Tag Archives: thirteenth doctor

Female heroism, male template and The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)

womanfell

Here’s the thing: we’ve never had a female Doctor before.

I know. Thank you, Captain Obvious. But let me explain.

There was a time when female heroes were rare. Particularly rare on TV and in films. I’m a child of the 70s, so I remember those days well. But things have changed.

These days, it’s not hard to find female heroes in popular culture, and film and TV is helping break down tired old stereotypes. Everything from police procedural dramas to super hero blockbusters have female leads. It’s not groundbreaking or even unusual to see female-led drama. Often, these women take on heroic tasks which were traditionally the sole province of men. So we see women who can fight. Women who can solve mysteries. Women who can fix things. Women who can be funny.

But even with female heroism being commonplace, watching Jodie Whittaker take on the role of the Doctor is a revelation. And it’s not because the show suddenly has a female lead being smart. Or being brave. Or being funny. It’s because we at last have a female lead being all of these things at once.

This story reminded me what a multifaceted character the Doctor is. That’s not so rare, if you’re thinking about blokes in fiction. Male heroes are, for some reason, allowed to be many things at once. The Doctor, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, Starlord… you can find male poly-heroes everywhere. But female heroes tend to be specialists. Geniuses, warriors, adventurers and clowns – take your choice of one.

So we’ve seen plenty of female heroes, but we’ve never had a female Doctor before. That’s why Whittaker’s not just an innovation for Doctor Who but for popular culture as a whole. It’s why her Doctor feels so brilliantly new and necessary.

***

So exactly who is a female Doctor meant to be?

I know! Not so Captain Obvious now, right?

Showrunner Chris Chibnall has taken the sensible decision to underplay the Doctor’s gender change. It’s a move intended, I suspect, to position the essential Doctorness of the character as unchanged, regardless of whether she’s played by a man or a woman. And to show that the series functions in the same way, whether it has a male or female Doctor. There’s no need to continually reference the gender change and do so would patronise everyone involved. (Still, it makes me wonder how Steven Moffat would have handled it. Do you think we would have got through her first season without a boob joke? I can’t imagine it).

But the deliberate effort to present an image of, “business as usual, regardless whether it’s him or her” leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Should the thirteenth Doctor be essentially the same character as her male predecessors, or should she take this opportunity to be a distinctly female Doctor? Should she be a female variant on an established template, or should create a whole new template? And if our first ever female Doctor just behaves like all the men who came before her, then exactly what is new?

To offer some examples: as Season 11 has played out, some have voiced a wish for the Doctor to be more assertive and confrontational. Some have wanted her to stand up to the villains more frequently and more forcefully. Some have wanted moments of righteous anger. Why? Because these are all things previous Doctors have done.

So in one sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to want the thirteenth Doctor to get to do all the things male Doctors have done, particularly if things like taking down a villain or losing your rag at a particularly despicable person are seen as characteristically Doctorly things to do. We want her to do everything the various hes could.

But on the other hand, it seems perverse to want our first female Doctor to behave just like all the men we’ve seen before. Shouldn’t we expect, if not relish, seeing her approach problems differently to her male counterparts? Shouldn’t we see the strength in this?

Perhaps what we’re discovering is that there’s a set of things we expect every Doctor to be able to do – and to get the chance to do. Blow up a Dalek. Talk down a villain. Punch the neutron flow and reverse the polarity of a racist. If we didn’t see a female Doctor do these essentially Doctorish things, she’d feel inauthentic.

But every time she does something different to her predecessors, every time she takes a subtler approach, or lets her companions take the spotlight or plays a moment with unexpected empathy, we seem to be asking why she’s not acting like a male Doctor. And that feels weird to me. If Chibnall had cast a man as the thirteenth Doctor, would we be questioning his every variation from the Doctorly norm? Would we more readily accept each idiosyncrasy as an innovation on a standard template, rather than questioning if he should be more like what’s come before?

We will never know. But I fear this will haunt Whittaker’s time as the Doctor. This tug-of-war between being the same and being different.

***

Funnily enough, concerns about the thirteenth Doctor’s passivity, her lack of confrontational exchanges and so on date from after The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Here she does face up to the big bad. And she does get to do the full gamut of Doctory traits (save a moment of sudden, unexpected anger) and with moments of steely determination, plus welding stuff. And she gets to jump off a crane, in a big moment of physicality. She’s Doctor af.

But she is showing us new elements to our favourite character too. She latches on to the first set of people she sees and adopts them as her “fam”. She takes an almost parental interest in Ryan (Tosin Cole), and a BFF relationship with Yaz (Mandip Gill). We start to see hints of the relentlessly enthusiastic fun-seeker she’ll shortly become. Her sparking new mind is constantly on the edge of distraction. She’s more interested in running mental rings around her opponents than blowing them up. And perhaps more so than any Doctor before her, she wants to connect with the people around her and to engage with humanity.

“We can evolve while still staying true to who we are,” the Doctor says as she finally regains her sense of self.  “We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” If she gets the space to do just that, we really will have an extraordinary Doctor to travel with over the next few seasons.

So sayeth Captain Obvious again.

LINK TO The Lie of the Land: Neither story features the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… How is it you can be such a stupid, stubborn, irrational and thoroughly objectionable old idiot?! It’s dinner for two with The Two Doctors.

 

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Divergence, importance and Rosa (2018)

rosa

The thing about writing a weekly blog about a randomly selected Doctor Who story is that it’s sometimes wildly out of sync with what’s new and exciting. And it feels most disconnected from the rest of Planet Who when a new series airs. Everyone’s talking about the latest and greatest and I’m over here saying, “hey, let’s talk about The Happiness Patrol!”

So when I worked out that my 250th post was going to fall during the new series, I thought I’d make a pretence of being up-to-date and de-random the whole shebang just for a moment. Just for one week, I’ll talk about the most recent episode to air. And when I was planning this brief foray into topicality, I hoped that the post would neatly coincide with an episode which was notable. Something interesting and engaging and that felt like an event for the show.

I got lucky. That episode turned out to be Rosa, an episode which offers much to talk about. I know this because so many people have been talking about it.

Online fandom seemed to draw a collective breath after this episode aired – a kind of moment of startled surprise at what they’d just seen – and then the tweeting and blogging and podcasting began in earnest. This is an episode which people want to discuss. And debate. And draw attention to, in a kind of “wow, did you see what Doctor Who just did?” moment. BBC News, Radio Times and New Statesman ran stories on it; more than the usual amount of attention for a mid-series celebrity historical.

Normally, I have months and more often, years to think about a Doctor Who story before I write about it, so the prospect of giving a prompt response to an episode panicked me. So, I’ve been reading and listening to everyone else’s opinions, to think over what other people have said to help synthesise my own thoughts. And over the course of five days, this is the general opinion I’ve noted: “It’s very good. Surprisingly good considering how badly it could have gone. But…”

And that “but” is where opinions start to differ. For some, Rosa is preachy, for others, poignant. The aspects of it that one person loves, someone else hates. Whether it’s that scene by the dustbin or the patriotic trumpets in the score or the distracting eyebrows of the time meddling racist… you’ll find voices in support and criticism of them all. Well, so far, so the lived experience of Doctor Who fans everywhere.

There’s something invigorating about this whirlwind of ideas and competing viewpoints because we all know it won’t last. In years to come, it will all settle down, consensus will be mostly reached and we’ll all come to some sort of rough agreement about the episode. We’ll assign it a mark out of 10. We’ll pigeonhole it. But right now, we’re in a state of uncertain, noisy, opinionated divergence. I wish it was always like this.

***

If there’s a common word to pick out of the maelstrom of comment about Rosa, it’s “important”. That’s a signifier for when Doctor Who drops its usual far-fetched malarkey and tackles a serious issue. Like that other “important” episode Vincent and the Doctor, Rosa takes a real and present problem, refuses to dress it up in allegory and drops it like a truth bomb into the Doctor’s fantasy-filled world. The Doctor’s not that well equipped to deal with racism, or depression or similarly complex societal issues. But occasionally an episode forces her to do so. And because this draws a mainstream audience’s attention to those problems, we say that’s important.

In Rosa’s case, it’s also the first story in 55 years written by a person of colour (definitely important) and a compelling piece of drama. I relished my first viewing of the episode in which the powder keg tension of Alabama in 1955 was at its most palpable. It felt like our TARDIS travellers, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole), were in genuine danger. This pervading threat of jeopardy, all too rare in Doctor Who, is like lightning in a bottle. A second viewing can’t hope to recapture that feeling, but it at least allows the viewer to appreciate how director Mark Tonderai and DOP Tico Poulakakis created it. (Aided, it’s got to be said, by some of the best art direction the show has ever seen and some brilliant locations which felt authentically deep south).

Rosa herself is played with poise and precision by Vinette Robinson. Where Doctor Who’s other historical celebrities – your Shakespeares, Churchills and so on have been broad brush pastiches – Robinson produces the sort of naturalism you expect on prestigious dramas. She lends this already weighty story much gravitas. Among the storm of opinions about this episode, praise for Robinson is as consistent as praise for the decision to keep Rosa’s story parallel to but separate from the sci-fi hijinks of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) foiling uber racist Krasko (Joshua Bowman). Rosa’s act of civil disobedience is too profound and treasured to be spoilt by turning it into standard Doctor Who, by making the bus driver be an alien in disguise or something. If a Doctor Who episode’s going to be “important”, it also needs to tread carefully.

Still, there are missteps, and despite the episode being genuinely moving, we shouldn’t overlook them. The script telegraphs its intentions too often, such as when Ryan inquires how the temporal displacement gadget works and the Doctor carefully explains how to use it before warning him not to. Surely no one was surprised when he disobeyed her a few scenes later. Repetition snuck in: the Banksy joke, for instance, worked well once and didn’t need to be repeated. And as for how many times our TARDIS quartet explained to each other how they needed to coordinate efforts to get Rosa on the bus on time… well, I’ll just say I felt comprehensively informed.

Those four are proving to be engaging company, even if their exploits seem carefully planned around their individual skill sets. They just about get away with Yaz (Mandip Gill) using her investigative skills to plot Rosa’s movements, and Ryan can be relied upon to fire the space guns and bumble into trouble, but I’m just not sure how many more bus driving related plots they can conjure up for Graham (Bradley Walsh).  Their individual character arcs are all pointing to moments of self-realisation I’m quietly dreading: Yaz reconnecting with her family, Ryan riding a bike to save the universe and Graham driving a spaceship vaguely shaped like a bus to some vital plot point. (And at some stage, surely Ryan’s going to call Graham “Grandad,” and I’ll be hiding behind my sofa for that one).

The Doctor continues to be refreshingly warm, smart and enthusiastic, walking confidently through this tale of the worst of human prejudice. She’s the first Doctor who seems to truly enjoy having a team of people around her, but she has the smarts and courage to talk down a two-bit crook like Krasko on her own, and without raising a sweat.

Where the Doctor truly looks challenged, for the first time this season, is in that climactic scene on the bus, where she must steady her friends to stand by an allow an act of racism to play out, in order to safeguard the future. It’s a brave scene in several ways. First, it’s brave to make a decision to do nothing the moment on which a drama hangs. Secondly, it’s uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and her friends silently condone a moment which goes against everything they stand for. Thirdly, in doing so, the Doctor seems to reject the radical act of demanding immediate change which she is usually the catalyst for. She’s normally the bringer of regime change on many an oppressed alien planet. Here, she falls in favour of slow, incremental change, making people of colour take the long way around to equal rights. It’s a deeply conflicting ending but it’s designed to be, and that’s what makes it work.

This kind of small-l liberal resignation to the practical – an attitude of “well you’ve got to work within the system and change will eventually come” – is an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. And I can see where some are coming from when they say that’s part of the story positioning racism too firmly as a historical artefact; that despite Ryan and Yaz’s dumpster conversation, there wasn’t enough recognition of the ongoing stain of racial prejudice in our own society. I think there’s two elements here which redress the balance.

The first and subtlest is that Krasko comes from the far future. He’s a walking indication that racism will prevail long into humanity’s future and will always need confronting. More overt is the choice to close out the episode with Andra Day’s Rise Up. As it’s closely linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s a clear statement that racism is still our problem and the fight goes on; a point I’d much prefer being made by music than by the post-match TARDIS exposition convo.

***

In her first episode of this series, and in the trailers to promote it, our new Doctor proclaimed, “this is going to be fun!” That seems to be a catch cry for this season, and a point of difference from the show’s recent past. Whatever the merits of the Capaldi era, it wasn’t, for the most part, what you’d call “fun”.

Rosa proved to be an early antidote to fun in this season. But that’s OK, because it swapped being fun for being essential viewing, for more than just us die hards. Whatever the diverse opinions about this episode, I think we can confidently say it’s been a while since Doctor Who was that.

LINK TO The Happiness Patrol: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed. Stop your Cryon, it’s Attack of the Cybermen.