With all this Doctor Who and Game of Thrones kerfuffle, I'm learning that "being out of touch" isn't nearly as bad as my young self believed
— Jim Bliss (@JimBliss23) July 18, 2017
I got three and a half episodes into Season 2 of Game of Thrones. It was only sheer bloody-mindedness that kept me going that long. Even now I find it remarkable that a show doing so much to overload the senses and demand the attention of the viewer should so completely fail to engage me. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying it’s an Emperor’s New Suit thing. Enough people, whose opinions I value, are enjoying Game of Thrones for me to assume there’s something worthwhile there… it’s just not for me.
It’s not quite the same with Doctor Who. As a kid it was one of a handful of shows I watched (the TV was rarely on in our house) and I enjoyed the way the Christopher Ecclestone reboot played with that nostalgia, nodded to it, but didn’t wallow in it. It brought a fresh perspective, and something that could have gone terribly wrong turned out surprisingly well.
Sadly — for me — that fresh perspective ended up being something of a one-trick pony. Unlike Game of Thrones I didn’t actively resent Doctor Who for taking up time that could be more enjoyably spent watching paint dry; but even by the end of Ecclestone’s run I was finding it all a wee bit empty. Over the passing years I dropped in and out; paying vague attention, following for a few episodes then losing interest. Peter Capaldi was good and I probably saw most of his run… but I can’t say I retained much of it. It’s all a bit “enjoy the eccentricity but otherwise just let the silliness wash over you”. The silliness, sadly, generally meant the plot and a good 70% of the dialogue.
The other 30% — a lot of which involved Capaldi and Matt Lucas complaining at one another — was a lot of fun though.
Again, I’m not calling out the show… plenty of people love it. Just because it doesn’t hit the mark with me personally does not, by itself, make something an artistic failure. Much as I might have believed that when I was 17. Besides, it is — at its core — a kids show. That I get anything from it at all is pretty good going for something whose target demo. is 35 years younger than me.
In summary then… I’m vaguely disappointed Capaldi is leaving, but only in the sense I’d be vaguely disappointed if my local Chinese Takeaway stopped doing their spiced plum sauce — it’s lovely and all, but I’ve probably only actually ordered it twice in the past couple of years. Hell, for all I know, they stopped doing it months ago.
But a Timelady? What gives!?
Yes, I’m aware “Timelord” is a gender-neutral term… I’ve been watching the argument rage on twitter. I’m also aware there’s nothing in Doctor Who canon to suggest Timelords cannot switch sex. In fact, the regeneration of The Doctor’s nemesis (The Master) into a female body a few seasons back clearly sets a precedent (I wasn’t watching at that point, but it’s been a semi-regular plot point during Capaldi’s shenanigans).
That said, The Master’s transformation was recent enough that it could be viewed purely as a foreshadowing device for The Doctor’s transformation. So it doesn’t itself set precedent so much as pave the ground for precedent to be set. It’s part of the same plot-arc. Or so one could argue.
I mention all this because there are people out there upset at the notion of a female Doctor Who, and I would view that upset quite differently if the internal logic of the show was undermined by this plot development. If previous seasons had established beyond doubt, as a plot device, that male Timelords always regenerated in male bodies… then… well, I still wouldn’t be outraged by the decision to go against canon, but I could completely understand hardcore fans feeling quite miffed.
The fact that most hardcore fans seem pleased (or at worst nonplussed — “who is she?”) while most of the criticism seems to come from people who open their tweets with “haven’t watched in years, but…” tells me — a dabbler — that a female Doctor is not contravening some vital aspect of Whovian lore. It’s not like Walter White suddenly shows up as Jimmy McGill’s best friend in Better Call Saul (obviously there’s few direct analogies for a Doctor Who regeneration in television… I’m just illustrating how jarring an actual plot contradiction could be… the point being; that’s not what’s happening here).
No Ordinary Casting Decision
Let’s be honest though, this is clearly going against form, even if not against canon. One might certainly be forgiven for thinking male Timelords always come back in male bodies… 12 male Doctors before the first female? If that’s anywhere close to Timelord average, then it’s probably not a recipe for success as a species (though arguably a half-decent mechanism for population control within an advanced and extremely long-lived species… so who knows? It could certainly be phrased so as to make more sense than half the dialogue fans accept from the writers every week). That’s not my point though… there’s clearly a bit more to all this than the internal narrative consistency of a Saturday-teatime show for kids.
For the avoidance of doubt, I’m totally on-board with a female Doctor Who (I can think of few actors — male or female — who’d be better in the role than Tilda Swinton). And I’ll certainly watch the first few episodes and see if Jodie Whittaker retains my attention more than Tennant or Smith. I can’t say whether I think she’d be good in the role as I don’t really know her. I did see Attack The Block but it was years ago. I recall a central female character, but the movie as a whole didn’t leave a lasting impression… “alien fur-balls attack a London council flat where Nick Frost is growing some weed” is just about all I remember. Maybe she’ll be a fun Doctor, but she’s got a hard act to follow in Capaldi and I fully expect to return to dipping in and out, as I did with Tennant and Smith.
So what’s the issue?
I saw a tweet earlier but I won’t be linking to it. I’m not engaging directly with any individual on this — just with the general issues — but if you search twitter using appropriate keywords, you will find plenty of tweets expressing this opinion. Anyway, this one had a screen-capture of a number of very silly comments on the Daily Mail website objecting to a female Doctor Who. The tweet mocked and lampooned them, suggesting it was absurd for grown adults to get worked up about who was going to play a character on an evening TV show for children.
The same person then re-tweeted a video in which a young girl reacts to hearing the news of a female Doctor Who. The girl is obviously delighted. They added a message to the re-tweet… “This is why it’s important”.
And that irritated me. I’m sorry, but it did. Not the second tweet / re-tweet. That’s not what I’m saying. And not the first one either. It was the two combined… the intellectual inconsistency made the first seem like a lousy cheap shot and added a layer of cynicism to the second. Either this is a trivial casting decision on some kids show, and people should be mocked for taking it seriously… or it’s important at some cultural level and worthy of celebration. But it’s not both.
There’s a nice Bill Hicks routine about flag-burning…
– “hey buddy! My Daddy died for that flag!”
– “Well, I bought mine. Sorry. They sell ’em at K-Mart. 3 bucks… you’re in, you’re out. No violence necessary…”
It’s a good bit. The Hicks backlash is well underway — with carefully edited compilations from routines now almost 3 decades old, highlighting his most culturally insensitive material — but I still love the guy. And that’s a funny flag-burning bit. Which is why I feel bad deconstructing it…
… but while it’s possible to coherently argue that a flag is just a piece of cloth with a coloured pattern on it; or that a flag is a physical symbol of a set of shared values; you can’t argue both simultaneously. And let’s be honest, if you’re out there burning a flag it’s not because you’re engaged in an aesthetic critique of the palette. You’re doing it precisely because it’s a physical symbol of a set of shared values. You’re doing it because somebody’s Daddy died for the damn thing.
And no, of course I’m not bloody saying flag-burning should be illegal. Christ people!
I’m just saying the “3 bucks in K-Mart” line is funny, but doesn’t actually constitute a legitimate argument if someone gets upset when you burn a flag.
I thought this post was about Doctor Who…?
It’s the same bloody thing with a female Doctor Who, right?
OK. So it’s not the same thing — but even you have to admit there’s a solid analogy in there. The casting of Jodie Whittaker was met with a great deal of celebration by people who are not young girls in twitter videos. Within hours of the announcement every mainstream media website in the UK, and a few here in Ireland, had opinion columns and think-pieces about “the female Doctor Who“. Some heralded it as a significant cultural milestone — others suggesting, “nah, not so much”. And the usual tabloid suspects screamed bloody murder. In that context, it is a lousy cheap shot to dismiss the objections of others as “silly” or as placing too much importance on a kids’ show.
Especially when you yourself acknowledge how important that particular show might be in shaping the cultural landscape of children (and adults).
That’s not to say we shouldn’t dismiss the objections of Daily Mail commenters when they’re ridiculous. And they are. In fact, if someone is objecting to something and using the Daily Mail website to do it…
… OK, so on a cosmic level, mocking them probably isn’t a lousy cheap shot.
But you do see the basic internal inconsistency, right?
And do you also see the downside of a female Doctor Who? Because there is one.
Whether it outweighs the upsides is another discussion entirely, but it is there and I honestly don’t think it requires a subscription to The Mail or the donning of a fedora to make it.
It’s very much linked to the video of the young girl. Because it struck me that it’s totally possible the mirror of that reaction took place somewhere, with a young boy suddenly feeling let-down by something he loved. And before you start in with the “but boys have so many iconic cultural characters to identify with…” let me politely ask you to slam on the brakes for a goddamn second and think carefully about something. Head back to the start of this post and recall the bit about me watching Doctor Who as a kid. And while the cultural landscape has changed significantly for young boys since the dark days of the late 1970s, I bet one thing has stayed roughly the same… damn near every fictional character for us to identify with, as witty and smart as they might be, damn near all of them were handy with a sword, or a gun, or their fists.
Doctor Who may not be entirely unique among iconic male leading characters within “action fiction” for his evangelical anti-violence position and unwavering confidence that either diplomacy or ingenuity is the best route. But I’m betting if you took a ratio of both male and female characters who espouse that philosophy versus a “hit it til it’s fixed” alternative, you’ll find that far from having a galaxy of stars to choose from, you may well be robbing many shy, quiet, nerdy 9 year old boys of literally their only heroic figure who doesn’t leave blood on the floor every time you meet them.
Again. Not saying that’s a valid reason to be outraged at a female Doctor Who. And I very much doubt many of the outraged people are outraged because of it. I’ll be tuning in and giving Whittaker’s run a chance. I really hope I enjoy it. But I do feel a little bit sad for that hypothetical 9 year old boy. Can’t help it. And if it had been up to me… I’m not at all sure I would have made that decision.