I was ten years old when I saw my very first Doctor Who Christmas special in 2005. I spent a few moments before the titles ran spitting feathers about the departure of Christopher Eccleston and, to my mind, the inexplicable arrival of David Tennant. You couldn’t just change the Doctor, give him a suit and with it a plummy RP accent (imagine how blown my tiny mind was when I discovered Tennant is Scottish). The Doctor was a leather-jacket wearing, rough-and-ready, matter-of-fact Northerner and nothing on this Earth could change my mind.
Until I got roughly ten minutes into the episode that is.
I spent the full hour utterly spellbound, giggling til the end. Christopher who? The final nail in Eccleston’s coffin was Tennant’s remark after vanquishing the Sycoraxian leader following a nail-biting dual on a spaceship a few thousand feet above London: ‘not bad for a man in his jim-jams!’
I guffawed, gleefully and raucously, for a whole five minutes. With that, I’d fallen for him – hook, line and sinker.
A brush with unfamiliarity is unpalatable for many of us, and the sea-change brought about by Jodie Whitaker has been a culture shock for many die-hard fans of the show. Bless them. Peter Capaldi, who ticked near enough every box for social/political privilege and convention, had become a fairly long-term resident Timelord and felt in many ways like a throwback to the era of William Hartnells and John Pertwees – any departure from him at this point could potentially feel jarring to a devotee. To have him regenerate into his precise opposite has magnificently overturned an entertainment institution – and the enduring disdain in comment sections proves that this is no ordinary regeneration scepticism.
Jodie Whitaker’s explosion onto our screens has proved what we’ve known all along – leadership, intelligence, passion and authority look authentically good on women. It’s uncomfortable for many because, like other household names that have been revolutionised by diverse and feminine re-commissions, it proves that anything men can do, we can get higher ratings for. But, as you may expect, the naysayers have been out in force on the internet. A few comments on various social media platforms caught my attention.
One user wrote that the introduction of Whittaker had brought with it ‘hammy dialogue’, which I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at. I don’t know which episodes the author of these outlandish claims has seen that I haven’t, but there’s enough ham-fisted dialogue in all series I’ve seen to comprise a full gammon joint. It’s a nuance of the show at this point. From Jackie Tyler’s astute observations to pretty much every line Steven Moffat ever wrote, cringe dialogue’s been a Doctor Who staple for the long haul. Next.
What really threw me were the claims Doctor Who was just “something else” that had been “ruined to make it PC” – that the exciting storylines of times gone by had been overthrown by a softer, non-offensive approach. It’s this that makes me wonder if these ‘fans’ have been watching Doctor Who at all.
In the 2005 Christmas special, the one that welcomed David Tennant into 10-year-old Bethany’s heart, the message is mercy – the Doctor makes a deal with the leader of the Sycorax to protect both them and the human race and is appalled when Prime Minister Harriet Jones betrays the alien imperialists by nuking them. In the following episode, New Earth, the Doctor is the literal saviour of a race of clones grown with the sole function of saving other ‘legitimate’ races from disease. In all ways, at least since the reboot, the Doctor has been a pacifist, acting in the interests of fairness and equality. Most of these issues have been dressed up in such a way that the viewer needn’t think about their own complicity in social injustices today – and it’s right that we scrutinise television’s messages and how they’re conveyed – but, on the face of it, the Doctor has always been an advocate for peace and fairness in his own universe.
And, if political correctness has taken over, it’s only been to pluck these story arcs of inequality and overcoming it and launch them into a place where the viewer simply can’t look away. Written by Noughts and Crosses author Malorie Blackman, the third episode of the current series, Rosa, follows a pivotal moment in history – Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat for white passengers on a Montgomery bus, marking the advent Civil Rights Movement in America and the beginning of the end of segregation in the country. This, for 50 minutes on a Sunday night, placed the Doctor’s innate and unending quest to ‘sort out fair play throughout the universe’ into the real world, particularly as Yaz and Ryan, wholly unsafe in 50s Montgomery, also confront the ways in which racism threatens them in the present day.
Unlike good old-fashioned, unabashedly offensive TV fun, political correctness isn’t afraid to call into question real-world politics and injustices and lay them out in front of you in such as way that your children will ask you questions about why the world doesn’t treat everyone the same.
Which begs the question: what exactly is wrong with diversifying a cast in an act of so-called ‘political correctness’? It hasn’t impacted the storytelling (the ratings tell us that), the dialogue is as hammy as ever it was (nothing can be more cringy than having a grown-ass man eat fish fingers and custard and then have the cheek to call it quirky humour) and even the theme music pretty much sounds the same as it always has.
My guess is that it’s seen by some as an affront to the status quo, threatening the world’s most powerful identities by shoving them aside – they’ve had their turn for long enough. And therein lies the irony, as these unflappable, unoffendable, free-speech toting, anti-PC types reveal their Achilles’ heel: they’re offended by the very concept they claim causes no offence. They’ve always loved the Doctor and his authority and never questioned what he stood for – but now, that same authority and moral compass inspires denial, disassociation and loathing simply because their fictional alien now identifies as a woman. Sounds like they’re the snowflakes, but ok.
Was I delighted by a gender-bent Doctor and the company she keeps? You bet your ass I was. I will happily and personally usher in this change, because I know it isn’t just for change’s sake – it’s a statement that tells me and the world that the show’s creators know there’s a representation issue and they’re willing to start dealing with it. And, to quote the Doctor and Rose in the 2005 Christmas Special:
“So, I’m still the Doctor then?”
“No arguments from me.”