The most prominent single role in science fiction and an acting job which carries with it over half a century of history and one of the most enthusiastic and demanding fanbases imaginable, the brief appearance of Joanna Lumley in The Curse of Fatal Death aside, for the first time the lead role in Doctor Who will be played a woman, Jodie Whittaker of Attack the Block, Black Mirror, Broadchurch and Black Sea.
Despite heavy signalling in advance, the announcement that she will be taking over from Peter Capaldi was met with astonishment and has opened a great divide in what is already a fractious fandom. Our own writers consider the reasons why and what this means for the show.
Michael Flett – It has been astonishing to me that self-professed fans of a show which for over fifty years has been built around change, since William Hartnell regenerated into Patrick Troughton at the end of The Tenth Planet in October 1966, that they are fundamentally unable to cope with change, that they see it as some kind of personal attack on themselves, their values, their whole childhood.
The whole purpose of science fiction as a genre is to examine change, to see how things might be differently and consider how it might affect us in our lives. Yes, having the Doctor, one of the longest running characters in television history who has inspired generations, a British institution who has outlasted fashions and pop bands and Prime Minsters, suddenly become a woman is a huge moment and it is one we should be celebrating, yet all I hear are screeching voices with little substantive debate behind them other than “but I don’t want a girl unless she’s in the subservient companion role.”
A lot of people have been disgruntled with the show under Steven Moffat; certainly it’s been up and down, but that was also true of Russell T Davies. It is the nature of any long running show to grow fatigued, and I would say Moffat’s first two runs were among the best. Just look at his second season – yes, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People was stretched out to two episodes when it was only actually establishing a single plot point, but those thirteen episodes has six utterly brilliant classics in there, too – The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Doctor’s Wife, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song, and that is a hit rate to be proud of.
His casting of both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi has been outstanding, and equally I loved Karen Gillan as Amy, Arthur Darvill as Rory and Pearl Mackie as Bill. Yes, he has certain ideas which repeat, the dead speaking in Silence in the Library or Flesh and Stone, echoing simple phrases in The Empty Child and Silence in the Library, but all writers do.
No, for me his biggest mistake – and unfortunately it was a big one and it hung around for far too long – was Clara Oswald. Top to bottom, end to end, she was a terrible character, constantly rude and ungrateful for everything she had. If the companion is meant to represent the audience, then she very much represented a facet of fandom which undeniably exists and is very ugly and demanding in their entitlement, as we’re seeing now.
It is undeniable that for the longest time Doctor Who was treated poorly by the BBC, its budget cut to the point of absurdity, a farce of what should have been a flagship show, besieged within the Corporation and ridiculed outside. For those cold wilderness years it was those fans who kept it alive, and it is understandable that they are proprietary about it, but they also have difficulty accepting that in order to survive it must change.
So here we are again, with a major change in the offing, a new Doctor, a new companion, a new showrunner. I’m already aware that with Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and a brief John Hurt, Jodie is the sixth Doctor of the revived show. We are potentially about to face our Colin Baker era.
Six is the only Doctor not represented in my DVD collection other than The Two Doctors which came with the Sontaran boxset and it has never been watched, not for Patrick and Frazer, not even for the divine Jacqueline Pearce. I have nothing but bad memories of Colin’s entire tenure and I have no wish to revisit them. I do not blame him for being a terrible Doctor, or that is to say, I do not just blame him, for the stories he had were terrible and the later casting of Bonnie Langford was a hideous symptom of the light entertainment malaise which had permeated the whole production by that time.
One of the big questions we’ve been returning to for over a year is would the show work if the Doctor was a woman? For years I’ve felt no, that it would fundamentally change my relationship to the show and the character and I wouldn’t want that, but over the last weeks considering the most talked about possibility, Kris Marshall, a jumped-up second rate sitcom actor, not even a good sitcom actor, and for example Tilda Swinton, I came to realise she would be my preference, that I was okay with it, and it was an easy acceptance.
So welcome, Jodie. The TARDIS is yours and I hope you are in for a wild ride in all the best ways, and that you join the ranks of Nyota Uhura, Leia Organa, Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers, Susan Ivanova, Dana Scully, Buffy Summers, River Tam and more recently Wynonna Earp, Rey and Jyn Erso in the pantheon of our sisters in science fiction.
I see a lot of folk bandying about the “Jane Bond” thing, but it’s a false analogy in that it’s not written into the character of James Bond that he can change bodies; a more accurate comparison would be a character from science fiction. I mean – can you imagine if Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica was a girl? Oh, wait a moment…
For the longest time science and science fiction was for the boys, and that was never right. Women had to write under male pseudonyms to get published. Women had their research stolen by their male professors. Women had to go to conventions and gender swap their idols in order to dress up as them. Are men really that selfish and shallow and pig-ignorant and terrified of women that we don’t want them to join the party as equal members?
I think a lot of what we’re seeing right now from a lot of people is reaction rather than opinion. It is a shock, and a big one. Those who don’t know the show don’t realise how much the presence of the Doctor means to so many of us. He has quite genuinely been with me my whole life – my earliest memories are all Doctor Who. It is a huge, huge change. It is understandable that people are struggling to cope with it. But it could have been far worse, the stunt casting of someone whose only talent is grabbing headlines.
I also suspect that the new Doctor will not be a girly girl; of all the Doctors we have had ever, the only two who every specifically played upon any aspect of them being men to appeal to a female character/audience were David and Matt, all the others their masculinity or maleness or however you term it was almost incidental; for all it was used they may as well have been androgynous. Well, and that time the First Doctor almost got married when he had a mug of hot chocolate. I suspect Jodie will be the same.
So far in the revived show we’ve had Jack saying it’s okay to like men and women, Bill saying it’s alright for girls to like girls, and it’s been well established that Time Lords can switch genders, the Corsair and Missy being the two examples. But we’ve also endlessly had a white man championing women and minorities, the so-called “saviour” complex, and while it’s never been as embarrassing as Avatar it’s also time we moved past that.
Peter has been brilliant despite variable storylines and I will miss him. I don’t know anything about Jodie; I’ve seen her in one episode of Black Mirror and barely remember her, I will be judging her on her performance, not her gender. When Catherine Tate joined as Donna people were furious but I had never watched her show so I had no preconception – she was a blank slate to me, and it’s the same here. I have nothing to block my conception of Jodie potentially being a brilliant Doctor.
My bigger concern is Chris Chibnall. I’ve never been impressed by anything he has done; his episodes of Doctor Who were mediocre, Torchwood at its very best was amateur and his episodes of that show were among the worst, and while I’ve not seen any Broadchurch I’ve been told by people whose opinions I trust that it’s David Tennant and Olivia Colman who make the show and the best season was the one which ripped off Twin Peaks.
I always try to keep an open mind but that does not mean I am a fool who is willing to accept anything just because it has a brand name stamped on it. Ironically, Doctor Who is at its worst when it tries to go big and appeal to a mass audience – the worst thing Davies ever did was the year of specials, flying London buses and the nonsense of The End of Time, then Moffat and his supposed epic mini-movies which opened the fiftieth anniversary year of which only two had scripts which actually worked, Asylum of the Daleks and The Angels Take Manhattan.
It’s most pronounced in the Christmas episodes which I know have to be geared towards a very different audience but they have just turned into pantomime. The first two, The Christmas Invasion and The Runaway Bride, were stories which just happened to be set at Christmas, but in later years it’s all about the snow and Santa and snowmen and they are childish. It diminishes the show in the same way John Nathan-Turner did in the eighties by actually having the cast perform in pantomime.
First and foremost the story needs to be strong and instead they’ve been exercises in low-brow compromise, and that has never been as true as it is now with the loudest and most unreasonable voices of the fanbase in open revolt. A show must demand an audience because it’s the best at what it does, not because it’s bribing the audience with figgy pudding.
Considering the reactions, it does occur to me – and it would not be the first time the BBC have done this to the show – that with the ratings dropping over the last years that perhaps they might wish to sabotage the show and if this does not work out they get to kill Doctor Who and blame the fans for rejecting it. There has always been hostility to the show within the Beeb and nothing embarrasses the corporation more than success unless it involves baking a cake, and they can’t even keep that in-house.
Dario Persechino – Having been discussed for quite some time, the BBC actually deciding to cast a female Doctor is a huge step, and one I didn’t actually think they would have the courage to go with. They had paved the way for it well, showing Time Lords regenerating as different sexes, and having the superb Michelle Gomez as Missy, but to cast a woman in the lead role of a long term male character is a bold move and hopefully one that shows fresh life for a show that has been struggling for some time.
Along with the new Doctor we have a new showrunner and a lot of new potential. I adore Capaldi as the Doctor, and I do wish he was staying on for a while with a new show runner, as under Steven Moffat he has not been able to deliver on his full potential. The last season with the accompaniment of Pearl Mackie and Michelle Gomez has been the best of the Capaldi run and the chemistry between the leads has been great, but the scripts have only just got to the point of delivering regular good episodes.
Moffat was superb as a writer, and when he took over as executive producer the first Matt Smith season is one of my favourites but as the years have gone on and he has been stretched between Doctor Who and Sherlock the quality of scripts have plummeted. Having gone through the Clara show, endless Clara deaths and nonsensical returns, then bringing back and totally ignoring Gallifrey I think the show desperately needs fresh blood.
A new showrunner and a new Doctor that shows a big change from the previous regenerations will hopefully give a new dynamic. Announcing the casting this far in advance means the BBC does not have to deal with keeping set secrets and also gives time for the idea to bed in. Had they announced the casting decision with her first episodes, the news would have overshadowed her performance. This way there is a chance for the internet buzz to be largely over and done with before we see her on screen, and she can be judged by her acting as the Doctor.
With every regeneration there is a period of “No, I don’t want the last one to go! Who is this new one? I don’t like them. Oh actually they’re quite good. THEY ARE THE DOCTOR!” I’m sure this will be no different. I initially was very against the idea of Matt Smith as I just saw an actor who was far too young but after two episodes I adored him – it was the “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” scene in The Beast Below that was the exact moment I saw the Doctor in his performance and loved him for it.
I know very little of Jodie Whittaker but she seems well regarded from Broadchurch. While I was quite hoping it would have been Hayley Atwell, my personal dream casting, I look forward to seeing what Whittaker does with the role. I am also curious who we will have as an assistant. With a recent string of female assistants to a male Doctor, may we see a male assistant to a female Doctor, which again would be a refreshing change? I am also really, really hoping River Song will make a reappearance to enjoy her husband’s new look.
Discussing the new Doctor online has met with some passionate responses, and to those asking “why do we need to change a male lead character into a woman” and arguing it is just about “keeping up with modern times,” there simply aren’t many female led television shows and movies and certainly nothing as iconic as Doctor Who. The reason Wonder Woman is a big deal at the moment is because it’s taken *this long* to have a proper female led superhero movie of the modern era while male led movies can fail and fail again and still keep going.
The casting of a woman into a role that has been played by… fifteen/sixteen men depending on who you include? One out of fifteen? Is that really such a big deal? To those criticising the casting there has got to be some Doctors you liked more than others. I don’t really like the character of the Sixth Doctor despite Colin Baker being wonderful as a person, so if those who don’t like the idea watch her and really don’t like it, skip a couple of a seasons and I’m sure she’ll regenerate again.
But for that time, little girls can watch a show that a lot of them like already, and see themselves as the hero. Not as a side kick, assistant, companion, visiting guest, but as the hero. Personally I think it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the character, and god knows the show needs a new lease of life because there has been some poor quality in the last few series.
We’re not living in an equal world. There are not the number of female heroes that even comes close to the decades upon decades of male led stories. This is a chance for the show to regenerate into something new and potentially really interesting. To those declaring they won’t watch it just because they’ve given the lead some breasts, that seems a very poor reason not to give it a shot.
As for “keeping up with modern times,” isn’t that a big part of science fiction? Keeping up with a world so people can see their reflections on screen and see the possibilities of tomorrow? The world is changing and a show that looks to the future must keep up with that, and staying relevant to an ever growing audience isn’t a bad thing.
Rob Caffrey – Today in Britain religion is on the wane due to higher learning, science and the modern way of life where for those contracted to work or with other obligations Sunday isn’t really any different from any other day of the week, but the primal urge to be a part of a group is still very much part of the human psyche. While this can take many forms, following a football club is probably the easiest example to describe, where week after week millions of people go to their home grounds, their modern day temples, and experience a sense of belonging akin to the temples of yesteryear.
Part of a community, they stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow fans, sing anthems and sometimes even fight for the honour of the club that they support. They mourn the loss of great players when they get sold to other clubs and protest when they think that their beloved teams are being mismanaged. Does this sound familiar? Not everybody is sporty so they pour their emotions into other things. It could be a certain make of car or technology brand, it could be politics or something like CND or an animal rights cause. It could even be a fictional character in literature or on television.
During the past week there has been much upset about the casting of a female Doctor Who. Rightly or wrongly this has degraded into some sort of battle of the sexes but when you think about it… is it really just that? It has been pointed out that a lot of the disquiet has come from middle aged men unwilling to come to terms with change, that they are somehow stuck in the past where men run the world and that women should be home cooking the tea, but is this really the case?
For many years before the reboot in 2005 these loyal fans have kept the flame of Doctor Who burning. They bought the merchandise and created their own culture through fan clubs and forums. Rather than following a football club they followed a fictional character who uses his brains and intellect to fight for the protection of all that is right and good against the powers of evil.
Who knows what first attracted them to this role model? Perhaps the men in their life weren’t like this so it was something to aspire to. Maybe they weren’t athletic and strong so the thought of somebody triumphing over evil without having to resort to the kind of violence seen in other shows appealed to them. Whatever it was struck a chord and they became ardent fans of the show, much like the football fans mentioned earlier. Like any such fan they will fight tooth and nail to preserve what it was that they have ended up believing in.
Can you imagine what would happen if Manchester United turned round tomorrow and announced that they are selling all of their players and replacing them with women? Now put into that context it doesn’t seem so strange that the core fan base are a little bit miffed that this has happened to their, for want of a better word, idol. Maybe they aren’t being sexist and resistant to change but trying to preserve their way of life.
Les Anderson – I think I can safely count myself privileged to be a Who fan from the very start. I was one of those wee boys who hurtled around the school playground in 1964 shouting “Ex-ter-min-ate” at the top of my lungs – an activity which was so vividly rendered in An Adventure in Space and Time. One of the benefits of following the show for the past fifty-odd years is the appreciation of how much it has had to change with the times over the decades.
As has been stated many times in the past, the single biggest stroke of genius in the early days was the concept of regeneration which allowed an ailing William Hartnell to be replaced in the title role and ensure the show’s continuation. My memory may be faulty here but the announcement of Patrick Troughton as Hartnell’s replacement was greeted with dismay in some quarters and when he initially appeared on screen as the “cosmic hobo” a fair few jaws dropped in disapproval, however he quickly won over the audience and soon became even more popular than Grumpy Old Bill.
One of my favourite periods in all of the last fifty four years of Who was spent glued to the adventures of the Second Doctor with Zoe and Jamie every week and I recall being heartbroken when they all went their separate ways; I still have a very vivid memory of Troughton’s final episode. The latest and frankly unseemly and anachronistic hoo-ha surrounding the announcement of Jodie Whittaker’s casting is just another chapter in the unfolding saga of Doctor Who production.
If Chris Chibnall can pull it off and deliver a show worthy of the name Doctor Who then it will soon be forgotten and a new generation of young fans will embrace Jodie Whittaker as “their” Doctor and the fuss will be consigned to the decades-long list of storms in teacups associated with this particular fictional universe.
It has to be borne in mind that Chibnall has been tasked with reinventing a show that was becoming rather stale and Jodie Whittaker has been hired to play the Doctor that Chibnall wants to lead his vision of the show. This may, by definition, NOT be the Doctor that we have become used to since Russell T and Steven Moffat have been in charge.
The past couple of seasons have, despite Capaldi’s towering performance, been hobbled by a certain amount of creative ennui. Capaldi’s second season was hampered by the retention of Clara, an egregious dramatic device that overshadowed the entire season. Although creatively recharged by the addition of Bill Potts, brought to life magnificently by Pearl Mackie, Capaldi’s farewell season had to make do with some severely second-hand stories. For example, the Monks were a tired retread of the Silence and that particular three-parter bored me rigid.
What I do know is that Whittaker is a superbly capable actor who can deliver a multi-faceted character while running down corridors being pursued by alien monsters, something she has already demonstrated on the big screen. She’s also a very entertaining and down-to-earth interviewee so should be able to not only spend ten months of her year on a physically and emotionally arduous shooting schedule but be able to perform all the extra-curricular activities with grace and aplomb.
It has become fairly well-accepted that playing the Doctor is something of a poisoned chalice. It not only brings phenomenal international recognition but also a constant drizzle of negativity and some outright nastiness on social media. I am sure Whittaker has taken all this into account before accepting the role and am looking forward to seeing her not only on-screen as the Doctor but also on the promotion run. It’ll also be great fun to see her interacting with established characters, particularly the more, ahem, outrageous faces from her/his/their past. This could be the start of a new Golden Age…
Doctor Who will return this Christmas Day with Twice Upon A Time starring Peter Capaldi in his final appearance as the Twelfth Doctor, David Bradley guesting as the First Doctor, and Jodie Whittaker in her first appearance as the Thirteenth Doctor