The world of Doctor Who is a place I haven’t visited since the beginning of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the character – around the same time the storylines started to become repetitive and trite. Even Peter Capaldi’s casting (who I’ve been a fan of since The Thick of It) couldn’t entice me back to a show that continued to be increasingly tired, despite a select number of later episodes that seemed to be getting things back on track. Yet now, with the announcement of the casting of the 13th Doctor, a monumental change is on the horizon which is well worth celebrating, whether everyone wants it or not.
The portrayal of gender roles onscreen is something that has always been at the back of my mind, ever since my time at University. It was there that three very happy years of Film Studies opened up my eyes to all sorts of representation issues, both on film and TV. However the results that I was presented with in relation to women onscreen were shocking and, as a woman myself, almost depressing. Continuously objectified, often portrayed via damaging, badly written stereotypes, rarely forwarding the narrative in any significant way (other than when they die, which even now is used as a common plot point), and regularly featured as secondary, nearly mute characters, or not at all. Even when films and TV shows do try and break this mould, it’s disheartening how these are almost always attacked by criticism that male-led productions are rarely faced with (specifically Bridesmaids and the first season of Girls, which were both unfairly targeted for their portrayal of men. Because keeping male characters out of the picture is paramount to a crime).
It is for all these reasons that I really do applaud the decision to hire a female actor to play one of the most iconic characters on British TV. No longer will a woman simply be the Doctor’s companion, they’ll now be calling the shots and saving the world, one time travel trip at a time. It is something that not only opens up the show to a whole realm of hitherto unexplored possibilities, it also opens up the discussion of positive female representation onscreen itself. Yes, we’ve had plenty of leading female characters in Sci-fi and Fantasy shows before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Orphan Black, Jessica Jones and many more). But there are no such long-running TV productions (to my knowledge) with a lead consistently portrayed by a male actor, and for that ‘norm’ to then suddenly be challenged. That change itself is evidence of the BBC and new showrunner Chris Chibnall actively deciding to make a positive step towards the future and address the gender imbalance onscreen, one which if successful, could well mean other productions following its lead, both original and otherwise.
With all this in mind though, I do recognise and understand those with worries about the future of Doctor Who. I should add here: those with legitimate worries. Those making unfair, misogynistic comments can (and will) happily be left behind by the show – it will flourish a lot better without ‘fans’ such as that (and judging by some of the harsher, sickening responses, this is a change that needed to happen, and one that should even have taken place sooner). No, the fans I understand are those who wanted a man to be chosen again for the role – those ones looking forward to seeing who would be picked next, and hoping for the series to stay as it was. Indeed, my wish list actually had three male names (Tim Roth, David Thewlis and Paddy Considine) and only two female actors (Zawe Ashton and Natalia Tena) on it. A man would have been a perfectly valid choice for the 13th Doctor, albeit a frustrating one for those celebrating last week’s news of Jodie Whittaker’s casting. However I believe these fans will be more that won over by the interesting road the series will now be taking – one which will certainly shake up a show that was rapidly running out of steam.
Similarly, I also understand and sympathise with those annoyed that a WOC hasn’t been chosen to play the Doctor. A decision such as this would have been immensely positive for representation of race onscreen (another current sorry state of affairs), as well as gender. The companion’s race has been challenged before, and recently their sexuality too, so why not the Doctor’s? While it can only be speculated as to why the BBC didn’t push the envelope even further, I believe they may have feared being labelled as ‘politically correct’, a description that has been unfairly attached to them even after Whittaker’s casting. The only minor positive that could potentially come from all this in relation to race, is that the success of an unconventional choice for the 13th Doctor will hopefully open up many more doors of diversity further down the line.
There are plenty of others happy with the decision though, recognising this as a great time for the series and for female roles. However even some looking forward to what the show now holds are concerned as to whether it may simply be used as a gimmick to draw back viewers long since bored with it. That the writing and plots will remain as dreary as they previously have been. It is true that many of the naysayers will certainly be watching and waiting for them to slip up – a justification of the gender ‘issue’ that they are against already. Obviously whether it is a triumph is something that will only come to light next year, when we see exactly what Chibnall and the team of writers, directors, etc. have created for our eager eyes. Yet with a refreshing vision and a fantastic force in Whittaker at the helm (if you’ve not seen her in Rachel Tunnard’s excellent film Adult Life Skills, I highly recommend you do) I really am hopeful for the future of the Doctor and excited to see what comes next.
The one positive thing that few can (or shouldn’t) argue against, is what this casting means for young viewers everywhere. After all, although there is a huge adult audience for the show (myself included), at its heart Doctor Who’s core viewers are those younger few – those it has the most influence on. The Doctor has always been about treating everyone with kindness and helping others different to you. That although the world isn’t a fair place, you should always respect it as such. And now, young girls and boys can see how a strong female presence can promote this too. That they are just as capable of saving the Universe. I didn’t watch Doctor Who back in the 90s when I was young, but if I was a child now I can guarantee that I would have been obsessed with it. And my little self, who was so in love with Ghostbusters and X-Men back in the day, would have been over the moon at having someone just like me finally be the front and centre of such a big TV show. So forgive me if I actually shed a tear at the casting news – because THIS is what it is all about.