Q. A boy and his father get in a car accident and are rushed to hospital. The father goes to one room for surgery, and the boy is seen in another room. The doctor scheduled to perform the operation says “I can’t operate on this boy – this boy is my son.” How can this be?
A. The doctor is his mother.
When I was in my early twenties, I attended an annual event in Birmingham, organised by the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs. The gathering saw thousands of teenagers and their youth leaders, decked out in the organisation’s trademark green and yellow, walking through Birmingham (a poor substitute for London) for workshops, music events and ‘fun activities’. As a teenager I’d thought these weekends the greatest things on the planet. Now I found them tedious, although that was partly because the format had grown stale, and partly because the event had been scaled down considerably from what it was in its heydey.
One supposed ‘highlight’ of the weekend was the variety show at the NEC, attended by the (admittedly decent) youth orchestra and singers and a cast of hundreds, most of whom were admittedly reasonably talented. Shows had a theme, usually around social awareness of some sort. Basically it was an excuse for some contemporary musical numbers, skits that were ten years out of date and then awkwardly juxtaposed meditations about racism, followed by a random interpretive dance from the Midlands contingent. On this occasion, we saw (not for the first time) Commander Jane Bond, a long-haired teenage girl wearing glasses and a bowler hat over a pinstripe suit in what looked like cosplay before it was really fashionable. Jane Bond was given orders by MI6 to tackle the world’s most serious problems – unarmed, of course – which led to her dashing around the arena confronting tableaus of street violence, homelessness, drug abuse and, um, video piracy.
I will just let that sit for a minute.
Anyway, why am I telling you all this? Well, because we’ve had about four days since the announcement that Matt Smith will be stepping down after the Doctor Who Christmas Special, and already I’ve read more blogs, opinion columns and hack pieces about “Why the next Doctor should be black / Asian / female / Kim Kardashian” than I’ve seen in three years combined. Everyone, it seems, has their views about why it would be a wonderful / groundbreaking / crap idea to mix up the formula. And here’s mine, but I’m going to keep it simple. This little missive will be in two parts, and I’ve put them both together, because I’m nice like that.
1. Why The Next Doctor Probably Shouldn’t Be A Woman
The point of my opening story about Jane Bond was that for various reasons it was a chronic misfire. The video piracy thing was part of it. As someone who has been known to rip-and-burn the odd disc myself (although solely for personal use) I resent being lumped in with a serial child molester or narcotics pusher. But it was more than that: it was the whole concept. I don’t want to dump on the MAYC, because subverting the gender of established male heroes is hardly new – nor is it remotely harmful. It’s just awkward. It was as if the writers figured there was no way a man could be sufficiently compassionate to bring about an end to the world’s problems, and thus it had to be a woman. I’m reading too much into this, I know, but in any case, why on earth would you take a cold-blooded killer like James Bond, make him female and then have him act completely against character for the sake of having a well-known ‘secret agent’ fulfil a dangerous and complicated mission? It wasn’t an ideological hangup as such; it just looked out of place.
The awkward truth is that the same might be said of casting a woman to play the Doctor. Before we go any further, let’s deal with the first elephant (and this is going to involve some anatomical talk, so please try not to snigger): it’s not that the Doctor can’t be female. I roll my eyes at the fans who insist that Time Lords cannot change their gender when they’re being reborn. It implies a consistency about regeneration (and, indeed, Time Lord DNA) that simply isn’t there. With obvious exceptions, we know next to nothing about Gallifreyan physiology because for the most part we simply don’t need to know. The writers just shoehorn in explanations when it suits them. The Fifth Doctor’s celery explanation is a case in point. So too is the endless (and quite pointless) debate about how many times a Time Lord can regenerate, or the question of whether the Doctor’s first regeneration actually counts as a regeneration or not. It’s a case of throwaway lines taken to a literal extreme and used to form whole new schools of thought. (And those of you who think this doesn’t really matter might do well to remember that much organised religion starts in the same way.)
No, I’d be fine with the concept of a gender swap. Besides that bit in the Comic Relief special (17:50, if you can be bothered to skip past all the ads), Big Finish have already covered it in some detail in ‘Exile’, which broadcast as part of the ‘Unbound’ series. It charts an alternative history whereby the Second Doctor, awaiting trial following the events of ‘The War Games’, commits suicide – a process that sees him regenerate into Arabella Weir and get a job in a supermarket. David Tennant turns up playing a Time Lord, and the previous incarnation of the Doctor is played by Nicholas Briggs, who also wrote the thing (and who does have a tendency to steal the most interesting / noteworthy stories for his own commissions, as well as monopolising all the monster parts).
The main problem with ‘Exile’, Gareth assures me, is not its central concept but that it simply isn’t very good. And I can’t help thinking we’d go down the same route with a female Doctor, and in a funny sort of way it’s precisely because this alternative universe never happened. Because I’ve been examining the history of the show and I’d say that there were two immense sea changes for Doctor Who over the years. The most recent was obviously the 2005 reboot, with its advances in filming methods and post production (resulting in a more cinematic look) and higher-quality effects (let’s just ignore the Slitheen), single-episode stories and an entirely different approach that arguably created as many problems as it attempted to solve.
But try and imagine watching back in 1970. For certain, the Hartnell / Troughton change probably shook you. You get used to a pompous old man and you’re suddenly faced with a slightly less pompous younger man with a Beatles haircut who plays the recorder. Then, just when you get used to him, he gets exiled! To Earth! With a non-functioning TARDIS! And a new haircut! And – goodness me – a family! AND IT’S IN COLOUR! Well, sort of. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t take long for certain elements – the Doctor’s alienness, the hum of the TARDIS, the planet-hopping – to return, but it must have been quite a transition if you were there to see it.
And it strikes me that this point – not 1981, not 2005, and certainly not now – would have been the ideal moment to bring in a female Doctor. Because the show was fairly established, but it was being shaken up. And doing a gender switch might have killed it, but it would have been one of a big list of changes, and thus less fuss would have been made. The problem, you see, is that the longer things carry on the way they are the harder it is to change them, simply because such a transformation looks increasingly gimmicky. It no longer becomes about who the character is, but solely about who’s playing him.
The fact of the matter is that the Doctor’s been a white British male for so long it’s very difficult to truly imagine him as anything else. You’re doing it now, aren’t you? You’ve got your eyes closed and you’re imagining Lenny Henry or Miranda Hart or Sanjeev Baskar or someone, anyone, who’s going to go against type. But doesn’t that run the risk of casting an actor because they’re different, rather than because they’re the right person? If you’re going to re-cast a show in this manner, go the whole hog. Go for an exclusively minority roll call. Otherwise you have a Doctor who stands out in the crowd, which is something he spent most of series seven trying to undo. In years to come you’ll have guides that list Pertwee as ‘The Dandy Doctor’, Tom Baker as ‘The Alien Doctor’ and Idris Elba as ‘The Black Doctor’.
A while ago, I (very briefly) entertained the possibility of an incarnation that carried a disability. You might have a Doctor who only had one arm, or who needed to walk with a crutch, or one who was deaf. How might this change the dynamic of the show, the Doctor’s dependence on his companion(s) and how the character is perceived by its disabled audience? But it’s a stupid idea, and this is why: the regeneration would ‘fix’ things. You’d have a Doctor who couldn’t walk who was now able to do just that, and that only highlights disability in a negative, something-to-be cured way, rather than something that must sometimes be dealt with for the rest of one’s life.
So, too, do you run the risk of alienating one or both sides of the audience by appointing a woman or someone of different ethnic persuasion. It opens the floodgates to a sea of stunt casting, something that must be outdone every time the current Doctor decides to jump ship and concentrate on the stage or break out in Hollywood or claim they want to avoid typecasting when the truth is they didn’t like the management. I don’t mind in the least that Doctor Who feels the need these days to fulfil a quota of racial representation. Nor do I mind the tendency to have strong female companions – that a series has occasionally become almost entirely about them is to the programme’s detriment, but god knows we had enough of Bonnie Langford screaming in the 1980s, and given the choice I’d rather have Rose. (Actually, given the choice I’d rather listen to ‘The One Doctor’, just one of many audio dramas featuring Langford, who is quite wonderful, particularly when she’s putting up shelves with Christopher Biggins.)
(As it turns out, this photo is loaded with Who-related connections. Have a look at this.
But casting a woman is going to be all about stirring up the bloggers and maintaining interest in the show, or bringing in a different ‘dynamic’ that simply doesn’t need to be there. We’ve already done the regeneration from a female perspective, both in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ (in which Romana behaves as if she’s trying on outfits before a dinner party) and in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ (in which Alex Kingston is frankly embarrassing to watch). The BBC can’t write straightforward drama anymore; it has to be ‘about’ something, and while it’s fair to say that many of the best 1970s Who stories featured a healthy dose of satire or social commentary (‘The Sunmakers’, ‘Genesis of the Daleks’) there were also plenty of stories that were fun in their own right, and that did nothing more than spin a decent yarn.
CBeebies has a programme called Balamory. It’s about a bunch of slightly childlike adults who live on a remote Scottish island, and it’s brilliant, because it features a girl in a wheelchair who is a vibrant, useful member of the community, with a disability that is never mentioned. There is no episode that deals with Penny’s inability to climb stairs or reach something on a high shelf. Instead, she just gets on with things normally, and the wheelchair is entirely incidental. When it comes to Doctor Who I wish I could place at least some trust in the powers that be, but I can’t help thinking that the casting of a ‘different’ Doctor is too great a temptation for the production team to resist. There will be all sorts of running gags about genitalia, or the inability to run in a ballgown in the episodes where they’re at a party (you know, the sort of story where Smith would wear his tails, Tennant his dinner jacket and Eccleston would straighten up the neck of his jumper). Black Doctors will have their authority questioned by those who would have trusted Pertwee or McCoy, and there will be episodes that deal with segregation and being ‘unique’ or ‘alone’. It needn’t be like this, of course, but given the way the writing has gone in recent years that’s the way it will go, and no matter how much you think I’m grasping at straws here, I think you know that as well as I do.
It should be said that if it came to it, the ability of a ‘different’ performer to portray the character effectively is absolutely not in question. I reject the argument put forward by the Daily Mail that the only convincing role model for young boys is a man. I’ve got no doubts that you could have a strong black / Asian / female Doctor who ticks all the boxes and who could be played brilliantly by a black / Asian / female actor, and who comes across as appropriately Doctorish. The problem you’d have as a woman is not crossing that line that has you shamelessly emulating one of the male incarnations and coming across like a butch lesbian reading of the character. Tamsin Greig could probably have done it, but that’s just a name I picked out of a hat, and I’m sure there are plenty of others. Incidentally, while we’re on that, can we please stop with the Helen Mirren rumours? I mean it happens every time and it’s mind-numbingly tedious. It’s based on one or two quips in interviews and the BBC wouldn’t dare. They’d never be able to control her at conventions, for one thing. It would be all about how the Daleks’ quest for total domination is actually a veiled critique of U.S. foreign policy, or how the Silurian stories echo the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Or perhaps that’s Vanessa Redgrave; I can’t remember which one is the outspoken one. In any event, if you’re still on this as a serious notion, you’re almost as naive as those people who genuinely thought that Amy Winehouse was in the frame to play the Doctor.
You see, Doctor Who is too steeped in history, and all this talk of a fresh start is futile – like it or not, we’re simply too far down the road now. We’ve had the show for fifty years. I’m fine with breaking with tradition, but I can’t help thinking that this isn’t about tradition. It’s about what works. It’s not that a female Doctor could never have worked, it’s that it couldn’t work now. Which leads me neatly to…
2. Why The Next Doctor Probably Won’t Be A Woman
Why? Oh, because…well, see above. Look, Moffat knows all this. Despite the ‘mixed’ reaction to series seven and the whinge about the drop in episode rates, amidst the rumours of falling ratings, Doctor Who is still a cash cow, and the BBC know it. They’re not about to rock the boat. Bringing in a female Doctor is going to lose them half their audience – right or wrong – and it’s the last thing they want to do at what is a strategically questionable time for the show. There’s also the question of what you do with River Song, and the prospect of a lesbian relationship – although I confess I don’t mind that too much. (Certainly you couldn’t cast anyone, male or female, who is a less convincing partner than Smith, who – for all his qualities – has never gelled with Kingston.)
Whatever newspapers may say about the role being ‘up for grabs’, it’s almost certainly been cast already – I’d be surprised, indeed, if the regeneration scene hadn’t been filmed. We just need to sit and wait for the press release / controlled leak / careless tweet that gives away too much. I told Emily the other day that Ben Whishaw was in the frame, and she rolled her eyes at the notion – “I enjoyed him in Skyfall,” she said, “but he’s going to be exactly the same as the last two! That sort of clever, occasionally sneering academic type”.
Irrespective of the result, there will be the usual mixture of outrage, applause and photobombing on social media before the first official publicity shot is released. The community who don’t want the boat rocked (either for the reasons I’ve described above, or because they happen to be prejudiced) will be established as too protective of ‘their’ show by the media’s left, in much the same way that Neela Debnath has used her Independent column to rant about the racial undertones of the programme and its fans. But to suggest that the Doctor is now too established as a white Alpha Male is not sexist or racist. It’s simply where we are. The moment you subvert what has effectively become a part of mythology, the story becomes entirely about the subversion, rather than about anything the characters happen to be doing. Judy Corbalis’s The Wrestling Princess, which I can remember reading at the age of nine, is a case in point – while entertaining, the underlying point was that of stories that deliberately cast against type, and that always overshadowed anything interesting that the narrative had to say (and that was a shame, because there were several good jokes in there). Any stories with long-established archetypes will only remain fresh if you find a new way of telling the story that doesn’t feel like a publicity stunt. I don’t want a male Cinderella. Why do you want a female Doctor?