Thursday, July 27, 2017

At Last, a Female Doctor Who




I’m not a frequent user of social media for the simple reason that I have adult ADHD—nor do I suffer fools gladly—so with all the idiots on social media, these ingredients come together to create a supermassive black hole ready to devour all my time. So I take a pass on social media. I did however look at web sites reporting on the social media reaction to the announcement that the new showrunner for Doctor Who (Who), previously the showrunner/creator of the crime drama Broadchurch, has cast Broadchurch actor Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor—the first female to play the role on an ongoing basis. I am jazzed at the prospect, but it saddens me to read the vitriolic reactions of what I can only hope is a small minority of some self-identified Who fans. Unfortunately, the online very negative reactions of these supposed “fans”i to this news has much in common with the backlash from a sub-population of supposed Star Trek “fans” surrounding the casting and characterization choices (among other things) of those behind the new Star Trek: Discovery series, set to premier this fall. I am addressing the disturbing political and cultural zeitgeist in the US (mostly) at length in another series on this blog, but as these retrograde trends are spreading to those who call themselves fans of the two most cherished science fiction franchises on television, Star Trek and Doctor Who, I have some things to say. Given the long-standing ethos of Doctor Who and Star Trek, one might be excused for being shocked by how much overlap there is between Whovians and Trekkers and Trump/BREXIT supporters, but fact that such people seem to exist is an indication how far we have yet to go.
My first exposure to science fiction was through Star Trek in the form of Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS).ii I had always been interested in space, and even in grade school I would lay outside on clear, warm summer nights with Dad’s binoculars, a flashlight, and books about the stars and planets. In junior high, I made the happy discovery in the library of the paperback short-story adaptations of Star Trek: The Original Series (Star Trek: TOS), and TAS, by James Blish and Alan Dean Foster, respectively. My reaction was essentially “Wow! Space with stories!” Later, I found the robust moral compasses of the protagonists and the high-minded, optimistic vision it offered of humanity’s future resonated strongly with the ideals of the religious faith I was raised in, without the disturbing end-times eschatology.iii
As I got older, I became aware of the iconic status of The Doctor, but I only got into Doctor Who after the 2005 “reboot” and was quickly sucked in—and for the record, I have never owned a Trek prop or uniform, but I do have a set of Who pub glasses and the sonic screwdrivers of Doctors’ 10 and 11, and I plan on getting the 13th Doctor’s sonic as soon as they are available. Like the Trek franchise, Doctor Who has never shied away from challenging viewers to look at things from a different perspective and aspire to nobler ideals. Another way the character of The Doctor resonated with me is they have never suffered fools gladlyiv—probably because there is no room across the whole of space and time The Doctor can enter where they are not the smartest person therev—even though others in the room dismiss The Doctor as a daft old coot or a younger, oddly-dressed nerd.vi A female Doctor is entirely plausible from an “in-universe” perspective as other Time Lords have changed gender as a result of regeneration.vii All Doctors have had to work through the choices made by their previous selves—the best recent example is in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special “The Day of The Doctor,” where the 10th was the “man who regrets” and the 11th was “the man who forgets” (or tried to) how they thought they ended the Time War. Throwing in a change in gender along with the other changes regeneration routinely brings makes for meaty storytelling and acting challenges with immense potential.viii
As for the historically ignorant, loudmouthed puddingbrains complaining of some liberal, SJW “diversity” agenda being crammed down their throats by a shadowy cabal of liberal activists, the unfortunate reality is the progressive idealism embodied by franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek left space dock on 23 November, 1963 and then again on September 8, 1966 respectively. On November 22nd, 1968 the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” aired showing the first black/white kiss on prime-time American television—a mere seven months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated—nor was the controversial nature of the scene and its timing lost on the writers, director, or the cast. Also in the original Trek was the Vulcan philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination” which was presented as noble ideal worth aspiring to. In the run-up to the premier of Star Trek: Voyager in January 1995, a small, but loud and obnoxious, minority of Trek fans were utterly apoplectic at the idea of a female starship captain headlining a Trek series for the first time. Were these past plot/storytelling choices instances of some SJW agenda being pushed down viewers’ throats 20 to 40 years ago as well? From the apparent mindset of many of those objecting to the 13th Doctor’s gender or the casting/plot of Discovery, it seems likely they would have thought so—at least if they’d been old enough to remember. It also raises the question of why the hell anyone with attitudes like theirs even watched Doctor Who or Star Trek in the first place, let alone those that claim to have been “fans” for decades? Do they suffer from some sort of cognitive impairment or does a subconscious cognitive dissonance usually filter out the bits that conflict with their contemptible world-view?
Thoughtful, intelligent science fiction in general has an established history of challenging the conventions, prejudices, and preconceptions of the audience/readers of which their authors, creators, producers, actors, etc., can justly be proud of. Science fiction at its best tells stories that expand our minds, enlarge our horizons, and challenge us to reassess our perceptions, both of ourselves and others. This is how both Doctor Who and Star Trek have lasted over 50 years, by speaking to the consciences of their viewers/fans and, with varying degrees of subtlety, raising our consciousness, individually and collectively, to the possibility of our being better tomorrow than we were today.
I also have a further point to make for those on both sides of the new, female Doctor Who debate. Given the half of all human beings born female, it is frankly preposterous, after the nearly 55 years of the franchise’s existence, for the title character to never, ever take on the form of a human female following a regeneration. However, I have encountered a small subset of the overwhelming positive online reactions supportive of the new Doctor, which then went on to express an apparently sincere wish to see future regenerations of The Doctor be representative of their specific, minority community. And just to be clear, I am not referring to the sarcastic comments along the lines of: “Next they’re going to have the Doctor be a transgendered, left-handed amputee with dyslexia.” After the past 50+ years of Doctor Who, a Doctor resembling the 50% of humanity that are our mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces, etc., is not PC pandering. However, the world has given us Trump and Brexit, so I am less skeptical than I was of the ludicrously, ridiculously improbable actually coming to pass, so there may well SJWs advocating a sort of “scorched earth” agenda which more sane, liberal, broad-minded human beings might mistake as headlines from The Onion.ix
One of the primary marks of our shared humanity is our passion for stories. The reason storytellers tell the stories they do are as unique and individual as the storytellers themselves. Passively absorbing stories is easy, but engaging our higher cognitive faculties to think about the stories we hear, and maybe even learn something from them is much more difficult because doing that requires some minimal amount of courage, a willingness to challenge our own thinking. More difficult still is creating and telling such stories and doing it well. Aided and abetted by the Internet, it is fast becoming a cliché for small subsets of fans to protest loudly whenever their favorite franchise goes in a direction they disapprove of, and this seems to be especially true of science fiction and other fantastical genres. Some feel there is way too little “diversity,” while others think the creators have sold out to the SJW agenda—though I doubt “fans” at either pole could coherently explain what such an agenda might be, even if their lives depended on it. However much the fans of any franchise might feel personally invested in it, they don’t own it. Since the first glimmerings of spoken language arose in our Pleistocene ancestors—perhaps even before—stories helped us understand and explain the world around us, including our own existence. We share those explanations and understandings—the good, the bad, and/or how it might be better—with others so we might understand them and they us. Whether it was the first Sumerian scribe to record their elaborations on the already ancient oral Epic of Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablets, a lone 21st century self-published author like Andy Weir, or the hundreds of people making creative contributions to TV and movie franchise, they are entitled to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them. If anyone in the audience is rubbed the wrong way by the stories of others, thinking all’s right with the world as is, then they can either read/listen/watch other stories. Or better yet, create the sort of stories they want to hear.
Among the many reasons J.R.R. Tolkien (and yes, I’ve read nearly all of his stuff too) gave for writing The Lord of the Rings was for the challenge of telling a long, complex tale that would engage readers and perhaps even move or inspire them. Online, Whovians of both sexes have commented about how, from an “in-universe” standpoint, Whittaker’s Doctor will have to break through entrenched gender stereotypes to be taken seriously before she can get on with her real work of saving puddingbrains throughout the cosmos. I noted earlier how, from the very beginning, part of The Doctor’s shtick was being initially dismissed—sometimes as a harmless annoyance, other times as an incompetent, dangerous, unstable element in the crisis du jourespecially by those who ought to take The Doctor seriously. The best example of this is, of course, Doctors 4 and 6 (Tom Baker and Colin Baker, respectively), I mean, just look at those outfits! Since 1963, The Doctor has been an archetype for a protagonist other story characters will initially dismiss as a nutcase.
The challenge Chibnall has set for himself and the other writers for the 13th Doctor is how they maintain continuity with the essential characteristics of all the previous Doctors—not suffering fools gladly and knowing, whatever room she (going forward) enters, she’ll be automatically the smartest occupant—with the new twist of the character’s in-story quirky or eccentric sartorial tastes might not be the only reason The Doctor is not taken seriously at first. For Ms. Whittaker, the challenge will be to make her Doctor believable in terms of the long back-story of the character, yet subtly informed by the long-overdue change in perspective being perceived, superficially at least, as a human female affords. Having seen the first series of Broadchurch, I’m sure she’ll be brilliant.
When still a religious believer, I was saddened by the idea that no one would ever know if someday, a united, peaceful (at least amongst ourselves), curious, courageous, compassionate, and adventurous humanity would have spread outward to the stars—because of the whole “rapture” thing. Now, years later, as an atheist and a rationalist, I am still enough of a romantic idealist to find it bittersweet indeed that I personally will never know how the story of humankind will turn out, but my younger self’s hope for humanity’s future remains. Yet even among self-described fans of the two most hopeful, forward-thinking science fiction franchises ever, it looks as though there may indeed be substantial numbers of our fellow human beings we will never be able to convince that such a future is worth striving for. What we will do then I do not know.


iMy use of scare quotes around “fan/s” is intended to suggest such fans might not have a clue about the broad ethos of the shows of which they claim to be “fans.”
iiI have only the vaguest recollection of seeing the Apollo 11 landing on television on July 20, 1969, about a month before my 5th birthday. The original run of Star Trek ended the month before the landing in June, 1969.
iiiIronically, as an adult, it was my own moral revulsion at my fellow Christians who cared more about valuing the “correct” beliefs than they did about believing in, and living by, the ideals they claim to value.
ivUnless it was part of The Doctor’s overall tactics/strategy.
vBear with me, I’m trying to avoid using gendered pronouns and still be somewhat readable.
viThat aspect of the Doctor’s character—at least as they had been written and played by white guys—appealed to me because after being diagnosed as “hyperactive” at the age of five (in 1970), in 2007 I was diagnosed as having adult ADHD—and with an IQ well above the 99th percentile. From the age of 5 to the age of 42, I always had the feeling everyone else knew or understood something that always seemed to elude me, only to learn the reason I always felt somewhat out-of-place, was that every time I entered a room, I was quite likely one of the brightest people in it—feeling out-of-place as a result.
viiOr maybe “regenderation”? My typo might have been a Freudian slip. LoL
viiiIn the end the 12th Doctor never knew he had gotten through to Missy, though he felt he had come close. Perhaps the 13th Doctor’s gender was due a subconscious desire to understand why he thought he was ultimately not able to get through to Missy. If so, I call dibs on the credit for any story ideas arising from this.
ixPerhaps there is the equivalent of “Poe’s Law” for the more extreme forms of feminism—along with may other “isms.”