Woot, yay and so forth. Doctor Who finally did it.
After years of speculation and several seasons of kind-of-on-the-nose-especially-recently telegraphing, the series has announced that the thirteenth (ish*) regeneration of the good Doctor will be played by a woman.
Change has come. And, it seems, not a moment too soon — as someone once said.
Jodie Whittaker was announced in the part in a short teaser following the Wimbledon men’s final yesterday afternoon, and the Internet — at least the British sci-fi watching sector of it — has done its raving na-na. In, as always in these divisive times, two fearsomely opposing directions.
Many have welcomed the development as largely high time, with chatter over the possibility of a female, black, or black female Doctor having accompanied the run-up to every regeneration for years, and with bookies consistently placing various women in the running each time.
We haven’t got a black woman, or an Asian woman, and that’s something that’s already being debated online — should the BBC have gone that extra step and really broken the mould? Should they have demonstrated that the Doctor isn’t fixed in terms of apparent ethnicity as well as apparent sex?
Obviously, as a white person, that debate’s a source of some ambivalence for me. Part of me says I’ve no right to express an opinion; part of me says I’m selling out if I sit here and say I have no opinion. Would I have liked to see a black or Asian woman playing the part? Absolutely I would. But at the same time, I don’t feel able to complain given that the show has made some progress. Had it cast an Asian or black man in the role, a similar argument could be had, and debate would still have gone back and forth about whether incrementalism is the best way to shift ingrained assumptions, or whether people should simply be confronted, no pulled punches, and given the choice to deal with it or not.
I don’t honestly know.
I just know that, rightly or wrongly, I’m delighted that the programme has finally taken a ‘leap’ that’s long been mooted but has always previously failed to materialise — even if there were other valuable changes it could’ve chosen to take but, so far, hasn’t.
Still, aside from the said debate, true fans** for the most part seem to be embracing the new Doctor and anticipating the story and character possibilities she’ll bring. Other viewers, it’s fair to say, aren’t so happy. Some are outright enraged. Some have taken to Twitter to announce how appalled they are, and how they’ll never watch Doctor Who again because it’s ruined, you hear? Ruined!
These, to my mind, are the pseudo-fans: the people who’ve watched season after season, series after series, and yet haven’t got to grips, or perhaps even perceived, one of the foundational messages of the programme. Every person is precious. Every life has the potential to better the universe. Humanity — or perhaps I should say humanitas — is something to be valued above all else. Doctor Who began life intended to be at least partially an educational programme. The Doctor’s journeys through time and space would take us, the audience, into events and cultures historical and hypothetical and enabling us to learn about them and from them. And key amongst the messages of the show has always been a respect for the dignity and diversity of individuals throughout the universe and even beyond it.
It seems quite perplexing that anyone who professes themselves to be a fan of the show could possibly experience — much less express — such anger at this latest development, because it suggests they must have been sitting watching the show in constant rage at the messages it was giving them. Why would you put yourself through that, just for some ropey Daleks and rubber monsters?
And the possibility of a female Doctor has been signalled increasingly strongly over recent years. It must’ve been driving these viewers mad.
In 1986, the creator of Doctor Who, the Russian-Jewish Canadian (there’s that diversity again) Sydney Newman, wrote to then-Controller of the BBC Michael Grade, saying that the show as it stood was ‘socially valueless’ and that he felt the Doctor should be a woman — but that this change should be introduced with care. He didn’t, he said, want to see an action heroine in the Wonder Woman vein because a character without flaws wouldn’t do.
So for those keeping track, the people now complaining about the intrusion of ‘social justice politics’ into the programme are objecting to something the show’s creator was concerned it was lacking thirty years ago. The idea is at least that old.
The question of whether the Doctor Will Be a Woman This Time has been asked in the run-up to every recent regeneration, and it had long since become a matter of when rather than if. And the show has been teasing the idea quite clearly for the last few seasons. The Doctor’s long-time nemesis the Master became Michelle Gomez’s excellent Missy:
There was the Gallifreyan general who regenerated from man to woman as we watched, confirming in dialogue that she’d previously regenerated from woman to man:
The Doctor himself explicitly — as in hammer-blow explictly — said that Time Lords could change gender (although if you’re feeling really SJW about it, there’s debate to be had over the use of the word ‘gender’ in this context):
And for those who were paying proper attention when Matt Smith’s Doctor arrived on our screens, his exclamation as he was checking himself for arms, legs and the various other features he apparently wasn’t sure would be included:
“I’m a girl!”
That strongly suggests he at least considered it a possibility (as well as the possibility of not being humanoid, which opens a whole new interesting range of options).
All right, I’ve thrown enough videos at you now. In short, while I had every doubt that they’d go through with it this time, in retrospect the clearly deliberate telegraphing made it clear enough that this was probably going to be the one.
Many are applauding the choice of Jodie Whittaker because of her excellent work in Broadchurch. I’ve never seen Broadchurch, and the honest truth is that before this announcement I had no idea who she was. Over the course of the resurrected series I’ve shown an unfortunate tendency to distrust each new Doctor: I was sorry to see Chris Eccleston go, especially so soon into the series’ run; I couldn’t get used to the idea of Matt Smith when he was first announced; and Peter Capaldi got short shrift to begin with because he replaced the magnificent Matt Smith.
It became clear, though, that the reason I was hesitating about each new Doctor was that I’d grown so fond of the performance and character of the previous one, and was afraid that the new one wouldn’t live up to him. Each actor, right back to William Hartnell, has brought his own appeal, and although I have some favourites I can’t say there’s a single actor I don’t think has done the part justice — even those, like John Hurt and Paul McGann, who didn’t really get chance to stretch their wings in the role.
Whether the writing has always done the actors justice is another argument entirely.
I will miss Peter Capaldi very much, and I’m sorry to see him go. Like all his predecessors, in terms of stories he’s been given some turkeys to act through, as well as a few glittering jewels; but whatever the quality of the writing, he and his co-stars have shone in every one of them. But having watched since Tom Baker, I should be used to Doctors leaving by now. I’m absolutely elated about the choice the BBC have made for his replacement, and I am suddenly very keen for it to be December.
[* It seems we still don’t count John Hurt’s ‘War Doctor’ — despite his eventual acceptance by his subsequent selves — as part of the sequence. He’d come in at Nine, making Jodie Whittaker the Fourteenth Doctor.]
[** ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, or accurate assessment? I’ll leave it to you to decide.]