Dear Chris Chibnall: On the matter of casting Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor

Dear Chris,

Now we’ve had the first peek into your showrunner’s brain and met the actor you’ve chosen to be the Doctor, I think it’s time we talked about how it all portends for your era as chief cock.

Jodie Whittaker then. Jodie Whittaker. I admit, Chris, I sighed, much as I did when I found out Star Trek: Discovery was going to be a prequel. Most of the chatter will now focus on her Gallifreyan growler, but know this is a distraction. Identity politics are turgid at the best of times but irrelevant on a show about a character from a race that can and does change appearance and sex. Besides, Steven (remember him?) foreshadowed the change so heavily, going so far as to make it an underlying theme of Peter Capaldi’s last story (pre-announcement) that he may as well have had the Twelfth fix the TARDIS chameleon circuit and change the exterior to resemble a giant bottle of rosé.

We’ve all felt it coming, the acrid smell in the air that lingered after the Ghostbusters remake. Hopefully, you won’t make the mistake they made and imagine the casting’s enough. There’s still a job of writing to be done. You sensed the groundswell of pressure, manifest in social media chatter, signaling an expectation, you embraced the call for equal representation, but did you understand that Twitter and its newspaper affiliates have the luxury of focusing on the superficial because they don’t have to script 13 hours of drama a year? Their imaginations can remain safely in neutral while yours, as Doctor Who überscribe, has to shift from second (Broadchurch/Torchwood) to fifth.

Still, you’ve gone for it, forgetting that not a single member of the target audience was represented by William Hartnell’s original casting, because then the thinking centred on the Doctor’s relationship with his audience, not this notion he should reflect them and their gender politics, but no matter – we have Jodie Whittaker and we must embrace her, for if we don’t the show’s brown bread.

Naturally, I foresaw some problems with the Doctor’s sex change ahead of the announcement. I think of these as practical considerations and I list them now so you can consider them ahead of that first writers room meeting.

  • The Doctor could be impregnated by a Zygon, thereby hugely complicating her relationship with the species.
  • While the Doctor’s pregnant and on leave, her enemies would have the space to mobilise, collaborate and take over the universe.
  • The Daleks will no longer take the Doctor seriously, thanks to Davros’s rampant misogyny, inevitably eroding her confidence.
  • The Doctor will get her dress caught in the TARDIS door, ripping it clean off – awkward scenes ensuing at UNIT HQ.
  • The Doc will be vulnerable to the predatory sexual advances of a young & sexually retarded male companion who doesn’t understand boundaries.
  • The Doctor will suffer castration anxiety and related issues, like body dysmorphia, plunging her into a deep depression.
  • The Doctor could catch her reflection and fall in love with herself, thereby losing focus when working on solving life or death problems.
  • The Doctor’s breasts could accidentally depress a button on the TARDIS console, sending her and her companion hurtling into a black hole.

But no doubt you’ve anticipated these and already have workarounds.

But seriously, Chris, for me, the issue is not the Doctor’s sex but their character and what your casting signals in that regard. Before Whittaker was revealed, those who’d studied your work wondered if you had it in you to make something that wasn’t broad and middle-of-the-road. We know you can plot a story, because we’ve seen Broadchurch (if not exactly watched it attentively as you designed it to be looked at while having conversations with others), but we also know, from the same inexplicably popular series, that you don’t do psychological depth and tend to use “everyman” actors that can play your one dimensional archetypes with a certain degree of rough and ready conviction. We’ve seen Jodie Whittaker in your old show for example, and may have respected her performance, but did it register with anyone? Er, the grieving mother, wasn’t it? Well, that’s super but it’s not quite Cracker’s Eddie Fitzgerald. The Doctor is many things but not, you’d surely agree, the man or woman from your local pub.

We were wrong, Chris. We suspected you’d pick someone from the company of actors you’re familiar with, but having failed to register anything in Jodie’s Broadchurch turn or previous body of work that announced her as a strong character actor with the ability to impress their personality on a role and leave an audience salivating, we naturally assumed you’d ask Olivia Coleman. No one wanted her as the Doctor, you understand, but at least she’d cut through on screen. Whittaker’s go-to roles to date seem grounded in the mundane. And whereas that suggests she’s relatable to a mainstream audience, it doesn’t automatically make her a shoe-in for one of television’s most dynamic oddballs.

This matters Chris, because it tells us that your Doctor Who is not aiming to break out, rather hug a general audience close. It suggests that the thirteenth Doctor will be a more grounded creation – a relatable figure (the sheer fucking horror of it) with stories calibrated for mass appeal rather than daring to manifest an edge and reach befitting a show with the world’s most flexible format. After all, this is a series in need of a dramatic regeneration following Russell T. Davis’s risk averse take and Steven’s encore centred on rootless conceptual masturbation.

What really sandpapers the cock is that far from being seen as the inhibited surrender to blandification it is, Whittaker’s casting alone will allow over excited TV critics and social media pundits alike to claim that the show’s innovated, when the only innovation that matters from a dramatic point of view, is the quality of the scripts, the boldness of the stories, and the daring of the writing. Everything else is cosmetic and if fans don’t know this now, I fear they soon will.

If Whittaker’s characterisation is successful (perhaps despite your scripts) then it will not be because she’s a feminoid. It’ll be because, unlike that other import from drama’s school of meat and potatoes, Christopher Eccleston, she understands the Doctor’s nature – the inherent irreverent streak, the mischief, the wisdom, the compassion, the guile – and can play it, balancing these elements in a manner that doesn’t appear forced. That’s right, Chris, we need another square peg in a round hole like a disruptor blast through the guts.

You, in turn, will understand the character better than Steven, stripping out the grandstanding and sexuality that often blighted his efforts, and that’s before he set about rewriting the Doctor’s backstory, fascistically elevating himself from custodian of the show to co-creator without so much as a vote.

If Whittaker’s Doctor is a dud it too will not be anything to do with her estrogen levels. It will be because she didn’t get a handle on the Time Lord’s underlying characteristics, the aforementioned bread and butter elements that tell us, the sad drooling fanboys and girls, that we’re in the presence of someone we know and aspire to be, despite a change of appearance.

Whittaker’s apparent lack of eccentricity or magnetism need not be a handicap of course. Peter Davison made an effective transition by virtue of being nice and earnest, and perhaps that’s what you’re going for – fresh faced and kind, rather than a force of nature. But I tell you, Chris – the risk is that you create a version of the show so inoffensive and mainstream that it loses the interest of the very bastards required to keep it healthy and talked about, the people Steven despised, the loners – the outsiders – the dispossessed. If Jodie’s too much like the dullards we meet every day, she won’t be the only one regenerating, knowhattamean?

You’ve done the easy part, Chris. You’ve cast a woman. Now earn your money and make us care about your version of the show.



Published in: on July 16, 2017 at 17:44  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well said. As usual 🙂
    Keep up the good work – I have thoroughly enjoyed your insightful and entertaining musings on Doctor Who,

    • Cheers John and thanks for reading.

  2. As ever you cut to the heart of the issue.

    According to the non-viewers on twitter anyone even slightly objecting to the latest casting is a misogynist apparently so bad luck.

    If only today’s “progressives” could have an idea of their own rather than trying to shoe-horn their politics into existing ideas. No one would mind a show about a lady who did stuff the doctor does but to recast an existing established male character to be a woman for the sake of today’s fashion and a bunch of Twitter idiots is retarded and offensive. I fear this will be the death knell of DW.

    And frankly I am still getting over the shock of a scene of a woman trying to convince another to indulge in a lesbian love affair in DW. Some people are determined to kill the show.

    • I don’t care if the Doctor’s a woman. In fact, the Doctor’s the only character on TV that can plausibly change sex. So it’s not the same as James Bond being gender flipped, for example. The crux of my argument is that it’s the men behind Whittaker that you have to worry about, as they’re yet to prove their writing credentials at a time when the show needs better stories and greater psychological depth (and perhaps a little more maturity). No, my worry is that Whittaker’s casting, in terms of the type of actor she is, signals a lack of imagination on Chibnall’s part. I’d hoped for someone like Suranne Jones. I hope Whittaker will be good and years from now it’ll be impossible to think of the show without her, but I worry she’ll be more Peter Davison than Tom Baker. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, but it’s a matter of personal taste. I think the Doctor’s best when most alien and non-conformist and having someone like that in the role encourages the writers to be bolder and more irreverent. That, personally, is how I like it.

      As long as the show isn’t broad (i.e. written for people who don’t care about these shows and see it as disposable entertainment) and/or boring (i.e. churning out stock scenarios and nondescript supporting characters) then I’ll watch it. Given the politics around the show, Whittaker should expect the writers room to do their best work, stuffing her mouth with gems and placing her at the heart of some meaty dramatic dilemmas. Indeed, she should hope there is a writers room, because if Chibnall writes several episodes of each series and, ahem, doctors the rest like his predecessors, that really could be trouble. He’s put Whittaker front and centre, he owes her the best chance of success.

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