I suppose it can be seen either way – a natural progression or a politically-correct concession. I suspect most long-term viewers will see it as the latter, as it appears to chime with the BBC’s tiresome ‘diversity’ agenda. In case you didn’t know (or, quite possibly, you don’t care), it was announced today that the lead character in ‘Doctor Who’ will now be played by an actress…sorry, we’re not allowed to say actress now, are we? I meant, of course, female actor. Yes, TV’s Time Lord has had a sex change. Not only can his superior species regenerate their bodies when they reach the end of their lives and undergo metamorphosis into a younger model; they can now also change their genitals in the process.
Anyone still watching was given an indication this is possible for Time Lords via the transformation of the Doctor’s nemesis The Master into ‘Missy’, a female incarnation, a couple of years ago. Actually, Michelle Gomez played a rather good part and introduced a new dynamic into the old enemies’ relationship. In a way, this is partially why the people behind a series retrieved from the anorak convention circuit and dragged into the twenty-first century zeitgeist back in 2005 have opted for such a headline-grabbing gimmick. As much as I personally enjoyed Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor, ratings were a long way off the peak years under David Tenant – a combination of poor writing and haphazard scheduling – and what better way to give it one more reboot (or deliberately bury it) than to take the ultimate gamble?
From the off, the role of female characters in ‘Doctor Who’ was as clearly defined as female characters in most TV dramas that began in the early 60s (with the honourable exceptions of Honor Blackman in ‘The Avengers’ and the women of ‘Coronation Street’). The Doctor’s first sidekick-in-a-skirt was his ‘granddaughter’ Susan, who established the screaming tradition when confronted by an alien adversary like The Daleks. This remained more or less the standard pattern until the arrival of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah-Jane Smith in 1973, who pointed the way towards more ‘liberated’ and gutsy female companions such as Ace (who was one of the few bright spots in the dreary Sylvester McCoy era) and Billie Piper’s Rose, who was crucial to the spectacular re-launch with Christopher Ecclestone.
Although the masterminding of the show’s revival in the noughties was largely down to a long-time devotee of the series, Russell T Davies, the conscious post-modern approach to the revival was a key element of its overnight success; the ‘naff’ label that had been attached to it in the 80s – not entirely unwarranted when one recalls the presence of Bonnie Langford – required some serious surgery to render it relevant again. This approach succeeded by cleverly blending the behind-the-sofa creepiness that had been important in its original appeal to children with some arch humour designed to catch the ears of adolescents onwards; and it worked.
Ecclestone’s brief one-series stint in the role was followed by David Tenant, who took the show to heights of popularity it hadn’t seen since the Tom Baker era; Tenant’s portrayal itself was a winning one, and the standard of writing was particularly high for a drama aired at teatime. He was superseded by the far younger Matt Smith as the show also changed hands at a production level when Russell T Davies made way for Stephen Moffat. After an encouraging start – and the introduction of a female companion guaranteed to give many little boys their first TV crush in the shape of Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond – the writing style of Moffat (also evident in his simultaneous ‘Sherlock’), by which he both baffles and bewilders viewers with layers of complexity that often add up to bugger all, served to alienate the audience and hardcore fans alike.
The strength of ‘Doctor Who’ as an ongoing series that has been on our screens since 1963 (bar a sixteen-year break between 1989 and 2005) is the ingenious device that marked the retirement of William Hartnell from the role in 1966 – the fact that the Doctor can change his appearance whilst maintaining the same mind. Patrick Troughton was the first actor to be the ‘new’ Doctor and brilliantly mastered the art of this highly original solution to changing the lead actor at periodical intervals that has been the blueprint ever since. Other long-running series, such as the James Bond movies, don’t have this advantage; M never comments on the fact that 007 looks like a different bloke after every three or four films, for example.
The most recent companion for the Doctor was ‘Bill’, a mixed-raced lesbian (as was no doubt pointed out with outrage online at the time); and whilst there’s no reason why a character in such a high-profile series can’t be a mixed-raced lesbian, there’s always the suspicion of a PC quota or the same agenda to the arrival of a character whose ethnicity or sexuality is so well advertised that has been a hallmark of ‘Eastenders’ from day one. The fact that the Doctor him/herself is now to be a woman emits a similar cynical odour.
I have a feeling Jodie Whittaker (the new Doctor) doesn’t quite know what she’s let herself in for; an online assault is inevitable, long before she even utters her first line. Yes, Doctor Who is a fairly unique character in that he/she adheres to few conventions, so a considerable degree of slack can be cut. But I certainly don’t envy the ‘actress’ entrusted with the make-or-break responsibility of winning over an audience that – outside of feminist campaigners who will inevitably shower the Beeb in praise at this announcement – has begun to drift away from a show that has enough flexibility inherent in its format to make it fresh with every change in direction. This is one hell of a change and the jury will be out for quite some time. The success or failure of its future is now in the hands of one woman – as it ironically was in 1963, when Verity Lambert produced it. For the superstitious among you, Jodie Whittaker will be the thirteenth Doctor…
© The Editor