Well, this is long-overdue and welcome news:
The BBC has cast Jodie Whittaker as the new lead of Doctor Who, making her the thirteenth actor to step into the role of the titular time traveler. Although the Doctor has had many female and non-white companions as he roams the universe, until now the show has flinched from taking the ultimate leap. It’s a bold move by the showrunners that deserves to be applauded, not least for the potential it brings to tell new and different kinds of stories – no small feat for a long-running sci-fi series that’s trying to feel fresh and relevant after fifty years of episodes.
While some TV shows would have to appeal to the audience’s suspension of disbelief to recast the lead role, in Doctor Who it’s built right in, since the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, can regenerate into an entirely new body when they’re on the verge of death. Next to that transformation, changing gender is a minor tweak in comparison.
When I wrote about the show a few years back, I pointed out that it had been criticized for making every incarnation of the Doctor so far a white man. Even so, the series has spent a long time laying the groundwork for this. As long ago as 2010, it made mention of Time Lords that had changed gender. In the season that began in 2014, the Doctor’s archnemesis, the Master, regenerated into a female body and redubbed herself “Missy”. And in one of the last episodes of the latest season, the Doctor, currently played by Peter Capaldi, offered up this observation:
“We’re the most civilized civilization in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.”
However, not all the show’s human fans are so open-minded. There’s a noisy fraction who have no problem with the idea of an alien do-gooder who travels through space and time in a phone booth and periodically metamorphoses into a new body, but are outraged by the idea that one of this being’s many incarnations might be female. And most of them resort to grossly sexist stereotypes to say so. Here’s a representative of the knuckle-draggers:
I awoke this morning with a heavy sense of melancholic despondency, as if a dear lifelong friend had just died. Oh, wait a minute, a dear lifelong friend HAS just died. He was Doctor Who, albeit a fictional character in a sci-fi series but one who I’ve kept company with since the show began in 1963 when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My now-adult children watched it, too, when they were younger. But the good Doctor has been slain by a small cabal of fanatical ideological fundamentalists in the name of “diversity” and “cultural relevance.”
I find that my waking melancholy is progressively giving way to vein-bulging rage, which is very childish of me and will give delight to virtue-signalling Guardian readers, whose intolerance and cruelty actually knows no bounds, despite their preposterous displays of right-on, Newspeak-approved compassion. While I’m still in the grip of that childishness, I should say that while of course I harbour no malice toward Ms Whittaker, I really do want the show to crash and burn after this preposterous casting decision…
Sadly, another of the grumblers is Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor from the show’s classic era. (Worth noting, he’s a rare exception – many other past stars of the show have supported the move.) He expressed the same prejudice in a more genteel form:
But the 66-year-old told the Press Association: “If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for. So I feel a bit sad about that, but I understand the argument that you need to open it up.
“As a viewer, I kind of like the idea of the Doctor as a boy but then maybe I’m an old fashioned dinosaur – who knows?”
First: if this is really what you’re concerned about, let me assure you that boys growing up today are in no danger of being unable to find a male role model. Even if they don’t like Jodie Whittaker, the BBC isn’t throwing out old tapes anymore; they’ve got twelve male Doctors to choose from. In the meantime, what’s so bad about letting the girls have a turn for once?
Also, it begs the question: why can’t boys look up to a woman as their role model? Davison takes for granted that this is the case, but doesn’t attempt to explain why.
The undercurrent of this is the same one that we saw with the Ghostbusters reboot or the new Star Wars: a segment of the fandom that reacts angrily to any deviation from the assumed default of the straight white male protagonist. You might almost say they act as if they’re entitled to one.
There’s a profound failure of empathy here, one that’s at the root of many other problems: the idea that white men should only ever have to empathize with characters who look like them. Women and people of color have to take what they can get, but if a white guy can’t have his pick of heroes from the whole buffet of fiction, that’s a grave injustice. (A similar narrow-mindedness is apparent in video gamers who accept fantasy worlds that have wizards, orcs and fire-breathing dragons, but protest that the inclusion of non-white characters isn’t realistic.) It’s obvious what harm results when this attitude bleeds into the real world.
There’s no way to appease people who are clinging to the past. The only way to introduce diversity to a classic series is to just get on with it, and ignore the mutters and grumbles of the troglodytes. It will soon seem like a natural, even obvious step, and the next generation of fans will wonder why anyone ever had a problem with it.