“I’m a woman,” she says. “I have probably experienced a sexual innuendo on most things throughout my life, because that’s the joy of being a woman.
“You seem to be the butt of a lot of sexual innuendo ‘bantz’. You get used to it. You also don’t even hear half of it, because it’s continual.”
I have probably experienced a sexual innuendo on most things throughout my life, because that’s the joy of being a woman… You also don’t even hear half of it, because it’s continual.
She sees the funny side of people getting outraged that a woman is playing an alien. She sees the funny side of being told by another cast member that the Twittersphere is convinced she’s pregnant.
But she’s also pretty firm. She doesn’t go on social media because she knows if she was, then “I couldn’t un-see it”.
Her motto: “I don’t contribute to it.”
Whittaker is calm, friendly and in control on set in Cardiff for the latest series of Doctor Who, which kicks off with an action-packed two-part story screening on January 2 in Australia.
She sits with her fellow core cast members, companions and obviously fast friends (they gossip on a shared WhatsApp group) near the end of nine months in which they’ve travelled through time and space, fought returning foes rumoured to include the Cybermen as well as the Judoon, the galactic rhino police, and generally saved the hell out of the universe again.
Grumpy misogynists do not scare her. What scares her are the monsters.
“I was really scared,” she says.
In one episode in particular – one she’s not allowed to go into any detail about yet – some new horrors actually shocked her out of character.
“It’s very realistic,” Whittaker says. She couldn’t contain a scream.
“The note from the director was, ‘I know you’re scared, but I think the Doctor would probably contain it a little bit more.’ I just can’t cope with something coming out of the dark.”
Whittaker says the Doctor that the writers and most of all showrunner Chris Chibnall made for her is different from her in challenging ways.
“There is a human trait: that we need control and we need structure – you wouldn’t randomly get off a train when it isn’t your stop. But the Doctor would absolutely do that,” Whittaker says.
“[For Doctor Who] freefall is not necessarily something to be enjoyed, but it’s not something to stop yourself doing. Jumping in feet first, having fear and not knowing if you’re going to succeed but doing it anyway, are the traits of the Doctor.
“With the Doctor, for me, it’s OK to be scared, or devastated, to say something that maybe social constraints would say, ‘That’s not funny.’ Freedom is the main thing.
“But it’s so hard because you are human, you have natural [instincts] like, ‘I’m not going to go near that edge.’ And I’m like that. I’m very PG. I like rules. So I have to continually make sure I don’t put them on top.
“But the hard work is done by them lot, the writers.”
She points to Chibnall, who took over the running of the show with Whittaker’s arrival. At the end of the first series Whittaker and Chibnall went out for a meal and talked Time Lord.
Whittaker had arrived with a character, stories and words ready and waiting for her. But as her first series went on she started to feel more comfortable, and ready to challenge and ask questions – “You say, ‘I don’t think she would react like that, what if she reacted [differently]’ … I had the whole year to think about it.”
At the meal Chibnall asked her to go away and think about what direction she wanted Doctor Who to go in the 2020 series.
“I gave [him] a few little things, which he used and elaborated on and made like, obviously, good,” Whittaker says.
Chibnall fires back: “They were good in the first place.”
He drops frustratingly vague hints about where the Doctor and her companions will go, literally and in their relationships, this season.
[The new season] feels like a step up, it’s more ambitious than last year in scale, storytelling, everything,
Showrunner Chris Chibnall
Rumours abound, of course. Tabloids would love nothing more than hints of a more-than-companionly vibe between the Doctor and the character The Sun newspaper always calls “bisexual Yaz”. Whittaker will say only “you’ll have to watch it”. But Chibnall plays down the idea.
He says the last season was a “recruiting year”, but this year is about developing what they’ve got.
“It feels like a step up, it’s more ambitious than last year in scale, storytelling, everything,” he says.
He is bringing the Judoon back because “they’re brilliant, they’re iconic, they’re funny … and they’re investigating something and they’ve given us a really great story, which I think will have people talking”.
The Cybermen will be back, in a “different and relentless” form. And there are plenty of new monsters, too.
“You think about things that might scare you, you think about things that are going on in the world,” Chibnall says. “It’s sort of the best part of the job. Sometimes you just wake up in the middle of the night going, ‘Oh that would be a horrible monster.’ ”
He says the action in this series is “a level above” the last.
“You always need to take new risks, big risks from a storytelling point of view. Who has to exist in the modern TV landscape [where] there is so much drama, so many shows. We need to continually find new reasons to be existing.
“Last year we took a lot of risks and they paid off, and we will continue to take some big risks this year.”
He looks at the cast members and they all laugh, sharing an inscrutable in-joke about a big twist waiting for the audience in 2020.
“You can do that, and also give people all the stuff they love about Doctor Who as well. Risk is built into Doctor Who since 1963.”
Doctor Who (series 12) premieres on ABC, Thursday, 7.30pm.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age