Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lucky Thirteen: thoughts on Jodie Whittiker

Right – o. . .

So they’ve done gone and done it. They’ve made Doctor Who a woman. They’ve been talking about it for a very long time, and now they’ve finally done it. Jodie Whittaker (whom I've had a devil of a time trying to spell) will be taking over from Peter Capaldi. Faithful readers - of whom you are legion - are just dying to know:


What do I think? 

Well, the first thing you’ve got to remember, dear readers, is that I really liked Capaldi, and am genuinely sorry to see him go. He’d really found his feet, had a wonderful new companion in Pearl Mackie’s Bill, and now it’s all being thrown out. I’d be grumpy and gloomy even if Tom Baker himself were to reprise the role. So I was bound to be a little frumpy no matter Who took over.

The next thing you’ve got to remember, is that one of things I liked so much about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was his maturity. I was sick to bloody death of the cute young Tennant/Smith axis, and so was dismayed to see yet another youngster cast in the role. I suppose youthful facades don’t naturally exude infinite wisdom. So it was Whittaker’s relative youth that struck me more than her sex. . .

Capaldi was awesome
You don’t believe me do you?

I know what you’re thinking. Come off it Steve, Doctor Who is a woman! Tell us what you REALLY think! Right. Well here it goes. . .

The fact is, this was a long time coming. Tom Baker himself floated the idea when he left  the role in 1981 – before Jodi Whittaker was even born. People have been calling for it. The stage has been set for it. Hints have been dropped right left and centre. There has been a lot of time to psychologically prep for it, and so really nothing terribly shocking about it. And, confronted with this reality, is there really anything so terrible about it?

 To clear the way, the best thing they did – they best thing they could possibly have done – was cast the marvelous Michelle Gomez as the Master. Her Marry Poppins-gone bad portrayal was far closer to the traditional Master than that idiotic characterization by John Simm (who apparently was a good Hamlet – again, I blame R.T Davies rather than Simm). In fact, if I were of a conspiratorial mind-set, I’d say they gave us Simm just so we’d welcome Gomez (and in turn welcome Whittaker)
Michelle Gomez: the best Missy since Anthony Ainley

(The very worst thing was to have the Doctor shoot a man just so we could watch a guy into-girl regeneration. The scene had no other purpose; it was off-screen politics intruding on story-telling, out of line with story logic and characterization, and remains unforgivable)

(Hinting that Clara Oswald was actually the Doctor all the time could be either the worst OR the best thing, depending on how you look at it – waking Scrooge-like from that nightmare, I was prepared to accept just about anyone else at all, male or female).
So the groundwork’s been laid out and it really isn’t such a shock. That, and the last couple years have restored my faith in the series. I’ve started enjoying it again, and thinking it’s not quite done with me yet. Under those circumstances, it’s easier to say “let’s give her a chance, and see what she does”.

Glad to see him gone. . .
Now, I’ll tell you what I don’t like: the smug, mocking tones of the commentariate, most of whom don’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other about Doctor Who.  They seem to take such glee in ridiculing the lonely fanboy who’s only trying to hold onto something near and dear to him (and who really isn’t as hostile to the idea as he’s been portrayed). I’ve actually got a lot of sympathy for that fanboy, and can assure you he will be won over if he sees that his show isn’t going away.

On the other hand, laughing and jeering at him will send him to the alt-right forums faster than a Weeping Angel. . .

As for myself, I am not going to be lectured by anybody on how I ought to feel. Not having it. Don’t even try.

The argument that this is just a fictional character in a fairly ridiculous scenario doesn’t impress me.

“It’s fiction! Why do you care?” they say.

I shrug. “If it’s fiction, what’s it to you?”

No no, for someone who’s been watching and internalizing this mythology since he was five, this sort of exchange just won’t do. 

There is of course a deeply rooted sexism infecting the culture in general and certain realms of fandom in particular, but there's a different (hopefully more fragile) sort of sexism going on here. It's more to do with anxieties over the direction of the program than the casting of the lead - which themselves stem from sexist notions of what a female lead necessarily implies.

Does that make any sense?

Let me tell you a story: 

As long as its not her!
Not long ago, I read column taking Sylvester McCoy to task for speaking out against a female Doctor. The author – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who she was or what outlet she was writing for, so you’ll just have to take my word for it – outlined her vision for Doctor Who, which was poisonously incompatible with mine. Basically she wanted greater emphasis on relationships, and more romantic subplots. Exactly what I didn’t want.

See, human relationships are central to any good piece of fiction. But the Soaperatic treatment favoured by Russell T. Davies and others has always been toxic to me. Who’s sleeping with whom, who’s got a crush on whom, who’s angry with whom, who’s got together with whom – who gives a fuck? It strikes me as insufferably shallow and petty. (For the record, Moffat handles it a hundred times better). I mean, if the Daleks and Cybermen are killing millions of people outside, why should we care if Jackie and Pete Tyler get back together? Why does every companion need to develop the hots for the Doctor? As if the writers can’t imagine relationships and interactions taking any other form? It’s an approach that only values the gratification of the immediate base instinct – the gut reaction. Everyone’s emotional bordering on hysterical, and no one (except Donna’s Grandfather) has any imagination. 

I was always more interested in concepts, scenarios, and, yes, I admit it, action. I preferred stories that glorified critical thinking, with high-falutin’ philosophical pontificating and detailed story worlds. I liked suspense, mystery, internal logic and “whatthehellisthat?” curiosity. I couldn’t care less about the companion’s homelife.  If this approach occasionally neglected characterization, the injection of maudlin melodrama was surely no improvement.

So we’re confronted with two fundamentally incompatible visions, and the question becomes not who the Doctor is but what kind of fiction this is going to be. If, like me, you prefer the way it was, (and how it’s recently become again), you might get defensive and wonder why this writer can’t pick on other fictions more to her liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing, here’s the rub: why should a female Doctor symbolize that vision, but not this one?  That author outlined her own preferences – but she’s just one person. There's no reason a female Doctor should signify that sort of change and no recent evidence to suggest the producers intend to go there.

Is this to say I expect - nay, demand, the show retain male priorities? I'll turn that one around and ask what makes my preferences necessarily, inherently masculine?

Possibly it’s the studio’s sexism that’s more dangerous than the fans’. What’s the BBC going to do with a female Doctor? Will she be permitted everything granted to the men? Will the BBC break down barriers, or just give in to sexist notions? Such as. . ? I’m not the one to ask. That’s a way deeper discussion than what we’ve got going here.

Possible it's the nature of the archetype: in pop culture and genre fiction, all the loners, outcasts, outlaws, and aimless wanderers tend to be men. Historically, women just aren't allowed to be that sort of thing. Is this the adjustment some folks just can't seem to make?

Let’s stop beating around the bush, let’s look this in the face: if the Doctor is indeed the personification of higher principal, the final word, the ultimate authority, the very pinnacle of wisdom. . . can we. . .can I. . .accept a woman in this role?

. . .

This isn’t about Doctor Who anymore, is it?
. . .

In which case, this an idea whose time has come, and there’s really no logical reason to get in its way.

I’m going to go at it from another angle. From the other end as it were. I think of the online Q&A with Matt Smith published in the Guardian not long ago. A parent asked if he had any advice for their young daughter, who wanted to be Doctor Who when she grew up. (“Talk fast” was his advice).  So here’s the question: am I going to be the one to look that little girl in they eye and tell her she can’t be the Doctor? Because she’s a girl?

How about that Year 5 kid I once had, who kept bringing me Doctor Who Lego figurines? Might she want to be the Doctor? Might she deserve the same role model I had when I was her age?

Would the Doctor hold her back?

(What would Sharina say?)[1]

If the Doctor’s taught me anything, it’s that we all matter. Each and every one of us. We are entitled to the same opportunities, the same paths to happiness and the same keys to wisdom. You will recall the “Rings of Akenaten”: The stars died so we could live. There’s not one of us who doesn’t contain the stuff of the universe. It’s time to let our petty differences go.

Here’s to Jodie Whittaker, and Doctor 13. I've got a feeling she’ll be alright.  

[1] There’s probably not more, and most likely less than, five people on earth who will get this reference. One day, there may be more.  

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