So Doctor Who is now a Time Lady.
Jodie Whittaker’s casting has been hailed, as Xavier points out, as a great blow for female emancipation in some quarters, and with horror in others.
I don’t really care whether Jodie Whittaker is the first female Doctor Who. It’s been mooted since the ’80s – Tom Baker suggested it in jest, and creator Sydney Newman in earnest.
Both sides (a woman Dr Who is a triumph for feminism! / the BBC’s insidious homosexual liberal agenda is corrupting our youth!) irritate. Besides, identity politics are reductive and divisive; ability and character should matter, not skin colour, chromosomes, or sexual orientation.
The important question, then, is whether Whittaker’s good in the role.
She’s likeable and fun. She’s also a safe choice: a scripted zany, rather like Tennant, Smith, or the later Capaldi, but rather diffident, empathetic. I’d have liked, really, to see someone more formidably eccentric – a Beatrix Lehmann, Sylvia Coleridge, Mary Morris, Elizabeth Spriggs type.
Actually, Sharon D. Clarke, playing Grace, the black granny, would have made a good Doctor. She has warmth, intelligence, and presence.
As for the story… It looks pretty. The script, though, is generic – like Power Rangers, only with better characterization. Males, worryingly, are incompetent – cowardly, curmudgeonly, or homicidal. Chibnall is also prone to big mission statements.
I liked Moffat more than Davies, but had problems with both. RTD was often cheesy emotional, and used the story to hang big emotional setpieces on. (I couldn’t stand Tennant, either.) Moffat’s Dr. Who was insular, more interested in series mythology and fetishizing the Doctor than in exploring the universe, and asking questions. He wrote some really clever episodes, though, and I enjoyed the last two seasons (especially “Heaven Sent” and the run with Bill).
Chibnall’s Dr. Who credentials include 42 (bad), The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and The Power of Three (all mediocre), plus the abysmal Torchwood. That’s not a promising pedigree. This might be like Nicholas Briggs taking over the helm of Big Finish from Gary Russell, when an inventive, imaginative range settled for merely competent.
(When was the last really great Dr. Who audio play? It can’t have been Night Thoughts and The Kingmaker, all the way back in 2006, surely?)
Dr. Who shouldn’t do “competent”; it should be rich and strange and mad. (Anybody remotely interesting is mad, in some way or another.)
It’s practically its own genre. It’s at the intersection of B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy.
On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa, while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.
On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.
On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.
While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into narcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).
And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.
The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story. One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids.
The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it. As script editor Douglas Adams (yes, of H2GT2G fame) said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.
Unsurprisingly, I lean much more towards rad than trad, and frock than gun. My favourite TV story is Ghost Light. My favourite Dr. Who writers include Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Donald Cotton, Lawrence Miles, Dave Stone, and Paul Magrs, with a dash of Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore, and (of course) Terrance Dicks. (If you understand that paragraph, drop me a line.)