I’m jazzed about the new incarnation – er, regeneration – of the Doctor in BBC’s long running fantasy show Doctor Who. Jodie Whitaker is a great actor and it’ll be nice to have a female Doctor for a while. I’m not alone in that opinion, and, as you’d guess, plenty of people disagree with me and the internet is aflame with folks who hate-hate-HATE the idea of woman Doctor for various reasons.
For those of you who don’t watch Doctor Who, the Doctor is a Time Lord. The Time Lords used to travel in time and space, and when they reached the end of a lifespan, they would regenerate into another physical form. Originally, Time Lords had twelve regenerations (thirteen lifetimes) but somewhere in the 21st century, the regeneration rulebook got torn up and eaten by Daleks, or something, and for the Doctor, at least, there appears to be no limit to regenerations. Part of Doctor Who’s fame is the number of actors who had played the lead, and a standard fan question is “Who is your favorite Doctor?” Thus, the Doctor is a completely mutable being; no race, skin tone, age or sex is off the table for this character.
With the introduction of Jodie Whitaker comes also a change in showrunners. Chris Chibnall, best known in the US as the creator of BBC’s mystery show Broadchurch, will be the new showrunner. Chibnall and Whitaker know each other from that show, where Whitaker played the devastated mother of a murdered boy.
While I think the gender of the person portraying the Doctor doesn’t matter, I can see story reasons why the Doctor would regenerate as a woman now. I’m going to talk in boringly detailed fanspeak now; if you don’t watch the show check out the Wikipedia page; it will help.
All of New Who (the 21st century storylines) has been an exploration of the various elements of the Doctor’s character, set against the backdrop of the Time War and a choice the Doctor made during that war. With the tenth Doctor (David Tenant) and the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) we saw a Doctor wo struggled with both atonement and denial, oddly enough, in that order. With the twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) we see a post-War Doctor sensibility; a Doctor who is not masquerading as a quirky quasi-human, but a truly nonhuman being. Gifted with a human companion who was both a “control freak” and an adventurer, the twelfth Doctor rediscovered or re-embraced the power of the Time Lords; and in the Who-verse, complete power does corrupt. The twelfth Doctor reminded us that the Doctor was never “a mad man with a box,” no matter how hard he tried to convince us of that; he was a trickster god. Godhood did not sit well on the twelfth Doctor, and in Capaldi’s final season, his new companion, a young woman named Bill, reminded him what it was to be human. Literally; in Capaldi’s penultimate episode, he and Bill are sitting on lawn chairs, eating take-away and bantering like old human friends… just before everything goes horribly wrong.
It seems logical that the next regeneration would want to look at things from a different perspective, different physiologically, and from the perspective of human society, which is where, frankly, the Doctor is usually operating.
I’m not worried about Whitaker; but I’m a little worried about Chibnall and what he will bring to – or jettison from – the franchise.
I’m basing my misgivings solely on my reaction after binge-watching Season 1 of Broadchurch, a show conceived of and created by Chris Chibnall. The show was an award winner in Britain and has gone on for three more seasons. It was well cast, beautifully acted, and beautifully shot, with a distinct moodiness that, in my opinion anyway, made it seem more important than it was. I enjoyed it, but the show let style compensate for storytelling and writing in some key areas, and that was disappointing. I worry how that will translate to the world of Who.
Clearly, Chibnall has a specific visual vocabulary. I’m not sure how well that vocabulary will mesh with Doctor Who, which also has a specific visual vocabulary and a very different one. I’m not talking about the Doctor’s costume or how the TARDIS (the time ship) looks different for each Doctor; I’m talking about the way shots are set up and the amount of time spent on them. I worry what the summing-up photo-montage at the end of each episode is going to look like; moody music, then one by one the Doctor, the companion, and a Dalek staring meditatively out into space or into the camera. Good Lord. The potential for it to be laughably bad is high, very high.
Seriously concerning too is Chibnall’s tendency, as a writer, to let the women characters have all the consequences of the men characters’ action. This is already a problem in Doctor Who (Donna Noble, anyone?) even though usually, the women are only stuck carrying the consequences of the Doctor’s actions. Clara’s acts and the fallout in the episode “Face the Raven” actually address this; Clara acts on her own, assuming the safety net of the Doctor, which is the opposite of what usually happens to women in this show.
Chibnall carries this trope even farther in Broadchurch, making Ellie Miller the scapegoat, the fall guy, for every part of the murder mystery. Adding insult to injury, Broadchurch shakes a lecturing finger in Miller’s face with a “judge not lest you be judged” theme that is entirely too on-the-nose.
I’m worried that Chibnall will tempted, now that the Doctor is a woman, to go back and heap a whole bunch of Time Lord consequences on her, because he can. This would be ignoring the evolution of the Doctor, and the importance of the story of the War Doctor, but it looks like how he approaches storytelling.
On the other hand, I have heard that Chibnall is “an ascended fan.” Like Capaldi, like Tenant, he is someone who grew up watching the show, so maybe he does understand it and can move beyond one-note storytelling to truly explore what it means to be the Doctor.
I’m worried, but I’m excited, too. Doctor Who is going in a new direction. I’ll definitely be along for the ride.