So Doctor Who went and did it – they did the one thing they knew would divide fans of the show like nothing else. They decided to re-cast the main character as a woman. The reaction from both sides was fairly predictable. On one hand we had the pros who felt it was about time we had a woman. On the other, a large group of life-long fans (both men and women) who will now stop watching because the show has changed too much.
I discussed my personal feelings on my Facebook page earlier this week. I left a short note but this post is a longer and more considered evaluation of the casting of Jodie Whittaker as incarnation number 13 of the UK’s most iconic TV character.
Doctor Who is About Change
Doctor Who aired on 22nd November 1963. If that date is familiar it’s because it’s the same day JFK was assassinated. Due to low ratings (almost certainly because of the assassination) it was almost canned after the first episode. But Verity Lambert – one of the triumvirate responsible for its creation – argued for a repeat showing a week later. The rest, as they say, is history. William Hartnell starred as the first TV incarnation. It came as a shock when Patrick Troughton (a much younger man than Hartnell) was recast in the role. It was a big risk, but it worked. The change – and the invention of regeneration (or “renewal” as it was back then) is the reason we still have this show 54 years later.
It was cancelled in 1989 having cast 7 actors in the role but continued in book format and a failed American TV pilot in 1996. It was seen as a risk in 1980 to cast then 29-year-old Peter Davison in the role. He was the youngest person ever to play The Doctor until 30 years later when Matt Smith (then 26) was cast. Doctor Who has always been about change and that is why many people felt there should be no obstacles to casting a woman, especially as arch-villain The Master recently underwent a gender switch from John Simm to Michelle Gomez. Now, with the end of Moffat’s reign as showrunner, Broadchurch creator stepped in and cast Jodie Whittaker in the role.
Why Casting a Woman is Divisive
While accusations of misogyny fly left, right and centre, it’s unhelpful to assume that anybody and everybody opposed to this hates women. That’s what misogyny means – hatred of women. Hatred is a strong word. While I am in no doubt there are people who are motivated by a strong dislike (or yes – hatred) of women in positions of prominence and power, you cannot assume it of everyone. There are plenty of women opposed to this casting too. Oh sure, you can accuse them of having internalised misogyny, slaves to patriarchy or having an inferiority complex, but this is neither helpful nor accurate. It ignores the subtle nuances of people’s reasons for opposing it. Some people are simply opposed to any change. They are the same sort of people who opposed Matt Smith, David Tennant and Peter Davison because of their age, or for being “too pretty”. These people may or may not come around. It’s divisive because casting a woman represents the biggest change the show has undergone so far, even for one that survives and thrives on change. As The Metro asked in February… How much of this is down to gender, and how much down to people’s interpretations of what the character should be?
Others have asked “Why not bring back Romana?” This is a reasonable question. Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward played this female Timelord (Timelady? which is it?!) during Tom Baker’s tenure in the TARDIS. As you can see from Tamm’s introduction as her first incarnation, she was more than the typical assistant.
The Pros Aren’t Exactly Innocent Here, Either
While the pros are celebrating this victory, I feel I must reiterate once again that not everybody disagreeing with this casting hates women. Throwing the word “misogyny” at anyone and everyone who disagrees with you is not just unhelpful, it’s a silencing tactic. Some people can be won over by framing the argument in the right way. Shrieking, insults and labelling people is now a common tactic online against anyone who disagrees on anything while demanding “safe spaces” for your own point of view. Let’s set an example and stop this behaviour, please?
Having been a keen observer of the Doctor Who Facebook Page for months, I’ve noticed an equally large number of people wanting a woman in the role say that they find Peter Capaldi “disgusting” and “too old and ugly”. Here is an article from Bustle in 2013 highlighting some of the comments he got at the time – criticism that has never gone away. There is astounding hypocrisy here and clearly, it’s not just limited to one side of this debate.
Let’s Get Behind Her
I was never sold on the idea of a need for a female Doctor but I was never opposed to it either. My reaction at seeing Whittaker was one of pleasant surprise. Had I known beforehand that Doctor 13 would definitely be a woman, I’m sure I’d have punched the air in delight. Whittaker is a great actress and no stranger to the genre. She’s appeared in Attack the Block a British black comedy about an alien invasion on a housing estate, and in one highly-acclaimed episode of Black Mirror. Around the same time, she appeared in the ghostly TV drama Marchlands. She was also on Broadchurch which Chris Chibnall produced. Chibnall is familiar with Whittaker’s work, naturally. Arguably, she is more famous and successful now than when Matt Smith took over the role in 2010.
We know that Timelords can change gender, although it is not all that common. It’s likely that Jodie Whittaker will be the only female incarnation of this iconic character for that reason alone. To those opposed to this casting I would implore you to give her a chance. If you don’t like her potrayal, then watch endless re-runs for three years. There’s decades of material to keep you busy.
I’m going to carry on watching. The role is bigger than any actor, actress, showrunner or script writer. It’s important to remember that. No matter how long Whittaker is in the role, she will make up – like all the others cast as the lead – just one small part of the rich, large-scale, timeless story of an alien being with two hearts flying around the galaxy in a blue box.