This article was written for The Telegraph, India, and can be viewed online here
When BBC’s Newsnight revealed that Jodie Whittaker would be replacing Peter Capaldi as the thirteenth Doctor in the popular sci-fi series, Doctor Who, reactions were a mixed bag to say the least. The casting announcement was divisive because in the shows 54-year history, a male actor has always played the Doctor.
Many fans were not thrilled with the news that Whittaker was taking on the role. Some saw the sudden change of the character’s gender as a sign of ‘political correctness gone mad’, believing that the character should continue to be played by a man simply for the sake of continuity. These individuals were met with counter-arguments that stressed the fact that the character is an alien, not a human, therefore why should earthly gender roles be imposed on the part? Despite this astute observation about the creative flexibility afforded by the science-fiction genre, Whittaker’s gender seems to have remained a sticking point for many fans of the show.
Conversely, though, many Doctor Who fans were delighted with the prospect of a female doctor. Since Whittaker was named as Capaldi’s successor on 4th July, there have been a large number of videos of children reacting to the news that ‘the new doctor is a girl!’ that have gone viral. Watching these kids’ excited reactions certainly struck a chord with me, and made me think back to my own childhood experience of watching the show. I remember how my siblings and I would wolf down our dinner on a Saturday night so that we could nab a prime spot in front of the television before the show started at 6.30pm.
I only saw a few episodes starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, so I never really experienced attachment to his character – although I do remember the Slitheen giving me nightmares. Then, all of a sudden David Tennant was traveling the galaxies with the feisty Billie Piper by his side. Since Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor comprised the majority of my introduction to this sci-fi world, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Tenth has held a soft spot in my heart ever since; my favorite episode is undoubtedly ‘The Shakespeare Code’, for the prospective English Literature student in me clearly relished the opportunity to go back in time to the Bard’s London and see the genius that was William Shakespeare at work.
I continued to follow the show after Matt Smith succeeded David Tennant, and although Smith’s take on the role came with its own quirks – in case you wondered, fish fingers and custard is not a normal English delicacy – for me the show was never quite the same without Tennant’s Scottish charm. That said the episode ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, where Amy Pond and the Doctor meet the artist Vincent Van Gogh, and try and add a splash of color to his otherwise miserable existence, definitely ranks amongst my favorites. When it was eventually Smith’s turn to pass on the Doctor Who baton, I really wanted to give Capaldi a chance, having enjoyed his sweary performance in The Thick of It, I was intrigued to see whether his portrayal of the Doctor would be in any way similar to Malcolm Tucker. Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t convinced by the on-screen rapport between Twelfth and Clara (Jenna Coleman), and so I stopped watching the show a few episodes into the eighth series.
Yet, in the wake of the news that Jodie Whittaker will be taking on the role, first gracing our screens in the annual Christmas special later this year, I find myself earnestly wanting to start watching the show again. It was only watching the videos of kids reacting to the news of a female doctor that made me realize why Whittaker’s appointment is so exciting, and why I can’t wait to see her on my screen. Growing up my only onscreen female fictional role model was Hermione Granger, from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Having recently re-watched the Potter films, I couldn’t help but notice the fact that my childhood idol was often presented as little more than an accessory to Harry and Ron’s success.
Now, aged twenty, I look at the films coming out of Hollywood and see more and more female protagonists – from the all-female Ghostbusters reboot that came out last year, to Charlize Theron’s latest spy film, Atomic Blonde – and see that there are an increasing number of women in the cinematic spotlight. Although admittedly many of the Doctors’ companions have been women, the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the principal character promotes the message that women are not just there to help the male protagonist succeed. They are capable of achieving great things on their own.
Whilst ultimately it doesn’t matter if a male or female actor plays an alien in a fictional TV series, it does matter who children see on their television screens. Seeing female protagonists teaches boys and girls alike that anyone can do anything, people can be anyone they please, and go on whatever adventures they so wish. It’s only when equal opportunities are afforded to everyone that the question of gender becomes redundant. Arguing that a male actor should have been cast for the sake of continuity, if nothing else, is regressive. Although Doctor Who is a program that often sees its characters venture back in time, there’s only one direction I think the show’s audience should be traveling in – and that’s forward.