As a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, what do I think of Jodie Whitaker as the next incarnation of the Doctor?
First of all, let me say I, unlike many, many others in no way pre-judge the new series. I readily condemn as foolish anyone making judgments on hearsay, especially when the first-hand experience is (or will be) easily obtainable. I would happily subject such individuals to those levels of ridicule I cannot even summon up for the first female Doctor Who, despite my lack of enthusiasm.
I’ve heard plenty of people complain about the actor chosen, “I don’t know who she is.” Well, that’s okay, David Tenant was an unknown to most people when he was cast. “She’s too young” That’s okay, Matt Smith was the youngest actor ever to win the part. These complaints are from people who will have said similar things, regardless of who was cast. If it lives up to expectations and the new series is just as good, if not better than before, those people will be won over – just as many were before.
But there are some, hardcore fans who are in uproar, not because of the actor chosen – but because the actor chosen is a woman. I’d like to examine this outrage in the context of the fifty-five year history of Doctor Who.
During the first twenty-six years of Doctor Who, the lead character was never presented as a romantic hero, but in 1996 fans spat out their jelly babies in absolute disgust when they heard the new Doctor, in the form of Paul McGann would share a passionate kiss – with a woman! At this point in its history Doctor Who as a TV series had been off the air for eight years. The joyous news, the show was returning to BBC1 was severely undercut by the subsequent revelation that for the first time ever, the Doctor was to have a grown-up relationship. A lot of homosexual fans were particularly upset because the Doctor had never shown any interest in women. Inside fandom, the character was a bit of a gay icon for many years. In fairness, there’s enough evidence in the first half-century of Doctor Who to support an argument for a gay, straight or even bisexual Doctor. Personally, I didn’t get too worked up about the Doctor’s tonsil hockey in 1996, probably because I was starting to notice girls at the same time, so it seemed perfectly natural to me, but most fans were upset, regardless of their own persuasion. To them, it went against everything they knew and liked about the character. Here we are in 2018 with a very similar situation. Those fans that got past their upset in 1996, didn’t really care by the time we got to 2006, by which time strong intimations of the sexual variety for the Doctor had become part and parcel of the show. A little sick making for some but widely accepted, nonetheless. Basically the fans got over it. They got over the changes brought to the Doctor’s character in 1996 and 2005, most will do so again in 2018.
So, why am I so unenthusiastic about the casting of the first female Doctor Who? Firstly, the reason to which the decision seems to have been made is a cynical one. When Chris Chibnall was the new prospective showrunner, replacing Steven Moffat, his MO was to cast the Doctor as a woman, a very popular idea within the BBC. It’s worth remembering, this is the British Broadcasting Corporation that hit the headlines for historical, institutionalized pedophilia but most recently, and, perhaps the most damaging, repeated reports of unequal pay between men and women, throughout the organization. The BBC acknowledge the disparity but despite solemn words of disapproval from the top and vows to rectify the situation, all that really seems to happen, is simply the BBC addressing the issue. Very little has actually been done about it. If it hadn’t been a matter of public scrutiny, would the corporation even have admitted to the difference in pay between men and women? I doubt it. Therefore, casting a woman as the first Doctor Who seems a rather disingenuous attempt to display equality from a profoundly unequal, elitist entity. Is Jodie Whitaker being paid the same as Peter Capaldi, I wonder?
The casting decision also smacks of something akin to a gimmick. Plenty of successes ride the strong back of a gimmick, and y’know I quite like a really good gimmicky gimmick but any successful gimmick needs to be carefully handled, and impeccably well-timed. A fifty-five year-old television programme has cast the first female incarnation of the main character, if that doesn’t smack of blatant gimmickry, I really don’t know what does.
It troubles me when characters who are openly gay, bi or pan-sexual make their debuts in long-running shows like Doctor Who and EastEnders because their sexuality, or the aesthetic that makes their character somehow different, is talked about in the press and online far, far too much. The time of celebrating this has passed, or at least it should have by now. Positively portrayed, affirming characters who are homo/bi/pan sexual have been an increasingly large part of the television landscape for at least twenty years, yet still it seems nobody is mature enough to just let it be. Instead we have to keep talking about how great it is that we’re all so massively tolerant and equal. My assertion is, if the people talking about it so much are as enlightened as they make out to be, they wouldn’t have to keep going on about it quite so much! Everyone, of all possible persuasions and outlooks should be accepted, without being the subject of conversation, no matter how well-intentioned. That the first female Doctor Who is so news-worthy and controversial suggests to me attitudes have not matured as much as they should have. There’s still a lot more work to do in the real world regarding equality and tolerance, before we can afford ourselves the somewhat decadent luxury of a female Time Lord.
Now, I’d like to tell you what kind of Doctor Who fan I am. So you can put my opinion in context, I’ll take the fan test. I get a point for each question answered with a ‘YES’
|Seen every episode||YES|
|Seen every episode more than once||YES|
|Enjoy the classic series||YES|
|Enjoy the 2005-2017 series||YES|
|Own them ALL on DVD||YES|
|Buy Doctor Who books?||YES|
|Immerse oneself in minutiae of production detail||YES|
|Have a large collection other than books and DVDs||YES|
|Buy / subscribe to Doctor Who magazine every month||YES**|
|Member of Doctor Who forums||NO|
|Active fan (blog, website, fan fiction You tube channel etc)||NO|
|Member of Doctor Who Appreciation Society / other fan club||NO|
|Attended Doctor Who conventions||YES|
** Stopped buying DWM every month in 2017 so I’ll take half a point
I scored 10.5 out of 14. So, as you see I’m quite a big fan. I’m in my early thirties. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was 4 and a half. I’m lucky enough to have a long term partner who enjoys the show, though she isn’t a huge lover of the 2005-17 series but she knows her Masters and is passionate about the fact it’s Time and Relative Dimension (not Dimensions) in Space. One of the questions I put to her once; What do you like most about Doctor Who, what one element do you like the most, the thing that if removed would it simply not be the same without. I was surprised when she said “monsters”. For her, Doctor Who wouldn’t be Doctor Who without the monsters or the monstrous baddies. Isn’t that brilliant? And, she’s right, Doctor Who is the only television programme that really does monsters. New monsters, too. For me, the thing about Doctor Who that makes it the show it is, and wouldn’t be the same without is the Doctor. (Dominique disagreed, actually – she said it would be fine without the Doctor. Blasphemous! How can I live with someone who could say such a thing? Remember, she knows her Masters. She too speaks with authority.)
The Doctor is without question the single biggest appeal of Doctor Who for me. He is so utterly selfless and kind. The Doctor is the kind of person I strive to be. When the weight of the world, nay the universe, is on his shoulders, he’ll find a moment to adjust his bow-tie or eat a Jelly Baby. The Doctor cries at the death of a butterfly, gets excited about chips wrapped in newspaper, and travels through all of time and space. But he also hides dark secrets that torture him whenever he’s not distracted by invading hordes or us silly, indomitable humans. Instead of allowing the atrocities of the Time War to haunt him to his grave, he carries on alone as the last of his species, yet is still joyous enough to persuade Rose to explore the wonders of the universe with him. He can be detached, “I walk in eternity”, passionate, “for some people small, beautiful events are what life is all about!”and self-obcessed “I don’t want to go”, but the Doctor’s never been anything but a dependabley wholesome hero.
Another appeal for me is the Doctor’s innate sensativity. Even during his most crotchety of incarnations (the first, sixth and twelfth), he’s always been more sensitive than most. He’s incredibly compassionate, simply helping out as he passes through because, in his words, “it’s the decent thing to do”. The Doctor opens the doors to his TARDIS and looks out upon the precise moment the universe is created, when dust becomes matter, almost as if he’s replaying the video of his child’s birth. He’s also very intuitive. “There’s evil here. I can feel it.” Traditionally, women are accepted as the most compassionate of sexes, blessed with sensitivity and strong instincts. Sadly, in this case, casting a woman in a part formerly played by a man doesn’t subvert these gender stereotypes, it reinforces them.
At what cost does reinforcing a gender stereotype have on a major worldwide television success? Crucially, Chris Chibnall and the BBC are about to find out.
Doctor Who has always been aimed at children, little boys and little girls who are used see their heros fighting to save the day. There is not a single children’s hero on the scale of Doctor Who that doesn’t fight. Now, the Doctor is not above a swift right hook or karate chop when he’s on the run but he doesn’t take out a sword and fight with it (unless he is very specifically defending himself). He doesn’t carry, much less use a gun and those rare times he’s used a weapon, it’s never to harm anyone. On one memorable occasion the Doctor steals a gun from a LA cop and turns it on himself “give me the keys or I’ll shoot myself!” Neither does the Doctor ever pander to self-important officials, whether they be eminnent scientists, generals, prime-ministers or presidents. He gives respect only where it’s due, regardless of class or culture, he treats everyone he meets, human or alien exactly the same. This is genuinely important stuff, and the landscape of male heroes for little ‘uns has now lost a major player.
The argument to the contrary, which I will repeat for the sake of fairness is this; Assigning a child a gender which they feel they need to conform to can be psychologically damaging. So by not assigning a child a gender, identification with a ‘’male’ or ‘female’ fictional role models will not be gender aligned.
In my experience most boys and girls identify themselves as boys and girls, endlessly debating the ethics of the matter, is pretty academic when the vast majority of little ones tend not to even think about it until they grow into teenagers. There will be boys growing up who will have to look to the history of Doctor Who to find their strong male role model. Great, but how many kids are into history?
My lack of enthusiasm for a female Doctor also comes from the programme itself. During the most recent series I have been a little underwhelmed by certain aspects, and no I’m not talking about the black lesbian companion because, frankly, if that’s the most interesting thing anyone can talk about then it’s pretty damn offensive. I’m talking about the tasteless bate and switch in pre and mid-series trailers showing the Doctor apparently regenerating mid-series, in what turned out to be a risible attempt to swerve loyal and spoiler-seeking viewers. I also disliked the disjointed nature of the last two series, where a mediocre story went on for several weeks and all the really imaginitive stuff was crammed into a crowded 50 minutes. There have also been some very obvious attempts to engineer some social justice by having Romans of African origin and Victorian working class, ethnic minorities being treated as equals . It was not like that. There was massive hostility toward the apparent Chinese invasion of parts of London in the nineteenth century, for example. We mustn’t shy away from these things. They happened. Brushing injustices of the past under the carpet in a would-be semi-educational manner is inexcusable. There have been other, niggly fan-ish things too. Like the Doctor munching on a bag of crisps while characters un-artfully talk about his real name, the biggest unanswered question in the whole show! It was a rather worryingly matter-of-fact exchange between the leads and it wasn’t funny, just really tacky.
So, all in all, for the first time in my life I’m out of the fan circle. After 19 years I’m no longer buying Doctor Who magazine (my dad bought it for me for 7 years before that). I’m not looking at the Doctor Who news websites, eyeing new merchandise online, or even really thinking about it very much. I guess it’s like when anything you enjoy introduces elements you don’t like, be it characters in a soap opera or players in a football team – you navigate your enjoyment around those aspects, but when it’s one change after another that’s not to your taste, interest inevitably wanes. That’s what’s happening to me. Having no idea what’s happening in the world of Doctor Who for the first time since I was 7 years old is really, really weird. But not uncomfortable, because Doctor Who, for me, accidentally did something that a long running show should never, ever, EVER do – and that’s present a jumping off point.
In the last episode of Series 10 Peter Capaldi’s Doctor tried desperately to fight back his impending regeneration. As his hands tingled with that familiar regeneration energy, the Doctor desperately plunged his arms deep into the freezing snow of Antarctica, to shock himself back from the brink. Looking up, he sees a figure approaching through the mist and snow, the figure of himself in his first incarnation. And thus the whole 54 years of the show came full circle in as complete and utter a way as you can get. It’s perfect. It ends where it began, with the very first and the very last regeneration of the Doctor. I didn’t watch the Christmas Special in 2017, what was the point? For me, just a few months earlier the gradually unfolding narrative of Doctor Who had already come to a rather special conclusion.
I won’t criticise the new series before it airs, but I’m not going to watch it either. I’m so glad Doctor Who came back in 2005. I’m so, so glad it will go on and on forever, whether the BBC keep making it or not but new-series wise, I’ve sort of had enough. But then, I’ve had enough of TV in general. Most TV shows I find rather gratuitous when it comes to sex, swearing and violence. I find it exhausting and requires a level of emotional investment that I don’t want to make. I seek escape from the daily grind and continuing, merciless injustices in the real world. At the risk of sounding dull, TV drama doesn’t offer much of an escape for me as it used to. Not watching new Doctor Who is something I can handle, it’s not like I’m going to see the trailers, unless I actively seek them out. It’s not something I’m going to stumble upon whilst channel hopping because I don’t do that anymore. All my telly comes via Netflix and other places. It was great watching a new episode go out live on BBC1 every summer Saturday for the last 10 years, after all those years of being a huge fan but it not being on the telly, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that. It was fun while it lasted, and really as a purist I’m amazed I stayed with the post 2005 reincarnation of the show for as long as I did. I’ll still watch the DVDs with Dominique and looking for Who bargains in charity shops but I’m definitley New Who-ed out.
So there you have it. Unenthused about our first Time Lord Lady because it’s quite a blatant bit of gimmickry from an institutionally sexist corporation keen to publicly to blow on the equality trumpet – on an international scale – to create the impression of gender equality. It’s the latest in a long line of creative decisions that don’t meet my personal fan tastes and because replacing him with her takes an important male hero and reduces him to a conformist stereotype.
I remember there was a character called Rita in a rather good episode called the God Complex who explains, as she introduces herself, “I’m Muslim”, then adds, half jokingly, half mocking, “Don’t be scared.” I thought this was incredibly mature. In story terms, there was no reason, no purpose for Rita to be Muslim; the writer could have given her any faith but, these details were put into the script, quietly and thoughtfully. An endearing but barbed comment on the often blatant prejudice Muslims encounter was made by a well-adjusted, capable woman in a very down to Earth, quietly powerful manner. This is where television triumphs, not with flashy shows of spectacle, but in the small details, the ones that really matter.
A couple of days ago I said my views and opinions on stuff would come out in my fictional writing but today, I’m trying my hand conventional blog-writing because it’s a useful form of expression and it does me good to challenge my capabilities.
Copyright Martin Gregory