British actress Jodie Whittaker will be the first woman to play the lead in “Doctor Who.” (Max Nash/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since the British sci-fi TV series “Doctor Who” premiered in 1963, the lead role of the Time Lord has always been played by a male actor — until now.

Jodie Whittaker will take up the title role and depict the 13th Time Lord starting on Christmas Day, BBC announced Sunday.

The cult classic is practically a British cultural institution, and the announcement of the next actor to play “The Doctor” was such a big deal that it came right at the conclusion of the Wimbledon men’s tennis final.

The British sci-fi TV series "Doctor Who" announced that Jodie Whittaker will be playing the role of the Time Lord and is the first woman to have the part since the show's creation in 1963. (BBC One)

On the series, a Time Lord referred to simply as “The Doctor” escaped from the planet Gallifrey on a machine that looks like a British police telephone booth, and travels through space and time. Each new “doctor” represents a reincarnation of the previous one — and a man has always played the role, both during its initial 26-year run and in the more recent revival.

“It’s more than an honor to play the Doctor. It means remembering everyone I used to be, while stepping forward to embrace everything the Doctor stands for: hope,” Whittaker told the BBC.

Whittaker also made note of the historic nature of the casting news.

“It feels completely overwhelming, as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be,” she told the BBC, adding that she doesn’t want fans to be “scared” by a woman playing “The Doctor.”

“This is a really exciting time, and ‘Doctor Who’ represents everything that’s exciting about change,” she said. “The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”

The 12th doctor is played by Peter Capaldi, and according to BBC, he had wanted to see a woman pick up the mantle. “She has above all the huge heart to play this most special part,” he said of Whittaker. “She’s going to be a fantastic Doctor.”

Whittaker starred in the British crime drama “Broadchurch,” created by Chris Chibnall, who now serves as the new showrunner for “Doctor Who.”

“I always knew I wanted the 13th Doctor to be a woman, and we’re thrilled to have secured our number one choice,” Chibnall told BBC. “Her audition for the Doctor simply blew us all away. Jodie is an in-demand, funny, inspiring, supersmart force of nature and will bring loads of wit, strength and warmth to the role.”

This departure from the way the series has been previously cast comes amid ongoing calls for greater diversity on the small and big screen — and also controversy over gender-flipping roles. For instance, an all-female “Ghostbusters” drew the ire of angry, male fans who stormed YouTube and made the film’s trailer the most disliked movie trailer ever on the site.

Changes of any kind to beloved movies or TV shows always set off intense arguments among fans. Social secretary of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society Erica Lear told the Guardian the casting news “will spark debate and split fandom. There will be lots of people not happy with the decision but it’s up to the new series to change their mind.”

Lear didn’t expect this choice but called it “brave” and said Whittaker is “a brilliant actress.”

“My only wish was that we have a good actor and that is what we have, so very excited,” she added.

The “Doctor Who” announcement on Sunday was met with plenty of applause, and minimal blowback on Twitter.