Leaves On The Cultural Line – A Doctor Stands Down

A Time Lord exits – but does it matter, and if so, why?

Jodie Whittaker has decided to stand down as the Doctor.

Rather than debating the merits or otherwise of her era, it’s been interesting to see the press reaction to the news that the first female Doctor has decided to leave on a schedule pretty much in line with the previous two Doctors. Sure, there will be fewer episodes in her third season, but there’s a pandemic on – there’s not a lot you can do about that really. Otherwise, though, she’s done her shift and it will be time for a new Doctor (cue much rampant speculation and little-to-no accuracy) and a new showrunner. Still. The news made a few front pages. The Guardian went with the relatively staid and accurate “Jodie Whittaker Quits Doctor Who”. OK. “Time’s Up Already: Jodie Whittaker To Leave Doctor Who” says The Independent. So far, so accurate. “Woke Doctor Who Quits The TARDIS”, says the Daily Telegraph. Hmm. One of these things is not like the other.

The controversy around the idea of a female Doctor has been kicking about since Tom Baker hung up his scarf, but it took until Whittaker’s casting in 2017 for it to become a reality. 2017 was very much not, however, the same environment that saw Peter Davison (rather than the always-rumoured Joanna Lumley) take over the lead back in the 20th century. Much of the criticism around Whittaker’s casting that came from the right had to do with “runaway woke” * or for the show becoming “too politically correct”. This requires a quite staggering ignorance of the show itself, but over and above that, Whittaker’s casting became a sort of proxy for the largely-fictional “culture war” the right seem determined to invent. It’s a fairly old technique – invent a straw-man bad guy (well, a straw-woman in this case, but you get the idea), point at it and shout about how terribly marginalised it makes you feel, then over-focus on that as if one TV show making a faintly progressive decision somehow speaks to the culture at large. Straightforward propaganda manipulation, in other words.

But, as mentioned, looking at Doctor Who in this way does rather require a large degree of ignorance about the show. If you take Whittaker’s first season, when all these criticisms were being articulated, obviously there’s her casting – except we’re already well aware of the fact that Time Lords can change gender. The Master becoming Missy is the most visible example of it prior to Whittaker, but there are others, including an on-screen male-to-female regeneration in the episode “Hell Bent” which ruffled almost exactly zero feathers outside of Doctor Who fandom. Then there’s Mandip Gill’s casting, but she’s not the first woman of colour to be cast as a companion – that would be Freema Ageyman, back in 2007. There’s Tosin Cole too, but he’s not the first man of colour to be cast – Noel Clarke back in 2005 fits the bill there, in the very first episode of the new series. And there’s Bradley Walsh’s Graham, unusually old for a Doctor Who companion but otherwise a fairly standard white-guy companion – except white-guy companion isn’t remotely the norm for Doctor Who, since there’s only been one other since the show was brought back (which would be Rory) and you’d need to go all the way back to back to Turlough in 1983’s “Mawdryn Undead” to find an example prior to that.

You get the point. Doctor Who didn’t suddenly become unspeakably woke in 2017. All the elements which got the Daily Telegraph’s knickers in such a twist were already things the show was doing anyway. Yes, Whittaker’s casting was a very visible example of a gender-swapped lead, but it had been inevitable for years that there was going to be a female Doctor so prentending that this was some kind of woke-war just isn’t going to cut it. Stephen Moffat laid the groundwork for it, rumours had been flying since 1980 that the next Doctor would be a woman (really – it’s been going on that long) and Chris Chibnall finally ripped off the band-aid and cast Whittaker. That very high visibility of Whittaker is certainly what allows the Telegraph (and though I’m singling them out, they are by no means the only ones) to use it as their straw-man argument, but really, when would that not be the case? It’s frankly amazing they can get out of bed in the morning such are the perceived attacks on them.

“Perceived” being very much the operative word here, of course. Those on the right love to throw around expressions like “snowflake culture” but give them a woman as the lead in a ropey old sci-fi show and you’d think the Barbarians were at the gates of Rome. Is their culture so fragile that casting a woman in a prominent role on TV is somehow going to bring down the whole of white Anglo-Saxon culture? Does one woman somehow wipe out the twelve men – all white, all British – who have occupied the top spot previous to her? No of course not, but by basically pretending it will it gives them the opportunity to push their agenda, and that agenda is one based pretty much entirely on exclusion. And by over-focussing on Whittaker’s casting (and the barely-restrained glee at her departure despite the fact – to repeat the point made earlier – her leaving is time-wise in line with Capaldi and Smith) it allows them to amplify that agenda way out of proportion to the actual scale of what’s going on.

Anyway, most of the perceived “fears” about casting a woman never materialised anyway. It didn’t stop the Doctor travelling back into Earth’s history, neither did it stop the writers from finding inventive new things to do with the Doctor. While it’s fair to say the writing on Whittaker’s two seasons (thus far) hasn’t really been on a par with previous seasons that’s got nothing to do with the supposed “wokeness” of the scripts, it’s more that Chris Chibnall just hasn’t proven to be a particularly effective showrunner. There’s been some great episodes – “It Takes You Away”, “Demons Of The Punjab”, “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati”, “Fugitive Of The Judoon” – but as an ongoing series it certainly fees like Whittaker’s time in the TARDIS has been lacking somewhat, and the general consensus seems to be “she’s great, it’s a shame we wont get more of the 13th Doctor with a different showrunner.” Which, yes. But the relative weakness of Whittaker’s run also comes at the worst possible time because, again, it allows the conflation of “wokeness” with the fact the show isn’t written as well as it has been in the past. There’s no connection between the two, but it’s very easy to make it look like there is – especially for a newspaper audience not especially invested in the idea of digging beyond facile surface points and cheap point-scoring.

Whatever happens next – whether we get another female Doctor, or a Doctor of colour, or whether we go back to default white male – I suspect time might, in the long run, be kind to the Chibnall era. Not for the episodes – the writing has too often fallen way short of what has been required, but a lot of the impulses have felt creatively right even as they haven’t been fully realised. Having no returning monsters in Whittaker’s first season, and no overaching plot, was a good idea, even if the scripts weren’t often strong enough to realise that ambition. Ashad – the Lone Cyberman – is as resonant a villain as we’ve had in the new show. The shock of “Fugitive Of The Judoon” really did land, even if the follow-through didn’t work (though there may be more to come on this). Whittaker’s casting might cause ripples now but even a few years from now I doubt it will be greeted with anything more than a shrug – “really, there was such a fuss about that?” The Chibnall era of the show won’t ever go down as a classic era, and that’s fair enough, but for breaching a lot of the barriers for the first time it may well prove to be more “influential template” rather than “good in its own right”. And, again, fair enough. The one thing almost everyone can agree about, however, is just how great Whittaker is as a Doctor.

And that, too, is absolutely fair enough. She’s amazing, and away from all the tedious arguments about political correctness, dodgy writing or a truncated third season, that’s what will stand. Whittaker is, above and beyond anything else, a bloody great Doctor and she deserves all the recognition in the world for that. She can proudly stand alongside all twelve (or thirteen) of her predecessors.

And alongside whatever comes next.

* I love it when people use the word “woke”. It means you can pretty much ignore anything else they’re going to say, which is a real time-saver.

One thought on “Leaves On The Cultural Line – A Doctor Stands Down”

  1. What I’ve always learned to appreciate most about Doctor Who is how the truest of fans can always find something to realistically enjoy. Even if it’s just one small element within a story that would be otherwise unsatisfying or forgettable. For the casting of the titular role, whether it’s the first young Doctor: Peter Davison, the first Doctor to kiss a companion: Paul McGann, the first female Doctor or the first black Doctor: Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin, so long as they each have a sufficient freedom in the role (in the go-with-the-flow manner that has always worked best for Doctor Who), then they can reflect the best values of the story. This was certainly so for Tom Baker even in the ailing latter half of his era. So I always applauded Jodie for giving her best, in whatever freedom she was given by Chibnall. I hope that her era (at least on TV, depending on whether she reprises the 13th Doctor via Big Finish) ends on a rewarding note. Thank you for your article.

    Liked by 1 person

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