In a testament to the place "Doctor Who" holds in Britain's cultural life, the revelation was made on live television after the Wimbledon men's tennis final. A film clip showed a mysterious hooded figure — revealed to be Whittaker — walking through the woods.
"Doctor Who" ran from 1963 to 1989, and was revived to acclaim in 2005. Its longevity is partly due to its flexible premise. The central character, known only as the Doctor, can travel across space and time and can regenerate into new bodies — allowing for endless recasting of the role.
Speculation had been mounting that a woman would get the role, generating excitement from some fans and opposition from others who feel that the character has been established as male.
Whittaker, 35, has worked extensively in British television and film. On the big screen, she played Anne Hathaway's best friend in romantic drama "One Day" and battled aliens in "Attack the Block."
She said that becoming the first female Doctor "feels completely overwhelming, as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human."
"I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender," she said. "Because this is a really exciting time, and 'Doctor Who' represents everything that's exciting about change."