Wednesday, June 19, 2024

And Now For Something (Hopefully Not Completely) Different

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What’s this news I keep seeing all over my Twitter and Tumblr feeds about a doctor? Was there something announced about a new TV show? Are we getting a new medical drama with a female lead? What, it’s about a character called ‘doctor’? Doctor who?

Just kidding. I may or may not have talked about Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the new Doctor on Doctor Who for several hours yesterday. And written two pages of notes about it that became this article.

If you’re at all into Doctor Who, and even if you’re not, you probably saw the news that came out yesterday that Jodie Whittaker (of Broadchurch fame), has been cast by new Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall to play the Thirteenth incarnation of The Doctor. It’s huge news in the nerd fandom. More than one corner of the internet is breaking down right now, though for vastly different reasons. Colin Baker (who played the Sixth Doctor) even weighed in (bless this man’s tweet). For many, it’s about damn time. For others…well, it won’t take you long to find the angry voices.

It’s Past Time

I’m one of the ones who believes a female Doctor was both inevitable and necessary. I’ll get to the socio-political Doylist commentary in a bit, but for now it’s worth pointing out that this fits within the overall conceptual framework of the show. One of the major premises of the show is serial regeneration, through which it explores the dynamic between change and stasis. Between the fundamental core that stays the same and those features that change from regeneration to regeneration. At the end of the day, The Doctor is always The Doctor even when aspects of his/her personality change, sometimes significant ones.

The Doctor being a woman doesn’t magically make The Doctor an entirely new or different character. The only way that would apply is if one believed in a kind of gender essentialism whereby one’s gender is more central to a person’s identity than, say, their curiosity, wit, cleverness, and love for humanity. We know Chibnall and Whittaker dismiss the idea that changing gender is a kind of essential betrayal of The Doctor’s character. Thus, I have every belief that Chibnall will still be writing and Whittaker still acting, “The Doctor.”

Yet, I am sensitive to the Watsonian struggle inherent in changing a character who has always been male presenting and used male pronouns to one who is female presenting and uses female pronouns. From a purely storytelling perspective, it’s a rather sudden shift in gender identity, even for a culture that allows for switching genders upon regeneration (The Corsair and The Master have both had male and female regenerations). From a purely Watsonian perspective, I can see how this might be a rough fit for some viewers that may or may not require in-universe exposition, depending on how much Chibnall wants to make it a Thing™. I’ll get to my preferences later on that score, but it’s worth pointing out that I understand the cognitive dissonance.

Were The Corsair the only example of a Time Lord/Lady regeneration, I might lean more heavily on this critique. However, the recent tenure of Missy as the most ‘recent’ incarnation of The Master works against relying too much on the gender of previous incarnations for predicting future ones. Like The Doctor, The Master has existed within this universe as male presenting from the beginning. She had her flaws as a female regeneration of a formerly male presenting Gallifreyan, mostly notably the way in which she strongly played into gendered tropes for much of her tenure. Nevertheless, her recent presence and prominence on the show works against any Doylist or Watsonian argument made for previous male preference requiring continued male preference. In the end, regardless of the weaknesses in her scripting, she’s a rather serendipitous transition figure from Peter Capaldi (the Twelfth Doctor) to Jodie Whittaker (the Thirteenth Doctor).

And Yet

Let’s not beat around the bush, though. There’s one criticism that I think still does hold water. I am also extremely sympathetic to the disappointment many fans of color have that the new Doctor is still white. Casting a non-white actor in the titular role is just as important a barrier to break in Doctor Who, especially given the overall dearth of prominent non-white characters in New Who. Bill, Mickey, and Martha are aberrations to the otherwise white casting for companions, so in that sense, a non-white actor as The Doctor would have had even more impact for the representation of marginalized communities on this show.

Had Chibnall chosen a non-white male actor, I would have been just as thrilled as I am by the announcement of a female Doctor. I am also of a mind that an even more daring route, and an overall better one for intersectional representation, would have been to cast a non-white woman. Don’t get me wrong, Jodie Whittaker is lovely, and a very talented actress. I’m delighted to see her as The Doctor and am looking forward to seeing what she brings to the table.

At the same time, Chibnall had as close to a blank slate as he was ever going to get with casting for Doctor Who. He could have made an even more groundbreaking choice than he did. I say this as a white woman, I’m tired of hearing the arguments that women of color need to wait their turn while white women get their day in the spotlight. I hear this argument a lot, and I’m over it, quite frankly. It is past time we started including non-white women, queer women, and trans women in our push for more strong, intelligent, and compelling female protagonists.

A non-white female Doctor could have been integrated into the story really well, too. Not only would casting a non-white woman in the role of The Doctor send a clear message regarding the importance of intersectional feminism on a Doylist level, it would have had heartbreaking resonances with Bill’s recent departure from the show on a Watsonian level. (I know she may come back, but for now, it makes sense to assume Chibnall will cast a new companion to truly start with a clean slate, as Steven Moffat did before him). The idea of characters influencing The Doctor’s regeneration was brought up when Peter Capaldi was cast, since he appeared as a background character earlier in the show.

That could have been exploited here with Bill’s recent experiences. The Doctor regenerating as a black woman in honor of Bill could have had powerful emotional impact given how beloved Bill was as a character. Yet even if a non-black (and non-white) woman had been cast, it still would have sent a strong message in favor of intersectional feminism and representation.

I hope it’s clear that I don’t want to undermine or talk over the frustrations fans of color have. I stand with them and agree that it’s past time we had a Doctor played by a non-white actor. I’m perfectly content being both over-the-moon about Whittaker’s casting while also being frustrated that Chibnall bypassed the chance to cast a more intersectional actor. It’s a tension, I admit, but it’s a tension I can live with. At the same time, I do want to address what intrigues and excited me about having a female Doctor.

The Future is Female

An old white male character throwing a tantrum about how resistant he is to change winds up regenerating as a woman? If that ain’t one of the best commentaries on patriarchy, I don’t know what is. Granted, The Doctor has almost always had a moment of “I don’t want to go”, when he regenerates. Yet Twelve more than any of the other regenerations in New Who has been resisting the most. Creator headcanons are dangerous territory, so I can’t say this is intentional on the writers’ part, but such strong resistance from the titular character does make the transition to a new regeneration more difficult. Especially when The Doctor’s resistance to regeneration has frequently functioned as a vehicle for audience members to voice their concern that a new regeneration might not be ‘up to snuff’ compared to The Doctor they’ve been investing their time in.

In this particular instance, intentionally or not, The Doctor’s resistance to change mimics our current culture’s resistance to change eerily well. A change in power structure (showrunner) is occurring on the show at a basic level, and a change in representation is occurring at the visual level. I just can’t get around how perfect a commentary this is on the way in which our society resists the dismantling of patriarchy in order to create space for women to be represented in media as heroes of their own narratives. I’ve been cackling with glee almost 24 hours straight about this. Even if the new series is only mediocre–and I desperately hope it isn’t—it will be worth it for this perfectly timed, perfectly fitting, possibly unintentional ‘fuck you’ to patriarchy and the old white men who cling to it.

This image alone is so damn powerful.

A New Era

Yet I do have hope that Chibnall will give us something exciting and write his female Doctor with more care than other female characters have been written on the show. I am not shy about my criticism of Moffat’s scripting of female characters. He’s frequently failed to write them convincingly, or all that well, and he has a predilection for writing one specific kind of female character over and over again. He especially prefers the faux-feminist conceptualization of Strong Women™ as kicking ass and spouting cheeky one-liners, et all the while, their lives revolve around and find their core meaning in the male protagonist.

When the mystery of his female characters has been solved by his male protagonist, he kills them off or otherwise sidelines them, their use in the story having been exhausted. He’s even gone so far as to mansplain the patriarchy to murderous strawman feminists. (He’s not all that much more comfortable to listen to in interviews, either.)

A 2014 study comparing Russell T. Davies era Who with Moffat’s era found an alarming pattern of decreased speaking time for companions and female characters, a decrease in female speaking roles, and a marked drop in the percentages of companions and individual episodes passing the Bechdel test. (I know there are flaws in the Bechdel test as a methodology, and it can still be a useful starting point to have a conversation about the presence and characterization of female characters.) It should be noted that all but one of the Classic era companions beats out Amy Pond in the Bechdel test. Based on the available information, all Classic era Doctors fare better than Eleven did through series 7 regarding overall percentage of companions and episodes that pass the Bechdel test.

No research (that I could find) has been done on the past two series, so there’s a definite weakness in using only this data to describe Moffat’s run as showrunner. Moreover, Clara’s run in series 8 brought an uptick in episodes that pass the Bechdel test, a blessed side effect of the creation of so many secondary female characters for her to interact with. The choice of Bill, a proud queer black woman, as a companion for series 10 was a rather shocking bit of representation I never expected given Moffat’s past writing female characters. All in all, he started out as showrunner on Doctor Who with a very weak track record for writing female characters, yet ended his run better than I would have predicted back when I stopped regularly watching at the end of series 7.

At the same time, while he has claimed to not be against the idea of a female Doctor, his remarks on that subject haven’t been exactly comforting or consistent. Moffat prefers to go with the actor that first pops into his head. Yet he also claims that The Doctor should not be a woman because the companion should be the female role model on the show, while also claiming The Doctor is both a ‘hero figure’ and, contradictorily, ‘not a role model’. Which is it, Moffat? All the while, he falls into the trap that it is a woman’s job to handhold an immature man through life and be his emotional core. As Kylie and I discussed yesterday, this isn’t all that empowering for women.

He has also repeatedly claimed he cares more for the quality of the actor who plays the role rather than ‘politics’. The idea that casting a female actor is somehow “political correctness” when roughly 50% of the world’s population is female is enough to make my eyes roll out of my head. He basically told Chibnall to all but ignore the push to have a woman be The Doctor claiming “any other agenda, however worthy, should be ignored” in favor of the ‘best actor.’ Given that he believes hiring a woman would be a political choice, the implications aren’t that great. He didn’t not cast a woman, he just really wanted these two actors, both of whom happen to be white men, to play The Doctor, okay?

So what does this mean for Chibnall? Set against Moffat’s sometimes uncomfortable and frequently contradictory stance regarding women in general and a female Doctor, Chibnall’s choice of a female Doctor might as well be a neon sign proclaiming a whole new world for Doctor Who. Whether Chibnall intentionally set out to make this statement, casting Whittaker is a radical rejection of Moffat’s perspective regarding female characters and their roles in the story.

Without making a single episode, Chibnall has positioned himself as the opposite of Moffat. He has placed a woman at the center of the story, and at the beginning of his tenure, too. He’s not waiting to craft something different from his predecessor. He’s not offering up a comforting ‘transition period’ between showrunners or story focus. In a sense, he’s proclaiming, “This is a new Doctor and a new era for Doctor Who”, without having to ‘prove’ it in the same way as keeping a white male protagonist would. We know right of the bat that we’re getting something different, and, I hope, something better for women and other marginalized characters than the last 5 series have been overall.

Not So Cautiously Optimistic

One of the few things I don’t want from the new Doctor is for her changed gender identity to become a Big Deal™ that needs a lot of exposition and narrative bending over backwards to explain and justify. More than anything, I want it to be entirely casual. As much as I love Bill and would like to see her return, an entirely new companion would normalize The Doctor’s gender more effectively. The new companion would have no knowledge of The Doctor prior to who she is now. In a sense, the new Doctor would become the new baseline for all companions she might have, which would communicate to the audience that she’s the ‘normal’ Doctor. Long monologues explaining her gender swap could veer into sounding more like justifications for something Clearly Not Normal, which weakens the normalizing power of The Doctor’s flexible gender identity.

Imagine, if you will, a new companion stumbling across a picture of one of the old incarnations of The Doctor. Seeing the companion’s confusion, The Doctor offers a clever little, “Oh, I used to look different, my hair’s longer now.” This both acknowledges the change, while also normalizing it. A nice balance of change and stasis, which is what I mentioned above as one of the thematic cores of The Doctor’s character. (It’s also clever, which is how I like my Doctors).

In short, the gender change doesn’t have to be a Thing™, and I don’t want it to be. I want business as usual, no big deal. A change no different than height, weight, hair color, or age of presentation. Given that Chibnall has said he doesn’t want his casting to be “a gimmick”, I am feeling encouraged that this might be exactly what we’re getting (Please, Chibnall, please!!).

I want Doctor Who at it’s best again: a story about a clever, funny, insightful alien who solves puzzles, rescues humanity, has compassion, and who learns about herself and grows as a person from being with her human companion(s).

Less important to me is her clothing, but it’s worth mentioning because it is a potential area of concern. I really don’t want overly feminized clothing choices, and by ‘feminized’ I mean clothing typically associated with female gender norms. Not that dresses or skirts are bad; I wear them myself. However, feminine clothing choices run the risk of overly highlighting the differences between the male presenting regenerations and the current, female presenting one. Since the actor is female and has anatomy typically associated with our society’s definition of ‘female,’ Thirteen is already marked as ‘different’ in a strong way. Anything else that they can keep the same or similar to previous regenerations will work in favor of normalizing her fluid gender identity in the minds of the audience.

It might be fun to bring back The Doctor’s more wacky clothing sensibilities from Classic Who, as I think the show and The Doctor need a bit more levity to counter the increasingly dark and drama-driven tone under Moffat. Not everyone may agree, but I like my Who with a good balance of camp and seriousness, more like Classic Who and Davies-era Who. I’d be down for wacky menswear, Sergeant Pepper inspired outfits, or suits that look like Miss Frizzles dresses. Just so long as Chibnall doesn’t go the Cyberwoman route, I’ll be good.

And also this. (Source)

All that to say, this announcement has me hopeful, at first against my better judgment (because I have three years of cynicism built up) but now genuinely so. I’m honestly looking forward to Chibnall’s tenure and am already planning a viewing party with other disillusioned Who fans for when the new series starts up.

I want to believe in The Doctor again, and what she represents. For the first time in years, I just might.

What do you think about the casting? Are you excited? Frustrated? Bored? Do you think Chibnall will be able to steer the show in a better direction? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Need something to do before the Christmas Special and series 11 come out? Check out our Doctor Who archives for past episode reviews and analysis, and stay tuned for upcoming reviews right here on The Fandomentals!

Images Courtesy of the BBC

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