Jodie Whittaker’s thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who has been the subject of controversy and falling ratings. The show is bleeding “Whovians”, as fans call themselves, and with good reason. I have some thoughts on the subject, because it reflects real world patterns that are doing just as much harm to our society.
To be fair, much of the responsibility for the poor performance lies with the showrunner Chris Chibnall. There appears to be an overall failure of writing, costume and direction as well as acting.
Disclaimer: I am not a devoted fan of any show and as such don’t claim to speak for the fandom. I tend to binge watch longer running shows and immerse myself into the conversations about them for insight on their impact. On some level, it mitigates the hypnotic passivity of the video format that encourages unquestioning acceptance.
This is the first of commentaries on several shows I happened to watch. Each of these was written because of a specific kind of manifestation of relationship with fans. This is not a review. It is a lens into something specific that I think is worth noting.
The need for a female Doctor
Personally, I did not feel a need for a female Doctor. Superman is a man. The robot in Small Wonder is a girl. Mickey mouse is male. This is not a problem. It is a character developed for the purposes of storytelling. I believe a gender identity is a strong part of a personality. I don’t have a problem with only women portraying Jessica Jones or Wonder Woman either.
To some extent, particularly in shows where fans also romanticize their heroes, I think messing with the gender of their heroes is a bad idea. It is rather like when I married a man and he turned out to be asexual. I don’t have a problem with asexual men. I just don’t want to marry one and find out later, if you see the point I am making. I don’t think a gay woman day dreaming about a female lead would be any more pleased to find her replaced by a man either.
Treating men and women as drop-in replacements for each other weakens characterisation and usually ends up stripping feminine characteristics to present them as “equals” – the norm being set by a male stereotype. We also see this in male dominated workplaces that fail to be truly inclusive beyond allowing a token female presence.
We see this in Jodie’s Doctor’s marked disability in relating to other characters, situations or the audience emotionally, where emotional connections and compassion are generally understood to be more feminine traits. Perhaps it was imagined that while other male Doctors are deep and expressive with emotions, often being unsure, vulnerable or flawed, a woman being so might draw attention to her gender? The result is that the first Woman Doctor comes across as unrelatable.
When it comes to Sci-Fi and superheroes, there is a pretty long history of female superheroes and parallel characters. You don’t need to cast a woman as Superman and then tell dismayed fans that expecting muscles on Superman is their toxic white masculinity. You can tell a story about Superwoman or Supergirl and they are individual characters with their own strengths and histories, not a drop-in replacement of male versions.
A great time to observe both genders being portrayed strongly are crossover episodes where you see Supergirl stronger than say Oliver Queen, who is an extremely masculine character that is also expressed as physical prowess. Or Jessica Jones and Daredevil or Lucas Cage. It enhances both, rather than reducing both to genderless babble.
There were female Time Lords. There was no reason a series about a traveling female Time Lord called say–The Architect–couldn’t be invented. And then they could mint money from two shows and do the popular trend of crossovers also.
Flipping gender without explanation not only leaves fans disoriented, it also loses an important opportunity to explore an element of choice or assertion of identity. I’d rather take a trans woman when a Doctor regenerates but feels female or is homosexual than stretch science into a biological coin toss. Where does regeneration get the Y-chromosomes from and where do they go to if a Doctor is female? If Time Lords are genderless, why are they portrayed as male and female and not androgynous?
Regardless, it is the show’s story to tell. Fans who form crushes will adapt if the story is compelling. But a female Doctor ought to have brought the strengths of a woman’s insight and presence to the role, possibly resolving long standing problems, rather than try and fail at impersonating a white man stereotype, which, incidentally, the actual white men that came before her made a point of evading.
Or fans will find better uses for their time. Like watching something else they like. Or invest time in making anguished or angry criticism that collectively, probably outperforms the show on revenue and audience approval. We see that happen now.
The legacy of a show like Doctor Who
I admit I have not seen the classic era of Doctor Who, but the clips I see on YouTube and the current show that I see does not come across as misogynistic, racist or queer unfriendly. It comes across as family friendly entertainment that introduces new concepts and provokes thought and role models ethics. Is it free of unhealthy attitudes? Possibly not, but it adapts, learns and improves. And it did a reasonably fine job of it for fifty years and was rewarded with a rich and devoted following.
Inclusion of women is not only about the lead character. It is in how the women are seen and treated. Verity Lambert, the first producer of the classic show was the youngest and only female drama producer at the BBC when it first aired. More importantly women characters were not stripped of individual strength as characters, regardless of whether they are victims, villains, companions, sentient weapons like the Moment or the powerful space-time bending TARDIS. Even the most irritatingly female characters conforming to unflattering social stereotype still managed to slap the Doctor (mothers of Rose Tyler and Martha Jones) or murder someone or lead organizations, research and so on. They left their mark.
Sadly, both the Doctor as played by Jodie and the companion Yaz, don’t benefit from this impact. The show puts them both in a “fam” (family) context that gets created for them unnecessarily – literally the one context that provides the least power to influence the world to women, traditionally and practically. And it predictably seems to have stifled their power to occupy all the space they need and BE.
The show did not come across as regressive or endorsing toxic stereotypes before. The first season of the new run itself had the Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston kissing Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman, who is portrayed as bisexual as well as heroic.
While the companion was usually a woman, by no means was she an inferior character in the pre-Jodie era. It is a co-lead and often, the companion had strengths the Doctor lacked or was his moral compass and contributed significantly to victories, including saving the Doctor’s life or conscience or saving the day altogether like Rose becoming Bad Wolf and pretty much destroying the villains, saving the Doctor and bringing Jack Harkness back to life singlehanded. Or Donna evolving into a Time Lord hybrid via a metacrisis and saving the day after the Doctor as well as another version of him fail or Martha Jones traveling the world as a people’s hero for a year to bring down the Master and save the Doctor as well as her family.
Martha was a black woman training to be a medical doctor, who walked away from the Doctor when she wanted more from him than he was able to give. This was universally recognized as her setting her own terms. No one needed to say “Look, we gave the black woman a chance to be powerful.” The third companion was another strong character who was neither young, nor besotted with the Doctor and in many ways rose above a working class underprivileged background and became his equal. And so on.
This is mostly Russell T Davies as the showrunner. Steven Moffat explored in other ways.
During the course of his run, the idea of Time Lords being able to change their gender was explored smoothly and without a fuss and extremely successfully when the Master regenerated into “Missy” to create a beautifully complex character that further highlighted their multi-layered relationship and its history. Missy took the backstory of a friend turned rival Master and took it to new heights elevating the whole nature of the rivalry to one of perspective influencing what appeared right and wrong and became one of the most philosophically provocative villains I’ve seen, risking her life to save the Doctor, while not identifying with his affinity for humans.
The Master becoming a woman unleashes insight into the vulnerability of her insanity and attachment with the Doctor that was previously glimpsed, but inaccessible when he was male. And Missy was every bit as self assured, successful and dangerous as the Master, if not more. I don’t think there is a point discussing the Jodie era master, who is little more than a narrative gimmick to be a… narrator on the set.
River Song added another complex and thought provoking layer to the romance between time travelers by encountering him in the opposite chronology and being a powerful character herself who even flew the Doctor’s TARDIS better than him. She met him to assassinate him and was never his companion in a manner that would imply domesticity on her part. Indeed, she is shown to be bisexual, polyamorous and I don’t know what the word is for someone who has relationships with multiple species. And she is a hero in her own right and a super sexy daredevil without conforming to the “sexy” or “warrior” bodytype. She is archaeologist, pulled off some impressive wins single handedly killed most of the Silence to rescue her mother and an escape artist who routinely fooled male characters.
The presence of River Song allows an exploration into the Doctor allowing himself to love without fearing the mortality of a loved one, yet he already knew how she died. It allowed a portrayal of what a relationship between two time travelers would be like, when each experienced events in different sequences and has had profound moments with different incarnations of the Doctor when every viewer wanted love like that.
There were spin-offs of Doctor Who based on female and queer characters (and a Tin Dog and Daleks, but I digress).
The Doctor’s TARDIS that makes everything possible was portrayed as female the one time it had human form. And what a phenomenal portrayal that was. If there had to be a female Doctor, I’d have imagined someone like Suranne Jones playing Idris/TARDIS/Sexy. Powerful, quirky, somewhat disoriented like a newly regenerated Doctor and so so very charismatic and superbly talented.
All of this put the story first and evolution enhanced the storytelling by making it a part of the reality of the show and thus the culture for its fans to emulate. If the idea is to influence society toward better inclusion, surely compelling storytelling has to be ground zero for the ideas to be something people aspire to and absorb.
Enter toxic feminism. Why is the Doctor a white man? Why can’t it be a woman? There is nothing inherently wrong with this either if the showrunner wanted to do it, but it has to come from a positive, creative eo-evolution, not one of vengeful, sanctimonious destruction and appropriation of history to suit a political agenda. The show had done so many things, it could just as easily have had a fuss free female Doctor. Instead, what happened vandalism through moral exhibitionism.
Lack of respect for the achievements of the show
Before we saw anything of Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor on the screen, her interviews revealed that the Female Doctor was necessary because the existing culture celebrated the white male gaze or some such crap. Essentially, the legendary actors who played previous Doctors and the people she was supposed to entertain were toxic. Why did she want a role on such a crap show?
The promo introducing her is pretty on the nose with her standing as a glass ceiling shatters over her with interesting visual effects and she looks at the camera and goes “oops” and the words “Its about time” appear on the screen. As promos go, it showed a moment that certainly caught attention and interest. But, to use the same metaphor, there is no point to shattering glass ceilings if she won’t rise above that limitation, and stand under its limit anyway to be showered by shards of glass.
A show that runs that long has done something right that you are trying to appropriate and hand ownership to someone who detests the creation. To add insult to injury, she also said that she had not watched the episodes of previous Doctors to avoid imitation and bring a fresh interpretation to the role.
So let us get this right. When she said the show was about “stories being told through the white male gaze”, she hadn’t seen the episodes. For another perspective, if you employed someone who publicly made derogatory comments about the morality of a project you are a part of and invested your blood, sweat and tears, and then you discover they hadn’t even checked their facts… would they still have your endorsement?
Contrast this with David Tennant, who has played the most popular 10th Doctor on the current run of the show, where in his interviews about getting the role, he spoke of being a Doctor Who fan and his awareness of the long history of the character that he was the custodian of. He has done more to show a softer side of a powerful person, emotional vulnerability, intelligence rather than masculinity as the basis of appeal than anyone else I can think of. His interactions with women (and people in general) both on and off the show are so charismatic, to watch him is to learn.
Humility doesn’t demean a person.
The nail in the coffin of Jodie Whittaker in Doctor Who
Criticism of the show, however harsh, would be forgotten if Jodie had followed her words with a performance that showed them how it is done when it is done right. A fantastic portrayal of the Doctor would have gone down in history as a woman breaking new ground and owning the show. Fans want the Doctor. If she had given them a better Doctor, mission accomplished. All the opinions, would be an unnecessary but well earned swagger.
Swaggering without the achievement to make it work, set her up for a fall. Not only was the performance bad, the sanctimoniousness had squandered good will for fans to be expected to tolerate it for the love of the show.
Relentlessly shallow performances, lack of context of the character’s history resulting in lack of nuance and terrible writing have plagued her run. Long admired qualities of the Doctor, such as kindness, avoiding unnecessary murder and so on were made optional. The confidence and charm of the Doctor were discarded as Jodie rendered a pathetic doormat of a Doctor hesitating to seek the company of companions, where every Doctor has excitedly invited them with the promise of adventure, with the notable exception of Peter Capaldi, who shared vulnerability and asked for Clara’s support.
Jodie’s rendering of a Doctor is less a powerful Time Lord alien in human form offering an opportunity to join him on adventures and more of a modern woman longing for, but fearing the rejection of her colleagues. That too she’s fearing rejection in her own TARDIS!
Her companions too stand about too scared to own the scene, indifferent to events unless they have lines to say. I cannot imagine a Rose or Donna or Clara or River Song just standing around expressionless and watching the Doctor talk endlessly without involvement and reactions.
The relentless talking itself is bizarre and really puts the telling into storytelling. Over and over till you want to scream that storytelling for a video format is supposed to be SHOWING. Not just a script reading performance.
Contrast this with Peter Capaldi in Heaven Sent, single-handedly enacting something as abstract as grief without giving it words, wrenching the viewer through his torment and depth of his feelings for his companion. Forget narrative crutches, for the most part, he doesn’t even have another character to interact with. Yet, he doesn’t need to tell anyone that he is in timeless agony. We feel it. David Tennant/Doctor’s feelings for Rose Tyler or at River Song’s death in his first meeting with her after realizing she would come to mean much to him. Intangible, deep, difficult to portray – enacted, not narrated.
Jodie is an actress. A good one. So why in the world is Jodie Whittaker doing that bizarre rendering of the Doctor as a clueless chatterbox doing little, feeling nothing and describing all? The Doctor is a Time Lord who has visited countless planets and cultures throughout time. Given the penchant for a human companion, he’s spent more time interacting with humans than most humans, given their limited lifespans. He is consistently witty, intelligent and extremely adept at handling people. Eccentricity is not inability.
Whether it is the classic Doctor turning a full circle when asked to turn around at gunpoint or whether it is the newly regenerated David Tennant’s Doctor, telling the genocidal villain to wait while he takes the time to find out whether his hair is “ginger”, the Doctor’s uncaring attitude is not inability, it is a snub. And it is never directed toward those who he cares about, or the vulnerable unless as a mistake.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor does a twist on this when he repeatedly makes unflattering comments about Clara, but never fails her at a moment when she needs him.
Never be cruel, never be cowardly.
But then, if Jodie had considered previous portrayals of the character worthy of respect, she’d perhaps not be in this mess. If she took this role to portray a powerful woman Doctor, what immature nonsense is this?
I have avoided quotes so far, because it will just get too long, but I think two simple quotes make the point much better than listing the countless details in which the Doctor’s character itself was vandalized.
This is about the Doctor’s relationship with their companions. It is the core of the show. Kindness and a deep bond is such a huge part of it.
Peter Capaldi played the Doctor directly before Jodie Whittaker. This is from a scene where a grieving Clara hurts the Doctor after the man she loves is killed and the Doctor can’t alter the timeline to prevent his death after it has already happened.
The Doctor: You betrayed me. You betrayed my trust, you betrayed our friendship, you betrayed everything I ever stood for. You let me down!
Clara: Then why are you helping me?
The Doctor: Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?
This is after Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor’s companion, Graham shares his fears about his cancer returning.
The Doctor : I should say a reassuring thing now, shouldn’t I?
Graham O’Brien : Yeah, probably.
The Doctor : I’m still quite socially awkward. So, I’m just gonna subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then in a minute I’ll think of something that I should’ve said that might have been helpful.
Who in the world thinks someone confessing to a fear of cancer is a good time to not care? Truly, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it is indifference. Jodie plays an indifferent, self-obsessed Doctor, focused on projecting a social awkwardness as a pointed non-response.
This landmark portrayal in the name of representing women that shows her as shallow irritates me. I don’t say “Now, I am irritated, so I will make twenty tweets and write a blog post about how much it disturbs me.” I just do it. This is the blog post.
Social awkwardness would perhaps be wordlessly portrayed because she didn’t know what to say. Or, as Jim Parsons famously does as Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, when he recognizes the need to comfort, but has no skills to do it. He pats the shoulder and says “there, there” as his mother has taught him – using the sole tool in his kit, which can show profound compassion as well as his own tragic limitation without giving an inch on the front of comedy.
All the sanctimonious social justice moralizing cannot compensate for the lack of simple compassion.
There are countless such instances pointed out by far more dedicated fans than me, and I truly don’t want to watch her work any more than I already did in my mistaken hope that a woman playing the Doctor would bring a new perspective and insight to the role. I will just leave you with this 5 hour long video that is an excellent and insightful analysis of the mishandling that resulted in the disaster that has brought the show’s ratings and reviews to an unprecedented low.
Other catastrophic damage includes the Timeless Children where Chris Chibnall basically an axe to the trunk of the show, by rewriting its entire history. The Doctor’s origins are explained as being a “Timeless Child” (black, female) from another dimension who was found to be able to regenerate herself. She was tortured and experimented on to give the same qualities to create the Time Lords of Gallifrey.
For a brief understanding of how that storyline changes the show, here is a very short list of implications. Many worthier ones than me have done extensive anguished analysis.
- The First Doctor of the classic era wasn’t the First Doctor! Aiming that axe straight to the root of the tree. It can’t even be argued that only specific regenerations are the Doctor, because the Fugitive Doctor is clearly a Doctor incarnation that predates the First Doctor.
- The Doctor is not a Time Lord from Gallifrey. The Doctor is a Timeless Child from another dimension. Pretty much rewrites the identity of the main character of a show that is older than most of its viewers. It is like saying Superman is not from Krypton.
- The Fugitive Doctor having the TARDIS shaped like a Police Box wreaks further havoc with the timeline, because the TARDIS had a chameleon circuit that let it blend in with its surroundings, which was broken in the first episode of the old show after the First Doctor stole the TARDIS. Since then, the TARDIS can no longer alter its appearance to match surroundings and looks like the Police Box no matter when or where it is. So the TARDIS shouldn’t have been in that form before that, and if the Fugitive Doctor happened after that, it doesn’t explain why the Doctor doesn’t remember her, since the continuity is accounted for, before they went around inserting women into history.
- The Doctor is not a man. What this means for the various wives, the granddaughter who was his companion in his first season – the classic one – or the countless fans who have romantic fantasies is all up for reevaluation. Many are not bothering to invest that time into updating what their heart now feels, choosing to reject rather than negate their feelings. Essentially, this experiment pits the Whovian loyalties for a show against their loyalties for the central character and the inspiring portrayals of the Doctor over time win, leaving fans begging for the show to be cancelled rather than mutilated like this.
- If the Time Lords get their abilities from the Timeless child’s DNA, the regenerative powers of the Doctor’s Wife, River Song, can’t be because she was conceived by Amy Pond and Rory while in the Time Vortex. So how does the show plan to explain them short of incest, given that River’s husband, the Doctor, was the sole person with Time Lord genes around her mother, Amy when she got pregnant? Combine that with the much disliked brief sexual interest Amy showed in the doctor and you see how this gets really ugly for someone with an investment in the details of the show’s history?
- The portrayal of a black girl who regenerates into a powerful white male is so far from the reality of black people, that it doesn’t even make sense from a social justice perspective. It literally says that black people have everything a white person does. Alternatively, it makes the Doctor even uglier – a little black girl tortured and exploited by a white woman to create the Doctor – powerful white men and one white woman too enjoying the fruits of her torture now that equality has reached the Time Lords while the black woman Doctor too was erased from memory. Literally all the doctors we love being born from the pain of torturing an innocent black child and erasing her non-white past, while they go around saving everyone else. THE SHOW IS EVIL!
While Jodie isn’t directly responsible for this, she’s the face of it. And she probably didn’t know enough character history to realize the scenes she was filming were catastrophic to her own character’s identity. For example, she isn’t the 13th Doctor, actually. She might as well be 1019th. No way to tell.
The Result of the destruction of Doctor Who
It is time to accept that Jodie did not care about the show. Nor did the showrunner, Chris Chibnall. This has caused anguish and trauma among fans, but for me, it is less complicated. I can watch some other shows. There is endless fascinating insight on “what went wrong” type videos on YouTube, which are fascinating to the psychology and sociology junkie in me. I finally got around to writing this series of posts on popular TV shows and how misplaced activism prevents them from accepting feedback and learning from mistakes.
A toxic chauvinism masquerades as feminism when it makes unjustified attacks on the basis of gender.
But what does it mean for the objective behind this mess? If the intention was to send a message that “a woman can be The Doctor just as well as a man”, I don’t think that was achieved. Instead, the clear message seems to be “a woman may appropriate any successful effort created by men as her due and will ruin it”.
This leads us to the question of the necessity of a female Doctor from a social justice perspective. What makes anyone think that it expresses a confidence in the capabilities of women that they need men to create successful characters for them to appropriate in order to “succeed” just as well as men?
Is this even respectful to women? Is it even TRUE?
How does this respect or in any way empower women to dehumanize them as drop-in replacements for men as though femininity or masculinity adds nothing to a character or its relationship with those who appreciate it?
Jodie hadn’t watched previous Doctors, but fans today aren’t watching her episodes.
The saddest thing in this is that this is NOT the impact of women on the world or society or groups or fandoms. This is the impact of militant toxic activism bloated on its own self-importance that values nothing beyond its own exposition. Whether accurate or not.