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.

Sincerely,

Ed

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Published in: on July 16, 2017 at 17:44  Comments (4)  
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Dear Chris Chibnall: Think. Are you really the right man to run Doctor Who?

ChrisChibnallP1
Dear Chris,

Hello. Ed here. God alone knows if I’ll be around to correspond with you in 2018 when the first series of Doctor Who under your stewardship goes out. Maybe I’ll be dead, having taken badly to the new Star Trek series, or perhaps I’ll have given up life as an armchair pundit to write about my experiences being ignored by Steven Moffat, so I’m writing now instead. Why? Well, I just need to be sure about something. Are you certain you’re the right man for the show runner’s job?

Look, I understand it’s your dream. You were on Open Air back in 1986, showing how much you cared about the show with a withering viewer critique of its then camp direction. 25 years later you showed the world how it should be done by writing “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, featuring Mitchell and Webb as comic robots. So when Steven put you forward it must have been the culmination of all your writerly ambitions; like a scientist being inducted into the Royal Society or a sexual deviant becoming a light entertainment presenter. But ask yourself, did you get the gig on merit, or have you made the right friends and above all, garnered the right worthless industry plaudits?

I can imagine that being part of the Doctor Who inner circle, as well as a Torchwood survivor and someone who wrote a middlebrow drama starring David Tennant that drew attention from the all important American market, you pulled on all the right cocks. But when we look at your record a little closer we’re left wondering if your instincts are the ones that will partner with viewers’ desires to produce a new and dynamic era of bold and experimental Who. When Steven leaves to write the long awaited third series of Chalk, we’ll be at a strange juncture; a time when fans will want more meat and conceptual clarity in their Doctor Who diet, but also a move toward edgier, more experimental storytelling.

Forgive me, Chris, but when I look at your work I see a writer who drives on the middle of the road; a man who neatly folds his toothpaste tube and drinks Tesco Champagne. We’re all familiar with the departing Steven’s problems; he’s no dramatist, but a vigorous conceptual masturbator and occasional wit, who isn’t afraid to think big (and indeed long). We’ve liked his ambition but hated his vanity and its warping and irreversible damage to the mythos; we’ve applauded his audaciousness while loathing his inability to write a story; we’ve enjoyed his jokes but despised his propensity to glibly undermine his best ideas. His tenure as overlord has been frustrating and he’s right to think it’s time to pack it in, but no one can say he’s played it safe. Russell T Davies made it broad and mass audience friendly; Steven gave the show some much needed vitality and complexity.

Are you about to take us back to the Russell Dust era, Chris? Because when we look at your stuff, we see a man serving McDrama to a broad church of viewers. Your hit ITV murder mystery, I forget its name, considered by many your crowning achievement, is a soap with thin characters and stark plot contrivances, particularly in the second series; a show built to hook those who dine out on cliché, melodrama and one dimensional audiences proxies.

You were an obvious adjunct to the Russell Dust era of Who, because he shared your taste for this thin gruel; the stuff that builds a big, undemanding audience, but doesn’t stimulate the brains and yearning for something innovative that excites the sophisticated genre literate viewer who’s attracted to a show like Doctor Who precisely because it offers the promise of something off-kilter.

Hey, maybe that’s why you were given Torchwood. Perhaps that’s why, when Steven needed a palate cleanser, a solid bit of filler to bridge the gap between more exciting or experimental episodes, he chose you, knowing you’d deliver 45 minutes of alright. But is this what the new era of Doctor Who needs? Five years of “that was okay, I suppose”?

You see Chris, ratings matter, of course they do, but if you want a show that maintains a loyal and devoted audience, instead of a huge disposable one, and garners international acclaim, becoming a prestige showcase for the BBC around the world, thereby justifying its budget, you have to think like the American subscription networks do, the likes of HBO, AMC and Netflix. You make a show that doesn’t worry about broad or populist touches, you just write the best, boldest juggernaut you can, and trust that there are sufficient numbers of people who appreciate such efforts to justify the risk taking.

Sometimes the BBC gets confused and thinks the licence fee means that you have to cater for everyone WITHIN a format, when of course what it means to say is that a flat fee necessitates producing programmes that cater for every section of the audience: niche programming. So if you write a Doctor Who that talks up to a genre loving audience, knowing they’ll pretty much follow you anywhere (while the casuals complain) you’re meeting the remit. Are you with me, Chris? You can break the mould and people who love the show, rather than just see it as comfort food, will approve.

So consider, Chris. Are you the man for the job? Once Steven’s finished with us, his final set of fuck yous due to hit in 2017, we’ll be wanting a transition into an era of confident, varied and intelligent storytelling – the kind that holds hands with the show’s most astute followers, turning around every so often to encourage the rest to catch up. Figuratively, we’re talking about a Barry Letts to Phillip Hinchcliffe type regeneration. Not a shift that disavows the past, merely one that recognises the series can and must do more; that there are no limits and no concessions to those who really aren’t sure about this sort of thing.

A show like Doctor Who can never go backwards, Chris. The time travel must remain in-story. So if you’re not one hundred percent sure you can innovate, talk up to the oldest members of the audience and hire some lunatics to produce head popping serials, then get off your cloud and help find the right person before it’s too late. After all, you don’t want to be the man who killed the show, do you? You don’t want to be the John Nathan-Turner of modern times, prompting some poor kid to go on a daytime discussion show and complain the programme’s become a camp laughing stock?

Thought not.

Think on.

Ed

Published in: on January 23, 2016 at 22:22  Comments (7)  
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Dear Steven Moffat: The Power of Three

Dear Steven,

I don’t suppose you deserve this letter, not after what you’ve put me through these past seven days. I’m now a member of the vagrant community; a community leader to be sure, rallying people to make the best of doorways, railway bridges and covered walkways, but of no fixed abode nonetheless. It rained all day on Sunday. These were monsoon conditions, and I confess that as I stood in the downpour, watching the blood from my weeping sores mix with the rainwater in burgeoning reservoirs, the wet chill soaking through to my aching bones, I questioned whether you were more a hindrance than a help to me for the very first time.

Amy and Rory had similar feelings toward The Doctor in this week’s companion story: a tale gene spliced with the kind of Russell T Davis episode we’d long left for dead. Years ago, attempting to preserve Amy and the man she’d settled for, the Galifreyian ganglinoid gave them a nice bit of property and encouraged them to settle into a normal life. Having dull stamped their existence he left. That, surely, would have been that but The Doctor couldn’t stay away and now, nearly a decade on, his infrequent visits are causing mass disruption to their rote domestic grind.

They can’t commit to social engagements, work, not even a Game of Thrones box set, because the TARDIS may appear at any moment and pull them into the temporal maelstrom. Many of us would be grateful to be frequently liberated from the twin shackles of work and socialising but these ungrateful bastards were now beginning to feel unable to commit to both lives. The Doctor’s apparent indifference annoyed them, though surely not as much as I was annoyed when the police hammered down my door, ready to take me into custody for refusing to obey that obnoxious cease and desist order of yours.

As I vaulted out of the bath, wrapped the vintage lace dressing gown around myself and crawled through an open window, the door being turned to splints by an over earnest constable, I thought about Amy and Rory’s dilemma and how I’d live with just one foot in the now. In fact, as I shuffled along that outside ledge, eventually finding a foothold that allowed me to clamber onto the roof and begin a run across the tops of those terraced houses, I realised that my gilded thistle had a point. If you’re married, domesticated and on Earth long enough to cultivate full-blooded relationships with other humanoids, then you’re no longer suited to the companion life.

I suppose what made this so depressing was the realisation that The Power of Three was a plumb metaphor for growing up. At some point we’re all faced with the obligation to put away childish things and commit to some kind of God-awful future. If I felt pain while watching the episode, nose pressed to the window of my local Curry’s, a stray cat pawing at my leg, it was both recognition at how hard it is to let go of that exciting, care free part of your life, and how deep that puss’ claws had sunk into my flesh.

When Amy first left Earth behind she was running away from commitment. To be on the verge of marrying Rory must have been terrible for such a free spirit – what a drip he was back then; a tie to a life of plodding mediocrity. There was no competing with her childhood fantasy and the promise of the universe. Things are different now. Chris Chibnall, showing a little more promise on this assignment than in those past, turned in a script that understood the companion’s dilemma very well.

The Doctor can pick you up and drop you back as though no time has passed easily enough, but it’s not practical to do so too often, because Amy and Rory must be seen to age like the rest of us. This means that The Doctor’s companion has but two choices: either a) they agree to stay with him indefinitely and never look back or b) they’re dropped back at intervals that allow them to keep step with their time bound peers. The Doc, in a bid to keep hold of the Ponds while allowing them a semblance of normality, had opted for option B, but real lives demand continuity and commitment; impossible if you want to travel with you know who.

Chibnall was good enough to provide a stark reminder of why The Doctor’s Pond party must end soon; a fact movingly acknowledged by all concerned. The only alternative to letting them go (or watching them die horribly at alien hands) would be to stay with them on Earth but we don’t tune in every week to see our favourite Timelord vacuum floors, play keepy uppy and watch television. That’s the character of our empty lives and we turn to our hero to escape. In other words Steven, this band must break up and what a funny feeling it provokes: God help me I think I’m going to miss Rory. What’s happened to me, Steven? I’m broken.

That’s it for now. I dread what’s to come. I’m about to lose the only woman in my life, perhaps the only one I’ve ever loved. I think I may be as unhappy this time next week as I was pleased when Donna left the show. You might have expected me to mention the cube invasion plot, those haunting cameos from Brian Cox and Alan Sugar, the reappearance of UNIT or the brigadier’s daughter, hell, even that missing Zygon adventure, but you know what, none of it really mattered. This was about losing two friends, Steven – one of whom I desperately wanted to explore.

I suppose you may also have wondered how a homeless man on the run, without a sovereign to his name, has the time or means to write this letter. Well, I suppose it’s a mystery, like Amy’s episode narration and the small matter of when and why she recorded it and to whom she was speaking.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

The story so far:

This time last year:

Dear Steven Moffat: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Dear Steven,

Right, down to business: no tangential wank, no horsing around and certainly no mention of the cease and desist letter from Messieurs Cork, Bench and McKettridge, accepted under duress, in which you inveigh against our private correspondence while stuffing the corpulent wallets of these guileless proxies.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship?! Are we now in the reductive phase of Doctor Who, the era marked for the under fives? What’s next week’s episode called, Doctor fights the Monsters? Perhaps the week after that we’ll be enjoying Bad Man Does A Thing and the week after th- look, you get the idea.

I warned you, didn’t I? I warned you, that if we returned to the days of the inconsequential, self-contained 45 minuter, you’d end up with an episode like this: a high concept disposable wipe. My mind has already tossed it into the bin, where it joins many artefacts that we won’t discuss here.

During the course of this light-touch romp, I was forced to consider that you and writer Chris Chibnall, who filed down his teeth writing episodes of Torchwood, had been the victim of a rare split-possession, the spirit of the late Who producer John Nathan-Turner, compelling you to raid your black book of chortle merchants for guest star casting.

When Doctor Who was in trouble in the mid-late ’80s, most agreed that you could measure the decline by the presence of light entertainment personalities in key roles; a sign that JNT and his retinue of halfwits had fallen to the twin maladies of camp and stupidity. Tax cheat Ken Dodd and the unwelcome sight of Hale and Pace, told us that someone, somewhere, wasn’t taking our beloved time traveller seriously. Now in 2012, with those dark days thought to be buried and the topsoil watered with urine from committed Whovians, two pairs of hands have broken the surface and given us the finger. Whose hands? Mitchell and bastard Webb, that’s whose.

If I want this pair of spacks on my Who, I’ll ask for them, thank you very much. What I don’t want is to tune in unawares, only to hear their whiny, gormless voices emanating from a pair of robot bodies. This was the worst piece of voice casting since Brad Pitt in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be fun for the kids, but which kids? Do we really want to cater for tadpoles that crack a rib at these charmless mechanoids?

Which isn’t to say that some of the humour didn’t work in Chibnall’s ragbag of miscellaneous shit. When Queen Nefertiti, whose presence suggested a tombola approach to scripting, asked Amy if she too was a queen and she answered, with a puffed up chest, “yes, yes I am”, I was mirthful. I also chortled during the robots’ powerdown – a little nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rory’s Pa cutting down our hero with “thank you, Arthur C. Clarke”, but three moments do not an episode make.

There were too many cheap laughs, adding to the aura of indifference that accompanied the story. I’ll do the cock and ball jokes thank you, there’s no need for your writers to follow suit. Also, if we’ve reached the point where the Doctor has to smooch Rory to raise a smile (I’m of the opinion that Rory shouldn’t be touched by any of the principle characters) then you may as well tell Chibnall and his fellow hacks to pack away their crayons and return to their alcoves. It’s not enough to sell each episode as a “blockbuster”, Steven. If you want them to be truly unmissable, they must advance the characters, tell a great story, deepen the lore and, please God, provide talking points of interests.

When I start work at the underground nuclear silo next Tuesday, part of the government’s Civil Defence Initiative, what am I supposed to discuss with my bunker mate as we develop cabin fever and place our shaking, sweaty mitts on those launch keys – why is it Amy and Rory’s mobiles still work in space? Actually, that really annoys me, Steven. I know that Russell Dust established they could, back in the ninth Doctor Era, but it’s bollocks, isn’t it? Just give the TARDIS crew communicators or something. Oddly, I find their working iPhones harder to accept that an alien ark full of dinosaurs. Each fictive realm must have some real world limits, else they become free-for-alls; a flight of fancy spectacular where anything goes, and in Who, as in life, rules provide structure and add weight to our interactions. Laws matter: except those on harassment, which are patiently absurd.

You’ll notice I haven’t discussed the story in any depth because there wasn’t one. A backstory to be sure, but that’s not quite the same thing. I know, you’ll say there was a mystery to be solved here, but it was paper-thin. Plus, Chibnall’s got to get his head straight. Does the Doctor disapprove of violence or not? If not, why allow David Bradley’s Solomon to be killed at the close? I know he was a bastard and he killed that dinosaur, oh and those Silurians, ah yes and had Rory’s Dad shot, though in fairness he was one of those broad, wide-eyed comic characters of the kind we came to despise during Davis’ tenure, so conflicting emotions, but it seemed a little cold blooded.

I’m sure a man of the Doctor’s intelligence could have found an alternative – you know, putting the tracker orb on the little ship and sending it off on autopilot, perhaps? But then he couldn’t have enjoyed a vicarious revenge of behalf of all those that had suffered. A question though: shouldn’t our man espouse the principle that it’s justice, not revenge that must be served? Why not take Solomon to the oubliette on Tankaris 9 and force him to spend eternity there with only his robots for company? That would have been a proportionate sentence. Were I a child, looking to this show for moral guidance, I’d have a headache this morning.

So that was that – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: fun but already fading from memory. I’d dare to suggest that the series couldn’t withstand too many throwaway episodes like this, not if you want to keep the constituency of viewers that can stay up as late as they like and were looking at more than Nefertiti’s head gear. This show has the most potential of any on the air. That’s a fact. Is it to be a frivolous romp for the tots or a mind-bending adventure that keeps us all enthralled, entertained and insatiably curious? It’s up to you, Moff features.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

This year’s correspondence:

Last year’s: