TV

5 reasons why a female Doctor is exactly what Doctor Who needs right now

By the end of Christmas Day, The Doctor will officially be a woman (none other than the fabulous Jodie Whittaker.) I was ecstatic when I heard the news, another genius bit of casting for the show, but not everyone agreed. Unsurprisingly the casting of the first female Doctor proved to be somewhat controversial, with a few fans saying they’ll never watch the show again (they almost certainly will, but that’s beside the point!)

I personally don’t really understand it. How can you watch a show about a two thousand year old, shape shifting, time travelling alien with two hearts but find switching the gender of the character the thing that kills your suspension of disbelief?

Quite frankly, I think the casting of Jodie Whittaker isn’t just acceptable, it’s exactly what the show needs right now. Here are five reasons why:

 

1. Doctor Who needs change

I love Doctor Who, more than I should really (in fact I even argued that it’s as good as any religion, and I was only half-joking), but even I would say the show has felt a little…’stale’ the last few years. Don’t get wrong, Capaldi has been great and there have been some really amazing episodes with incredible thematic depth way beyond what should be expected of a Saturday teatime TV show, but the ratings have been in decline. It’s not doing bad by any means, but it’s some way away from the highs of the Russell T Davies era.  And again, I don’t think that’s because of the quality of writing, so much as the ‘new’ incarnation of Doctor Who is now twelve years old, and has had the same creative team behind it for the last seven years. No matter how good the writing has been, it feels like the show has had the pedal fully to the floor but is still only going at 50mph for the last few years.

Doctor Who’s biggest strength is it’s basically an anthology show. Unlike Game of Thrones, Doctor Who is largely designed so anyone can watch an episode at any time and still get something from it. But also unlike Game of Thrones, it can’t rely on the momentum of an on-going story to bring people back each week. So, if people start to think of Doctor Who as ‘same old, same old’ (a term that featured in the trailer for Series 9 for some reason known only to the BBC marketing department), they’re not going to tune in.

The new creative team next year, headed by Chris Chibnall, will almost certainly give the show an organic ‘freshness’ that it hasn’t been able to artificially generate, try as it might have with Series 10. Again, I don’t think the show will necessarily be better, but it will feel new once more.

But what better way to tell the audience that this is not business as usual than by casting a female Doctor? With the news making the front pages today, the show feels more in the public consciousness now than it has since the 50th Special in 2013.

 

2. It only makes sense

Steven Moffat might not have cast a female Doctor, but he’s certainly done his fair share in making the mythology of the show ready for a woman lead.

One of his first lines for the show as head writer was having the newly regenerated Matt Smith question whether he was ‘a girl’. He then added the line about The Corsair (another Timelord) being a female in one of his regenerations to a Gaiman script, and in Series 9 he showed a balding, middle-aged male Timelord regenerate into a black woman…gee, do you think he was trying to tell us something?

Of course his ultimate move was casting a female Master. If everything else was just lip service to the idea of a female Doctor, casting Michelle Gomez as Missy was a test-run…and what a success it was! Gomez owned the role and being a woman didn’t detract in the slightest. It was almost audacious to have her and John Simm (the previous incarnation of The Master) appear in the same episode for the recent finale but there was no need to fear, they totally felt like the same person (at least in the same way all The Doctors have when they’ve met.)

With hindsight the speech The Doctor gave to Bill in the penultimate episode about Timelords rising above humanity’s petty obsessions with gender works as a beautiful build up to the reveal we had yesterday.

In fact, Moffat didn’t just make the idea of a female Doctor compatible with the show’s mythology, he essentially made it a plot hole to not mix things up. If The Doctor can take any form, any colour, any gender, then why does he keep appearing as a white man?

Moffat claims he didn’t know who the Thirteenth Doctor was, but The Doctor’s reply to The Master questioning if the future ‘is all girl’ with ‘I do hope so’ certainly suggests Moffat had a sense of the show’s future….

 

3. Representation is important

Finally it looks like mainstream entertainment is beginning to realise they don’t need white male leads to be successful. Just look at the most recent two Star Wars films – both had a female lead and Rogue One, in particular, had a really diverse supporting cast as well. The recently released Wonder Woman has also shown just how much of an appetite there is for female-lead superhero movies.

Things certainly aren’t moving fast enough (I’m looking at you MCU – God knows how many films and they’ve still all been lead by white guys!), but it does feel like the cultural zeitgeist is changing.

I love Doctor Who and everything it represents (I’ve been proud of the show’s portrayal of Bill’s sexuality this series), and casting a woman Doctor feels like tapping into the mood of the time. That’s not ‘political correctness’ by the way, just the simple acknowledgement that ‘white male lead’ doesn’t have to be the default.

If I had one concern about casting a female Doctor, it’s that I love the role-model Doctor Who offers to young boys – he’s a hero who isn’t remotely defined by his physical strength, but by his intellect and his heart(s). But hey, we’ve had twelve male Doctors, let’s share our hero. And besides, perhaps the message that gender doesn’t really matter at all and is largely irrelevant is better anyway!

 

4. Think of all the interesting questions it raises

Will we have our first proper male companion? (I love Rory and Jack, but they were never the main billing, let’s be honest.) That would mix things up! Or will we have our first all-female TARDIS team? That would be exciting too.

And how will they handle The Doctor’s sexuality (so much as he/she has a sexuality)? Although The Doctor is often shown as being at arm’s length from sexual desire, there’s no doubt that his relationships with Rose, Madame Du Pompadour and River Song all had a romantic element to them. Will a female Doctor feel the same? Will she be a lesbian? Is the Doctor bisexual? Does his/her sexuality change when they regenerate? Do these labels even matter anymore?

The casting has opened up the floodgates to a whole load of interesting questions for the show to explore.

 

5. We get Jodie Whittaker!

Frustratingly, all this talk of whether there should be a female Doctor has almost overshadowed the fact that Jodie Whittaker is a damn good actor. In Broadchurch she gave an anchored performance whilst having to portray such extremes of emotion – I always thought she was overlooked in many ways, with all the praise going to the equally brilliant David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.

But sometimes a casting just feels ‘right’, and this certainly does to me. As a fan, I can’t think of a male actor I’d rather have play the role, and that’s really all that matters in the end – the best actor got the part.

And hopefully, in a few decades time, when some geeks of the future look back at previous Doctors, the fact Jodie Whittaker was the ‘first female Doctor’ will be a mere footnote, a piece of interesting trivia, and ultimately she’ll be judged on her performance.

 

The last episode of Doctor Who ended with the Twelfth and the First Doctor both certain they don’t want change. This is something I’m sure a lot of fans will be able to empathise with at the moment, even more so than usual. But, I’ve got a feeling The Doctors are going to work through their issues…and the future of Doctor Who is going to be just fine. I can’t wait!

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TV

Was Sherlock too complicated?

Anyone who has watched the recent episode of Sherlock, The Abominable Bride, will know that it wasn’t your standard Sherlock episode.

What was promised to be a special one-off episode set in the traditional Victorian world Arthur Conan Doyle had originally envisioned the character in soon became something a lot more complex – there were mind palaces, drug induced visions, dreams within dreams and continuity call backs aplenty.

Unsurprisingly the episode was pretty divisive, inspiring strong reactions from both camps of thought. Some were calling it a genius and cerebral piece of television, others were calling it utterly convoluted drivel.

I don’t mean to write a review myself (for what’s it worth I thought it was half brave, intelligent and ambitious, and half painfully self-aware and unnecessarily ‘meta’) but I do want to quickly give my two pennies’ worth about a question that has been raised, however.

Was Sherlock too complicated?

And I want to quickly discuss this point not only in regards to this series, but equally another series which I see frequently gets this complaint – Doctor Who, as well as explore the implications it raises for modern storytelling itself.

Both shows share the same head writer, Steven Moffat, so there is certainly overlap.

Of course the short answer to the question is I can’t really say. I’m in no position to confirm how confusing the average viewer found this particular episode, or any particular episode of Doctor Who, so it may well be, all things considered, that some episodes simply don’t work for the majority of viewers.

It’s hard to say for certain – perhaps the Audience Appreciation Index (used by the BBC to find out an audience’s reaction) can give us some view on that – but I do want to explain why I get a bit frustrated when people quickly run to the ‘it’s too confusing’ criticism.

Let me begin by stating something which I think is beyond doubt, Steven Moffat is a great writer. I’m not arguing everything he does is perfect (he’s certainly got quirks that annoy me as a viewer) but he has lead two major shows that continue to be two of the most popular programmes on TV.

There’s no denying that he, with Mark Gatiss, has created a juggernaut with Sherlock which continuously receives both critical acclaim and love from mainstream audiences, and even if you preferred Doctor Who under Russell T Davies, there’s still no getting away from the fact that Moffat has helped the programme stay fresh and interesting to an often huge TV viewership. Plus many of the episodes he wrote during the Davies era are considered some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time.

I say this not because I think Moffat particularly needs defending, but I do tire of people not giving his recent episodes the benefit of the doubt – quickly rushing to terms like ‘too confusing’ and ‘convoluted’ in a way that doesn’t seem particularly reflective or thoughtful.

And here’s where we run into a snag. What people want from a TV program is going to vary. Some people might want to sit down and watch an episode with their mind switched off (or at least not majorly engaged), or periodically in the background whilst they check their phone, and still feel rewarded without giving it much thought.

I myself am something of another extreme – like any good film, I’ll happily watch an episode of television again if I think it will both be enjoyable and enrich my understanding of the narrative. I make no bones about it, I watch almost every Doctor Who episode at least twice and I do find the second time often illuminates some of the blanks I had when I first watched it.

Neither approach is right or wrong, but it does highlight how television works for different people. And I do really want to stop short of saying that if you are in the former camp, and don’t want to overthink an episode, that you’re in the wrong – ultimately it’s entirely possible that an episode might truly be too complicated for the audience it’s meant to be servicing.

But I do often wonder in the case of this particular Sherlock episode, and often in the case of Doctor Who, if the criticism is a bit too quick to be used.

Taking this Sherlock episode into account, I personally don’t think there was anything that was beyond reasonable comprehension. In fact, a lot of it was clearly signposted from the very beginning (and, frankly, after you watched the opening long catch-up on what happened in the last three series of Sherlock you probably should have twigged this wasn’t going to be completely standalone.)

In terms of potential confusing things, there was:

  • A mind palace, a conceit that should be familiar if you’re a regular Sherlock fan. In this instance the mind palace happened to be a Victorian setting, heightened by a drug overdose.
  • A connection between the dream world and the ‘real world’ Sherlock we know. Sherlock was imagining himself solving an old case to try and get answers for a current case.
  • There was a dream within a dream. This was probably the most complex bit (if Inception taught us anything it’s that dreams within dreams really catches people out.) But the use of this wasn’t simply a convoluted twist (as I admittedly first thought) but actually a way of showing Sherlock’s raw, powerful and confused psyche.

Sure there are questions to be asked, but nothing there strikes me as something incomprehensible. I certainly found it easier to follow than when I first watched Inception (which seemed to try its absolute best to shake off the audience’s understanding.)

And, as mentioned, I don’t think most of the plot twists and convolutions were aimless or there simply for twist’s sake – they added clarity to either the plot or the character of Sherlock.

In many ways it parallels with a recent episode of Doctor Who called Heaven Sent. This saw a grief stricken Doctor trapped in a castle being chased down by a veiled monster. That episode also had mind palaces and used the conceit of the episode to dig deeper into the psyche of the Doctor than we’re usually allowed – and again there was a cry from many that it was ‘too complicated.’

Regardless of the fact that Heaven Sent was a far better, tighter piece of TV than The Abominable Bride, I would consider both to be daring, brave, wholly unique pieces of television that are layered, complex and respect the audience’s intelligence.

And I really think television is now the best place for populist entertainment that can also be thoughtful and reflective. Whilst cinema will always have its art house movies, the big populist blockbusters are often very dumb and unambitious.

I love, for example, the Marvel movies. They have great actors, great characters and often reasonably sharp scripts, but they almost always end up with a big brawling third act where all sense of story and theme is abandoned for spectacle. Equally whilst JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens may be heartfelt, it takes almost no risks at all with its story and simply repeats beat for beat the plot of the original movie that came out in the seventies.

The Hollywood Studio System produces films designed by committee, and whilst I enjoy them as much as the next guy, they simply are rarely able to produce anything that thought-provoking or original. That’s why when a film like Inception came along people heaped praise on it, even despite its flaws.

Television, however, seems able to offer populist drama that doesn’t require us to completely switch off our brains, and writers like Moffat are at the forefront of using that power to write experimental and, often, divisive stories. The last few episodes of Doctor Who alone have had an underlying meditation on loss, grief and letting go. Equally this episode of Sherlock was many things, but I don’t think safe is one of them.

And if a little confusion is what we need to suffer to have stories that aren’t simply cookie-cutter replicas that serve you absolutely no more than you expect, then I think it’s a price worth paying.

It’s because of this I find the ‘it’s too confusing’ criticism a little bit frustrating. Not because it’s definitely not true, it’s entirely possible that when writers experiment with themes, narrative structure etc. they’ll lose the simplicity, but because the criticism rarely takes the time to acknowledge that it’s confusing precisely because it’s daring, bold and ambitious.

Would a Sherlock episode set in Victorian London without any modern connection have been more enjoyable? Perhaps, it’s an entirely fair view which I have some sympathy with. But it would also have been incredibly easy for the Sherlock writers to have given us that.

The fact they gave us something weirder, more experimental and damn near art house should at least be acknowledged as a positive – even if we ultimately aren’t satisfied with the end product.

Because, I think, that’s where I stand with The Abominable Bride. I don’t think it entirely worked, I think at times it was too self-aware and at places I would have preferred a more straightforward mystery. But, do you know what, I could get that anywhere – TV has no shortage of detective dramas. The fact we got something so much stranger I simply can’t help but admire.

As I say, perhaps the episode was too confusing for the average viewer. That may well have been the case.

But can we at least acknowledge, when we use this as a criticism, that often this isn’t because of poor or incomprehensible storytelling but because it’s a unique piece of artistic work that may well be too strange and ambitious for its own good – but for God’s sake, let us celebrate the ambition!

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