When is the casting of a WOMAN a big deal? Why, when it’s DOCTOR WHO!
FINALLY! We have a new Doctor Who. JODIE WHITTAKER is the actor taking over the TARDIS. A surprise, certainly and very best of luck to Jodie. And yet, predictably and sadly, the news is being adopted by both the right and the left contingents of those speaking for gender politics.
So I’m going to provide a little reminder of the core appeal that defines DOCTOR WHO. It’s about inclusion, optimism and rebelling against ANY group agenda, be it social, political, ideological or corporate.
Let’s hope that, as we travel on this quick TARDIS journey, we see the new casting news as proof that the Doctor is still about independent adventure and imagination for ALL..
‘THE DOCTOR IS A WOMAN FFS’ vs ‘AT LAST! THERE WILL BE TAMPONS IN THE TARDIS’. I paraphrase and precis a BIT, possibly even exaggerate. Sexism and Feminism with an almost Newtonian physics in the predictably Polar swings between extremes as one glanced down the social media news-feeds. Quite awful. The Doctor would be ashamed of humans today! Neither side seem to ‘get’ what the show is actually..well, about, in any sense.
It’s easily forgotten, but the Doctor’s adventures ALWAYS embraced emancipation, whilst avoiding emasculation. The idea is that The Doctor (male, female, black, white..) is simply using a human form to evangelise a message of human unity.
It’s always been about telling a jolly good adventure serial based story, for the whole family, whilst sneaking in a motif to the kids that judging ANYONE on ANYTHING other than their basic moral kindness and value is simply not ok.
A girl playing the Doctor is therefore not so much a product of our times as it is logical culmination point in the character’s presentation, driving home and personifying the show’s optimistic ideals. And, when Jodie quits in a few years (give her 3: don’t go beyond that as it’s career suicide), we could well have a boy play the Doctor again. It really does not matter.
And yet, one cannot help BUT feel a SLIGHT spectre of agenda television at play. It’s only natural. IF this were such a joyous transition, then why did the BBC use such a throwaway format to make the announcement? Seriously.
We got ONE rushed trailer after the Wimbledon Mens’ Finals (surely the WOMENS’ contest made more sense? Congrats Mr Federer, btw: EIGHT titles!). Jodie’s name appeared in a whirring TARDIS noise and gold glow. She unveils her cape and costume in a forest. Everyone kinda knew it was her by then anyway. Damp Squib. Meh. Not exactly a classic of viral video marketing /news.
In 2013, Peter Capaldi’s coronation came with its own entire special show; ditto Matt Smith’s back in early 2009. Where is the JOY for JODIE? It’s like the marketing people were either caught unawares themselves, or running scared, like a Government dropping a policy announcement before summer recess.
Either way, it’s not great and does not exactly inspire joyous enthusiasm. And who do we blame for that? Well, I’d lay it at the door of the BBC and its muddled internal politics that define the running of the Doctor Who brand.
One gets a feeling ‘they’ (because there is a ‘they’: make no mistake; a cultish corporate clique of faceless managers), rushed the casting of a ‘woman’ and forced it as some sort of edict, having failed, repeatedly, to cast either a woman or a person of colour in the part throughout the last decade of the show’s renaissance. Hence: a rushed and muddled announcement strategy?
Does that in any way detract from Jodie necessarily being a good choice or having a right to be watched and judged on her performance, rather than prejudged (‘prejudice’). No. But if this were indeed a desperate attempt to ‘reinvent’ the show for its own sake, across a committee room table ‘brainstorming’ on how to ‘save’ a show? Well that does not bode well.
It just FEELS like the whole Doctor Who product has for sometime now become the very thing that its hero stands against: a kind of factory floor production line ethos. The ‘show-runner’ is nominally in charge.
Except we KNOW they have edicts to follow and that they face the wrath of the micro manager in the wings. To be fair, that’s how ALL organisations survive to some extent in today’s saturated and competitive markets. But it rarely makes for an ideal writing platform if your lead writer is also wearing a managerial hat and has to answer in turn to more managers.
Hence, Steven Moffat (outgoing chief) never quite managing to communicate complete creative freedom in his scripts. He remained a plotsmith par excellence. But his attempts at rushing through moral messages and character beats never quite rang true.
Much was made of the fact that he introduced a female Master (Missy played by Michelle Gomez: excellent) and Bill Potts, a black lesbian (Pearl Mackie: you will be missed: now YOU would have been a lovely choice for the Doctor, too).
But even that was never given a chance to breathe. It all felt rather rushed, tagged on and therefore never quite matching the organic, heartfelt and genuinely groundbreaking beats of his predecessor in the show runner role (Russell T Davies).
Is that Moffat’s fault? Probably not. The man had an impossible task just keeping the show alive against the odds and should be congratulated for that. He also WANTS to be liked in his writing, one felt and took criticism personally and painfully in many cases.
I just don’t watch Moffat’s output (which is prolific and highly skilled) as any model of true equality campaigning through story telling or originality in tone and character (SHERLOCK as much as Doctor Who). He spelled out his moral motifs and it just never, to me anyway, felt ‘right’. Marks for effort but..just..something missing, somewhere.
The trick with ALL television, film, books and art forms seeking to promote TRUE acceptance and integration is that one must NEVER make a ‘thing’ of a character’s sexuality, gender, race and so on. Something that Doctor Who was so good at, especially in its initial renaissance of 2005-9.
‘So and so is gay’ ‘Great: now where do we get the baddies?’ is (whilst grossly over-simplified) kind of the style one should be aiming for with Doctor Who, especially as it is aimed at kids. You see, the little ones are by their very nature are NON judgmental, until some silly grown up goes and sews the seeds of divisive agendas, sometimes in the false name of ‘equal rights’ or ‘liberalism’.
When asked why I still watch a kids’ show like Doctor Who, I’ll honestly say it is for that limitless sense of imagination and possibility. The stories should be unfettered by and yet potentially addressing implicitly the problems of, political agenda.
All too often, scripts in film and television are becoming didactic diatribes and we MUST fight against that. Take our eyes off the powerful format that is ‘kids’ television: and we risk compromising and jeopardizing the joy, innocence, creativity and hope of an entire generation.
You ask is Doctor Who still important? Yes. It is the MOST important of shows for that very reason: a holy grail of edutainment that must move with the times but also honour some timeless traditions, regardless of the lead character’s gender identity.
Our focus should, if anything, be targeted far less on the actor taking on the role (though yes that’s interesting, exciting and important or else it would not ‘trend’) and FAR more on the writing / production process and its associated politics.
I’m therefore HOPING that Chris Chibnall (Moffat’s successor) IS given the kind of creative (and by extension moral and political) freedom needed to simply TELL great STORIES. Unfettered by focus groups or committees or frantic and gratuitous edicts from corporate wannabes at BBC HQ.
Reasons to be skeptical? Well, Chibnall is yet another ‘fan’ showrunner. He will forever be followed by that footage of himself as a young earnest critic, questioning John Nathan Turner (then producer) about the declining quality of Doctor Who in the 1980s.
To use a political analogy: it’s an equivalent of William Hague taking on leadership of the Tories in 1997 to inject a fresh Blair-ish type equivalent blood to their waning fortunes, only to be crushed by the image of his own Mrs Thatcher fandom at a party conference from when he was a 15 year old boy.
Yes, Chibnall ran BROADCHURCH and that was an undeniably huge success. That said, it was headed up by former Doctor Who star, DAVID TENNANT in the lead and OLIVIA COLMAN as an excellent co-star (and yes, many thought Olivia was destined for the TARDIS and yes dammit she’d have been excellent!).
The Broadchurch plot and character lines were to my mind a tad drawn out for what was basically another Police procedural (The Americans saw through it and the Gracepoint remake did not get a second series). And whilst the BroadChurch scripts shouted loud about community and victim rights, even there, to me, it never rang completely true. I actually switched off in series 3 when Tennant’s Alec Hardy stated that a rape case ‘made him ashamed to be a man’.
Why? You are the detective FIGHTING crime: CATCHING the evil rapist. A force for GOOD. And a MAN. Written and performed by..men? So WHY inject such an awful line? It’s just one line, but it stood out and many critics noted accordingly.
What ghastly, lazily pasted, agenda appeasing nonsense: playing DIRECTLY to the hands of nastier troll elements that dismiss any attempts at compassionate integration in society as ‘political correctness gone mad’. And, in tandem: playing also to the VERY kind of twit who will hate Dr Who being played by a woman and see it as the end of civilisation (they don’t ‘get’ that it might be the RIGHT actress, chosen for the RIGHT reasons..just MIGHT, mind!).
It’s why I loved Jimmy McGovern’s BROKEN so much by contrast: ‘issues’ were touched upon but there was no lecturing to the viewer. The plotlines, characters and dialogue delivery by the actors (inc the excellent Sean Bean and Anna Friel) had an organic reality and pervasive MORALITY, transcending any particular class, race, creed or social standing.
If that sounds familiar? It’s quite purposeful. BROKEN felt to me, kind of like Doctor Who for grown ups in its ethos of an impartial hero, dispensing pastoral care, whilst also moving forwards each week to address the next challenge.
Yes, that’s a BIT of a stretched analogy. But I’m talking about values and methods of drama, rather than specific beats or genres. The hero who doubts their vocation yet represents a code of honour and civilisation and thereby aids those in need: never judging, yet empowering their flock to move forward in a renewed community. The parallels are there.
McGovern is not a company man; never playing by the rules. It’s why he will never be asked to run Doctor Who (and I doubt he’d want to but even so..). And yet ironically enough, in McGovern’s ‘gritty’ vision, one got a far more wholesome and optimistic message than from Chibnall, the man now entrusted with Doctor Who, the beacon of light in the BBC schedules.
There is talk of Chibnall opening up a ‘writers’ room’ style approach to Doctor Who. Perhaps making the show a genuine platform for new, bold and daring ideas in both style and substance? Whilst staying true to the spirit of the piece. I hope that works.
And I hope it is in that same spirit of innovation and creativity that we have been given Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. And not simply because it was felt a ‘woman’ was needed or they just picked someone who had the Chibnall/Tennant seal of approval c/o BROADCHURCH, whilst ticking certain other boxes without being TOO big a name / TOO bold a change /TOO posh /glam/old etc.
The reality is we just don’t know yet. Jodie deserves her shot at being judged on her performance once the show airs with her in the role. That will not happen until 2018, after this year’s Christmas special (‘The Doctors’: with Steven Moffat’s final script as showrunner seeing Peter Capaldi taking a final bow before regeneration, accompanied by David Bradley as a version of William Hartnell’s first Doctor).
Or to put it even more succinctly and effectively:
‘If you want to know what happens in Doctor Who: just WATCH DOCTOR WHO’ (Steven Moffat) /
‘Time will tell. It always does!’ (The Doctor).