Sunday, July 16, 2017

The (new) Doctor will see us now...

Well the wait is finally over.  After the Wimbledon  final,  the BBC announced the actor who will take over for Peter Capaldi as the new lead in Doctor Who, is Jodie Whittaker.

In retrospect  we all saw this coming.   The show's producers have been dropping TARDIS sized hints that a female incarnation of everyone's favorite Timelord (lady)  was a real possibility.   Beginning with recasting the Master with the brilliant Michelle Gomez (aka Missy).   So  this should come as a surprise to ...well,  nobody.

Reaction has predictably, fallen into two distinct camps.  1) Horror, and predictions  that casting a woman as the Doctor will be final nail in the show's coffin, after what has been largely seen as a weak 10th season; and  2) Anger at those expressing disapproval, saying they are , closed minded sexists and misogynists who are unwilling to even  give Whittaker a chance.

As is often the case with a large shift in popular culture,  the truth  lies somewhere in between the two.    Let's get this out of the way right now, I have no problem with a female Doctor.  My issue is why the the BBC decided to do this now.

The BBC cast a female lead simply to show that they could.   Not because it made sense in terms of the narrative arc of the show.     How do I know this?   Simple,  if casting a woman as Doctor Who was done to further the show's story-line, they would have cast Olivia Colman, not Whittaker.

The show had already established  that  the Doctor can  deliberately choose the face of his (now her) next incarnation.   Peter Capaldi appeared in the episode "The Fires of Pompeii".  His character, along with this family  and was saved by David Tennant's Doctor.   The 12th Doctor deliberately picked that face to remind himself that he is the Doctor, and the Doctor saves people.

It was the brilliant actress Oliva Colman,  who as "prisoner zero" met Matt Smith's  11th Doctor in his first ever episode, and first told him that "silence would fall".  Setting up the brilliant story arc that ran all through  Smith's tenure in the role.

Casting Colman as the next Doctor would have been a perfect and completely  logical choice.  Now to be sure,  Jodie Whittaker is fine actress, but  let's be clear, her casting  was  PR decision not a narrative one.

Recasting gender in science fiction reboots is not new.   Most notably , the casting of  Katee Sachhoff and Grace Park as  Starbuck and Boomer, respectively  in Battlestar Galactica.  Both casting choices that worked out brilliantly and even added new depth to both characters.  

Yet it is worth noting that the Roles of  Commander Adama and Apollo  remained  true to their original male genders.   The American television series "Elementary" re-imagined Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's ever faithful Doctor Watson as an Asian woman, played brilliantly by Lucy Liu.   Yet, again it is worth noting they kept Sherlock Holmes and didn't go  for Shelia.   The great Dame Judy Dench brought wit and gravitas to the role of  'M'  in seven Bond Films. Yet again,  we still had James not Jennifer Bond.

In all of these cases, the Male lead was not recast, this wasn't because casting a woman was not possible, or even permissible.  It simply didn't make sense.  That is what we have here.   What the BBC have done here is the equivalent of doing a reboot of Star Trek Voyager and re-imagining Captain Janeway as a man.  Possible to do?  Absolutely.   Does it make sense?   No, not at all.

That being said, this could still work.  As always with Doctor Who, it boils down to the writing.  A strong Doctor can overcome a weak script.  We saw that over the course of this  past season, were Peter Capaldi had weak stories that  he was able to carry via the strength of his portrayal as the Doctor.    This new casting choice means the show's writers don't have that luxury.

The writers are now facing the daunting task of having  to win over a significant percentage of the show's existing fan base.  One weak episode and the TARDIS could very well  find itself grounded again, as it was following Sylvester McCoy's tenure.  Only this time, it could be permanent.

I certainly hope both the writers and Whittaker are up to challenge.   I look forward to tuning in Christmas Day to see how this goes.


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