Doctor No

I was once a huge Doctor Who fan – back when Russell T. Davies was the showrunner and Christopher Eccleston then David Tennant were Timelords. I began to lose interest when Steven Moffatt took over; he isn’t half as clever as he and his fans think him to be and his stories when unchecked tend to be overly verbose and excessively convoluted. Also, I didn’t like Matt Smith.

I kept on watching nevertheless, hoping increasingly against myself and evidence that the show would return to its former greatness. It didn’t, though Pete Capaldi’s arrival briefly seemed to herald a new era. I finally stopped watching at the beginning of series 9 and have no plans to resume, no matter how much the old-time and social media urge me to – if anything, the frenzy over the Doctor’s new incarnation, its alleged timeness and supposed significance with the resulting duty for « enlightened people » to sing her praises under threat of being branded a square, a bigot or any other charming thing does nothing but put me off it a little more.

It’s not that I object to a woman playing The Doctor on principle, though I wonder as I always do in such circumstances why not creating a whole new character rather than hijacking an already existing and well-established one. Proponents say it was « about time » as though the whole universe was waiting for what is basically an adult-friendly children’s program to embrace gender equality. By the look of things it seems that it indeed was, at least if Twitter is a representative sample. I admit to being somewhat puzzled. Neither children or parents in my time were much concerned about the gender politics in He-Man and The Masters of Universe, The Transformers or Gavan. I certainly wasn’t.

Readers of this blog know how I oppose the intrusion of politics into the arts but let’s admit for the sake of the argument that Doctor Who must do its civic duty and be a reflection of, and a mouthpiece for, the various causes du jour. Why then is no one bothered that the Doctor switches genders but not races? While I am a « person of colour » as the modern wording goes, it has never been a problem for me that The Doctor is white, first because I don’t expect my heroes to look like me, second because as a good French universalist I regard such matters as race and gender as irrelevant to my assessment of a person or a program. Still, it would have been interesting at least on a dramatic level to have a « brown » Doctor and if we follow the logic of the Thirteenth Doctor’s fanclub, isn’t it « about time » to have a non-Caucasian Doctor too? Also and while we’re at it why did this sudden push for gender equality not translate to the showrunner level too? On the basis of his Wikipedia entry Mr. Chibnall seems to be very much a man. Are we to conclude that women are fit to play The Doctor, but not write him?

All this is not to diss Jodie Whittaker who probably does a great job being The Doctor. As said above I have no objection to this and she’s a good actress on evidence of the few movies and TV shows I saw her in. What I object to, on the other hand, is her casting being a political rather than narrative move resulting in the politicization of a kids’s show, and most of all to the mandatory enthusiasm. Mind you I’m a contrarian at heart; it may be childish on my part but every time people agree on something I feel necessary to take the opposite stance if only to restore balance. It often ends with me surrendering to the consensus in the end when the evidence is strong enough. So it might well be that I’ll watch Doctor Who again someday and proclaim its thirteenth incarnation « the most iconic ever ».

But it won’t be because I had been told to.

4 commentaires sur “Doctor No

  1. Xavier, Growing up in America, I had no use for the earliest incarnations of Dr. Who. The few clips I saw of the show suggested to me that it was nothing more than a kid’s show with laughable effects. I started watching with Christopher Eccleston, and the side effect of this was that I learned to tread carefully when talking to true DW fans, who relished the early days and the simple sfx!

    I like Eccleston, but I loved David Tennant. Matt Smith was cute, at least, but by then, the writing/plotting was starting to waver. I think it was saved for me in that I enjoyed Smith’s companions. But when we got to Capaldi, I felt like the whole thing has gone on too long. I couldn’t even get through his final episodes. I have decided, however, to give Jodie Whittaker a try, partly because she was one of the best things about Broadchurch,/i>, partly because my favorite episodes in this series tend to be around the time they reboot and the energy is fresh, and partly because it will be interesting to see a female Doctor. I think they may have capitalized on a movement, but I don’t much mind that, and if for any reason this boosts the number of female DW fans, at least in Europe, more’s the better. What matters to me, however, are the stories: will they find new ways to thrill us, or will we get the same old same old in this new « monster of the week » season.


    1. Brad – It’s not the early days and the simple SFX; it’s that the scripts were, by and large, better, and had a different ethos. The old series was about exploration, curiosity, and understanding, while engaging with ideas through allegory.

      It’s practically its own genre. It’s halfway between B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy. On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa, while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.

      On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.

      On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.

      While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into narcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).

      And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.

      The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story. One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids. The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it. As script editor Douglas Adams (yes, of H2GT2G fame) said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.

      Four quotes from critic/writer Lawrence Miles: « Doctor Who was a programme about discovery, about finding the alien and making sense of it. About asking questions, if you like. » « Doctor Who at its best has been awkward, experimental, and unpredictable. » « ‘it’s in the mandate of Doctor Who to give us a kind of television we’ve never seen before, to use the medium in unique ways, to show us things that have never previously existed. » « ‘Doctor Who taught me to be interested, xenophiliac, and prepared for strangeness of all magnitudes. »

      RTD’s version was often cheesily emotional; the story was a framework on which to hang big emotional moments and setpieces. Moffat’s was often masturbatory, in love with itself. It was increasingly about its own mythology, and fetishised the Doctor, while the attempts to tell blockbusters in 45 minutes were slick and superficial. (The one-episode story seldom works, nor do big arcs.) I really liked Capaldi’s last season, though, and « Heaven Sent ».


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