We don’t want a Time Lord for our times

Doctor Who fans are right to be anxious about the prospect of an oh-so-relevant gender- or race-swapping Doctor.

David Bowden

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With summer finally on its way, TV seems to be doing its best to greet its arch-nemesis with a healthy dose of sourness. Viewers planning their frolics in the sunshine are being warmed up with a veritable array of parties being pooped. Arrested Development fans are starting to emerge from insomniac binges on its new Netflix series trying to disguise a sense of ferocious anti-climax as they discover the cult show seems to have toppled under the weight of its own self-referentialism. Game of Thrones has been inducing some rather visceral reactions to the shockingly brutal ending of its last episode. Those following bleak BBC murder drama, The Fall, are reporting heavily disturbed sleep after being shocked silly by the antics of its psychopathic bereavement counsellor, the wryly named Paul Spector.

Yet the biggest party being spoiled is still some months away: with fans of Doctor Who gearing up for its fiftieth anniversary episode in November, they’ve discovered that the show’s current star Matt Smith is about to do one. Bit awkward, eh? Fortunately, as those with only a passing knowledge of the show would be aware, this is not necessarily the death blow it would be for other programmes. The eponymous Time Lord has already regenerated ten times over its run, with the last episode of the present series having introduced us to a John Hurt-shaped regeneration. Still, Smith’s incarnation was much-loved, somehow even challenging the fans’ affection for his predecessor, the equally swooned-over David Tennant.

Yet, as with the similarly rotating James Bond gig, the announcement has provoked much speculation as to who will be the next in line to man, or not to man, the TARDIS. In common with all venerable institutions, there are calls for Doctor Who producers to move with the times of cosmopolitan modern Britain and appoint either someone non-white or, even more controversially, a woman.

It may be stretching things to suggest that it’s the kind of row which is in danger of ripping a hole in the fabric of space and time (a recurring problem in the Whoniverse). Yet it has led to some seriously disgruntled columns in broadsheet newspapers, some tetchy exchanges on the internet and may well have already blighted some dinner parties, so it does seem to warrant some scrutiny.

Of course, the reformers can maintain the breezy logic of ‘why not?’. Doctor Who has built its fifty-year shelf-life on the premise that its lead star is a time-travelling alien who can be replaced at will, completely change his appearance and yet always seems to be a white, middle-class, almost middle-aged male. As one of the few genuinely popular, family TV programmes in a fragmented cultural landscape, Doctor Who has a duty to shatter preconceptions around race and gender and, in the process, throw open the appeal of the show to a new generation of fans potentially put off by their underrepresentation on screen. Moreover, the unspoken subtext is that, in the wake of the Savile scandal, such a bold move would rid the show of the deeply distasteful dirty-old-man aspect, involving a 900-year-old Doctor enticing a bevvy of invariably young, pretty women into his mode of transport. A female Doctor might even go a long way to repairing the damage done to the BBC’s new reputation as a sordid enabler of sexual abuse.

Needless to say, long-standing fans are more nervous of attempts to tinker with one of the core features of a programme of which they are fiercely protective. Doctor Who fans, or Whovians as they are known, already possess a certain infamy as a rather cultish demographic. That their icon is a middle-aged, highly intelligent, socially awkward, sexless and perpetually single man has always been taken as a fairly succinct summary of the typical Whovian. Yet, as with all stereotypes, it is not necessarily entirely fair: Doctor Who also possessed a notoriously large gay fan base, which writer Russell T Davies frequently paid clever homage to when he successfully revived the series back in 2005 (it was cancelled in 1989).

Moreover, as comedian Michael Legge has observed, simply what is represented on screen does not always tell you the full story of what goes on behind it. That is to say, the cast and crew of Doctor Who are significantly more diverse than many might realise. Who fans, rather than being a frothing frenzy of intolerance since the show’s highly successful comeback in 2005, have proven to be surprisingly patient with a programme which has enthusiastically embraced all manner of pet liberal tropes to an almost cloying degree (at times, during the Davies era, Doctor Who seemed to give life to the classic conservative canard of a homosexual agenda). It’s sometimes been brilliant, particularly in Davies’ early days and, more recently, under the stewardship of writer Steve Moffatt and Smith’s Doctor. It’s also often been crap, but it still remains highly watchable.

What really gives the game away in this discussion, though, are the list of suggestions thrown into the ring: Helen Mirren, Olivia Coleman, Tilda Swinton. All darlings of a certain liberal media milieu which is therefore effectively cheering on its mates. None of them are remotely suitable for a part which has historically been played largely by unknowns and character actors (it helps with the suspension of disbelief, you see). It’ll be Clare Balding next. Those calling for the Doctor to act as an important role model, meanwhile, might want to consider whether a fictional alien who frequently possesses a patronising attitude to humanity and its daft ambitions to seize control of its own destiny is really the person you want inspiring today’s kids.

Whovians may have plenty of things to hope for in a new Doctor: not least a bit more fresh-thinking in its plots and boldness in its themes, which have been getting increasingly repetitive over the past few series. Yet while those fans ardently objecting to a female Doctor may be guilty of conservatism, they have every right to demand that their favourite show retains a flavour of what has made it much-loved over its half-century. Hopefully, Doctor Who can prove to be more robust than many other institutions all too ready to embrace change simply for its own sake.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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