Dear Chris Chibnall: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Dear Chris,

Don’t worry, I won’t be making a habit of this. Steven (remember him?) hollowed me out and filled the cavity with cloudy, foul smelling piss, but as I wrote to you nearly three years ago now, begging you not to take the showrunner job on account of your broad and witless pedigree, and you ignored me, I felt compelled to give my verdict on the first episode of your new series. I’d have done everything differently you understand, except the new theme arrangement and cinematography – that was great, but you know this. I suppose I could leave it there, but where would be the sense? What’s that you say, it would be infinitely preferable to reading your nonsense review, Ed? Wow, Chris – cutting. I wish your writing was that sharp.

Right, so ahead of transmission, all the talk in Wholand was about Jodie Whittaker, a choice I lamented in my second letter to you, on the grounds that she lacked that mysterious, mercurial quality that I suggested was integral to all the best iterations of the character, as instantly suggested in the debuts of Tom Baker and Paul McCann – actors who found the right tone and sensibility from the off.

This, of course, was and is a gender neutral observation – there’s nothing intrinsically male about the Doctor; well, apart from his grandstanding, arrogance and taste for women hundreds of years his junior. I worried that Whittaker would play it provincial and bland, like a bowl of rustic Yorkshire broth. She’d be Peter Davison, only less so. And on first sight, that appears to have come to pass. I hate being right, Chris, that’s why it’s such a chore when it keeps on happening.

First episodes are always tough of course, but we usually get a flavour of the Doctor’s personality, even if the poor sod spends most of that post-regeneration story lagged and memory blocked. At the end of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” – a title that riffed on a film with a far more interesting, androgynous alien visitor, by the way; a true outsider and mesmerising with it (God how we miss David Bowie); we’d spent an hour in the company of an impish child who, like the over earnest club rep she sometimes resembled, was prone to overstatement.

The boilerplate plot, which I understand was just a routine way of bringing the new characters together – insipid though they were, could have used a little more palpable fear and uncertainty from the new Doctor. You might have been bolder still and identified a gap in her knowledge. But instead Whittaker glibly tossed off the whole thing with cheery abandon; a characterisation that will no doubt be endearing to many, but for me was a just a bit too close to the non-entities she’d picked up in situ.

I’m sorry Chris, I know I sound despondent, but I don’t know why a show with this rich a history and detailed a mythos is compelled to reset when there’s a change of the guard, and why said return to square one must always, in the Nu-Who era at least, be a dull UK city based adventure, featuring a group of earthy, blue collar characters who meet the Doctor while facing a second-rate alien threat. Didn’t you get this gig on the promise that you’d innovate? It looks to me that you were counting on the people you made that promise to not owning televisions.

What about taking those new cameras and pointing them at a set depicting a colony in deep space, a city like Starchaser’s Toga-Togo, full of creatures and AI and things that look like Jimmy Savile? Why not have companions that show a little of the universe’s variety, maybe even challenge the Doctor’s values? What’s that – it’d alienate the newbies? Well, fuck you Chris. The show’s 55 years old, if the cunts aren’t interested in it and its history by now, perhaps they should stick to YouTube clips.

Is this a show for the whole family or not, because if it is, it should also be aimed at the adults who grew up watching it. All you need to do is tell a compelling story. If it’s good, any kids who don’t know what’s what will be compelled to find out more. When I discovered Doctor Who properly, as a teenager, having enjoyed a smattering of the original run, I went back and watched the 26 seasons that then existed in order. If you become a fan of something, you tend to gobble it up.

Oh, and children are a lot more canny than you believe, by the way – they understand high concepts, adult stories. You can talk up to them. You don’t have to reintroduce everything. Half of them will have seen Game of Thrones and Altered Carbon, and lots of other crap I haven’t seen. You’re a bit like my old History teacher, who fast forwarded through the brief sex in a VHS presentation of Highlander, apparently unaware that half the class had used local tramps to buy porno mags the previous weekend.

So you barely touched on the whole change of sex thing – I suppose that was to be expected. Steven had prepared the ground so thoroughly, what more was to be said? But as gender politics is white hot right now, this was a bit of a missed opportunity. Imagine the headlines if a primetime BBC show had featured a prolonged monologue on gender dysphoria, following the Doctor’s unexpected loss of penis and testicles. She’d acquired an inch with every regeneration after all, so this de facto castration might have hit her hard. Indeed, there was no scene when the Doctor and Bradley Walsh argued about whether the Time Lord could just appropriate female gender identity, just because her cells said she could, and whether said identity, acquired as it was, constituted a parody of femininity; womanhood as imagined by a man.

Walsh was quiet on the big issues – the Doctor having skipped those formative years as a female, with attendant problems like the assignation of cultural stereotypes and discrimination, the traumas and tribulations of adolescence, dealing with predatory male sexuality and toxic masculinity in early relationships, not having to deal with oppression as a sex class, not having to worry about beauty standards and archetypal expectations like getting married and having children. One imagines he’ll judge her for roaming the universe and not settling down in future episodes, but a discussion here and a direct challenge from the new Doctor, might really have shaken things up.

And that was it, I suppose. A glossy but empty new Doctor Who, that felt very familiar, but not in an exciting way. More like a programme you’d seen years ago and remembered being quite good but when you sat down and watched it again it had nothing for adult eyes; nothing that went over your head as a child. Perhaps you’ve got lots of great stuff coming down the pipe – psychological depth, moral conundrums, impossible choices, surprise deaths, new weird and wonderful guest characters, and memorable villains. Maybe you, unlike Steven, can tell a story. But I’ve seen Torchwood, and so justifiably fear the worst.

Yours, etc.

Ed

P.S: Please don’t include stuff like YouTube in future – it instantly dates episodes.

P.P.S: “Half an hour ago I was a white haired Scotsman.” The Doctor has never been Scottish. She’d know that.

P.P.P.S: Right, so the Doctor’s got a northern accent, but why? It’s a pity she spoke before she fell, because otherwise you could have established a new precedent, that she copies whoever she hears first. And then we could have lamented that she didn’t fall into a Jamaican bar in North London circa 1974, and adopted the patois. Instead, she was a perfect fit for the area she fell into, a terrific piece of celestial luck.

P.P.P.P.S: The new companions – Yazz, Terry, Wilf – I forget their names, were very quick to believe the Doctor’s “I’m an alien” story. They didn’t even question why she sounded like she was from Huddersfield and talked about being a Scotsman. Wouldn’t the obvious conclusion have been that she was nuts and couldn’t you have mined some comedy from that? Her taking them hostage and forcing them to help – them being terrified, something of that nature?

P.P.P.P.P.S: “It’s a long time since I bought women’s clothes.” Oh yeah? When was the last time?

P.P.P.P.P.P.S: Alan Cumming coming soon? Oh Chris, you’re too early in the job to hate your audience.

The Way It Was:

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Published in: on October 7, 2018 at 21:24  Comments Off on Dear Chris Chibnall: The Woman Who Fell to Earth  
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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

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