We’re living through a very strange period of storytelling. I do wonder how people will view it in 30 years’ time. Most probably, they’ll chuckle, shake their heads, and go, “I can’t believe they did it like that!” Much like some people do today when they watch The Talons of Weng-Chiang and experience an almost apoplectic rage when they see that the character of Li H’sen Chang (a Chinese man) is portrayed by a white Caucasian in make-up. Television and film is always, to some degree, a reflection of the time in which it was made. And I think that’s okay. We should view it as such. In 1978, it was socially acceptable – at least on the BBC – for a white man to portray a Chinese man. Today, it’s not. Cultural morality is in a permanent state of flux. (Yes, the Talons issue is more complicated than that, but let’s not start that argument again just yet.)
When it comes to the issue of what’s “offensive,” then, you can end up getting tied up in knots. For example, I’ve never quite understood why it’s ‘okay’ for me to do an appalling French accent and go “zut alors, sacre bleu!” but not okay for me to do an appalling Chinese accent. The latter, incidentally, often causes people to gasp and go, “That’s so racist!” Of course, no one can tell me why it’s racist, because the reality is that both accents are just examples of shameless stereotyping. Racism doesn’t come into it. But such issues have become loaded with such a disproportionate degree of sensitivity that one almost feels that to say the words “shalom” or “burqa” is akin to a blasphemous scald on an entire culture and its people.
But where am I going with all this, and how does it relate to Doctor Who Series 11? Well, this latest batch of adventures – like all good television – has prompted much debate across the internet, forums, and pub tables about what it is to be a ‘moral’ person, what it is to be offended, and what it looks like to cause offense. I’ve found this fascinating because I’ve heard opinions and been presented with arguments that I’ve struggled to comprehend. Undoubtedly, I’ve been challenged, and I suppose that’s a good thing. The conclusion I’ve come to, though, is that my morality is probably very different from most people’s.
Of course, the big elephant in the room for Doctor Who Series 11 is the fact that, for the first time in its history, the titular character is portrayed by a woman, namely Jodie Whittaker. The Doctor, previously a man, is now a woman, and in some people’s eyes any individual who doesn’t think this is spellbindingly “woke” is one of Satan’s minions, and a dinosaur from the blackest caves of Pangaea.
I mean, let’s be honest, sexist people do sadly exist, but it’s a little narrow-minded to cry “sexism” at an alternative viewpoint, in much the same way it’s disproportionate to cry “racism” at my talentless impersonation of a Chinese man. “But Alex, a female Doctor Who is ground-breaking!” said one of my friends (a person I really respect, by the way.) But of course, it’s not. Take the 1997 TV series, Crime Traveller as an example. Written by Anthony Horowitz, it was a gripping series about a scientist and pioneer known as Holly Turner who had built her own time machine and was using it to solve baffling crimes, assisted by a slightly dim male detective portrayed by Michael French. And Holly Turner kicked ass. So why did no one think Crime Traveller was “ground-breaking”?
I think there are two reasons for this. One is down to what I refer to as the Currency of Morality. In 2018, the cultural narrative of what it means to be a moral person can be boiled down into a simple list: Don’t be racist, don’t be sexist, don’t be homophobic, don’t be antisemitic, don’t be Islamophobic, and be sure to ‘do your bit’ because what goes around comes around (karma). And fulfilling any or all of these criteria is like a currency because it can be exchanged for affirmation amongst our peers and on social media, as well as helping us to feel better about ourselves. This is also true for big brands: Argos will suddenly festoon its windows with rainbow flags telling us how much it champions sexual diversity, and Doctor Who will introduce characters such as Yasmin Khan – a British Asian woman who is also a Muslim and, according to her mother (and Tumblr), perhaps also gay or bisexual. Both Argos and Doctor Who are able to win love and advocacy from their audiences by demonstrating their staunch integrity.
Now, in Crime Traveller’s case, the cultural narrative of the late ’90s was slightly different from this. It was the age of Lara Croft and the Spice Girls; the theme du jour was Girl Power. All Crime Traveller had to prove was that it was following in the trail that had been blazed. There was little pressure for Holly Turner to represent any other audience segment because, candidly, there was less appetite to see those characters represented in 1997.
The second reason why a female Doctor may now seem “ground-breaking” is down to Cultural Snobbery. Every time period in human history has believed itself to be the most enlightened, and anything that challenges these norms is vilified. So when the media stories of 2018 openly discuss the ubiquity of gender pay imbalance, and predatory sexual harassment, storytelling is prompted to react against this. And it does so loudly, to the point where the BBC would have you believe that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is, in fact, the first ever empowered female in the history of fiction. And conversely, anyone who questions this assertion is instantly labelled the antithesis – the enemy – and no better than the sexist man who refuses to increase women’s wages, or a depraved sexual predator.
So in 2018, to champion the regeneration of a powerful male hero into a powerful female hero is both ‘moral’ and ‘enlightened.’ It’s progressive, and we congratulate ourselves for it.
But of course there are a lot of other boxes to be ticked on the moral checklist: Don’t be racist, don’t be sexist, don’t be homophobic, don’t be antisemitic, don’t be Islamophobic… The question I have is, why stop there? Why are some so terrified of the possibility of being branded homophobic but have no issue with posting hateful memes about a well-known political party? The answer is a cultural one, and it’s not really got anything to do with morality. If society and one’s peers affirm a particular type of behaviour, then it’s ostensibly okay. That is the moral narrative that today’s audiences are being fed, and the one that Who perpetuates and embraces.
I think this is why I found the latest series of Doctor Who so infuriating to watch. Its supposed moral preaching was loud and pervasive to the point of being judgmental and patronising, but it was also wildly inconsistent. In Rosa, for example, the audience was told in no uncertain terms that racism was wrong, and the baddie in that episode was a mass-murdering white supremacist who was hell-bent on making the civil rights movement crumble. The solution that Doctor Who presented to this problem was for the character of Ryan to send this unhinged man back to the dawn of time to live out a life of complete isolation in the barren wastes of Pangaea, where he would either freeze, starve, be eaten by dinosaurs, or else go clinically insane after decades of no human contact. That was the ‘moral’ solution that Doctor Who offered to the issue of racism: basically, murder the miscreant. Or, if we extrapolate – judge and dispose of the person with a differing viewpoint. Which would be to address racism with fascism.
It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you can see how quickly any kind of logic breaks down when you try to follow the moral narrative of 2018. But is it okay for a person to be “offended” if confronted with racism, sexism, homophobia and so on? Yes, absolutely… We all get offended. And by all means let’s try not to offend one another! I think the key is to discuss our viewpoints and respect them – even if we respectfully disagree. If we stamp out any possibility of an open dialogue, our understanding will contract, not broaden.
But on top of that, we seriously need to take a look at how we define ‘being offended.’ For example, Doctor Who has had a lot to say about Christianity over the years (most of it negative) and whilst it frustrates me and causes a fair amount of eye-rolling, I don’t lose sleep over it. I am not traumatised – my faith isn’t shaken. I don’t feel marginalised, hated, or laughed at. I just heard someone (usually my hero, the Doctor!) say something I didn’t agree with. And then I carry on with my day.
So perhaps when someone says “I don’t want my male hero to become female”, there’s a good chance they’re not actually being sexist. I mean, they might be – you’ll have to ask them. And when you’ve heard them out, then perhaps you can question whether their statement is really, really akin to saying, “All women are pathetic and useless and have no place on my television screen!” And then work out what you’re going to do with that knowledge. Of all the outcomes that will be most edifying, I can guarantee that a fiery email exchange will not be it.
So there we go – that’s my moral preaching. And there will be much more of that when I become the next Doctor Who showrunner, muhahahaha! I will set all my stories in 1st Century Palestine and highlight the marginalisation of well-meaning Christians, to the point where even Argos will be quoting the gospel in its windows. Amen.
I mentioned before that my morality seemed to be different from that of my peers, and the final bit of advice that I will offer (in full awareness that it wasn’t asked for!) is that you, dear reader, dispense with your list – if you have a list – and instead treat your peers with patience, kindness, and love. A fire and brimstone fascist doesn’t need nuking – they need saving. I fail in this endeavour daily, but the strength is in striving. As a good man once said, “Love one another.” I truly believe this is a good place to start.