For the last few months now, Doctor Who fans have been trawling the media for clues as to who would follow in the footsteps of Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor with a lot of speculation centred around what gender that successor should be. After 54 years as a male, was it finally time for the Doctor to swap genders. It’s been canon for some time now that Time Lords have this ability, so why not?
When the big reveal finally came and Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first female Doctor, many around the world rejoiced. A fresh idea, a chance to rejuvenate a character who has been around for the majority of TV history. And then came the hate…
Taking long standing characters away from their templates has been a topic in the media for some time now. Stepping away from gender for a moment, James Bond’s ethnicity has been a talking point of late, with many asking if it is finally time that we had a 007 who wasn’t a white man? My answer as a life-long fan of Bond: Of course, it is, but it shouldn’t be a statement, it should be because the casting shouldn’t be restricted to an archetype created more than half a century ago when the world was a very different place. Idris Elba has been the suggestion on a number of occasions and quite frankly I say, give the man the job as he is a fantastic actor and has the physicality for the part to match his talent. Many are on board with this idea, but still, there are those that feel betrayed by the very suggestion.
So, this got me thinking, why is there so much backlash from fans when these beloved characters get an overhaul? From what I’ve seen, many of those against the change are far from extremist bigots, sexist or uneducated, they simply have a deep passion for what they consider the norm, the fanboys and girls who see change as an insult to their love and the commitment that they have put into supporting them. Is it as simple as the fear of the unexpected?
One of the greatest examples in recent times of this passion getting out of hand would be the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. The announcement that the cult classic franchise was to be rebooted with an all-female cast was met with scorn, the director even received death threats, and yet the movie itself was actually pretty good (it bombed at the box office, but it is actually quite a fun movie). What set off this tirade of abuse was the notion that the casting choices were down to an attempt to be “politically correct” which was, in some ways, laughable. Sadly, Ghostbusters didn’t help itself by adding Chris Hemsworth to the cast as their receptionist, a full cast gender swap that left even the most open-minded of us a little bit sceptical.
It does, however, raise a very important question, and one which will no doubt shadow the new Doctor right up to her debut, and that is, was the change of gender motivated by acting talent and the growth of the character, or to make a statement about equality. One would always hope that it is the former, but many on the anti-female Doctor bandwagon are there because they feel that their beloved character has been forced into this overhaul to appease feminists.
Likely, the truth is that the casting decision is a blend of the two, an iconic character like the Doctor shouldn’t be restricted on who can be cast, but there has also been some pressure to refresh the series with the BBC eager to show how modern they are.
Where the argument against casting a female for the Doctor falls completely flat is that it doesn’t break the canon of this particular universe, it’s well within the long established rules that Time Lords can change gender and while others have been mentioned through the years, the emergence of Missy solidified that fact in modern Who. I believe, and I doubt I’m alone, that the Master’s turn as a woman was, at least in part, to test the waters, to see how an audience would react to a major character, and one nearly as iconic as the Doctor, being given such a dramatic makeover. It worked, bringing in an extremely talented actress like Michelle Gomez ensured that it didn’t matter what gender the Master was, as long as there was a compelling story accompanying her return. Talent maketh the character, not genitalia.
There was barely a ripple of negative feeling when, after almost the entire series Missy’s origin was finally revealed, why? Because at this point the audience had already seen the actress in action and were sold on experience rather than expectation. What Whittaker has on her shoulders is 54 years of history and the expectation that comes with that. Given that pressure, would the reception have been any less split if they had cast a man? Less so, probably, but there would always be the haters, just look at the negative reception Matt Smith’s casting caused.
Flipping the scales to the other extreme, and the positive motives seem just as perplexing as the ultra-feminists declare a win for the team in ever more dramatic ways. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m talking about the extremist tiny minority, because I believe that it is about time an actress was given the chance to play the Doctor, but it’s hard not to take some negativity away from how some have reacted. Where those at one extreme are declaring that casting a woman is against everything that is the Doctor, those at the other end of the scale are singing victory for all woman-kind, and yet neither extreme is talking about Whittaker’s acting ability – which given her work on Broadchurch is exceptional.
Has the BBC helped with this? While there was a lot of hype leading up to the announcement, and the clever way in which they revealed Whittaker, since then the focus appears to be, yet again, on her being a woman, not her talent. A recent article on the BBC News website about the growth of women leads seemed more like a, “look how great we are” story rather than an interesting read about how despite the still very unbalanced movie industry women are thriving. Selling themselves as changing sci-fi history forever, it took nearly fifteen paragraphs for them to admit that science-fiction is actually one of the few genres where strong female characters are the norm.
Lara Croft, Star Trek’s Captain Janeway, Alien’s Ripley, Star Wars’ Princess Leia, Terminator’s Sarah Connor, Buffy the friggin’ vampire slayer, Dana Scully, Stargate’s Samantha Carter, Fringe’s Olivia Dunham, the list goes on – a good portion of those are over 20 years old. It may just be me, as a sci-fi geek, but when you look at this list, it kind of dulls the shock and awe of the Doctor being a woman, it should be encouraging.
Love it or hate it, the times are changing. Hopefully, we’ll all be looking back on this in a year’s time and be wondering what all the fuss was about as Jodie Whittaker storms into the role with elegance, grace, wit, and something very different from the last three, interestingly similar, male Doctors.
For now, though, if you’re in doubt, watch Broadchurch. Learn about the actress before a snap judgment based purely on her gender.