Doctor Who's first female lead is more popular than many fans expected

Key Points
  • BBC has cast the first female lead in its long-running "Doctor Who" series.
  • Some fans braced for a fight on social media, anticipating a backlash to the casting.
  • Sentiment on Twitter turned out to be far more positive than negative, according to anlaysis by Amobee.
Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor in "Doctor Who," courtesy of BBC America.
Source: BBC America

\The backlash that many fans feared after the BBC cast a woman in the lead role of "Doctor Who" — for the first time in the series' 54-year history — has turned out to be little more than a tempest in teacup.

Skirmishes have kicked up on social media in recent years, as genre television and comic books move to reflect the diversity of its fans. While the change is welcomed by many, a contingent of fandom has bemoaned what some consider to be "politically correct" casting decisions that see white characters recast as women or people of color.

So some "Whovians" appeared to brace for a fight when BBC announced last week that British actress Jodie Whittaker would become the 13th Doctor, after the current incarnation's "regeneration" in the annual "Doctor Who" Christmas special.

More diversity in casting is a great way to energize a fanbase, and ... genre entertainment can actually expand its audience through representation.
Jonathan Cohen
Amobee principal brand analyst

A few headlines trickled out last week taking note of complaints about Whittaker's casting on social media. However, to find out whether fans were really feeling aggrieved, marketing technology firm Amobee conducted an analysis of social media sentiment for CNBC.

First, a note of explanation for non-Whovians: The Doctor is an alien who travels through space and time in a ship called the TARDIS. This Time Lord — and now Time Lady — can regenerate after suffering a mortal wound, though each transformation comes with a new face and personality. The show's producers devised that aspect of the character to allow new actors to step into the role.

The first 11 Doctors in "Doctor Who," courtesy of BBC America.
Source: BBC America

The Doctor has always regenerated as man, but fans have speculated about a Time Lady almost since the BBC revived the series from its roughly 15-year hiatus in 2005. It also came out recently that "Doctor Who" creator Sydney Newman considered casting a female lead in the 1980s to save the series during a period of waning viewership.

Amobee counted 770,000 tweets around "Doctor Who" or the hashtags #DoctorWho13 and #Doctor13 on Jul. 16, the day of the announcement.

For those that mentioned Whittaker, sentiment was 39 percent positive and just 6 percent negative. Amobee determined the remaining 55 percent of tweets were neutral.

"Based on audience's real-time reaction, there's little question that the Doctor Who Christmas special is going to be attracting far more viewers, now that they know they'll be tuning in to see the first female Doctor on the TARDIS," said Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst at Amobee.

Ratings for "Doctor Who" have slipped in recent years, so a fresh take on the character might be just what the doctor ordered for a franchise with significant worldwide earnings power.

Fans who lamented the casting mostly complained that a man should play the 13th Doctor because men have always portrayed him throughout the show's history, according to Amobee. Some saw the casting as a publicity stunt.

The decision to cast a woman indeed dominated the conversation, and it's here that Amobee unearthed something interesting. More than half of the tweets addressed the gender switch, but there was a far larger volume of fans criticizing complaints than there were actual complaints.

"In other words, there was so much more backlash to the backlash than people actually expressing displeasure with the idea of a female Doctor Who, that it's very likely in many cases people were assuming there were complaints about there being a woman Doctor, as opposed to actually seeing these complaints for themselves," Amobee concluded.

It's unmistakable that some fans are still resisting change in the form of greater diversity, but Amobee's Cohen sees benefits for media companies that break the mold.

"More diversity in casting is a great way to energize a fanbase, and as recent example such has the runaway success of the 'Wonder Woman' movie or the huge amount of buzz around the 'Black Panther' trailer have proven, genre entertainment can actually expand its audience through representation," Cohen said.