Cautiously Welcoming Jodie

I’m not happy when other people are unhappy – and Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the Doctor has made a lot of people very unhappy indeed.

Some rejoice. Some of those who rejoice (not all of them) crow over those who dare to disagree with them, labelling them variously sexists, dinosaurs, “a$$holes”, persons of tiny intellect, wicked, cretinous, morally degenerate, and unentitled to their view – and generally trampling on their feelings and causing unnecessary hurt. The Internet doesn’t help here; self-righteousness, attacking the person and not the viewpoint, and insulting perfect strangers are much easier when you can hide behind a pseudonym on a comments page. Thank God, there’s hardly any of this on the DWC: a civilised forum in an age of baying and bullying. It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t say in print (or online) anything you wouldn’t be prepared to say to someone’s face, but courtesy and consideration for others are not terribly fashionable.

Anyway. It’s perfectly true that some of those who oppose Jodie W’s casting are sexist, just as it’s true that some of those who voted for Brexit are racist. (Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a racist voting for remain.) But it’s not true, and it goes again both the evidence and common sense, to say that everyone who is not cock-a-hoop over a female Doctor must be some sort of a grinding oppressor of womankind. If you take any group – such as those who don’t want a woman Doctor – and then characterise everyone in it as being guilty of the nastier characteristics of some of its members… well, there’s a word for that. It’s called prejudice.

A small piece of evidence follows. Bedford Doc Soc meets monthly in a most excellent public house; we drink beer and wine and coke and occasionally chat about Doctor Who. Some of us are even female. At a previous meeting, none of us was overjoyed by the casting; none of us was massively hostile, either. And none of us is a sexist. The most hardline view taken was no more than that Jodie’s casting was mildly daft. No sexism, no hysteria, no self-righteousness.

To some extent, of course, we’ve been here before. The new Doctor is never universally welcomed. As we know, the Beeb was so frightened of replacing Hartnell with Troughton that the Radio Times for Troughton’s debut story barely mentions the fact that a different actor was playing the Doctor. Big photos of the Daleks, big photos of Ben and Polly. Tiny pic of Troughton, who’s only mentioned in a couple of sentences. The new Doctor is always greeted by some with consternation, particularly if they’re following a very popular incarnation. In the early 1980s, when I was a sixth former, Tom Baker was the ultimate Doctor for many; the idea of replacing him with someone as radically different as Peter Davison was absolutely anathema. “I’m not going to watch it anymore,” grumbled some. “What do the BBC think they’re playing at?”; “Is this really the best they can do?”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? One tranche of fandom labelled Davison “the wet vet” and “too young, too bland”. For what it’s worth, my own view – which hasn’t changed – was that Tom was outstanding in his first three seasons, and then his performance progressively deteriorated as he got bored with the part and became increasingly silly. Tom himself would be the first to admit that he was hard for directors and producers to control; it’s not easy to manage someone with such a massive personality. (These days, of course, he’s mellowed; in his later years as the Doctor, he was a difficult man to work with and many found the experience of working with him an unpleasant one.) And I always liked Davison; a more fallible and sympathetic figure than the superman he replaced, but with a vein of steel: he may have looked a push-over, but you didn’t mess with the Fifth Doctor.

Rambling a bit. So: I really, really liked Davison’s Doctor and yes, I joined the ranks of the “I can’t stand the new person they’ve cast” when Colin Baker took over. To my shame, I hated Colin’s performance at the time; it’s only now, as I relapse into my fifties and my slippered years, that I’ve re-evaluated it and enjoy it. I’m bewildered, too, by those who don’t like Matt Smith (easily the best of the nu-Whos, for me) or who say that he’s just “David Tennant-lite”. I loved Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It and was really looking forward to what he was going to do with the part; I then found him to be almost my least favourite Doctor, though he was better in his final season, when he wasn’t being so self-consciously eccentric and odd. (My least favourite Doctor? Not telling – but I still don’t like him.) But: I don’t mind people disagreeing with me about who’s good and who’s bad. In fact, I’m interested in what they have to say because a) I could be wrong; and b) what they have to say is worth hearing.

(But if anyone criticises Troughton, I shall have to ask them to step outside.)

So: we’ve been here before. And yes, it’s different this time because the new Doctor is female. But whoever was cast would have divided fandom; I’d certainly prefer Jodie Whittaker to Kris Marshall, who we all thought it was going to be, and who I think would have been a safe choice and a very dull one.

The question that divides fans is whether the Doctor should change sex, even if she or he can. He’s been male for 54 years; that’s a long time. It’s therefore quite reasonable to take the view that the Doctor is male by tradition. And you don’t go against tradition unless there are very, very good reasons to do so.

Chris Chibnall clearly thinks there are sufficiently strong reasons for going against tradition. I think it’s highly unlikely that he’s cast Jodie because he’s spiteful and thinks, “Tee hee hee and ho ho ho, this’ll annoy the geeks and I get my kicks out of upsetting people because I’m a nasty little git.” He’s a senior television executive, in charge of one of the most lucrative products put out by the BBC; he’s also a fan and he understands the fans’ minds. One may not agree with his decision, but his reasons must have been good ones – or at least, what seemed to him to be good ones.

So, why do it?

In the first place, Doctor Who has been shedding viewers under Capaldi. This shouldn’t matter; lots watch it on catch-up and more will watch the Capaldis on Netflix et al., many seeing them for the first time years after they were broadcast. The global audience remains very, very high. But it does matter: the tabloids love it when the ratings decline. And lazy thinking BBC suits will look at the raw figures and see them as an indication of a decline in the programme’s popularity. I would be very surprised if some discussion had not already happened about doing a Michael Grade and cancelling the series: it’s expensive, and the budget could be spent on another mediocre crime drama about a maverick detective who chases dirty dudes and battles with her/ his own inner demons. Doctor Who needs a radical rethink if it is to survive. And this has happened time and again over the last 54 years, especially in the face of decreasing viewing figures. The Ambassadors of Death is almost unrecognisable as the same programme as The Reign of Terror. Genesis of the Daleks has the same trundling nasties who appeared in The Chase, but they are totally different in tone (and in quality).

This time, the radical rethink is headlined by casting a female Doctor. And headlined is right: Jodie Whittaker’s casting made the front pages of almost every British newspaper on Monday 17th July. Chris Chibnall has taken a page out of JN-T’s books by courting the media – and very successfully. There’s a huge amount of public interest in the new series of Doctor Who, just as there was when it was announced that the lead for the revamped and relaunched 2005 series was to be a Northern, leather-jacketed actor who was utterly different from his predecessors. Chibnall is banking on a big surge in the viewing figures for his new Doctor, and he’s almost certainly right in his expectations. (Anyone fancy betting a tenner that Jodie’s first episode will have a minimum of 12 million watching?)

Change, and radical change, is endemic to Doctor Who. It constantly has to find a new audience if it is to survive. Jodie Whittaker will bring in a new audience; people who have never seen the programme before. I think it’s highly likely that they will number in their millions.

Lots of fans don’t like the idea of a female Doctor. I don’t agree, and nor do I agree that they are not entitled to their opinions. I don’t have any strong views. I don’t agree with Zoe Williams in The Guardian who says that the change had to happen because society must embrace modernity and not merely tolerate it – thereby implying that it would be actually unethical to have a male Doctor. I don’t particularly support gender-blind casting per se; the new artistic director of The Globe has said all her productions of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama will be gender-blind, and my own, hopelessly trad view, is that this is not so much anti-sexist as plain silly.

Jodie Whittaker is a very, very talented actor. She is very versatile. She has an enormous range. She’s clearly talented enough to play the Doctor. We have to bear in mind, too, that good actors can play the same character in a variety of different ways. (I saw Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet on stage at the RSC; his later portrayal in the film was completely different – it was almost like watching another actor altogether.) I hope they let her play it straight, rather than asking her to give a self-consciously clever or kooky or zany or nutty or groovy performance. The Doctor is an unusual, nonconformist personality, but the Doctor’s eccentricity is an aspect of the character and shouldn’t be allowed to define it. I’ve been re-watching Inspector Morse on Amazon and I’d forgotten that it’s actually very funny, but it’s funny because the characters themselves are witty and not because comedy is crow-barred into a serious situation. In other words, I hope she’s allowed to play the Doctor, not some silly parody of the character.

Will Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who be any good? I don’t think that will depend on the quality of the performance of the actor. The production values will, no doubt, stay as high as ever. But it will depend on the scripts and the tone of the series. I’m cautiously optimistic; Chibnall’s apparent idea of putting the focus on a team of writers rather than on a single showrunner (as has been rumoured for some time now) seems, to me, a good one. His own scripts never seem to me to be better than “quite good” (The Hungry Earth/ Cold Blood and The Power of Three); a lot of them are not very good at all. He clearly can write (Broadchurch), and he has the wisdom to pool others’ talents rather than trailblaze his own. We’ll see. And I hope that the silliness and smart-alec tone of some of Moffat-Who will be laid to rest.

And, winding up…

Doctor Who is a hugely important programme for the BBC. It’s a massively lucrative product and it’s a franchise too. It has to re-invent itself to survive. It cannot be the property of the fans. When it tried to be (Colin Baker’s sole, full length season), it didn’t work; we number in the thousands, whereas the global audience is one of many, many millions. It has to have a broader appeal, beyond the concerns of the fanbase. We may not like some of the decisions of those who make the programme but they have no choice but to ignore us and concentrate on the mainstream viewers. Not to do so would be commercial suicide.

Jodie Whittaker herself has been very gracious to the fans, and clearly wants to please us. Some of those who adopt extreme positions on her casting have been squirting bile in her direction (and you can bet some maniacs have sent her death threats). She’s a professional, and an actor, and someone who wants to do her best and to please people; she’s not a wicked plotter who wants to ruin their favourite telly programme. She’s very wisely kept off the Internet to avoid being hurt. She’s on our side and she wants us to be on hers.

Good luck to her.