Well, this is going to be a bit self-indulgent, so bear with me. Fans of anything tend to be tribal, vociferous and irrational. I’m going to try and avoid that where possible, but ultimately this is going to be an opinion piece and, as I’m not the most rational of people at the best of times, I can’t guarantee I’ll be successful.
I’m going to outline below why, now that the Doctor is a woman, I will no longer be watching the show. I am not blind to the blatant ridiculousness of that statement and my aim in this post is to explain why, even though it may be ridiculous to you, it makes a kind of sense to me. Before I start, let me just say that, if you’re overjoyed/enthusiastic/cautiously optimistic about the casting of the rather impressive Jodie Whittaker as the 13th (or is that 14th?) incarnation of everyone’s favourite Time Lord, then more power to you. It is not my intention to rain on your parade. Enjoy yourself. I simply find myself unable to share what you’re feeling and am trying to explain why.
First, a little background. I’m 47 years old and have been a Doctor Who fan for most of my life. A couple of days ago, I posted on my Facebook feed that I used to feel that Doctor Who ‘spoke’ to me. That’s perhaps a bit pretentious, but when I was a child it resonated with me on a fundamental level that it took me quite a few years to understand. Partly, it was to do with my developing collecting instinct that well and truly blossomed once I discovered Target novelisations; partly, it was to do with the sense of wonder, excitement and fear with which I suspect most subscribers to this group will identify, when it comes to explaining their attraction to the show. Partly, though, the Doctor was an aspirational figure for me – witty, knowledgeable and, perhaps most important, articulate. As a decidedly non-sporty (my occasional flirtation with cricket and brief obsession with Subbuteo notwithstanding) bookish child, the Doctor was a perfect character with which to become obsessed.
Through that obsession, the show has actually given me a great deal and I’d like to acknowledge that here. It taught me to be analytical (and the John Nathan-Turner years provided plenty of opportunities for criticism), it fired my imagination, it inspired me to write, in primary school it gave me my best friend, in my early twenties it gave me fandom, the unique experience of contributing to and helping produce a fanzine and a group of friends who were witty, intelligent and extraordinarily kind. When I became a father, it gave me the never-to-be-forgotten experience of my three year old son arranging all my VHS Doctor Who tapes into a long line stretching from the living room into the kitchen in transmission order. I must admit, I never really thought I’d end up voluntarily walking away from the show.
Yet here we are.
The issues I have with a female Doctor are somewhat complicated. They are born out of a slowly developing dissatisfaction with the new series ever since Tennant’s overly mawkish swansong and, despite the odd triumph of storytelling (‘The God Complex’ is an incredible story for all sorts of reasons; ‘Flatline’ is perhaps the most genuinely scary story in the new Who canon), it’s only got worse during Moffatt’s tenure as showrunner. Moffatt’s penchant for overly complex story arcs whose thread he never quite manages to hang on to, his (rightly) much-derided portrayal of the Doctor as so clever he might as well be God, his elevation of ‘cleverness’ above the fundamentals of storytelling (Clara is an extraordinarily unlikeable companion because of this) – all of these have contributed to a sense that the show is no longer speaking to me, but down to me. Where the show used to take me by the hand and lead me through some scary, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring stories, now it seems to want me to stay in my seat and marvel at how wonderfully clever it is. The installation of a female Doctor is part of that trend. It’s as if the show (or certainly its most vocal supporters) want me to admire how progressive and ‘ground-breaking’ it is. More on this in a moment.
It’s worth noting, too, that I am a conservative Christian with a family and a fairly traditional outlook. While I never found RTD’s atheism especially troubling (the stories were simply too good to be derailed by it) or his sexual orientation (which is none of my business and ditto), the show in recent years has acquired a decidedly smug tone in pushing its ‘progressive’ agenda (the most egregious example being this year’s anti-capitalist fable, ‘Oxygen’) and it is a smugness that, because of the issues outlined above, hasn’t really been earned.
The female Doctor is, imho, a large part of this. She is part of a wider cultural movement in which differences between genders must be respected until to do so is deemed disadvantageous to women in which case we must pretend that they do not, in fact, exist after all and that, for example, gender-swapping roles will have no negative impact whatsoever. Not only that but it’s a change that is neither radical nor ground-breaking at a time when we’ve had a female lead in the new Star Wars trilogy, an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and Wonder Woman (deservedly so) is outperforming all expectations at the box office. In this climate, the female Doctor is a remarkably safe ‘radicalism’, a change beloved of media elites and progressive identitarians, a change whose time, apparently, has come, but, as the recent Radio Times poll seems to indicate, is not creating anywhere near as big a controversy as might be expected. In fact, I would argue (as Spiked-Online has done already) that the ploy is partly ideological and partly a cynical attempt to revive interest in a show whose increasingly opaque storytelling has been turning viewers off in significant numbers. (For reference’s sake, Matt Smith’s first episode ‘Eleventh Hour’ accrued ratings of 10 million, considerably more than the first issue of the last series which had ratings of 6.68 million.)
Whatever the motivation behind the change, to me it represents a deliberate disregard for the show’s televised history, its broader past and the unique appeal of its central (male) character. For over 50 years, the Doctor has been male. Now, after 12 incarnations of gender consistency, we are expected to believe that the Doctor can be a woman? It is hard to escape the feeling that this change has been prepared for quite deliberately and has been influenced by external social and cultural currents. Put bluntly, we now have a female Doctor because it’s ‘trendy’ and because Western culture, feeble and increasingly impoverished, is currently experiencing paroxysms of guilt-inspired self-harm, in the process casting aside or defacing anything that smacks of tradition, continuity or certainty. (Yeah, I know. I might be stretching there with that last sentence, but if you’re going to be a cultural conservative, you might as well go all in.) Neither of these reasons are worth ruining a long-established cultural icon for.
And, of course, fans who have objected to the change (many of whom have been women, curiously enough) are pilloried and dismissed on social media. Most of those responses aren’t worth dealing with as they tend to display precisely the same sorts of prejudices from which this enlightened change is meant to be redeeming us. Some are genuinely funny (the Doctor Who hotline for upset fans is well worth a listen, if you get the chance), but I’d like to address one in particular. When one fan pointed out that the social justice left would be outraged if Miss Marple, Xena, Wonder Woman or any other female popular icon had their gender ‘flipped’, a social justice ‘warrior’ helpfully replied that we’ve already got Poirot and Hercules. Which rather misses the point. Hercules doesn’t come from Themyscira or fly an invisible plane; Miss Marple doesn’t have a best friend called Hastings. What has happened with Doctor Who is not the same as the Ghostbusters re-boot or the casting of Daisy Ridley as the new Star Wars lead. This is taking an already established character, a character who has accrued a vast amount of cultural capital during the course of his relatively long life, and changing a fundamental aspect of him, an aspect that has been consistent for decades, an aspect that may, in fact, turn out to be integral to his success in ways the new, short-sighted showrunners simply do not understand.
Look, at the end of the day, a female Doctor is relatively small beer. As a 47 year old adult, the disrespect for the show’s history and my own miniscule personal investment in it are things I can shrug off relatively easily. I’m not devastated by this development. Nor am I crying tears of ‘nerdrage’ as so many memes on my Twitter feed are assuming I must be doing. I’ve got a hell of a lot of DVDs, novels and comics to keep me going for the time being. (Oh, and Big Finish CDs/downloads – so many of them!) I can’t help thinking that my 9 year old Target book-collecting self wouldn’t have been able to cope with the change with such equanimity, though.
But that’s neither here nor there. As I’ve said elsewhere, I wish Jodie Whittaker every success in the world (or space-time continuum, as the case may be) and I hope people continue to enjoy the show for a long time to come. But, it’s no longer for me.
Comments are open below. Feel free to post, but I won’t be responding to abuse.
Well, that was… wonderful. Doctor Who has returned and not just in the prosaic sense of the new season starting. While the last few seasons have been enjoyable enough at times, they’ve nevertheless contained stories that were lacklustre or unappealing for a variety of reasons. There was a distinct sense that the show was struggling – not for its survival, to be fair, but to fire on all the cylinders it undoubtedly possesses. It’s not the purpose of this short piece of fluffery to analyse the show’s recent problems in detail, but I think that tonight’s episode has addressed at least some of them, the more urgent ones in particular. The following is not a review per se, but more a meander through my initial reactions to tonight’s episode. Feel free to share your own impressions in the comments below.
Bill is fab. I know that’s pretty obvious, but it does need saying. Pearl Mackie’s performance this episode struck chords that the teaser trailer at the end of last year’s Christmas special gave no indication of her being able to reach. (In some respects, that trailer did her a huge disservice, but never mind, eh?) Yes, the persistent questioning is there, and yes there are lots of laughs to be had with her dialogue, but there’s so much more to Bill than comic foil. Not a conundrum to be solved or someone whose life has already been touched (damaged?) by the Doctor, Bill is someone with a fully-fleshed out story of her own told in a very affecting way by both writer Steven Moffat and his director, Laurence Gough. There are no gimmicks here, just an extraordinarily likeable and charismatic character who has, as her reaction to the TARDIS entertainingly displays, a different perspective to the Doctor. I cannot wait to see how she reacts to her new experiences this season.
This was a story with a considerable amount of heart. In fact, it was ultimately a love story and the cleverness of the plotting revolved around that. Avoiding mawkishness, it was character-driven emotionally resonant stuff and that Moffat found time to chuck in Daleks, the ongoing mystery of the ‘vault’ and Movellans (!) was icing on an already satisfying and substantial cake. The story’s very personal scope made it all very grounded and real, for all its fantasy trappings. The pre-existing relationship between the Doctor and Nardole was beautifully portrayed, too. (The Doctor’s slightly exasperated shake of the head after their handshake following the “bigger on the inside” line made me laugh.)
There are hints at a larger story here. That vault is going to open at some point and the notion of the Doctor lecturing at a university for decades seems very unlike him. But the uber-plot appears to be looser, suggesting that individual stories will have the space to breathe and develop – as, indeed, tonight’s did rather powerfully.
All in all, I was impressed by The Pilot. More than that, I was involved emotionally and intellectually; I was engaged, I was delighted, I was hooked. Welcome back, Doctor Who!