It’s an amazing time to be a storyteller. It’s also a profoundly frustrating one.
For the first time in the 50-plus year history of the series, Doctor Who has turned the reins of The Doctor over to a woman, as millions of loyal fans around the world got the news this morning. It may not seem like much, but it’s truly a landmark moment in television history that’s close to 40 years in the making.
True to form, the reaction has been mixed across many different outrages. Male and female fans were mad that Doctor Who seems to be placating to the Political Correctness faction who demanded the new showrunner Chris Chibnall, and by extension, the stodgy old BBC itself, represent them.
There’s also fans who belong to differing minorities demanding to know why it was that another Anglican actor, even though they chose a female, was cast over someone who represented them, as well as LGBTQ fans who are wanting to know if the new Doctor is going to be representative of them, or will she be another cisgender version.
We live in an age where there is a broader spectrum of personality types represented in popular culture and media than ever before, which is far from a terrible thing. On a planet of nearly seven billion people, there is no logical reason why there shouldn’t be a larger cross-section of humanity that’s being transferred over to our modern stories, be they visual, audio, written, digital, animated, etc. The palate is so rich and so varied that there is honestly no legitimate reason as to why those of us who create those stories and thereby the characters who inhabit them, take full advantage of that spectrum, rather than relying on generic, homogenous stock characters.
Therein lies the problem, however, with the demands of the audience and the inability of the storytellers to meet said demand, not because they don’t want to, but because there is only so much you can cram into a singular character to represent the broadest cross-section of the audience possible, even when it’s a nigh-immortal Time Lord with two hearts, can regenerate and travels through the universe in an amazing blue box.
The decision to follow through on switching The Doctor’s gender did not happen in a vacuum, nor did it come without some degree of logical processing. When the series was at the height of its international popularity in the 1980’s, the demand was there, but the writers, the network and the society of the time weren’t prepared to follow through on them. When Doctor Who came back in 2005, so did that demand, but neither Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat were able to do so not because they didn’t want to.
Davies, being a a proud gay man who’s previous work included Queer as Folk, and Moffat, who’d also done prior work on shows that had diverse characters of various backgrounds, recognized that in order to get to this point, a lot of pavement that had to be laid down first.
Over the past ten seasons, Doctor Who has seen a paradigm shift in its character base from the molds of the classic series, that being white, hetero Anglican men and women. To say that was done solely because of discriminatory views of the creative minds of the day is both irresponsible and stupid, though. Popular media in all forms reflects the times in which they are made. It’s when those established social taboos and standards are challenged, pushed and ultimately proven to false or no longer reflective of the prevailing attitudes that they finally fall into history.
While the show has always relied on the male-female dynamic between The Doctor and his long roster of Companions, it took more than four decades for an LGBTQ Companion (Capt. Jack Harkness), and a non-caucasian Companion (Dr. Martha Jones) to enter its universe. And while there had been female Time Lords throughout the history of the show, the closest to The Doctor himself had been a Companion, Romana, and an adversary named The Rani, until Moffat decided to turn his oldest Gallifreyan enemy, The Master, into a woman back in 2015.
This, along with stories which included examples of Time Lords being essentially a genderless society as they can fluctuate back and for with each regeneration established the foundation that if anyone else from Gallifrey can do it, then why can’t its most famous resident?
In that respect, the announcement that it the 13th Doctor is a woman didn’t surprise me at all, nor did it bother me, because the decision to do so can stand up to the weight of having earned it through character development and storytelling over multiple seasons of the show.
What irks me, though, is when there is a demand for characters to be changed to fit the current zeitgeist of a given social or cultural faction for purely arbitrary, selfish or antagonistic reasons.
Now, before I go further with this side of the argument, I want to be fully transparent in saying I completely understand the want for equal representation in popular media and being a middle-aged white cisgendered asexual American male about 95% of what is in that media is designed, marketed and produced to appeal to people like me, even though they may feature diverse or three-dimensional male AND female characters.
Of course, we want to have role models, iconography and symbols which we can relate to in movies, TV, music, books, video games, etc. That has been a cultural constant that’s been growing in speed and momentum since both this century and millennium began and damn if that isn’t a really powerful and positive thing.
However, there comes a point where as much as we all want a particular character to represent all of us, the unpleasant reality is there is no character who can, no matter what they’re capable of in the tales we create around them.
Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman can’t. The Doctor can’t. Hell, Jesus Christ couldn’t and our entire culture has operated for more than 2,000 years on the premise that he is both omniscient and omnipotent, but if you read The Bible, (and I have) there is example upon example of how Christ, despite being acknowledged as the Alpha and Omega, does not represent or personify humanity in its vast totality.
Which brings me to one of my favorite shows of the past decade, Orphan Black.
I’ve been a card-carrying member of Clone Club since the show premiered in 2013 and, as a writer, it’s been an enlightening experience to see how it’s showrunners, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, created a storyline focused very much on relevant, pressing feminist topics.
And yet, for their attempts to create as diverse a character spread over its five seasons, even they couldn’t concentrate all the complexities and nuances that come with being a woman into one singular character, despite having someone as talented and capable as Tatiana Maslany to work with.
She doesn’t portray one clone. She is legion. Each version is distinctly unique with Sarah being the warrior/hustler/reluctant hero, Allison, the maternal, paranoid protector, Cosima, the affectionate, lesbian scientist, Helena the damaged weapon, Rachel, the envious puppet master and on and on down the line. At last count, Maslany has played ten different variations, including a transgender clone, and if you were to lump them together into a singular persona, even that wouldn’t fully embody the full spectrum.
But Orphan Black has done a better job at trying than a whole lot of shows I’ve watched over the years and I commend it for doing so because the writers understood how to construct a storyline that not only allowed for the level of variations in characters they’ve employed, but they also gave themselves room for a supporting cast that enhances that variety on one side and establishing the old homogenous patriarchal order on the other.
It’s surprisingly easy to figure out when storytellers construct worlds capable of supporting such paradigm shifts in characters and when they haven’t, but that doesn’t stop different factions from demanding that classic archetypal characters be taken out of their traditional guises and crammed into new ones and not always for the best of reasons. With our expanding diversity has come the growth of antagonism between those very same social factions and the people who operate within them.
If you don’t create a story that can pass the Bechdel Test, you’re somehow a misogynist. If men are perceived as somehow subservient to women, you’re a neo-feminist and so on. It’s all bullshit, of course. A convenient way to do the very thing we dislike when other people do it to us, encapsulating all of our complexity into a little box you can then stamp an -ism onto.
As much as we’d like to think its possible, there are some stories and some characters that cannot be converted as easily as The Doctor can. James Bond is one of them. For years, I’ve been hearing how there needs to be a female 007 when Daniel Craig eventually steps down from the role. That a female actor is just as capable of driving an Aston Martin or swigging down a martini as the six male actors who’ve done it.
Only here’s the problem that no one really wants to address: James Bond’s world was built specifically for a man and to alter it to fit a female version would destroy what makes the character interesting in the first place.
James Bond is a misogynistic, self-destructive, sociopathic Alpha male. That is how Ian Fleming created him in the 1950’s and he did so, in no small part, to channel his own Alpha wants and character flaws into an alter ego that could overcome them, because up until his death in 1964, Fleming didn’t. If you strip Bond down and remove those elements of who he is as a character, then as much as you can argue otherwise, he isn’t James Bond anymore.
What makes him compelling and interesting is that despite his more barbarous nature, Bond finds a way to beat that selfish, internal conflict in order to save the world and he’s surrounded by supporting characters who will not suffer his playboy wiles or his misogynist tendencies lightly. We saw that on full display for the 18 years that Dame Judi Dench portrayed Bond’s boss, M and in the character of Ms. Moneypenny, among others.
Were Fleming alive today, I doubt he’d have been able to construct Bond using a similar mold. The world now is far different than it was in the small gap between the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, when he created 007. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he deserves to be turned into something he was never intended to be in the first place.
Does that mean I don’t think a woman can portray a secret agent/assassin? Of course not. There’s a ton to choose from, from Sydney Bristow in Alias to the Black Widow in the MCU…Charlize Theron is portraying one in Atomic Blonde, and I’ll go see it when it comes out in a few weeks. Why? Because I’m interested and because I can still go enjoy those types of stories and still have good ol’ James Bond to go back to when a new movie comes out down the line.
There is something to be said for challenging conventions and something else for letting those conventions lie. Superman can’t be anyone else than Clark Kent. Batman only works if it’s Bruce Wayne in the cape and cowl, so the writers at DC created both Supergirl and Wonder Woman and done their best to make them independent of their male counterparts and especially in the case of Wonder Woman, they’ve done a better job of translating her from the page into films that appeal to modern audiences.
That, to me, is a good thing and not to be taken lightly. I wouldn’t expect someone to revamp Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to center on Mr. Darcy, no matter how dreamy Colin Firth was. The story is about Elizabeth Bennett and her encounters with Darcy and Darcy’s returned interest in Lizzy. Without that interplay, there’s no story worth following. It’s one thing to spice it up through the addition of zombies. It’s another thing entirely to turn it on its ear to satisfy the egos of one gender at the expense of the other.
I get that switching a beloved character like The Doctor from male to female isn’t going to please everyone. That fans are going to be fickle and pissed off and claim that the BBC and hated PC-crowd has finally killed a once great show. Except a lot of these people are the same ones who were pissed when their favorite actor who played the role left and was replaced with someone they thought they wouldn’t like. It’s been that way since I saw Tom Baker transform into Peter Davison in 1982…and I was all of five years-old at that time.
But when the creators of Doctor Who, in an attempt to keep the show going after William Hartnell was forced to leave the role as the First Doctor in 1966, put in his wonderful ability to regenerate into a totally new person and continue having his wonderful adventures, there was no law that he could only turn into a man.
And besides, Doctor Who was and always will be a show for kids, which those of us lucky enough to have been kids once and watched it, get to enjoy as adults with our kids.
In that regard, girls need avatars and role models to aspire to just as much as boys do. And we boys have had more than 50 years of the Doctor and his TARDIS to play with.
It’s time to let the girls have some fun with it. Personally, I’m looking forward to what that change will bring.