When Peter Capaldi's stint as the twelfth Doctor Who ended in 2017, the show's producers took a time-warping, galaxy-redefining decision to have him regenerate as a women — the first time in the show's long history that a female doctor would helm the Tardis.
It was a brave and ultimately prescient move, given the growing #MeToo movement and ensuing clamour for greater women's rights and representation in the entertainment world and society at large.
For Jodie Whittaker, who was unveiled as the thirteenth Doctor in the 2017 Christmas special, being a pioneer in one of the most beloved television shows of all-time has proved both challenging and rewarding.
"It's an incredible honour to be chosen as the first female Doctor Who. It's been nothing but a joy," she acknowledges, smiling. "But the fact that it took so long is slightly ridiculous, given that we're 50 per cent of the population and we've been banging our heads, quite loudly, against this bit of glass [ceiling] to try and show that woman are capable of doing anything.
"In terms of this show, being a woman in this role doesn't change a thing though," Whittaker surmises. "It's just another side to the doctor — a regeneration — a continuation. It wasn't particularly nerve-wracking either because there was already an assumption that, as a woman, I was going to be different. I didn't have to stamp my mark on the role, like the previous doctors had to."
What Whittaker has found challenging, though, is the realisation that 100 million fans all over the world zealously watch Doctor Who and, as the figurehead of an iconic, global franchise she plays a pivotal role in their perceptions, passions and aspirations.
"It's bizarre when you think about it like that. I guess that explains why I've got so many followers on Instagram now," the 37-year-old quips, laughing merrily. "But it's exciting too, to know that it's being watched all the way from Newcastle to New Zealand. We're really proud that anyone can watch it — that it's suitable for the entire family. There are no age barriers or age-inappropriateness: it's for eight to 86-year-olds!"
The twelfth series of the BBC-made science fiction institution made since its 2005 revival begins on TVNZ this week.
It sees the return of Whittaker's Doctor's companions Graham O'Brien (The Chase host Bradley Walsh), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), respectively.
The BBC likes to keep a lid on details, but showrunner Chris Chibnall has allowed the return of some familiar monsters after introducing all-new threats in the previous series, his first in charge. That means old favourites like the Cybermen are back.
With its global appeal and enduring success, Whittaker happily admits she's enjoying the attention and adulation. But she's not taking anything for granted.
"I've already been lucky enough to be in Broadchurch, which gave me an opportunity to be in something seen outside the UK, but this level [of popularity] is completely different and really exciting," she explains. "Before this, I'd done loads of indie films that never got seen, which was disheartening. So, yeah, there's something to be said for a part you've put your blood, sweat and tears into which actually gets seen – and is loved, like this!"
But portraying a role that is so beloved comes with added pressures and responsibilities, as Whittaker concedes. How has that affected, or changed her?
"I don't know if it's fundamentally changed me, because I'm already on a level of heightened emotions, but I've been incredibly surprised by how emotional I've found this journey. I'm also surprised by how affected I've been, by everything, when I stop to think about it," she says, earnestly.
"I honestly find it really moving that this [show] means a lot to so many people; it's humbling to hear it touches so many lives," adds Whittaker, solemnly. "How it touches people is important too: this show celebrates openheartedness, knowledge and love, but it doesn't celebrate violence, cheating or hate. Having a beacon of hope like that, in an everyday hero — the Doctor's not some sort of big, Marvel character — really gets to me."
What's also surprising for Whittaker is how important her role has become to her, not just as an actor conveying a part, but also on a more personal and philosophical level.
"It's an odd thing because I was so sure that, when I got the part, it would be the most removed [role] from me that I would ever do. I'm playing an alien, after all! But actually, it feels so natural and sits so comfortably [with me] that it's been really liberating. It's the most freeing role I've ever had," she enthuses.
"I also suddenly feel that I'm not that odd after all — partly because I've got loads of people watching me, telling me I'm not!"It's changed me emotionally too," she adds, nodding her head conspiratorially. "Even though I'm a very emotional person, so being on the brink of tears is nothing new, I didn't fully appreciate how much this gut-punches you sometimes! That's been a surprise."
According to Chibnall, there are more surprises afoot, with the series throwing some emotional sucker-punches at Whittaker and her co-stars, as well as episodes woven with many more emotional threads. Don't be surprised, either, to see Whittaker getting physical, with big, heroic stunt scenes and cliffhanger endings. Who wants some of the Doctor's medicine, then?
Behaving naturally just what doctor orderered
When Jodie Whittaker auditioned for Doctor Who she nearly blew it because she took the part too seriously and played it too straight.
"When the camera was switched on in my audition I went really still and tried to show that I was a 'serious actor,'" she recalls. "It wasn't going well, because that's not who I am!
"But luckily Chris Chibnall, the screenwriter and producer, was in the audition and he told me to stop and "just be physically free". When he said that I just reverted to my natural type, so I was walking around, fidgeting, talking a million miles an hour and just generally pratting about.
"That's what I'm like off-screen — I'm pretty manic, I jump conversation continually and I'll get distracted quite easily and wander off. Unsurprisingly, it felt really natural and comfortable. Luckily, for me, that's what they wanted, so I got the part, and now that's what I do when I'm playing the Doctor.
"I even get to speak in my own dialect [Whittaker comes from Yorkshire in northern England], rather than having to use an accent!"
• The new series of Doctor Who screens on TVNZ. Episodes will be available on Mondays on TVNZ OnDemand and air at 7.30pm on Fridays on TVNZ 2.