Triskaidekaphobia

The fires have settled a little concerning this week’s Doctor Who announcement, and my thoughts have coalesced.

Do I agree with the decision? No, no I don’t.

Does it make me angry? Well, sort of, but the reasons are complicated.

To explain why, I’ll need to talk about the evolving nature of the show, and a little bit about courage, creativity and half-measures. Buckle up. This is going to get long.

An Evolving Show

Doctor Who’s a strange beast. There’s only really one other Sci-fi IP that can claim a similar lifespan, and that’s the undead leviathan that is Star Trek. But you’ll notice that I say ‘IP’ (intellectual property) rather than ‘show’. Because Star Trek isn’t really a show; it’s a series of shows stapled end-to-end and side-to-side – the original shared universe, if you will.

Each Star Trek show shares a setting, a bunch of governing principles and occasional cast members, but the scope, feel and mission of each show is a very different beast. It’s a rare person who loves every Star Trek equally, or even likes all of the various flavours. It means that when a new Star Trek launches, it’s already self-compartmentalised. It’s easier to ignore the bits you don’t like.

And the truth is, Doctor Who’s kind of the same. But we tend to forget that.

That’s My Doctor

There’s a pretty basic assumption you can make about anyone who’s watched Doctor Who. The main one’s that their favourite Doctor is always going to be the actor who held the lead role when they fell in love with the show. Mine’s still Peter Davison, because he was the Doctor when I was a kid, even though the early part of Tom Baker’s run is still my favourite part of the show.

Pretty much any ‘Who’s your favourite Doctor’ poll I remember seeing goes: Incumbent, Tom Baker, Everyone Else, William Hartnell. Sure, there are variations. David Tennant still does well, several years on, and Colin Baker often fights Bill Hartnell for the wooden spoon, but this is – as far as I’m aware – a prevailing trend.

It’s easy to forget how innovative the concept of regeneration was at the time. The idea that you could cast a wildly different actor and continue as if nothing had happened? And a full year before the mantle of what would become another British staple, James Bond, passed from Sean Connery to George Lazenby? I’d have been a teeny, tiny bit nervous had I been on the production team at the time.

But now? We’re used to regeneration. We’re used to characters passing from actor to actor and the show going on. We’re inured to it. And along the way, we’ve forgotten something about Doctor Who – or we never cared to consider it in the first place – when the Doctor changes, the show changes too.

Change, My Dear

Truth is, Doctor Who isn’t any more an unbending, unchanging show than Star Trek. Even from the very first regeneration, it didn’t take long for the changes to make themselves known.

Historical serials – a key plank of the original concept – ended for decades with Patrick Troughton’s second story, The Highlanders. The Doctor’s role steadily became more central to the story, a side effect of a younger and healthier actor playing the part. A distinct ‘base under siege’ formula emerged for the storylines (the TARDIS lands in an isolated environment, governed by a stubborn authoritarian figure, and aliens attack), replacing the grab-bag style of the Hartnell era.

And that was just the start. In the years that followed, Doctor Who would become an action-adventure show sharing DNA with American serials of the sixties, a gothic playhouse, a light-hearted (almost parodic) excursion, and so on. Doctor Who wasn’t really one show at all, but a series of different show laid end-to-end, each staying true to some basic, shared principles.

Then came cancellation (and it was a cancellation, whatever fig leaf the BBC chooses to wear), and Doctor Who was never quite the same again.

The Search for More Money

The desperate search for American money finally coalesced in Doctor Who: The Movie with Paul McGann in the lead role.

This marked the first tectonic shift in the style of the programme – namely, departing from the convention that the Doctor was an asexual character, in favour of a heterosexual one (leaving aside what I – probably mistakenly – remember as some borderline-creepy passages in the novelisation for the Green Death, and some water-muddying commercials filmed by the then-married Tom Baker and Lalla Ward).

Now, it can be argued that the Doctor’s asexuality was simply a function of the audience at which the show was pitched (although exactly who the show was aimed at tends to fluctuate depending who’s making the claim). Whatever the intent, the Doctor was presented as a man without sexual interest – and by the same token wasn’t sexually interesting.

From the McGann portrayal onward, this was no longer the case, and the whole dynamic of the show was different.

All of This Has Happened Before…

So let’s bring this back around to the original question: does it make me angry that the Doctor is now a woman? Well, no. The Doctor’s changed sexuality in my lifetime – without seeking to trivialise either topic, I don’t see gender as being a huge leap (forward, backwards or sideways) from there.

They’re both potentially tectonic alterations to the character… almost as tectonic as having a long-running character completely recast at all, in fact – which fifty-odd years ago was as weighty as decision as ‘can we cast a woman?’ has been today.

And at least this time they’ve done their groundwork. In hindsight, it’s obvious how the Intellectual Property has been reshaped and pruned to make this possible, the most obvious one being Michelle Gomez’s ‘Missy’.

…And Things Stay the Same

Yes, the Doctor being a woman will change the character (but by the same token it shouldn’t change the character that much, or the point’s been missed). Yes, it’ll change the show. But these things have always changed.

Honestly, I think the chances are excellent that Jodi Whittaker will turn in a performance more in line with how ‘I’ believe the Doctor should be than David Tennant ever did. As with each regeneration, I’m quietly optimistic that the show’s evolving style might draw me back in – but that’s as much on the writers, the showrunner and the elusive ‘feel’ of the show as it is on the lead.

So no, I’m not angry that the Doctor’s a woman. I’d probably prefer a man, but I hate change. Ask anyone.

But am I disappointed that the BBC have cast a woman as the Doctor?

…little bit, yes.

Courage, Creativity and Half-Measures

Why am I disappointed? I find it lazy. It’s just another symptom of the current zeitgeist whereby everything is a reboot or a re-imagining – altering something that already exists in search of that elusive demographic perfection.

Imagination is literally without limit. You can have anything you want, but corporations like the BBC can’t step beyond their comfort zones for one minute to actually try something new, something fresh. You know, like Sydney Newman did fifty-odd years ago when he set Doctor Who in motion.

I can’t escape the feeling that someone, somewhere along the line, has made this happen in the hope of pulling in those elusive ratings. Some grey, faceless drone sitting in an office the colour of despair, with one of those vapid interchangeable pieces of classical music playing in the background – you know the type, the concerto without any real tune or change in volume, but it’s classical because it’s old. A man (because let’s face it, it’s probably a man) for whom the raw stuff of numbers is more exciting than anything else in the world.

I’ve blogged about this before, but the simple truth is that I don’t accept that putting a woman in a role made a national institution by a series of men does a great deal to encourage equality. All it says is ‘Yeah, let a woman do it. She can’t break it now.’ And that simply isn’t cricket.

A Safe Bet, Not a Good Bet

Sure, having a woman as the face of Doctor Who helps equality. It helps visibility, representation and aspiration by at least some margin. But it’s a feeble, half-hearted vacillating sat-on-the-fence step. Because guess what? If it doesn’t pull in the ratings, or help BBC America break into those delicious international markets, then the ground’s already laid to have the Doctor become a man again pretty damn quick. (And I’ll give you pretty good odds that the story hook for that option will be safely in place before Capaldi leaves.)

True commitment to equality would be to commission a genre show that lets a woman blaze her own trail. It would mean putting time, money and resources into programming that doesn’t banish women to crime dramas and soap operas. And goodness knows, it’d be nice if there was another genre show in the sea of crime dramas, soap operas, talent contests and antique-purchasing that seems to be the BBC’s current metier.

(As a bonus: I also can’t quite get my head around the inherit dichotomy of the situation. 

– Representation of gender and sexuality matters.
– Gender and sexuality are so fundamental that they should not be treated interchangeably or disposably.
– Except in the avatar of said representation – those are interchangeable.

 Sorry, I just find that weird. Schrödinger’s representation: it’s both fixed and fluid.)

In the End…

But I’m going to make a little prediction. It doesn’t matter where this decision has been made for the sake of ratings or not. Because those ratings will follow the same pattern they always do. They’ll spike at the start, and then begin their steady decline, just as they’ve always done for Doctor Who. Because loving Doctor Who doesn’t mean loving all of it, but loving the bit that’s yours.

Maybe Jodi Whittaker will be a part of the Doctor Who I love, or that you love. Maybe she won’t. But I’m damn sure she will be for plenty. Whether she ultimately draws me back into the show or not, she’ll garner a fanbase all her own – maybe even folk who haven’t watched before – and that’s great. Doctor Who’s been a huge part of my life, so what would I be if I denied that experience to anyone?

A dick. I’d be a dick.

But if you’ve made it this far, and you have a moment to spare, I invite you to spare a thought for the poor sod who has to pick the next Doctor.

Now that’s a job I’d wish on no one.

3 thoughts on “Triskaidekaphobia

  1. Thanks Matt, you have put in to words a lot of the disconnects I was feeling about the decision. I hope there is a good lead in to the reasoning behind the change as otherwise it does not make sense. In all honesty that is the part I am struggling with. 13 previous regenerations in to a male form, why a female form now?
    If they use the Master as a reason it doesn’t work as he didn’t see them die. If he uses Bill, why? He has lost companions before and that did not create this change. I sincerely hope it is not just laziness.

  2. I get the point about it being a bit of a knee-jerk/ratings-chasing reaction, but there is also the question: How did we actually get here? This is the twelfth regeneration of a character for whom reality, biology and physics are toys to be played with. Romana regenerated on a whim, Tennant’s Doc managed to magically regrow a hand (handwavium at its best!), a Gallifreyan officer regenerated as a woman last series, and we have the whole Missy/Master storyline. Every time it happened, it should theoretically have been a coin-flip as to which way the character would lean, and yet it’s come up the same side every time. Yes, a lot of it will have been the prevailing social attitudes, but from the 70s onwards, it should have been an option, and it would surprise me if it hadn’t at least been mentioned each time an actor, from Tom Baker onwards, wanted to move on.

    1. I don’t think it’s a knee jerk at all. I think it’s a considered, carefully plotted trajectory: the examples of the General and Missy make that pretty clear. It’s a clever way of preparing the audience for the change – as the raft of ‘the show said it was possible’ arguments attest.

      Again, I think a lot of the pre-McGann era can be put down to the fact that sex (in any and all forms) was simply not part of Doctor Who. A man was initially cast, because 60s (and there’s a real argument that Ian was actually the protagonist of the early series, and not the Doctor), and that precedent followed through. I’ve seen it bandied around the Sydney Newman himself mooted the idea of a female Doctor, but I’ve also not seen a source for that claim.

      There’s a lot to admire in the thoroughness of the transition, even if I can’t quite agree with the focus. But it depends on where you want to draw the line. If they’d cast Jodi Whittaker instead of Christopher Ecclestone, the outrage would have been different (Bringing back a staple as a woman! Bah!) but I also think it would have been quieter, because Doctor Who was very, very dead at that point. That said, Doctor Who has always been a show claimed by many, and actually watched by a vanishingly smaller amount.

      Then again, I still think they should have drawn a quiet line under the first 26 years and started from scratch at that point anyway… but that’s another discussion.

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