And there it is.
Like many current events, the reaction to “the backlash” far outweighs the backlash itself: nowadays the revolution will be televised, but nobody will tune in. Revolution is clean out of style. And in this sense, the BBC is way late to the party: they sex-swapped the Doctor’s venerable enemy, the Master, and pretty much nobody cared. And that follows years of other substantial changes to beloved characters the world over, none of which really have done much – either they’ve gone back to the old status quo ante, or else the changes killed the story – and after enough of that, well, the law of diminishing returns sets in. As a means of drumming up some welcome controversy to goose flagging viewership numbers, the Lady Doctor thus fails on two counts: it’s not all that controversial, and it entirely misses the reason why viewers have been falling away. And that reason can really be summed in three words:
STORY IS KING.
So, as for this change? Well, if it serves the story, sure, it could work, and Jodie Whittaker has a fine reputation in her field. But increasingly, it serves merely as the punchline to a joke nobody is telling. I doubt that THIS is the time we’ll all finally laugh. And on those terms alone, this is probably something the BBC should not have done.
But of course, they didn’t do it for story reasons, and that’s another substantial objection…
Loet’s start with the obvious: this ain’t my show, right? If I want to do something my way, I can darned well create my own fictional hero and have that universe gain enough cache and fan passion to merit such a discussion, and run that universe as I see fit. I have no right to demand that my way be canon for all.
That being said, well, very few of us are going to be so blessed as to create something like Doctor Who. Far more of us are simply fans of things, who like those things not to be unduly messed with in service to anything lesser than themselves. Sure, the creators have the right to ruin their stories: the example that comes to mind at once is that of Douglas Adams, who ended his Hitchhiker’s Guides stories perfectly with Book Four, but who decided to burn it all to the ground in the entirely unnecessary Book Five – one of the biggest middle fingers to a fanbase in the history of modern storytelling, as if he was mocking all of us for having invested time and love into what he’d written.
And it’s in this sense that I think I am justified in discussing this merely as a fan of the show in particular, and as an amateur storyteller myself. Adams had every right to do what he liked with HGttG, but one also feels that he was wrong to do it… in the same sense that a man who gave away land for a public park, and planted a forest there, would be wrong to simply clear-cut the whole thing because he didn’t like the shade.
Remember: the whole point of storytelling is that STORY IS KING. The author is thus not an absolute monarch in that kingdom, but a steward, a subordinate to the demands of the fictional kingdom. It is better if every creator thought of himself as a mere court recorder faithfully recounting the stirring deeds of the realm, than a puppeteer who masterminds the course of their history.
In that sense, I feel that the current stewards of Doctor Who are making a serious error with this choice, not because they’ve sex-swapped the Doctor, but because they are clearly doing so in service to something that A) diminishes the story when B) there were other, better options. Fans felt the same way when they decided to make Captain America a servant of his age-old enemy, Hydra; they felt the same way about all the dumb changes foisted on the characters in the Star Trek reboot; hell, they’d feel the same way about James Bond suddenly adopting Batman’s “I don’t kill bad guys” persona. It’s not about sex-swapping the main character, but rug-pulling the audience.
I have a side-interest in this as a fan of the Classic Who, and someone who has committed fan fiction in the Who-verse (mea maxima culpa). I’ve thought more about this than I have about, say, Thor or the Ghostbusters or anything of the other Diversity Quota story arcs; further, I first started to think about this for reasons that had nothing to do AT ALL with whether a lady could be the Doctor. It was more about the modern Who stories trying to gussy up some romance between Nine and Rose and Ten and… well, whomever.
Objections to such pairings often fell into the category of “LOL angry nurdz hate icky girls grow up you prudes HAW HAW.” (Those who complain that this is a gross simplification – your objection is noted. I can only reply that your objection really is grossly simple, and a means to paint any thoughtful objection as solely motivated by selfishness or priggishness. I get to mock your strawman.) However, it seems obvious to me that the true objection is that the Doctor is a Time Lord. In the Classic Series, it really had nothing whatever to do with sex. His first companion, after all, was his own granddaughter, so certainly he did have some sort of romance once. Then his adventures began with her and two of her schoolteachers, and right off the bat, in the first story, the answer was plainly laid out for all the viewers: the Doctor is a hyper-intelligent time traveler, to whom even well-educated humans are complete dunces who would blunder across time and space wreaking havoc.
What possible romantic interest could he realistically express to a companion who, however gifted, was little better than a nursery schooler to him, and what’s more, was only going to live one lifetime, and that lifetime far shorter than any single one of his regenerations? It would be like marrying a goldfish. He could have proteges, and companions he admired, but by definition he would stand to them as a mentor, a paternal figure.
Note – this dynamic would also apply if it were Romana rollicking about the cosmos with one of the male companions like Sullivan, Jamie, or Adric. It certainly applied to the various Doctors in their dealings with UNIT and The Brigadier, who despite becoming a good friend, was often treated as a trigger-happy dolt when the Doctor was feeling cranky and/or full of himself. They couldn’t really offer her anything in a long-term relationship, any more than the Doctor could find in geniuses like Zoe or Liz Shaw, any more than in a shopgirl like Rose or reporter like Sarah Jane.
Now, with a fellow Time Lord, well, it turns out that the Doctor is a family man after all. I think, however, that it was a mistake to ever try to suss out how that came about, because the mystery fueled fan interest. It was enough to know that it happened, and that with the loss of his people, it was quite unlikely to ever happen again. It makes the hyper-intelligent time traveler a bit more relatable – for all his ability, he’s alone and a part of him can never be consoled for all he’s been through. Otherwise he might just grow more remote and cold.
On to this latest change. What’s the problem with this? Are all objections to Jodie Whittaker merely “LOL angry male nurdz hurt about a lady Doctor grow up HAW HAW”?
No. Maybe a few are, but to pretend they all are (or secretly are) is to do a disservice to the show itself. Remember, Story Is King. In this kingdom like any other, we the peasants have a right to protest the goings-on. (And generally, nobody thinks much of kingdoms that simply crush the peasants underfoot in reply.) In this case, among the many objections is that this change seems much more about being able to laugh at the fans who protest, rather than about anything else. On Twitter, there has been gloating that “THIS IS OURS NOW, WE’RE GOING TO TAKE THEM ALL HAHAHAHA!” So it’s not at all about story.
The objection is that the rug-pulling is always in the same direction: characters always get gritty reboots, or sudden moral ambiguities, or a shocking reveal that is actively contravened by all prior characterization. When an Overwatch comic revealed that everyone’s favorite waifu, Tracer, was lesbian, I don’t think anyone at all cared… it wasn’t a rug-pull or a gotcha, it was just the way they did it. If you suddenly made her a traitor to Overwatch, however… when she was the first to happily return to the team when it restarted, when her cheerful personality, friendship with Winston, and dedication to their cause have all been a large part of the backstory? Yeah, that would be quite a big damned problem and it would probably ruin everything.
Is there any reason why the show could not simply use Susan Foreman or Romana in this role? Carole Ann Ford and Lalla Ward are both still with us, and they could very easily film a regeneration into Ms. Whittaker, and viola – the Doctor returns. (OR IS IT?!? dun dun dah) This opens up a lot of story possibilities that are absent if the Doctor just decides to be witty and pretty and bright this go ’round. The concept of “Doctor light” episodes already exist; take that to its logical conclusion and run an entire arc, and entire season, that way. This also affords Ms. Whittaker the chance to be her own person, not merely an avatar for sticking it to the squares.
I am personally quite fascinated by the idea of a Doctor Who without the Doctor at all, but with someone carrying on his legacy and dealing with his old foes with much less experience, constantly answering questions about her fitness to do his work. You could get all your sermons in with a reasonable in-universe explanation AND give the actress a chance to establish an original character, not simply bogart a different one. Then there would be the inevitable clash should the Doctor himself return. Would he approve? Should she even care? What if he decided to try to undo her work? What if he was even right – what kind of challenge would that pose to our new protagonist when the old one is her opponent? THAT is interesting and a new direction and gives the show a life it hasn’t had since Matt Smith started twiddle-twaddling about with his be-fezzed, fish-sticks-in-custard nonsense.
Ms. Whittaker is quite unfortunate in one sense, in that she might well be an excellent lead for the series, but will be hamstrung by the “I’m the Doctor now, get over it” nonsense she’ll be forced to spew in service to the BBC overlords – who will in turn blame it on “angry male nerds hurt about a lady Doctor HAW HAW.” Quite a disservice both to the character and the actress, in fact.
I suppose that’s my biggest objection – and I am keenly aware that it’s the strongest objection to levy against fan fiction of any kind, and thus my own stories here. I’m calling down fire on my own position, but I can’t help that. It’s the actual situation as I find it. It is just as wrong for the show’s stewards to wreck the franchise as it would be for me. Who am I to glom onto the social standing and built-in cache of the Doctor and not do my own world-building for myself?
My only reply is, again, mea maxima culpa; though in mitigation I would argue that I also introduced new villains, a new companion, and many new races and situations. I borrowed the Doctor because the stories made sense in his universe, in a way that they would not have done without him. I think of them as my effort to be a court recorder of sorts and relay adventures that weren’t in the official histories. And as such, I try to keep in mind that I can’t make of him what I will, like a person writing a sonnet can’t offer 20 lines in ballad format, like a person building a house can’t neglect the foundations or the roof. Most of all, nobody cares because it’s just stories I write for my friends who are fans, and if they like them, great… and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter at all. That is a freedom that the BBC does NOT have, and yet here they are, taking the same shortcut. And it’s not the first time, either.
Tagged: Doctor Who