There's a girl in my Tardis: Gender politics, time travel and Doctor Who
OPINION: For a character described in 1963 as a crotchety old man in a police box, even the most strident traditionalists among the Doctor Whocognoscenti must admit Jodie Whittaker is a refreshing interpretation of the idea.
The character of The Doctor, a time travelling stranger from the planet Gallifrey who doesn't so much tamper with the flow of history as tickle it a little, is an iconic fixture in our culture.
Just as a disoriented Matt Smith tugged at his locks during his own regeneration scene and feared he'd changed gender – "I'm a girl!" he shrieked – there are some who will greet the news of a change of gender with predictable hand-wringing.
* Jodie Whittaker becomes first female to play iconic time traveller
* Doctor Who: It's about time this fictional character that swaps bodies got boobs
* Doctor Who boss puzzled by gay companion fuss
* Peter Capaldi calls quits on Doctor Who
I mean, seriously, The Doctor, a girl? That's like saying you could recast James Bond with Gal Gadot. Or Indiana Jones with Margot Robbie. (Hey, wait, those are brilliant casting ideas. If they happen, someone better cut me a cheque.)
Worse, what terrible fate now lies in store for The Doctor's "assistant", the always bothersome tag laid upon his female companions, as though they weren't good for much more than screaming when the Daleks entered the room. (Which, to be fair, during the 1960s and 1970s, they frequently did.)
So here's what we've got.
The reboot of Doctor Who is, barring the odd strange episode, mostly brilliant, and it has been built on the bricks of some ambitious ideas and very clever writing; gender stereotypes and shrieking assistants have been left where they belong, lost among the wobbly walls and spray-painted egg cartons of the past.
The series, now five decades old, survives because of its ability to reinvent.
The gimmick of "regeneration" – that is, when an old body is worn out a Time Lord can regenerate into a new one – was born out of necessity in the 1960s, when William Hartnell was too old to continue in the role.
It might have ended the series on the spot, but it didn't, because Doctor Who fans five decades ago embraced the idea of renewal, and accepted that change was a fundamental part of the series narrative.
That mad story conceit has gone on to become one of the foundation stones of the show, and ensured its ability to keep re-framing the picture, with enough frequency to keep fans intrigued, engaged and, mostly, delighted.
There were certainly moments when new Doctors Who were not so warmly received as others; Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and David Tennant are much loved, perhaps more than, say Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.
It can be a sore point. I joked about it once with outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat and he put a firm case for both Baker and McCoy on the table. He is, after all, a superfan. And in company like that I had to bow to his superior wisdom.
'Doctor' has no gender in English.— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) July 17, 2017
Tom Baker's Doctor had a long tenure. Colin Baker's did not. (He was also saddled with a frightful coat.) Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston lasted just one telemovie and one season respectively. In that world, not all Doctors are equal.
And Tennant's Doctor, much loved by the fans, clung on for his final moments, echoing the audience's own regrets and fears. "I don't want to go," were his last words. And we felt it. We didn't want him to go either.
Just as each of us has our Doctor, each producer puts his mark on the series. Russell T Davies did, Moffat has and now incoming producer Chris Chibnall will do the same.
The casting announcement of a new Doctor is met with a curious process not unlike grief. There is shock. Then denial. Melancholy follows. Then euphoria. And finally acceptance.
Sit back and watch. Now there is shock. What will follow is a deconstruction of the gender politics. The left will be thrilled, declaring it a new barrier broken through. The right will say the left are dismantling our cultural institutions for their own insidious purposes.
And the sensible folks will probably remember, just in time, that this is only a TV show.
Then will come Whittaker's debut as The Doctor. Slightly uncertain, the BBC will almost certainly think it wise to accessorise her with some of the show's most historic pieces, the Cyberman maybe? Or the Daleks? Or the Daleks and Davros? That's a good double act.
And then, after a torturous year in which we wrestle with what's right, what's wrong and why it's all come unstuck, we will embrace her. And we will declare her, as we did with Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi before her, to be the greatest Doctor Who ever.
The lesson is this: each Doctor is a reflection of many things, including the shifting narrative, the time in which he (or now, she) lives and the vision of the man (or woman) holding the paintbrush above the canvas.
Jodie Whittaker's Doctor is part of Chris Chibnall's vision. And we must trust it.
- Sydney Morning Herald