If you hadn’t heard, last year the BBC announced that, after fifty years of men in the role, Broadchurch actress Jodie Whittaker would be playing the 13th Doctor when Doctor Who returned in 2018 with new showrunner Chris Chibnall at the helm.
Naturally, fans lost their collective minds. Now, it seems, for no good reason.
Indeed, with the series’ highest-ever premiere ratings (10.5 million including catch-up! Over double last year’s 4.64 million), largely positive critical reception and a beefier budget (it’s so pretty!) the show seems to have reached a new high. And, most importantly, Jodie Whittaker immediately is the Doctor.
Doctor Who is the latest in a new trend of recasting traditionally male roles or parts with women. But why has this show been a success story when other franchises (looking at you, Star Wars and Ghostbusters 2016) have been less positively received?
“Promoting diversity in media is admirable, but by tying it to stories that actively antagonise your fanbase is going to turn them against the ideals associated with those stories.”
I think it comes down to two major factors:
1) Respecting the source material – A big problem with the Ghostbusters reboot (besides not being particularly funny) was that it erased the 1984 original from continuity. Deleting your fanbase’s favourite movie from history is not a good way to get them on your side. Similarly, Star Wars: The Last Jedi disrespected the legacy of fan-favourite character Luke Skywalker to the point that the actor who has lived the part since 1979 actively divorced himself from the character’s portrayal in the film. It also doesn’t help that The Last Jedi deliberately botches key plot points just to toy with its audience.
Promoting diversity in media is admirable, but tying it to stories that actively antagonise your fanbase is going to turn them against the ideals associated with those stories. By comparison, new Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall is a lifelong fan (while Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy openly admitted she’s only there to put more women in blockbusters). Plus, recasting the lead is built into the show’s mythology, so fans can’t complain about them ‘disrespecting’ their childhoods.
2) Make the message about equality as well as female empowerment – For this bit, I’m comparing Doctor Who to Wonder Woman, another overtly feminist bit of media that was more successful than anyone predicted. A key element to that film’s mass appeal was the character Steve Trevor. Steve is the film’s love interest, yes, but he’s also almost a joint lead, directly tied to the plot and Wonder Woman’s character arc without overshadowing her. I think this is another point where The Last Jedi fails, treating its male characters like petulant children (Poe Dameron spends the movie being sent to his room by Princess Leia, and female lead Rey must drag a sulky Luke Skywalker out of his emo phase). This is an interesting reversal of the stereotypical gender roles in film (now the men are dependent on the women) but fails to consider that the audience for this kind of media is still statistically male-dominated, and you will not be successful if you alienate your core demographic.
“Whittaker fizzes with a manic energy the show desperately needed, just as competent as the Doctor ever was while barely mentioning the gender swap”
This is, in my opinion, another thing Doctor Who does right; first, the cast is evenly split male/female with a wide range of age and ethnic groups represented. Second, none of them feel stupid. Chibnall has deliberately toned down the Doctor’s ego so she’s more reliant on her friends, and this should give everyone in the ensemble a chance to shine. This gives Doctor Who something Star Wars is losing (hence Solo’s dismal box-office): Mass appeal, the likes of which Who hasn’t enjoyed since David Tennant’s glory days.
There are problems with the new Doctor Who; the writing’s a bit wonky and some have complained that Jodie Whittaker is just doing a David Tennant impression, but I’d argue that Doctor Who isn’t looking to break boundaries and take risks just now. The point was to prove that a woman could be the Doctor, and of course, she can. Whittaker fizzes with a manic energy the show desperately needed, just as competent as the Doctor ever was while barely mentioning the gender swap (“Come to Daddy… I mean Mummy…”). Now she’s proven she can play The Doctor, Whittaker can work on playing her Doctor. They’ve laid a solid foundation.
The point of all this is that audiences are still disappointingly touchy about having an ‘agenda’ pushed down their throats (take that shameful way Star Wars fans ran The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran off Twitter) so we need to be gentle when promoting diversity, and show how it benefits everyone. Doctor Who’s new emphasis on family and teamwork is deliberate; you win a war by making allies, not enemies.