❉ Robert Fairclough delivers his verdict on Jodie Whittaker’s tenure and its reception.
“For a mixed bag of reasons, Chris Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who wasn’t as zeitgeist-defining as Davies and Moffat’s eras, but I think in time its significance will be properly appreciated.”
When Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the thirteenth Doctor Who was announced in July 2017, I said this in conclusion to an article I wrote for We Are Cult:
“A feminine take on the Doctor will add to the character rather than detract from it. I think we’re in for great things.”
Five years later, in the November 2022 issue of Infinity magazine, long-time Doctor Who enthusiast Richard Molesworth had the following to say in his column ‘Molesworth’s Musings’. His attitude riffed on a negative attitude within the media and fandom that never went away while Jodie was in the title role:
“… I can point to no one story that was worth telling, not one single aspect of the Thirteenth Doctor’s time on the TARDIS that was worth applauding.”
Richard’s entitled to his opinion but, to coin a contemporary phrase, ‘bit harsh’, as most of the unfavourable criticism of Thirteen’s tenure was. I found a lot to enjoy during Jodie’s time that was equally as inventive and stimulating as other eras of Doctor Who.
Just look at some of the villains: Sacha Dhawan’s self-loathing, truly deranged Master, the amoral capitalist Robertson – who, believably, is never called to account – the fanatical Ashad, the operatically evil Swarm, the enigmatic Great Serpent, not to mention memorable one-offs like the immortals, Zellin and Rakaya; a creditable haul. And that’s before you get to show-stopping plot twists like the Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin, the first black actor to play the role), The Division, its baffling 1950s Irish detour – which, as far as I can tell, was the first instance of storytelling as visual metaphor in Doctor Who – and the surprise return of Captain Jack Harkness.
On the production side, I absolutely loved the weird, atonal element to Segun Akinola’s ambient incidental music, far more in keeping with the ethos of Doctor Who than Murray Gold’s action film melodrama (although Akinola’s compositions shared with Gold’s the tendency to sometimes drown out the dialogue). Shot on anamorphic prime lenses, the show looked fantastic and the SFX have never been more stunning.
Back to Mr. Molesworth…
“Then there’s the wokery. Box tick after box tick after box tick… If the programme makers want to get all preachy with the series, at least do it with some subtlety and imagination.”
According to a quick Google search, ‘woke’ often translates as ‘politically and socially aware’. That’s a bad thing?
Throughout the show’s nearly sixty years on air, it certainly has been politically and socially imaginative; most significantly, however, “wokery” has always been part of its creative DNA. It’s true that the series’ socio-political message hasn’t always been subtle, probably because satire tends to be rather blunted if it is. Lest we forget, Doctor Who’s most famous monsters, the Daleks, are the survivors of an atomic war who mutated into armoured, xenophobic killers. Imaginative but very much unsubtle, as a generation of viewers who’d witnessed the world teeter on the brink of nuclear war, a year before the Daleks appeared, would no doubt attest.
By Richard’s definition, 1960s-70s communist scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke, one of Doctor Who’s most respected creatives, would also be its most woke – anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-military, an environmentalist and humanist. No wonder he was attracted to a series that’s all of those things. “It’s a very political show,” morningstaronline.co.uk. quotes Hulke as saying in the 1970s. “Remember what politics refers to: it refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right… so all Doctor Whos are political. Even though the other group of people are reptiles, they’re still a group of people.”
Want other examples of the series’ centuries-spanning rampant wokery? Economic oppression (The Sun Makers, 1977); capitalist corruption (The Caves of Androzani, 1984); “massive weapons of destruction” (World War Three, 2005), slavery (Planet of the Ood, 2008), racism (Thin Ice, 2017)… It’s a long list.
Crucially, Jodie and executive producer Chris Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who came along at a time when there was a worrying cultural shift in British society. Somehow, social and political issues in popular culture are now A Bad Thing because – somehow – they’ve became associated with the political left. You only have to read the attacks the Daily Mail makes on the BBC to see that (they recently criticised the Corporation for not having enough working-class characters in its drama, which is both ironic and hilarious). There’s definitely a sense that some people are pulling down the cultural shutters against the increasingly concerning and changing state of the world. Perhaps they reason that if they deny it, it’ll go away. It won’t.
So, presumably, what Mr Molesworth really means by “wokery” is that he’s not keen on Doctor Who engaging with empowerment, same-sex relationships, ethnic diversity, parenting issues, child neglect, disability, mental health, cancer and food poverty, which Jodie’s stories did. I don’t see anything wrong with that because that’s the world we live in. Emphasising all this, rather than wear her hearts on her sleeve, Thirteen wore her era’s signal statement across her chest – a Rainbow Pride T-shirt.
Under Chibnall and Whittaker, the Doctor had a hyperactive, fast-talking, jolly exterior masking a haunted, lonely, ancient soul; pretty much a generic template for the character these days. (The only modern Doctor to buck that trend was 12, but he gradually reverted to type). The overall impression was of a feminised Tenth Doctor, making it rather ironic that she eventually regenerated into David Tennant.
If Jodie was handed a well-worn archetype, it had nothing to do with her abilities as an actress; it was the way the character was written. Similarly, the clumsily written slabs of exposition she had to cope with would have defeated even Tom Baker, who had more than his fair share of “audible print”. Having said that, Whittaker still had her memorable, defining moments – her railing at the unfairness of responsibility in The Haunting of the Villa Diodati and almost pathological hatred of the Cybermen in the trilogy that closed Series 12 was the equal of any of her predecessors. It was pleasing, too, to see that Chibnall didn’t shy away from feminine sensitivity, writing an unrequited love story between Thirteen and her companion Yaz that was touchingly performed by both Jodie and Mandip Gill.
Curiously, Thirteen was never allowed to dress in more traditionally ‘femme’ garb. In Spyfall: Part One, she could have put on a glamorous, halter-neck evening dress when she attended Daniel Barton’s birthday party, or a bodice and bonnet when she visited Mary Shelley in 19th century Switzerland in Villa. Significantly only two stories, The Witchfinders and Villa again, dealt with the implications of the Doctor’s changed gender. Perhaps Chibnall and co. felt making too much of it as problematic but, for me, it’s a shame that it wasn’t explored more bravely.
Notably, for all her iconoclasm, Thirteen wasn’t very visible outside the series. Former showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat realised that the executive producer’s job doesn’t stop with the programme – it’s a multi-media management role. Announcing Jodie’s casting during the 2017 Wimbledon Men’s Final couldn’t have been more high profile, and the trailer in October 2018, in which the Doctor fractured a glass ceiling, was a terrific, playful statement of intent. But over the next four years their impact wasn’t really followed up. The sense of Doctor Who as event television was gone and, arguably, that affected the audience.
Thirteen debuted with a record breaking 10.96 million viewers: understandable, as there was huge curiosity about the first female Doctor. By The Power of the Doctor five years later, the series was only pulling in half that, with final consolidated ratings of 5.30 million viewers – admittedly, one of Thirteen’s better showings – for Jodie’s swansong. But look at the context: The Power of the Doctor was still the fifth most watched programme of the week on BBC1. Top of the totem pole was Strictly Come Dancing with 9.89 million, but Doctor Who and Doc Martin (4th) were the only two drama series in the TV Top 10. Add to that the fact that a lot less people are watching BBC1 because of the competition from streaming platforms, and Doctor Who’s ratings decline can be seen in a more realistic light.
In terms of merchandise, though, Thirteen didn’t sell that well. She only had four original novels, the lowest count of any modern Doctor. Across five years, that’s pretty poor, and three of the books were published in her first year. There were some action figures, dressing up outfits, Titan comics and a Race to the TARDIS board game, but compared to the spin-off bonanza of the 2000s, it was all pretty low-key. As for the evergreen Doctor Who annual, to add insult to injury the 2022 edition didn’t even have Thirteen on the cover, while the 2023 annual features a montage of all the Doctors. Neither instance is exactly a vote of commercial confidence.
Highs and lows
Away from questionable marketing decisions, Doctor Who was really as good and bad as it’s ever been. The leaden pacing and stilted Doctor/companion dynamics of Series 11, as well as the decision to exclude any elements from the show’s past, didn’t help the viewing figures. Which was a shame, as Series 12 was a tremendous improvement on all fronts, and the series-long Flux story of Series 13 was Doctor Who at its most epic and surreal. Elsewhere, I wasn’t keen on Chibnall making the Doctor the foundation of Time Lord society, even if it explains why they’re so different. It was a bold move, though.
In terms of the seasonal specials, it was novel to have three Dalek stories strung across a succession of New Years. If I had to name my favourite single episode of Jodie’s tenure, it would be Eve of the Daleks. Being trapped in a time loop is a SF trope as old as the hills, but the story was convincingly tense, moving and genuinely funny, also finding time to incorporate two love stories. Typically, some people on social media thought it was so good that Chibnall couldn’t possibly have written it.
For a mixed bag of reasons, his Doctor Who wasn’t as zeitgeist-defining as Davies and Moffat’s eras, but I think in time its significance will be properly appreciated. As well as a female Doctor, Doctor Who was more globally inclusive than ever before. Stories took place in America, India, Norway, Australia, France, Peru, Madagascar, Hong Kong, Japan, the Crimea and China, and there were more black, Asian and South East Asian faces among its actors than ever before. There were also more regional accents in the main cast than ever before, as well as, for the first time, a focus on cities outside London, principally Sheffield (Chibnall took his MA in Theatre and Film at the university there).
Returning executive producer Davies is such a moral iconoclast that I was disappointed with his reasons for not allowing Tennant to wear Jodie’s costume during the regeneration, although I understand them. “With respect to Jodie and her Doctor, I think it can look like mockery when a straight man wears her clothes,” he said in Doctor Who Magazine 584. “To put a great big six-foot Scotsman into them looks like we’re taking the mickey… Also, I guarantee you it’s the only photograph some of the papers would print for the rest of time. If they can play with gender in a sarcastic or critical way, they will.”
Five years of Jodie Whittaker’s first female Doctor showed that the world has moved on. In some ways, however, it sadly hasn’t.
❉ Series 11 to Series 13 of ‘Doctor Who’ are currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a writer, designer, photographer and sometime actor. He writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). Robert has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites and is a creative consultant for The Restoration Trust, an organisation that delivers ‘culture therapy’ for people with mental health issues. He can be contacted on email@example.com and his website can be viewed at https://www.robfairclough.uk/