By Jerry Chandler
When the big reveal came, when we all first saw Jodie Whittaker walking towards the TARDIS, all fandom hell broke loose. Since then, things have calmed down a little bit. But the debate is still going (as is common with everything in fandom) about how much of a sea change we’re going to witness with the show and the Doctor when the Doctor finally faces the world for the first time in his over half a century of television as a she. I’ve been watching it discussed on social media since the announcement was made, and there were more than just a few discussions (and panels) where I saw the topic came up at this year’s Dragon Con. But, in all reality, much to the disappointment and dismay of some out there, we’ll likely see very little real change with the show and especially with the Doctor.
Let’s approach this first from the basic storytelling perspective and the notion that the people who will be running Doctor Who over the upcoming seasons don’t want to completely and utterly destroy the show. Just from a position of having the writers follow some level of basic internal story logic, the Doctor will not change in any truly noticeable way from the Doctor we’ve always known. I say that largely because, in at least the very important ways, the Doctor has rarely ever actually changed.
To borrow from Earth Station One’s Mike Faber’s comments on a Sunday Goodbye Moffat… Hello, Chibnall! panel at Dragon Con this year, the Doctor always has been and will always be the smartest one in the room. That won’t change. While that sounds like a simple comment, there’s a lot to that comment. But there’s a lot more that won’t change about the Doctor; that can’t change.
Just from a basic character perspective, the Doctor has at this point thousands of years of ingrained habits and character traits. From a writing perspective, the Doctor has a set of character rules that must largely be followed. We’ve seen on our screens these traits, these rules, played out no matter the actor portraying the Doctor. The Doctor will intervene and fight for what is right. The Doctor will stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. The Doctor will fight for those who need someone to protect them. The Doctor will solve what has been until then the unsolvable because it saves lives.
The future Doctors will have their big moments, and those moments will always be stereotypically the Doctor’s big moments no matter the gender of the Doctor. You can say that we’ve seen over a half century of change with the Doctor based on the nature of the regeneration process, but the reality is that those changes were largely seen in the smaller moments. William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton were seemingly night and day versions of the Doctor. Jon Pertwee played the Doctor differently than Tom Baker. Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy played the character differently. Certainly the styles of the four most recent modern Doctors were seen as very different by fans.
But that was largely only true with the smaller moments, the character building moments. But the quintessential Doctor moments? When the time came for the Doctor to stand up and face down the big bad of the moment, to lead the scared out of the darkness and into the light, to take the position of authority and command attention, or to show off the fact that he was (now she is) the smartest one in the room? The way to play those moments are all played far more similar than the smaller moments are. There’s a reason for this.
When the time comes for the Doctor to be “The Doctor” in those moments, it’s a bit like be a first responder or a soldier and going to work to do a job. It’s like with my chosen profession of law enforcement. It doesn’t matter what your gender is. It doesn’t matter if off duty you are by nature an extremely macho man or an extremely effeminate woman. When certain things happen, when certain things are going down, there are certain ways to do things. When the time comes to try and deescalate a situation, you do it in the right way. When the time comes to take command of a situation and inspire or calm scared people, you do it in the right way. When the time comes to get someone who wants to be violent to back down, you do it in the right way. It doesn’t matter if you’re normally geeky, goofy, passive, overly macho, or extremely effeminate when the time comes to put the required game face on. In those moments, you control and moderate your own behavior and act in the ways that works for the situations you’re in. In the very big moments, in the moments when the Doctor puts on that game face, it’s much the same.
Granted, what I’m about to say here is a bit blunted thanks to the excesses of the Moffat era and the Doctor under his time as showrunner basically standing unarmed in front of giant alien ships and essentially daring them to shoot at him, but it’s still true. The reality of life is that there are right and wrong ways to act in any situation that you’re trying to handle. If you want to achieve a desired goal when dealing with someone or when confronting them, there are only so many ways that you can act.
If you put Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor into the same key moments faced by any other Doctor before her, her actions would largely be the same. This makes sense on a storytelling level, and on a reality based level. If you place her Doctor against a Sontaran where it’s been established that brute force and might are all they will respect in that moment, she has to find a way to muster up brute force and might. If you place her Doctor into a situation where guile was required, then you’re going to get guile from her. The simple fact is, in both real life and in how far most viewers will suspend their disbelief, you cannot do something unrealistic or awkwardly different from what’s required in a situation and have everyone think it’s all just fine and dandy.
Where we will likely see the biggest changes in the Doctor as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker will be the smaller moments. We’ll likely see a difference in the more reflective moments and in the way she interacts with new companions. But as far as changes go, that’s no real change in Doctor Who at all. If you go back and watch the different eras of Doctor Who and watch the different actors who have played the role, you’ll see, based either on the writing of the time or the actor bringing more of themselves to the role over time, the different Doctors sometimes acting and reacting quite differently in the reflective moments or with the companions. The major change we’ll see will be what Jodie Whittaker herself brings to each scene, and in that she’s no different than anyone who has played the role before her.
Of course, the writing can also play a huge factor in what changes we ultimately see. That can be a bad thing, however.
I keep seeing a lot of people talking about how they’re looking forward to the changes in Doctor Who now that a woman will be playing the Doctor, but they’re not really very clear on what “change” means when discussing it. I hear a lot of buzzwords getting thrown around about seeing a show where the lead won’t have the same level of “male privilege” and “white privilege” (which is the really hilarious one since the Doctor is still white) and I hear a lot of talk about how this is a whole new chapter that changes everything. But what I don’t hear a lot of is actual specifics. There might be a good reason for this. Doctor Who fandom- even that part of Doctor Who fandom talking about how great the changes will be -doesn’t really like big changes to Doctor Who. The fans never have. Fans have set idea in their head of what Doctor Who is supposed to be and how the Doctor is supposed to act. When things are changed too greatly, fans tend to react a bit badly.
For years, many fans of the classic era show considered Colin Baker their least favorite Doctor and his run of shows their least favorite of the classic era shows. The reason (outside of just saying the poor writing on his episodes) most often given is how erratic and not like the Doctor his Doctor acted. The creative powers that be thought they had a good idea to shake things up. Colin Baker’s Doctor was a regeneration gone slightly wrong. His Doctor was going to be angrier, more alien, and more unpredictable. For fans then and even for new fans that go back and watch the classic era shows now, the less than Doctor-like nature and actions of his Doctor simply puts many fans off. Interestingly, years later in the era of Big Finish, Colin Baker became a very popular classic Doctor. The difference was the Big Finish work largely ignores the erratic Doctor concept and the writing treats his Doctor much more like the other Doctors.
In the modern era, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor also started out angrier and more erratic than his modern predecessors. His Doctor also seemed to have a far more cavalier attitude towards saving lives throughout his first season. This (along with the generally poor writing on his episodes) turned a lot of people off.
The interesting thing with both Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi’s Doctors was that they still largely went into classic Doctor mode when it was time for the big moments. They were still the smartest person in the room and they still played the part of the heroic, triumphant Doctor when the time came in the story. But the radical change in how the Doctor acted put many people off. There were other issues to be sure, but with each of them there was a contingent of fandom that disliked how their Doctors didn’t quite act as Doctor-like as the fans thought they should.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor cannot stray too far from the accepted Doctor formula and be successful. The minute Jodie Whittaker looks into the camera and says that she’s the Doctor, people will expect her to act like the Doctor. Or, rather, the fans will expect her to act like the Doctor they have in their heads.
That’s going to be the biggest hurdle for the new writing team. That’s going to be the fine line they have to walk. How much can they change the Doctor before the character doesn’t feel like the Doctor to the fans anymore? If history is any indicator, it’s not going to be by much.
There’s also the matter of how much change the promoters of change really want to see. Think about the Doctor over the decades. Think about how the Doctor in the Doctor’s various incarnations has acted and reacted to a variety of different things. It can be something as simple as the companions or as huge as the entirety of the Dalek fleet. Now think about what you would actually want to see changed with those things. Other than the people who hated the Doctor having relationships on the TARDIS, odds are good there’s not much there you would want to see changed to any great degree. There’s a good reason for that.
In the minds of most fans, the Doctor has been doing it right over the last five-plus decades. There’s also the fact that, going back to my reference to law enforcement, there are only so many ways you can act in or react to some situations and have them come out the way you want them to. Then, also, well… We’re not exactly talking about James Bond or Rambo here.
The Doctor has never been a big gun person. The Doctor has never been a big wholesale gratuitous violence person. The Doctor has always been one to use as much guile and wit as physical force; maybe more. Even at his Venusian martial arts using best, the 3rd Doctor would use his intellect far more often and far more effectively than his muscle. This isn’t exactly a stereotypically macho male character getting a modern reboot as a female here. In modern Doctor Who, there’s actually very little the gender swap would change with regards to the Doctor’s overall personality or way of acting. And, frankly, many attempts by the writing team to go out of their way to make a big, noticeable, stereotypically “female” change in habits and actions could easily end up coming off as condescending, insulting, or simply stupid.
Being the Doctor isn’t about a gender, it’s about being the Doctor. We know who the Doctor is. We know what the Doctor should be. In all likelihood, so do the BBC and Chibnall. What they will likely deliver is the Doctor largely as we’ve known the Doctor over the decades and little else.
So, what would we see that’s substantially different?
In the series itself, we should see in some settings a very different reaction to the Doctor by some characters. A male Doctor could travel back in time and not be seen as a lesser citizen or authority by the men of many of the older cultures of Earth. Modern settings and alien worlds won’t necessarily require a change in how the Doctor is able to simply demand a position of authority and get it, but we should probably see it with historical settings on Earth. In these times, we should occasionally see a Doctor that uses more guile and wit to get some people to do what other incarnations of the Doctor could get done simply by being a forceful male. Likewise, there are even cultures in Earth’s past as well as some established Who alien races where being a female puts the Doctor in a better position than she would have been as a male. With the storytelling, it’s pretty much just in the settings where there would actually be a prejudice against a woman asserting high levels of authority where we should be seeing any real changes compared to an average episode with a male Doctor. Outside of that, the Doctor is the Doctor, and the Doctor isn’t going to be greatly changed by being portrayed by Jodie Whittaker.
We might see some changes in fandom discussion. Actually, we’re already seeing it. There’s a small but extremely vocal minority in Who fandom (and likely padded by agitators who don’t actually follow the show as much as their perceived cause) who attack anyone who doesn’t praise the casting decision by proclaiming any criticism or negative critique as misogyny. We saw a similar thing when the Ghosbusters reboot happened. The best piece of advice I can give when these moments happen is to use whatever “Block User” feature is made available to you through that particular website. Unless you simply find it amusing to see how stupid someone can get when diving down into that rabbit hole, life’s too short.
What we are going to see from Jodie Whittaker in the role of the Doctor is a Doctor largely the same as the Doctors before hers. We are simply not going to see radical changes in the nature of the Doctor or the show. That is the likely reality of it.
Jerry Chandler is worn out from Dragon Con. It’s the Saturday after con, he’s not caught up on his sleep, and he’s back at work. Thursday. Thursday will be a good day to sleep all day.