Doctor Who: Changing the Game

Doctor Who: Changing the Game

Well, there we have it. After months of betting and speculation, Peter Capaldi’s successor as the BBC’s flagship time-traveller has finally been announced. Following the final moments of the Wimbledon men’s singles final, we got our first glimpse at the new face of the Doctor. A slow tracking shot meanders through an unusually lush, forest, through the undergrowth to follow a mysterious hooded figure. A few tense cuts and pans later and we’re greeted head-on with the thirteenth Doctor… and surprise! It’s a woman!

Twitter reacted in the only way Twitter can, as bigots instinctively took to their keyboards to discharge their archaic sexism in 140 characters or less. Within minutes of the announcement, the usual slew of reactionary vitriol was being poured onto the issue, with internet punters deeming the new casting as “ruining a classic TV show” (among the milder, less loathsome comments).

The social media response to Jodie Whittaker’s casting does also contain a huge number of positive, supportive reactions to counteract the influx of pre-emptive hatred. Compared to reactions to last year’s female-led Ghostbusters reboot, we’ve come a long way. Many of those posts, tweets and comments remain utterly unrepeatable. Black ghostbuster Leslie Jones suffered particularly terrible levels of abuse, much of it racially focused. But that comparison does not mitigate the baffling abuse which still runs rife on social media platforms. So, keyboard crusaders, extinguish your torches, wipe your brow and put down your pitchforks. Let’s talk about the state of your beloved Doctor Who.

Back in 2005 at the birth of what’s now been dubbed “Nu-Who”, Christopher Eccleston burst onto our screens in triumphant fashion. In retrospect, it’s easy to forget that a Doctor Who revival was a huge risk, particularly on a primetime Saturday night slot. Excluding a TV movie we’d all rather not remember, Doctor Who hadn’t been onscreen for sixteen years, sci-fi had a relatively niche audience, and entertaining, big budget family-friendly drama hadn’t been successfully produced by the BBC in years. But with a completely revamped format, astute writing and superb performances, Doctor Who captured the hearts of the nation and single-handedly led to a resurgence in family-oriented Saturday night drama. Doctor Who was inventive, refreshing and different to everything else on TV. That’s the beauty of regeneration. The show can continually adapt, keeping the tone and style fresh whilst maintaining relevance to its reality.

“It’s a struggle to see what element of a time-travelling, face-changing alien is inherently masculine.”

Thus, change is key to the long life of Doctor Who. Being able to re-cast a lead actor and completely adapt the style to a newer, refreshed format is a luxury few other shows can currently afford. Upon Eccleston’s departure, the entire show changed. The grounded inner-city vibe was ditched for an eccentric lead and adventures to far-off planets. In Eccleston’s singular series, Earth was the only planet featured, but Tennant was travelling the universe far and wide. Meanwhile science fiction began to spring up all over the media again, imitating the successful style, with Primeval becoming ITV’s first successful competitor to Who. But Doctor Who was now a step ahead of the curve.

However, since Tennant’s departure, alongside former showrunner Russell T. Davies, the ambition to change has been almost entirely lost. For the most part, the styles of both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s stints as the Doctor were identical. Doctor Who has kept in line with the eccentricity Tennant and Davies brought to the show, sticking to a tried and tested formula rather than risking something new. The result is a safe, occasionally fun, but often stagnant show. Viewership is dwindling; change is needed once again if Doctor Who is to survive.

Enter Jodie Whittaker, the thirteenth Doctor. The very notion of gender-swapping a historically male character marks the biggest change Doctor Who has seen since 2005. Gender politics aside, it’s an exciting creative proposition for Who fans. Drastic change does not, of course, guarantee a successful change, but a risky, different Doctor Who is surely preferable to the stylistically stumped current era. The casting of Whittaker, alongside the appointment of Broadchurch showrunner Chris Chibnall bodes well for the development of a new, innovative style. Whether that style is popular or successful is an entirely different matter, and until season eleven is released in 2018, we can only speculate. But change is promising. Although this is the first female Doctor, this is the next in a succession of changes which has kept Doctor Who on air for so long.

It is very common for a new Doctor to be met with hostility. Tennant, Smith and Capaldi all faced fans sceptical about their beloved Timelord’s newest incarnation. This time Whittaker must face off not only a fan-base ostensibly resistant to change, but those sexist factions within it which insist on the Doctor having a penis. With twelve (plus a few extra) male incarnations of the Doctor to date, the role has become an iconic male lead. But there’s no reason it can’t just be an iconic lead. In actuality, it’s a struggle to see what element of a time-travelling, face-changing alien is inherently masculine.

“It seems odd to pigeonhole such a potentially diverse character as male, disregarding all elements of the character which may be better explored from a feminine angle.”

Consider a similar debate, the argument around casting James Bond, conducted monthly by the ‘Women in Power Make Me Uneasy’ society. There is, perhaps, more of a case here. Bond is a conventionally masculine character. The machismo, womanising and general air of testosterone are seen as entwining the character with his own manhood. The Doctor, on the other hand, has a consistently changing look and personality between each incarnation. Backstory excluded, few character traits carry between each regeneration, and those traits which remain are simply recognisably human, not specifically masculine or feminine. It seems odd to pigeonhole such a potentially diverse character as male, disregarding all elements of the character which may be better explored from a feminine angle.

Let’s not pretend the BBC have been particularly heroic by casting the Doctor as female. With the discussions of a female Doctor revolving around the past two regenerations and recently reaching a peak, there has undoubtedly been some pressure on the casting process. For example, Billie Piper, former Who companion Rose Tyler, stated outright it would be a “snub” to cast another male Doctor. Hence the predictable braying of ‘political correctness’.

Jodie Whittaker’s casting marks a new era for Doctor Who with a bold, courageous concept. Chibnall’s audacious first decision as showrunner demonstrates the courage and vision lacking from the show through Moffat’s tenure. It remains to be seen whether his decisions result in a high-quality programme, but with Chibnall and Whittaker’s previous work taken into account, we have cause for optimism. Doctor Who is finally receiving an injection of change and the stakes have never been higher.

Image: BBC

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