The announcement of Peter Capaldi’s successor as the thirteenth incarnation of The Doctor was always going to spark intense backlash and debate. When the announcement came earlier today, inevitably the internet went straight into overdrive.
In an era where the concept of gender is more open than ever to interpretation, alongside the rise of the strong female protagonist in mainstream film and television, it is not surprising that Doctor Who, one of the BBC’s most revered programmes, soon became embroiled in the highly-polarising debate of the lead character’s gender.
Sometimes I just think: “why does gender have to be the core issue?” In my opinion, as soon as the writers begin focusing on such trivial elements like gender, they lose sight of the fundamental reasons why we love programmes like Doctor Who. Whovians across the globe love the show for the characters who we grow attached to, the stories that go across all of time and space, and essentially the unique charm to the show which has captured the minds of millions both young and old.
However, it’s complicated. And while the support for gender equality within society and the media is growing, the concept of a female Doctor represents a clash of ideologies: the ‘modern’ versus the traditional. It is no surprise then that social media is currently a battleground for the mass war of words; this is a controversial topic which has delighted one side, and infuriated the other.
As such, a female Doctor will thus be judged in two areas: the impact on the popularity of Doctor Who, and the harder to measure impact on attitudes towards gender, particularly women, in the wider context. As the title of this article suggests, this is where the big change could be destined to fail.
First of all, I would like to assert that while I can empathise with many of the arguments against a female Doctor, none of them are based on misogyny. For me, what will ultimately decide whether Jodie Whittaker’s take on The Doctor is a success or failure is actually similar to how Peter Capaldi, and the many actors before him were judged: the presentation of their character through how they are written. This is the big task faced by the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall. The problem however is that if the show is poorly received for these reasons, then the blame will more than likely shift entirely to the gender of the lead character, and that just isn’t the entire scope of the argument.
I will first examine the reasons why a female Doctor has the potential to be a success, followed by the arguments that suggest the innovative idea will sadly end in failure. This is of course one opinion among many, but it is one opinion that will attempt to analyse the deeper implications on the show’s future.
Why it will work
It is a sad truth that while many of us have come to love Peter Capaldi’s era as The Doctor, ever since the Tennant era the show’s ratings have been slipping. Again, it’s another polarising debate; while I loved Bill’s character and series 10, you only have to briefly go on social media to see the intense criticisms of the show and Steven Moffat.
While Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Timelord combined elements from Old-Who and New-Who, it was still seen as a drastic shift away from the two dashing young men we had previously seen flying the TARDIS. Generally, people do not like change. However whether you liked Moffat’s reign or not, this time the idea of ‘change’ feels fresher, and for many it has instilled within them a sense of optimism that Chris Chibnall’s take will reignite their interest in the show. For die-hard Whovians, there is an exciting sense of uncertainty- just what direction is the show heading this time?
At a glance, we can group the four Doctors since the revival into the old and young. When comparing the portrayals from Ecclestone, Hurt, and Capaldi you notice many similarities, as they both highlight the more serious side to The Doctor- they bring out the grumpy old man that forms a fundamental part of his character. Equally with Tennant and Smith, they emphasise the young maverick within- their performances are characterised by the action, the adventure, and sometimes the silliness of it all. Yes, we see these two representations overlap on numerous occasions, but on the simplest of terms they are the two categories that modern viewers have become accustomed to watching since 2005.
These categories present a risk however, and that is saturating our expectations of the character. Perhaps that’s why Matt Smith falls short on people’s lists, because he is always being compared to David Tennant, who did the ‘younger’ portrayal before him. By choosing Jodie Whittaker, Chris Chibnall now has an infinite choice of different directions in which he can take the character. We could be about to embark on an adventure where we see layers to The Doctor that we’ve never seen before, and learn more things that will make us love the character even more. Perhaps one series in and we will forget about gender defining the character, and instead have a much more rounded view of The Doctor. After all, in The Doctor’s own words: “[Timelords] are billions of years beyond your petty obsession with gender.”
The 13th Doctor will thus be a pioneer to the direction future incarnations take regardless of gender. Jodie Whittaker also appears to be a solid choice; not only does she have the experience to step up to such a prestigious role, but she has also worked with Chibnall before, and this bodes well for achieving the vision of the new showrunner.
Additionally, it is impossible to leave out the fact that a female Doctor is a positive step forward in terms of equality, and creating a female role model that both boys and girls growing up watching can aspire towards. It’s keeping up with the times, and demonstrates that strength and independence are not limited to just one gender.
However, and this is a big however: all of these positives can just as easily go the other way.
Why it won’t work
It is idealistic to think that the presence of so many strong female characters in the media will immediately instigate changes in society’s attitudes towards fundamental inequalities such as opportunity and the wage gap. Representation does not necessarily mean reformation.
And this kind of media representation can all go horribly wrong if handled badly. So how can a female Doctor possibly result in failure?
The first issue is integrating these ideas of change (or to some, ‘political-correctness’) into the show without making it seem forced, and this is something the show has handled pretty awkwardly in the past. By bolting on lines into the script that explicitly state a character’s sexuality, or scolds an outdated opinion, the opposite effect is achieved when the viewer becomes distracted from the main plot, and is instead bombarded by the show’s apparent need to justify itself. An example of this comes from series 10, where many people felt that Bill had too many lines explaining that she was a lesbian. There are cleverer ways to construct a character, and by constantly reminding the viewer of aspects such as sexuality, it then goes on to become a defining feature to that character, and portrays it almost as a unique quirk, not a natural nor perfectly acceptable attitude that it initially sets out to achieve.
It’s highly probable, and I believe necessary that the thirteenth Doctor takes a couple of episodes to address the gender swap, but if it lingers on throughout the series to the point of overshadowing gripping storytelling and characters, then it will serve to hinder the show’s quality.
The next issue is purely down to the way Chibnall and Whittaker decide to portray the thirteenth Doctor, and that is the threat of potentially diverting too far away from the fundamental aspects of The Doctor’s personality. This is where I believe series 8 was severely underrated, because one of the major revelations from the entire series was The Doctor coming to terms with his identity, and accepting who he is as a person. In ‘Deep Breath’, the veil worked well as a recurring motif for looking beyond one’s appearance, as it later set up The Doctor’s dramatic realisation in ‘Death in Heaven’ where he remarks: “I am… an idiot! With a box, and a screwdriver! Passing through, helping out…” The Doctor is not a good man, nor is he a bad man. He’s certainly not a villain, but he’s not a hero either. Many actors have portrayed The Doctor each in their own unique ways, but all of them have maintained one key element: The Doctor has always harboured a clownish, and unpredictable silliness, even as a grumpy old man, and even when charming and young: The Doctor is quintessentially an idiot in a box.
And it’s important to continue that. Even in the darker and more serious portrayals of The Doctor we have seen his jocular nature appear in times of adversity, alongside a vulnerability from his compassion- a trait often criticised by his enemies. My concern is that in following the general trend of constructing a strong female lead, Chibnall may forget to include the fact that The Doctor’s personality contains numerous flaws, which is partly why we enjoy watching the Timelord’s adventures. Knowing how fierce the backlash can be from the internet, there is a possibility that the writers may shy away from maintaining these flaws out of fear that it may potentially harm the image of a strong female, and evoke a highly negative reaction. It is not unrealistic to theorise this when female leads such as Rey from Star Wars have come under criticism for being too much of a ‘Mary Sue’. I am all in favour of a female lead, but it is a basic minimum that they are constructed well.
Chibnall has vowed to be bold in his ambitions for Doctor Who, and so let’s hope he includes the good and bad sides to The Doctor’s personality, as for decades the character has been so much more than a clever time-traveller saving the day. The biggest danger is the character being portrayed as one-dimensional, and too different from previous Doctors. The effects of this then spillover, and the calls for The Doctor to always remain male will only amplify their volume.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor simply cannot be portrayed as infinitely strong, intelligent, and flawless like a God, because that’s almost precisely the opposite of The Doctor’s purpose. Part of the reason why Michelle Gomez’s portrayal of The Master/Missy gained popularity was for her carefree, ruthless, and at times chaotic nature which evoked connotations of strength and independence. In the context of The Doctor, the portrayal has to be more complex. She has to have moments where she is vulnerable and all hope is lost, where she may have to rely on the help of a companion. If the new companion happens to be male in that situation, then God brace us for the reaction that may follow. That’s staying faithful to the character of The Doctor though, that’s just the kind of situation all Doctors eventually face.
The real issue is of course that no matter what direction the show heads, there will always inevitably be a backlash. In the past, the negativity arose mainly from Moffat as a writer, but this time I fear Jodie Whittaker being female alone may act as a scapegoat for criticism if the show potentially falls short in any other areas. As such, it may be difficult to make a fair judgement of this new direction for The Doctor, and if series 11 starts on the wrong foot, then I fear the show will be subject to an almost unfair path to failure.
Another question also lies in where the show heads beyond the thirteenth Doctor, and what kind of reaction there will be when subsequent incarnations aren’t female, or aren’t male; either way, there will always be a channel for criticism, and we can only hope that such negativity does not affect the show for the sake of the millions of fans worldwide.
Don’t get me wrong, I really want it to work. I am one Whovian among many who adore the show and above all want it to be successful.
It’s a debate that will certainly keep people talking, but will it keep them watching?