15 July 2017

Rants | Unlucky for Some?

There was once a time when the prospect of a new Doctor in Doctor Who sparked great excitement in me. Now it’s more like dread. With the media and bookmakers seemingly intent on the Time Lord becoming a Time Lady, the series finds itself on the edge of a precipice even more precarious than the one from which it fell in 1989. Only this time, I fear that there may be no clawing its way back from the wilderness pit – not with its thirty-five-season legacy in tact, anyway.

I couldn’t disagree more with those such as Billie Piper, who claims that it would be a “snub” for another man to be cast as the Doctor, or particularly Supergirl star David Harewood, who has recently said that the new Doctor “has to be” black or female. Such comments only serve to fuel positive discrimination – as always, the best actor for the role should be cast. And here’s the thing: the best actor for the role “has to be” male, because the Doctor’s male - despite Grand Moff Steven’s subversive attempts to lay groundwork to the contrary.

Now back in the bad old, good old days, Doctor Who always drew an unambiguous line between Gallifreyan genders. The Doctor had a granddaughter – one with an unmistakably female name – and later another Gallifreyan female companion. Every Time Lord that appeared in the classic series regenerated into another Time Lord, and every Time Lady into another Time Lady. During his tenure as script editor, the late great Douglas Adams even distinguished the two Gallifreyan genders’ methods of regeneration, penning a scene in which Romana casually tried on bodies before finally settling for one that looked uncannily like actress Lalla Ward, suggesting that Time Ladies possess a far greater degree of control over their carefully engineered biology than their male counterparts. Fair dues, Adams was ripping the piss out of how some women might agonise over what to wear, which certainly doesn’t make him the greatest authority to quote in support of what I firmly believe is a non-sexist stance (sexism has nothing to do with this - it’s about fundamentally and irreversibly changing an iconic character for all the wrong reasons), but, like it or not, it still counts.


Yet during Steven Moffat’s shark-jumping time at the series’ helm, the pre-existing lore has gradually been overwritten, culminating in the arrival of Michelle Gomez’s Missy – the latest incarnation of the once (and hopefully future) Master – in Peter Capaldi’s first season and then the Time Lord general’s male-to-female regeneration at the end of his second. In-canon, this paves the way for a glut of transgender regenerations going forward. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall and his successors will run with the notion; they might ignore the concept altogether, leaving fans of the show to theorise about the bewildered looks on the faces of the Time Lord general’s colleagues who witnessed his bizarre renewal (which suggest that what just happened really shouldn’t have), and they won’t need to scratch their heads too hard when it comes to the Master. That renegade has, and always will be, a law unto himself when it comes to surviving beyond his twelfth regeneration. The trouble is, you could now say the same about the Doctor too now he’s already one regeneration past his allotted twelve.

Those in favour of a female lead tend to stress the success of Missy, and I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about her character. But there’s the rub for me: it’s her character. She is not the Master. Not anymore. Even the name has had to change in her case. And so whilst Missy is a entrancing character, an oncoming storm with her very own umbrella, and Michelle Gomez’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal, all that links her to the scoundrel first played so very well by Roger Delgado are her feelings towards the Doctor - feelings that could quite easily have been transposed onto another, hitherto-unseen Time Lady without trashing the Master’s legacy.

But, of course, it’s Doctor Who, and whatever argument I or anyone else might make against the fluidity of Gallifreyan gender, its paucity could be exposed by anyone who’d care to point out that the show has always thrived on change, particularly changes that mirror ever-changing times and attitudes, and it’s never let little things like contradicting its first few decades get in the way. In the end, it’s all made-up, and as such can change as much it needs to stay fresh and retain its audience. The question is, then, would a female Doctor be a change too far for lifelong viewers like me? Remember, we wouldn’t be merely talking about creating a Euros Holmes, here - we’d be talking about making Sherlock Shirley. About Captain Jane T Kirk. About Clara Kent / Superwoman. About Opti-miss Prime. About Janet (“Jan”) Solo.

You get the idea.

As you might guess, I think it would be fatal. I don’t think that the Doctor - a fifty-something-year-old character in real world terms - could go through such a fundamental reimagining and still be the same character that we know and love. As different as his thirteen lives have been (his recently discovered “War Doctor” incarnation in particular), they are nonetheless palpably the same man; the so-called “Ninth”, “Tenth” and “Eleventh” Doctors particularly so. Detractors are quick to point out that the Time Lord’s first thirteen iterations have all been white Brits, as if it’s some vast bigoted conspiracy on the Beeb’s part, but it’s simply because white Brits tend to fit the part. The Doctor is cups of tea and jelly babies; he’s cricket, fish and chips. He’s not handbags and gladrags – that’s Iris Wildthyme’s remit, and any attempt at a female Doctor could only ever hope to be a poor but mainstream imitation of her.

When it really comes down to it though, my anti-female Doctor sentiments are really borne of two completely illogical feelings, and I suspect it’s the same for many other long-term followers of the show. The first is that, lack he is for a lot of fans, the Doctor’s something of a role model for me – a wacky, zany, dazzling figure to idolise and aspire to. And, whilst there’s nothing to stop a man having a female role model, I really couldn’t imagine switching my brown pin-stripe suit or black leather jacket for a frock or a blouse. You may scoff at such sentiments in a near-middle-aged man, but transpose that onto the playground level: thousands if not millions of disenchanted, confused little boys wondering what in the blue hell has happened to their hero. Yes, many little girls might be drawn to the show as a direct result of having a female Doctor, but far fewer, I reckon, than the young boys that would be driven away.

The second reason, as silly as it sounds, is that I’d be profoundly uncomfortable if the actress cast was hot. Having watched an eclectic assortment of predominantly old men play the role throughout my life, the prospect of actually fancying the Doctor is too much to get past for me. I would imagine that this feeling cuts both ways, too – fans who’ve lusted after Tennant and Smith, even the more weathered Capaldi, might balk at the notion of a sudden sex change for the exact opposite reason. The fifty-something solicitor that I share an office with certainly does – she rants about this “ludicrous” female Doctor notion more than I do (though she will chunter about anything given the chance. You should hear her do half an hour on Taylor Wimpey’s Grount Rent Review Assistance Scheme.)

I do think a Doctor of any colour could work well, though, but the actor would need to possess that innate, unfathomable “Doctorishness” that’s commensurate with the role. Readers of my old website may recall that I championed Patterson Joseph as a potential David Tennant replacement back when his departure was announced, because he has that very quality with a touch of steel to boot. David Harewood, on the other hand, whose abovementioned statement foreshadowed his throwing his hat in the ring, doesn’t have that elusive “Doctorish” quality in my view – he can thoroughly convince as a kick-ass Friar Tuck or a big, imposing Martian Manhunter, but I can’t see him at the TARDIS’s helm. When I think of the next Doctor, I think of actors like Endeavour’s Shaun Evans (brilliant – and ginger); Death in Paradise’s Kris Marshall (fantastic – and ginger); Versailles’ mercurial Alexander Vlahos (could dye his hair ginger); even Rowan Atkinson (peerless – not ginger; not all that much hair at all nowadays, really). To those who scoff at the suggestion of the Comic Relief’s Doctor canonical casting, watch Maigret. The former Blackadder and Mr Bean star has definitely got the acting chops for the part. He’d be insanely good.

And so, as open-minded as I’d like to think I am, I don’t think that I’ll be able to bring myself to watch the series again should the Doctor turn into a woman, let alone write about it. The prospect of a heavily-bearded Susan turning up as a bloke with her mate, the moustache-twirling, former Time Lord president Romano would just be too much. I would perhaps consider watching a completely new, “unbound” reboot of the show with a female Doctor from the start (it’s been done before in the audio medium), maybe even one that hits the ground running without showing a Capaldi-to-female regeneration that there’d be no retconning, but I’m of the firm view that the Doctor in the series that’s been running on and off since 1963 should remain inviolate - it’s fans deserve that much. I fear that if the incoming production team have indeed succumbed to what must have felt like overwhelming media pressure to cast a woman as the Doctor, I won’t be the only one tuning out. For every new fan they’d gain, I reckon they’d lose at least a handful of long-standing ones.

Tomorrow we find out.