or Stranger Things' Eleven, at least in a way that wasn't going for laughs.)
And one of the most popular targets for women in male cosplay have been the Doctors. Doctor Who’s main character, who gets regenerated every couple of seasons, is essentially an alien—a Time Lord—so is strictly speaking genderless, but the previous dozen Doctors have all been played by men. Which of course means the BBC show’s fans, both male and female, hit convention floors dressed as one of those dudes. But today, when BBC brought their new Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, to Comic-Con International, all that changed. This time around, the show’s male fans—still out to emulate their hero—were the ones in drag. I only saw one or two, but it's a sure bet there will be more.
It's been a long time coming. The series, which has gone from quirky British sci-fi show to beloved cult phenomenon, originally ran from 1963 to 1989, then was revived in a 1996 movie and again as a series in 2005. In that entire time, there have been 12 Doctors, all some variety of eccentric white guys. So when Whittaker took over the mantle from Peter Capaldi last year, it was met with a mild mania. Similar to the christening of Rey as the newest heroine in the Star Wars franchise, female Whovians who had for years been attaching themselves to Doctor's various female “companions” or other women in the series finally got a lead to call their own. (In a promo video of the upcoming season played during Who’s panel in Hall H today, a fan watching the character’s reveal online exclaims, "She’s blonde; I can cosplay!")
Whittaker, a Brit who grew up steeped in the culture of Who in the 1980s , knows this as well as anyone. "I didn’t want to stand to the side giggling and clapping," she said, referring to watching the heroes of her favorite moves and shows. "I wanted to run about and jump about—and those people didn’t really look like me. 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. Because we are, and we want you all on our journey."
The words of someone who wants people to watch her show? Sure. But Doctor Who has always had a loyal fanbase. The trick now, it seems is to make it one that even more people want to join—and the introduction of Whittaker is part of that. Addressing how much of Who’s old lore (and monsters) will make it into the show’s upcoming seasons, executive producer Chris Chibnall stressed that a lot of the show will be “new,” even as it tried to remain loyal to its rich history.
"This year is the perfect jumping on point for that person in your life who has never watched Doctor Who," Chibnall told Hall H. "I want you to go out and recruit that person, sit them down for Jodie’s first episode and go ’See?!’ There is no barrier to entry this year. … As much as anything your job is: Where does the show go next?"
As with everything from Star Wars to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Who’s showrunners are banking on appealing to a wider audience through diversifying their cast and scope. “It’s a big, inclusive, mainstream, accessible series,” Chibnall noted. Whether or not every fan will want that—or if the series will gain as many Whovians as it loses—is something that’s still being determined. The reactions to the new bigger-tent Star Wars films has been … well, “mixed” is too kind a word. (Where, exactly, does wanting to “remake The Last Jedi in order to save Star Wars” fall on the Disgruntled Fanboy Scale?)
And Doctor Who could be lined up for a similar fate. The response was largely positive following the announcement that Whittaker would be the new Doctor, but detractors called it “an exercise in pleasing the PC brigade” or merely lamented that it was “ruined.” Others made a fashion argument, noting that “nobody wants a TARDIS full of bras.” (Why not? Are they too heavy to travel through space and time? Do the straps get caught in wormholes or something? Who knew!) Then, of course, there was the old chestnut that “the BBC are trying to brainwash your children,” which might have merit if there were scores of parents out there who were totally cool with their kids believing in Daleks but drew the line at believing women are equal.
Anyway. That part of the future has not yet arrived. And in the present, the cosplayers have already shifted from their floppy Tom Baker hats and Colin Baker jackets for Whittaker’s blue-grey overcoat and striped shirt. It's about time.
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