Counterpoints: “Doctor Who” Casting and Reflections on the Show

Scott Stalcup and Ryan Pumroy trade thoughts on the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor and reflect on the show’s direction in recent years. 


SCOTT:

And set to replace Peter Capaldi this Christmas in the role of The Doctor it’s… Ted McGinley! Yes, I invoked the patron saint of shark jumping.  Even if you largely ignore the series’ original 1963-89 run, twelve years on from the reboot Doctor Who could be seen as “wearing a bit thin.”

As we all know by now, Jodie Whittaker is the upcoming regeneration, which has only resulted in misogynist scum spewing on social media platforms.  I have never seen anything featuring Ms. Whittaker, but that has been true of now 3/5 of those cast in the role since the BBC brought the TARDIS out of mothballs.  My reaction was: “A white woman with blonde hair.  ‘That’s a bit undramatic, isn’t it?’”  Pumpkin spice sonic screwdriver just out of shot?

Anyone surprised by the casting of a female in the lead, given the hints that this was going to happen dropped during the Smith and Capaldi eras, was probably also shocked that Kurt Cobain killed himself.  This is not the first time a character changed sexes in a franchise.  Battlestar: Galactica’s reboot had a female Starbuck.  Elementary has a female Asian Watson.  Hattie Hayridge replaced Norman Lovett as Holly the ship’s hologram in Red Dwarf.  All were successful. Elementary may languish in the shadow of that other Doyle adaptation featuring Wanda Ventham’s little boy Benny for some, but it is going into its sixth series.

Many, however, are still saying Doctor Who will die the death as a result of this casting.  I do not think that is true.  I will admit I’m thinking, “Why NOW?”  The 1999 “Children in Need” sketch featured a Thirteenth Doctor that was also female, the magnificent Joanna Lumley.  I don’t think this will kill the show, because the show is on life support to begin with.

 

My unease with Doctor Who honestly began with the second series.  I had high hopes for Peter Capaldi because I loved him in Local Hero and The Thick of It.  That disappeared pretty fast due to the rubbish scripts.  A large part of this is due to the series not being like it was.  A large part of this is also due to the series being exactly like it was.

John Nathan-Turner wanted to Americanize the series.  Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat did just that, using the larger budget allotments for extended storylines, cinematic-level special effects, and casting of dysfunctional characters that made the show fit into what has become the identikit for long-form television stateside.  Consider that The Doctor incinerated his homeworld of Gallifrey to “save” it.  He’s an alien Tony Soprano or Walter White.  As a result, it reached a wider, AMERICAN audience.  It lost its British eccentricity as a result.

Doctor Who used to be a niche program airing stateside on PBS with dodgy sets and RADA-trained casts that acted each episode like a science fiction version of Play for Today.  Space permitting, it got coverage in Starlog.  The only merchandise was the Denys Fisher dolls from the 1970s, the Dapol figures from the late 1980s, or maybe a random Target novel at Waldenbooks.  A lucky few had someone knit them a scarf.  It has since been merchandised to the hilt!  Anything a TARDIS and/or Dalek can be smeared across has been marketed since the show’s reboot.  Oversaturation has been reached, given the appearance of sonic screwdrivers clogging the clearance bins at Barnes and Noble.  Also, though none seem to be taking iPlayer/DVR audiences into account, the big concern is ratings have dropped (and spin-offs like Torchwood and The Class sputtered to a halt).  That might not have mattered as much in the original era as now since there are so many choices for viewing, though both lead to cancellation.

Oscar-winner Peter Capaldi, coming off his stellar turn as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker was cast after Matt Smith to cries of “He’s too old!” by many adolescents and stunted adolescents who scrawled pages of masturbatory fan fiction/poetry about their imaginary boyfriend.  Flash back to Colin Baker, whose ridiculous outfit and “Hartnell-Soon-They-Forget” demeanor was greeted with (still persisting) backlash and suspension of the series’ transmission for a year before Colin came back for his final season.  Sound familiar?

Incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall said the casting was not going to be a gimmick.  This is like someone saying, “I’m not sexist/racist, but…”.  Chibnall, a critic of the show during its waning years, has an alleged Five Year Plan.  Longtime fans will recall the “Cartmel Masterplan” of the Seventh Doctor era, intended to restore some mystery to the character.  This was not to be as the show was cancelled in 1989.

John Nathan-Turner indulged in stunt casting as questionable as his taste in Hawaiian shirts.  Ken Dodd, Hale and Pace, Beryl Reid, and Brian Blessed, appeared during his time as showrunner.  NuWho era has seen Matt Lucas, Simon Pegg, Bill Bailey, David Suchet and Diana Rigg also taking a bow.  Derek Jacobi played The Master!  In a repeat of child star actress/singer Bonnie Langford as Mel who was the “assistant” to Six and Seven, Nine and Ten’s “companion” (very important and ugly distinction from the original series) Rose Tyler was played by teen pop star Billie Piper.

Which leads to the final issue with why I ended up giving my copies of the new series to the woman who knitted my Tom Baker scarf.  Supporters state that The Doctor needs to be a strong female.  I agree.  I wish there had been more strong female characters in the reboot because the original run had a bumper crop.  Zoe Herriot and Romana were smarter than The Doctor.  Liz Shaw was his intellectual equal.  Leela and Ace both knew their way around weaponry.  Sarah-Jane Smith, an investigative journalist was meant to be the Second Wave’s ideals made manifest (thwarted by awful ret-conning that made her a proto-Rose, unable to move on).  Nyssa was a scientist.  Tegan embodied strong females in Thatcherist Britain, earning her the derogatory title of “Mouth on Legs,” used as a badge of honor by her portrayer, the brilliant Janet Fielding.

Instead, we got Rose Tyler pining for The Doctor.  Martha Jones also pining for The Doctor, knowing she will never be Rose.  Amy Pond’s temper being shorter than her miniskirts every time her husband Kenny– er, Rory died.  Clara Oswald throwing a hissy fit when The Doctor did anything approaching being the lead in the series bearing his name.  Never mind the timestream out-of-synch nymphomaniac that is River Song.  Role models?  None.  Donna Noble was the odd exception.

I hope Ms. Whittaker does a great job.  I hope Mr. Chibnall does likewise.  It cannot shake this feeling, however, that both are expected to get a Michelin star when all they’ve been left to work with is a melted packet of Maltesers, two used Typhoo bags, and a box of Weetabix well past its sell-by date.  As the series’ eternal hero Ian Levine said when he believed no more wiped episodes would be found, “Please prove me wrong.”

RYAN:

I very much enjoyed reading that, and I appreciate your advanced knowledge of Doctor Who’s history; it far exceeds my own. My introduction to the show was in 2010 with “The Waters of Mars” either on PBS or BBC America. Come to think of it, PBS may have discontinued showing Doctor Who episodes – I can’t remember the last time I saw it aired.

I came in right at the end of Tennant’s reign and Smith’s beginning. I’ve been a regular viewer ever since. I’ve seen the so-called 1963 “pilot” episode (well, apparently one version of it) with William Hartnell, a bit of the Eccleston Doctor, more of Tennant, and all of Smith up through the present with Capaldi.

You make several excellent points, Scott.

You mention that the show is already slowly dying, and that it may be wearing thin. I agree for the most part. While it is probably more popular than ever worldwide and as a piece of popular culture, the actual show itself has been hit or miss. I can’t really talk about what the show used to be in the original run or about its Britishness, but I can say that a lot of episodes in the Smith and Capaldi eras were formulaic and repetitive in the worst ways (Cybermen, again?!).

Perhaps this is a case of franchise bloat. Twelve seasons of the new run and 54 years of Doctor Who add up. Despite having all of time and space to play with, are they running into the issue of “well, what do we do now? We already had Churchill and Hitler on. We went to the Moon. What hats hasn’t the Doctor worn already? Fez: check. Stetson: check.”

Thus far, I have had no real issue with the actors who play the Doctor. I agree that it largely seems to be issues with the scripts. I rather liked Capaldi’s curmudgeon Doctor, especially in this latest season, so it is unfortunate to see him exit the show. Pearl Mackie made for a great companion. I found Bill to be a very funny foil to Capaldi’s Doctor.

Scott and I partly come from an academic world – we were both in a graduate program together at Northern Illinois University. Scott, when the news broke about Whittaker’s casting, the sound of a thousand conference panels went around the Earth, not unlike Krakatoa. I’m currently taking bets of how many “The Doctor is a Woman” (get it? Nudge nudge, say no more, say no more) panels we will see in the next year or two.

Having a woman take over the role shouldn’t have been a surprise. As you point out, we’ve seen female Time Lords (Time Ladies?) before. I also recall some rumors a few years back about a Doctor Who feature film potentially starring Helen Mirren.

I have seen Jodie Whittaker’s work in Broadchurch, a show I like and whose third season I’m currently watching. As I said I have liked all the Doctor actors so far, so I’d trust the casting process. I look forward to seeing what the show is like in 2018, and I wish them all the best of luck. Maybe a new lead and a new companion will be just what the…you know who…ordered.

Scott, I’m curious to get your thoughts on this. You mention that Doctor Who is now Americanized and that it lost its special something, that it ain’t what it used to be. Tell me more about that. What are the essential elements that make the show? What did it use to have that it has lost?

SCOTT:

It’s funny you mention the academy we’re both mired in, for lack of a better term.  After the announcement, many on social media quoted David Tennant’s “Fifty-seven academics just punched the air” line regarding the number of conference proposals, journal articles and book chapters that will come out of this.  If that wasn’t fingers clacking on keyboards after the reveal, then the cicadas are going nuts this year!  Every hot trend turns the academy into Black Friday with scholars scrambling to get another line on the CV.

 

To answer your questions as a “lifer,” one of the things the show lost was how The Doctor was characterized.  Vonnegut described the “Interplanetary Midwesterner” as if you come from the Midwest, you’re out of place where ever else you go.  The Doctor always acted/looked like he didn’t really fit in with his surroundings.  With the police call boxes going extinct, the responsibility for that now goes to the TARDIS.  Be it the Victorian/Edwardian dress sense of the first three Doctors, as well as the Fifth and Eighth, Tom Baker’s general strangeness in Oxfam cast-offs, the “exploding Smarties factory casualty” Colin Baker, or “Buster Keaton with question-mark vest and brolly” Sylvester McCoy, all stuck out like sore thumbs.  Nine through Twelve, you could pass on the street and not give any a thought.  It wasn’t trying to go for globalization (read: Americanization).  It was as British as the Carry On films from which it gained two Doctors and a sidekick for the second Cushing film and Tennant era.  The Philip Hinchcliffe era tended toward the gothic genre of the Nineteenth Century, but when looking at cinematic antecedents, one saw Hammer instead of Universal.

Also, where is the underlying social critique of British society that permeated the Classic Era?  There was the fleeting exchange between Martha and Joan Redfern RE: Martha’s race and her medical background.  The Zygons’ return after forty years took on arguably an ugly aspect in light of UKIP and the suspicion levied at anyone from a Middle Eastern background coming into the UK of being a terrorist.  I guess you could also say, “Well there’s Captain Jack, Madame Vashtra and Jenny, and Bill all waving the rainbow flag.”  That might have been impressive closer to 1967’s decriminalization of homosexuality in England.

Barry Letts’ time as showrunner was blatantly socio-political.  The Green Death got eco.  The “Peladon” story cycle addressed the UK’s “Join or Stay Independent?” status in the then-E.E.C.  Every story of the Cartmel/Aaronovitch era was a nose-thumb at Thatcher.  You also had Romana II dressing in student attire as a social service to get students into wearing school uniforms.  Where has that socio-political component gone since the show “regenerated”?

RYAN:

Social critique has traditionally been a key element of Science Fiction. As I rack my memory of the last few years of the show, there are still criticisms about society and social issues, but they are universal and seemingly so grand that any bite is removed.

The “can’t we all just get along” storylines with the Silurians are good examples; Smith in “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood” episodes (2010), and Capaldi in “Empress of Mars” (2017). Both storylines put humans and the Martian reptilians in opposition. Both can also be read as critiques or allegories of colonization and harm done to indigenous peoples, but that argument requires a bit of stretching and duct tape to hold.

Considering that Chris Chibnall wrote “Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood,” this may be a sign that the current trend will continue. But who knows? Chibnall has as close to a blank slate as you can get.

Scott, thanks for being part of this point/counterpoint. I enjoyed this exchange very much.

SCOTT:

Just like being back in the office in Watson.  We really needed to do this as a podcast in our Garry Marshall and Henry Winkler voices, don’t you think?  Maybe have Nick do Harrison Ford as moderator?

RYAN:

Nothing would make me happier.

 

Scott Stalcup received his MA in Communication Studies from Northern Illinois University in 2015.  He valiantly continues to finish the dissertation for his English PhD.  Some may wonder why it is taking him so long considering his long list of publications, including articles and book reviews for the likes of ELNStudies in Popular CultureGothic StudiesThe Journal of Mind and Behavior, and even a few book chapters, including his most recent in the anthology Time Travel and Television on the UK comedy Red Dwarf.  If approached in the wild, it is best not to get him on the subjects of the Ramones or Joy Division, and whatever you do, NEVER mention J.G. Ballard. 
Ryan Pumroy is an advisor and occasional instructor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. He is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of The 2 Shot. His other writings have appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture and In Media Res.
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