Doctor Who will start airing its eleventh series on October 6. Well, it’s the eleventh series since its 2005 return to BBC. I have some thoughts and concerns about the latest changes. Doctor Who isn’t new to significant changes, but casting a woman in a role that has been played by a man since 1963 may have more consequences than producers realize. Or it may not. It’s hard to say.
Jodie Whittaker is the actress who has to convince the old guard of fans who are skeptical of the casting that this is not going to lead to its second full cancellation.
Doctor Who is a program I have followed avidly and probably too obsessively for years. I started with the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, when it was airing on the Houston PBS affiliate in the 1980’s. I have since collected the novels, a few comic books, and a vast amount of audio dramas that have been produced in the past twenty years. There are probably more noble pursuits in life, but I have fun with this one.
One of the arguments for this gender alteration for the Doctor was that the show was always about change. It’s about more than that. The fans don’t generally want to see the familiar police box shape of the TARDIS change. Doctor Who was more about variety than massive change. Also, the younger fans may not know that the practice of changing the lead actor and calling it regeneration in the show really started out of a sense of necessity when William Hartnell had gotten too ill to continue with the role beyond the first three years. It was an ingenious thought to have a character whose origins were unknown but clearly extraterrestrial be able to change his form if he were severely injured or otherwise near death. Of course, the practice continued for over two decades in the program’s original run.
Between the original run, one television movie in 1996, and the current version of the series, there have been twelve men who played the Doctor. Now, casting a woman may work out, but I do think there are some pitfalls that current showrunner, Chris Chibnall, may want to consider.
I will go ahead and admit that casting a woman in this role is far from my favorite decision for my favorite program. Despite that, I will continue to watch the show and try to assess Whittaker’s performance as fairly as I can. I still hope that the show is able to survive and with elements that I have managed to love throughout the years I have been engaged. I was also put off by some of rationale that went along with the casting decision. The thought was that the show needed a major change to freshen it up. The casting of any new actor would be enough to freshen it up. I enjoyed the recent Doctors in the form of Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, and David Tennant in recent years, but I think some opportunities were squandered during those years when the writers kept having the Doctor in these overly contemplative and doubtful moods. In the classic episodes, the focus was more on the adventure than the relationships and aftermath of traveling through time and space with the Doctor. I used to think that the show missed some important opportunities to tug the heartstrings a bit, but now I think the writers in the current version are trying too hard for that. Maybe I am just never going to be satisfied, but as much as I love the show, it is still just a science fiction/fantasy show. It sometimes has important messages that resonate, but I liked it because the idea and presentation of a hero such as the Doctor was so unusual. I loved the flippancy he would display when walking into a threatening alien menace. I loved the confidence he had in his own genius, even if the science was totally made up and incomprehensible at times. I loved the variety in locales and stories. The show was sometimes able to touch on various genres, particularly in the novels and audio dramas. I loved it.
I do think it is possible that the show can survive this latest casting maneuver. A recent clip of the first episode with Whittaker seemed a little reassuring. The change can be explained in the narrative of the show very easily. I hope Chibnall can resist some tendencies I suspect are there to over-indulge the feminist opportunities.
I think there needs to be a very definite effort to have Whittaker show more of the Doctor’s familiar traits. I want this new Doctor to have the same flippancy and ingenuity as seen before. She needs to be eccentric and funny without trying to be too outlandish. I think it would be neat to see her Doctor bring back more of the tinkerer that has been seen in previous incarnations. I also want the change in gender to be addressed as minimally as possible. It can’t be ignored entirely. I get that. Actually much of what I want in this new Doctor would be m preference even if another man had been cast.
I still don’t think casting a woman was all that necessary or really even a great idea. I do hope that I am wrong, and the show somehow survives. I hope I still find aspects to enjoy. I am not a fan of all of the directions took in the past, but I hung on and found some pleasure in even those periods. I don’t think the Third Doctor should have been exiled and grounded on Earth, but I still love Jon Pertwee during his time in the role. I can hopefully be open minded enough to enjoy this new era regardless of my doubts.
I will be reviewing the episodes as this new series progresses…unless the show god in a direction that will finally shake my loyalty. In that case, I still have the novels and audio dramas with the previous male Doctors.