Hadden Park, Vancouver, the earliest days of 1996. A Liverpudlian in a bad wig pushes a redheaded Californian against a tree. ‘I know who I am!’ he declares ecstatically. They are both actors playing doctors: she a cardiologist named Grace, he an alien with no name beyond his title. They are filming Doctor Who. He has suddenly remembered his identity, and in his excitement, he kisses her. ‘I am the Doctor!’ he exclaims. ‘Good!’ replies Grace, a delighted smile on her face. ‘Now,’ she adds, staring into his eyes, ‘do that again.’
This is how the world ended.
A few months later, I heard about The Kiss. I was fourteen, I’d been a Doctor Who fan for a little over two years, and I was disgusted. I was disgusted because the other fans were disgusted: in the monthly fan club meetings I attended in a drafty church hall in Erskineville, and in the pages of their fanzines. They had sexualised an essentially asexual character, and the ensuing US television series would surely take this to its inevitable conclusion: he’d be a dashing romantic hero, in the vein of Indiana Jones, Han Solo or several other masculine archetypes invented before Harrison Ford was born. The rest of the movie had its faults, sure; but that kiss? Sacrilege. The future of our favourite show was doomed, and maybe it would be better if the show wasn’t revived after all.
Be careful what you wish for.
For better or for worse, the show wasn’t revived. A few years later we were rewarded with a short but sweet revival of our favourite show, on telly and everything: The Curse of Fatal Death, a comedy sketch for Comic Relief. The main role was taken by Rowan Atkinson. And Richard E Grant. And Jim Broadbent. And Hugh Grant. Then he died. Saffy from Ab Fab said a few magic words about the Wizard of Oz and Scooby Doo, and then he came back. And for the first time ever, he was a she. In fact, she was also from Ab Fab: the Doctor was only Joanna Bloody Lumley. She was around for a few seconds, but those seconds were sublime.
The world didn’t end. In fact, we loved it. Of course we did: it was only a little charity skit thingy. It’s not like it was canon. Just a lark concocted by the Four Weddings guy and some curly-haired Scottish bloke called Someone Moffat. Just like that American movie, it didn’t count.
Now for the obligatory bit: blah blah 2003, yada yada Russell T Davies, rhubarb rhubarb Eccleston. Now it’s 2005. Ten million viewers have watched the show come back, a second series and a Christmas special have been commissioned, the Internet is totally a thing now, and it’s a time of joy, optimism and –
A word filled with vitriol, spat onto computer screens around the globe, by people who haven’t yet been dubbed ‘trolls’ because we’re still a short while away from the social media surge. The biggest online community of Whovians, Outpost Gallifrey, is temporarily shut down in the wake of the tsunami of negativity being spewed at an actor who made a professional decision that is absolutely no one else’s business but his own.
Sure, the TARDIS windows are too small, and there’s the small matter of the leather jacket and (gasp) the lack of an RP accent; but quitting the show after thirteen episodes? Sacrilege. Come back, Paul McGann, all is forgiven.
That was in March. On Christmas Day, another Doctor poked his head out of the box. By Boxing Day, the fans were in love all over again. David Tennant had changed our minds. We’re a fickle lot, fans. 2009: Matt Smith was too young, too silly. 2013: Peter Capaldi was too old, too grumpy. Too much, too little. Et cetera, ad infinitum
We’re fans of a show that thrives on change. And yet, as a whole, we fear change. It’s an odd little paradox, and today it reared its ugly head all over again. Let’s talk about that.
It’s July 2017. Two and a half years since I last blogged. That puppy I wrote about in my last entry? He’s currently snuggling against me, older and a little wiser but still the same Ringo he was back then. We’ve moved back across the border into Victoria, but we’re still in the same area. We bought a house. That was nice. I’m working full-time, studying part-time, directing a play… I’m the same person, but I’ve changed. Life is change.
I never even got to write about the rest of our honeymoon: the Russian portion and beyond. I’ve since been back to Russia, and loved it all over again. St Petersburg, my favourite city in the universe, was still the idiosyncratic paradox it was when I first discovered it, but it had evolved even in the shortish time between visits. Change is life.
In the early hours of this morning the world of Doctor Who was presented with its next stage of evolution: number thirteen. I went to bed last night about as excited as I was back in 2013, on the eve of what I ended up calling Capalday, and in 2009 before that: a new Doctor. That’s nice. Hope he’s someone I like.
A few hours later, post-announcement, when I was trying to get to sleep and silence the excited yelling (some might call it squeeing) in my brain, I was certain of one thing: I needed to return to my blog. The name had been revealed, my mind had been changed. What’s the matter, Light, change your mind? Change. You. Me. Everything. Not a moment too soon.
I’m writing this entry to gush about this historical moment in Doctor Who, yes, but I’m also doing so to address a couple of things. Since it was announced that Peter Capaldi was hanging up his eyebrows and leaving the show, the speculation has been rife: who, indeed, was next? Another young ‘un like Matt? A Person of Colour? A woman, even?
The nice part of all this speculation was how open most people were about having a Person of Colour take up the mantle… but then again, people had been crossing their fingers for Paterson Joseph, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor since before Eccleston. What surprised me was that, even in 2017 – the age of Furiosa and Rey, the year Wonder Woman saved an entire genre – how much people still hated the idea of a female Doctor. They weren’t just unsure; they were horrified. McGann-Kissing-Grace horrified. Eccleston-Quitting horrified. Then, when Jodie Whittaker was announced last night…
I should point out that I’m talking about a very small contingent of people here – small, but very vocal. So vocal their words burned my retinas. They were louder than my internal nocturnal squee. A lot louder. Fury does that. Fans do that. Furious fans are deafening.
So let’s go through some of their concerns. First let’s get the trolling out of the way:
‘Should we just call it Nurse Who now?’
Deny it all you like, but this – or anything resembling this – is a sexist statement. It just is. What you’re doing there is undermining women. Not female Time Lords. Not female actors. Women. (Also, nurses. Which is almost as bad.) It’s a troll statement and not worth another word of analysis. So let’s move on.
‘I’ve lost a male role model for my son/myself.’
I could go into deep analysis mode here, but Lucy put it beautifully and succinctly: ‘There are plenty of other male role models out there in pop culture – take your pick.’ It’s the truth. Want an intellectual role model? Hello, Mr Holmes. A masculine action hero? Marvel and DC are churning out movies with these guys at a pretty fair clip, and most of them have been around for decades.
Also, regarding the ‘my son’ comment (and I’ve read it several times), I think that’s just short-changing the intelligence of a child. When I was a kid I wanted to be AstroBoy. Because he was a boy? Nah. Because of those boots. And that hair. Neither of which were terribly masculine. Then I grew up a bit and wanted to be Doc Brown. Actually, strike that: inspired by Doc Brown, I wanted to be a time-travelling scientist. I was not inspired by his masculinity. I was inspired by the Mighty Atom’s coolness and his powers, and I was inspired by ELB’s madness and intellect. Then I was inspired by all of the above by a character who called himself the Doctor. But I never wanted to be him. There’s a reason he has companions: they’re the audience. That’s who we want to be – a lot of us, anyway. We want to be Sarah Jane Smith, or Ace, or Rose. Sure, some of us want to be Jamie, or Ian, or Rory, but again, is that because they’re men? No. It’s because they’ve been chosen to travel in time and space. They’re us. The Doctor has guided a member of the audience inside the television for amazing adventures. This isn’t a Boy’s Own adventure. It’s not Raiders. It’s not Star Wars. It’s also not a particularly ‘girly’ show. It lives outside of guff like that. Patsy and Saffy knocking about time and space? Who wouldn’t watch that?
‘It’s political correctness gone mad.’
See also: ‘SJW brigade’, ‘box-ticking’.
That first acronym stands for Social Justice Warrior. It’s a new term – the latest buzzword for lefty-pinko-socialist-whatever. And you know something? We’ve been watching a SJW on our tellies for over fifty years. If you’re worried that Social Justice Warriors have ruined your precious show with this sort of casting, then what the hell do you think you’ve been watching all this time? The adventures of a Thatcherite? (Okay, Pertwee came dangerously close to joining the Establishment, but it’s been over forty years, and Tom friggin’ Baker replaced him, so let’s move swiftly on.)
Box-ticking. Damn right it’s box-ticking. The BBC has endeavoured to improve on its inclusivity – Steven Moffat himself, when discussing the casting of a Person of Colour in the role of a companion for the first time in a full decade, has gone on record to say ‘We have to do better’. It’s ticking the box that is clearly marked ‘EQUAL OPPORTUNITY’. The TARDIS has had a glass ceiling for too long, just like the rest of the industry: it’s time to break it. You can see the universe better that way, anyway.
And ‘political correctness gone mad’? Come on. This is what people pull out when they don’t know how to react to something that confronts them a little. Very few people, in my experience, have been able to properly define what they mean when they use this expression. Oh, and this also goes for tokenism: when you claim this is PC gone mad or tokenism or any other number of things, what exactly do you mean? Define your terms. There’s no ‘PC brigade’ in charge at the BBC; just a bunch of people who know they need to do better. And tokenism? Since when were we using words like ‘tokenism’ and ‘political correctness’ when talking about women? I’m pretty sure we’ve moved on from those times. You know, a long time ago.
‘What’s next – Jane Bond?! A female Sherlock?!’
I’ve read this so-called double standard a number of times now, and I’m bored to death of it.
James Bond is an inherently masculine character. It’s part of who he is. If you have a problem with that, you have a problem with James Bond as a character. And hey, come to think of it: I have a problem with James Bond as a character. Particularly the traits that define him as ‘masculine’. That, I think, is a more important discussion.
Also: Bond is a human. Humans, as far as I’m aware, can’t regenerate. They’re just recast. That’s why no one looked at Bond in The Living Daylights and commented that he used to have a Scottish accent. But hey, even the Bond franchise can gender-bend its characters with nary a fuss: 007 didn’t look at Judi Dench in GoldenEye and muse, ‘Apologies, ma’am, but did you have breasts the last time we met?’ Over in Doctor Who, though, we have an in-universe explanation for changing gender and the world, of course, collapses.
And a female Sherlock? Bring it on.
‘The Doctor is a male character. End of discussion.’
Two things here. Firstly, and most obviously: no he’s not. It was first established in 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife that Time Lords can change gender. Or if you want to be truly pedantic, it was 2003’s audio play Exile. (Which wasn’t great but had David Tennant in it somewhere, so it gets a pass.) Secondly, even playing devil’s advocate and accepting that he has been written as a male character since 1963, all I can say is: not anymore. Oh god, that’s good to say.
‘I’m never watching again.’
Really? You’re a Doctor Who fan, and you are seriously abandoning this thing you love and cherish, because of this? Are you truly feeling that betrayed? You objected to a female-led Ghostbusters reboot, but hand on heart, did you not see the film? Of course you did. You may not see it ever again, but no one’s forcing you to. You gave it a chance. Okay, it wasn’t great, but that’s not because of the gender change-up; it’s because it just wasn’t great. The point is that you gave it a chance. Give this a chance. Give her a chance.
If you’re still intent on walking away forever: that’s a big shame, because I genuinely think we’re in for something special.
Finally: ‘Why change?’
Obvious answer: why not?
Obvious retort: why change something for the sake of it?
That’s actually a good point. Change for the sake of change is usually a stupid thing. But I don’t think that’s what’s happened here. I know I’ve gone on a bit at this point, but humour me for a moment as I veer into a completely different time and place:
New York City, 1981. The offices of Saturday Night Live. (Yes, seriously.) Lorne Michaels, the creator of the show, had left, and taken his brilliant cast with him: no more Bill Murray, no more Gilda, no more Aykroyd, no more Belushi. There was a whole new team onboard, and they carried a lot on their shoulders: a show beloved by millions, that they could easily run into the ground. One of the original writers, Michael O’Donoghue, had stayed on, and he helmed a meeting on the very first day of the new regime. That meeting has gone down in television history. ‘This is what the show lacks,’ he announced, before spray-painting a single word on the wall of his office.
There’s my answer. When is it okay to change something for the sake of change? When it’s dangerous.
Our beloved show has been lacking risk for a while now, if you ask me. (Lucy agrees. So nyaaah.) Yes, occasionally we get a Heaven Sent or a World Enough and Time, but generally we haven’t had a big shake-up since the War Doctor was introduced. We need danger. We need risk. We need that sort of change. Change is life.
It’s 2017. The casting of a woman in a role that doesn’t require a specific gender should not be considered dangerous… but there it is. We still have a ways to go, it seems, but this is a good step. Scratch that: it’s a great step.
To any of you out there who have read this and still feel their blood boiling: I implore you, remember Grace. Remember the times the world changed and it didn’t end. Also: remember grace. Remember there is a human being out there who deserves grace, as do most of us.
On the bus to work this morning, crossing the border between two vast states, I watched – on a phone, unthinkable in the “Quitter!” days – a video of a hooded figure in a forest. I already knew who was under that hood – hence the squeeing in my head at an ungodly hour – but the reveal was perfect: a quizzical, almost frightened look became that of excitement, and above all, hope. I’d never seen the actor in anything before (note to self: must. Watch. Broadchurch.), but I recognised her immediately: quizzical, excited, hopeful. My friend. My companion. My Doctor.