Only Gender Can Save Us Now? Why the Female Doctor is a Sideshow

So the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be a woman. Jodie Whitaker (Beth Lattimer from Broadchurch) got the spot, and of course everyone’s overreacting. Vox Day seems to think this is proof that Doctor Who is converged and ruined while all the commenters at File770 make it plain that the only interesting thing about this for them is the reaction from the Puppies (in their way dispelling any doubt that Day has a real point).

I think … meh. For a number of reasons.

First, Doctor Who has never NOT been "converged." It’s been a social democrat’s show for most of its run. Its politics were always more or less Clement Atlee‘s, making it a particularly good fit for the "Postwar Settlement" Era. Now that the trendy left’s platform is Gender, Gender, Gender and then on the other hand Gender, it’d be sort of hard to imagine the rebooted Doctor Who without the Ubiquitous Issue.

Second, while there is a reasonable case to be made that however politically correct Doctor Who may have been in its original (1963-1989) incarnation, at least it wasn’t as damn sledgehammer preachy as the "rebooted" version … well, to make the point is to defeat it. In case you hadn’t noticed, the rebooted Doctor Who is PREACHY. It’s more or less the science fiction version of Glee – existing more than anything as a vehicle for "straigt ally" virtue signalling. Christopher Eccleston’s season was watchable – mostly because Eccelston is, in my opinion, the best fit for the role they ever cast, original or modern. So were a lot of David Tennant episodes. But the politics have gotten so thick they’re simply impossible to ignore. And it’s not just that they’re there and unsubtle, it’s that they’re decidedly smug. These days, you don’t watch Doctor Who for the eccentric creativity, you watch it to cheer Team Gender Ambiguity. Casting a woman in the title role feels like such an obvious move for this show it’s hardly news.

Third, even absent the Gender Warrior aspect the show has taken on since 2005, a female Doctor seems like not a terribly big deal to me. To read certain comments at Vox Day’s blog, you’d think that the Doctor was second only to James Bond as a standin for 1960s English neo-virility. It’s simply not so. The Doctor has never been a sexual being (in fact, my biggest objections to the rebooted series are the way they’ve taken a completely asexual character and sexed him up – it just. doesn’t. fit.). It’s not that I think The Doctor’s gender is a nonissue (see next point), it’s just that The Doctor was never a particularly masculine/virile hero to begin with. Turning James Bond into a woman would be an outrage. Turning The Doctor into a woman is … something they shouldn’t do, but it’s also not that big of a deal.

But OK, fourth, all that said, the gender switch still severs all ties with the original series and should drive a permanent wedge between fans of the original run (like me) and fans of the rebooted genderqueer version. Reason being – even if The Doctor himself was completely asexual, there was gender tension subtext to the original series that will now be irrevokably lost. Despite being completely asexual, The Doctor on the original series functioned like an alpha male, rendering most male sidekicks fairly irrelevant. With some limited exceptions (Ian, Adric, Jamie), male companions in the original series were more weight than carry. The most interesting companions were always female, and while the complaint’s been registered – and not without some justice to it – that a lot of these existed merely for some skirt (Peri and Leela being the most obvious offenders) – a lot of them didn’t. Sarah Jane Smith, Liz Shaw, Romana I, Romana II (to a lesser degree, admittedly), Nyssa, Zoe Heriot, and especially, of course, Ace were all real characters with brains (Zoe being a particular favorite of mine, by the way). So, The Doctor was like an alpha male but presented as the opposite. It was a very interesting dynamic that, in my opinion, was core to the show. Thereofre, it isn’t right to say there is nothing significant about casting a woman as the Doctor. It does represent the final break with the past. It’s just that the past was already largely "broken with" anyway, so this is really a fait accompli.

Fifth, even if you’re in the File770 cheerleading section, I think the casting is wrong. I like Jodie Whittaker, I think she’s a decent actress who did a great job on Broadchurch, but she’s not what you want for The Doctor. She’s not going to be able to carry the sometimes surpringly alien arrogance that bubbles up now and then. I mean, fair’s fair, give her a chance and all – it just doesn’t seem like a great fit. Not that I think they should’ve necessarily gone all "wise old woman," but someone with a bit more gravitas or eccentricity (preferably both) than Whittaker would’ve been preferable. Whittaker’s an English Rose … and The Doctor really can’t be.

Sixth, contrary to Vox’s prediction that this is ultimately going to drive down ratings, well, I think it would be more accurate to say that it’s merely not going to halt the slide. Other methods are needed, and Jodie Whittaker’s casting is neither here nor there. The show is already suffering, and this isn’t what’s needed to staunch the bleeding. There isn’t going to be an influx of people watching just to cheer on the gender switch beacuse the people who make a lifestyle out of caring about that are already viewers (see point 4, above). And already abandoning the show. Because they sort of sense that fun’s already been had here. Fans of the original show have already left the building and are no longer around to take pies to the face for the peanut gallery. Whittaker’s casting won’t attract anyone who wasn’t already watching, and it won’t singlehandedly make the show more interesting either. It’s impossible to predict what will happen to the viewership just yet because we don’t really know what kind of show Chris Chibnall has in mind. In the best of possible worlds, some of Broadchurch‘s Little England sensibility will transfer, and we’ll end up with another go at the excellent horror-themed, close quarters stories of the Hinchcliffe era (1975-1977)1. In the worst, it’ll descend even lower into political self-congratulation before realizing too late that that mine is already stripped. The point remains that Whittaker is beside the point. If they’re banking on buzz from the gender transition to carry the show, they’ve already lost. If they’ve got more in mind, as they well might, who’s to say?

Overall, I think this isn’t (necessarily) the big issue both Team Smug and Team Puppy seem to want it to be. Doctor Who is in a ten year slump brought on by decisions to make the show more about sexuality than science fiction. Casting Whittaker might indeed be a signal that we’re in for yet another double down on more of the same. Then again, it might just be a bone thrown to the current fans while Chibnall gets down to the Lord’s Work of bringing the show back to its creative, eccentric and decidedly English roots. I’m not a regular viewer anymore – haven’t been since the Eccelston season – so I’ll wait for the reviews. For anyone who is a regular viewer, well, this doesn’t seem like a reason to tune out. Chibnall gets a chance to show us what he’s got, woman in the lead or no. Dump the show or don’t based on whether the writing improves.

  1. Personal favorites: Terror of the Zygons and Horror at Fang Rock. OK, you got me, Horror at Fang Rock is technically the season 16 opener and thus in the Graham Williams era, but doesn’t it feel like a Hinchcliffe holdover to you? The same way the horrible Robot is very definitely a Third Doctor story with the wrong dude in the role?

2 thoughts on “Only Gender Can Save Us Now? Why the Female Doctor is a Sideshow

  1. I have to admit that I hate, hate, hate Dr. Who (to the point where using the name Dr. Who is deliberate because I’m a jerk) so this whole thing is just a lot of people I don’t like (Vox Dei and File 770 are particularly egregious examples of their particular camps) talking about something I hate. But I like Jodie Whittacre from Venus and The Asset (American TV spy show based on a real life Cold War traitor in the CIA). The whole thing is just more opportunity for people to be mean to each other.

    • I like Jodie Whittaker too. I like Doctor Who a lot (well, the original series, if you leave out the Jon Pertwee era), but the only reboot season I’ve seen in its entirety is Series 2 Season 1 nee Series 26 (depending on how you count). I would like to watch the first couple of Whittaker episodes just to see what direction Chibnall is taking the series in, but that would probably involve a lot of catching up on all the stuff I’ve missed (and I’m not sure I can take that much smug in a short time).

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