The Whittaker Debate and the Ensuing Dissatisfaction of Doctor Who Fandom

It’s an interesting time to be a Doctor Who fan.  Interesting in the sense that, not since the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras, has there been such a divide in fandom, resulting from the most recent season featuring Jodie Whitaker.  Fan opinion of Series 11 and of the show in general in recent years has been at a crossroads.  While the overall consensus of the general viewing public has been quite positive towards the most recent season if ratings are any kind of indication, the overall Doctor Who fandom seems divided between those who think the show has never been better and those who are extremely dissatisfied and feel the show has lost its way.  Fan opinion can be a fickle beast, but in my almost 40 years of being a fan, I don’t think since the days of the mid-to-late 80s has there been such a large and vocal core of fandom that are fed up with the direction and overall quality of series.

Some fans will claim the show went off the rails with the casting of the first female actress to play the Doctor, while others will claim it began during the Moffatt era which featured convoluted and off-the-wall writing, yet others will even say it began back as far as RTDs tenure as showrunner.  While RTD can claim responsibility as the man who helped to bring back and relaunch Doctor Who to British television screens after a 16-year absence and while his era—like many previous eras of Doctor Who—produced a fair share of dud stories, overall his era was the most coherent, well planned, and interesting of the relaunched series.  When RTD left, there was excitement in the air in anticipation of what new showrunner Steven Moffatt would bring to the series.  Fans were ecstatic about what the future held.  At first, Moffatt didn’t disappoint.  But over the course of his time as the chief architect of the series, the bloom faded.  Moffatt didn’t do any favors with viewers in general—or of fandom specifically—producing stories that were difficult to follow, contained convoluted and non-sensical plots and if one is totally honest, not that well written.

Criticism of both Moffatt and the show, along with increased dissatisfaction from the viewing public, set in.  And while we had a superb actor in the form of Peter Capaldi portraying the twelfth Doctor, he was, unfortunately, lumbered with a persona that didn’t quite gel—much like the ill-thought-out persona of the Sixth Doctor—and stories that never allowed the actor to truly shine in the part.

After three years in role, Capaldi announced series ten would be his last.  At the same time, show-runner Steven Moffat also announced he would move on, too.  At this point, the gossip mill went into overdrive.  Who was going to replace Capaldi and Moffat?  Contenders for both roles were bandied about from the logical to absurd.  While a large portion of fandom remained positive about the future, those fans who had become disillusioned over the past several years had reason to be concerned especially when their fears were confirmed with the appointment of Chris Chibnall as the new showrunner.

Chibnall has had a successful career as a writer and showrunner with series like Born and Bread, Torchwood and Broadchurch.  With credits for shows such as these, one would think the future of Doctor Who to be in safe hands.  But that wasn’t necessarily the case.  Within fandom, Chibnall has the reputation as having written some of the most poorly received scripts for both Doctor Who and for Torchwood.  His stories have been derided, mocked and disliked. He does not have the same respected reputation as writers such as RTD, Moffat, Holmes, Whittaker, Banks-Stewart or Dicks.  Disillusioned fans were afraid.

Once the appointment of Chibnall had been announced, the rumor mill began to gear up.  Who would be the thirteenth Doctor?

Up until the reveal of the new Doctor, Chibnall began to release bits of information regarding his plans for the future of the series.  Fandom as a whole, again, tried to stay positive and open-minded, but the contingent of disillusioned fans began to worry in light of statements made by Chibnall regarding how he wanted to make major changes to the series.

When it finally came time to reveal the thirteenth Doctor, and it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker had been picked to play the part—confirming that the new Doctor would be female—social media had a major meltdown.  Fandom went into a frenzy.  Never before had a casting reveal so polarized fandom.  Both sides of the discussion—positive and negative—went crazy.  It was fan against fan.

No matter what side of the argument you’re on, you have to admit Whittaker’s casting caused a major debate in fandom.  Those who were against her casting and giving the Doctor a sex change were labelled chauvinist, misogynistic, sexist and old-fashioned, while those who were for her casting were labelled as radical feminists, male-hating and part of the SJB (Social Justice Brigade). Fans were expected to choose a side.  You had to be either for the change or against it.  Many did choose sides, but there was also a large portion of fandom in the middle trying to keep the peace and remain level-headed—something which many gave up trying to do as it proved to be a losing battle.  Both sides believed they were correct in their opinions, and they made sure everyone knew about it.

If I may be allowed at this point to interject my personal feelings on the subject, I’ll be honest with you dear reader, that I wasn’t pleased when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the new Doctor.  Like many of you out there reading this, I have to admit I was taken by surprise—shocked.  I know there had been talk about making the next Doctor female for several years, but I never really thought the show’s producers would actually do it.  I have to say, I wasn’t happy at all with the decision.  But my dissatisfaction with the producers’ choice had nothing to do with the fact that Whittaker was cast.  I’ve never seen Broadchurch or any other program Whittaker has been in, so I can’t really attest to whether she is a good actress or not.  I have no personal opinion on her one way or another.

Looking back to that time and re-examining how I felt, I think what upset me most was the fact that they were making the thirteenth Doctor female.  I objected to this drastic change to the character on the grounds that, beyond a few flippant remarks made in the last three to five years which I don’t believe were ever intended to be taken seriously, in the 55-year history of the series, up until 2010, there had been no proof that Time Lords could change their sex.  (It has only been under Stephen Moffat’s tenure as showrunner that it was intimated that this was possible—see “The Doctor’s Wife, Hell Bent” and “Night of the Doctor.”  These instances had more to do with Moffat screwing around with the series concept than retaining 47 years of confirmed fact.) For me, the character of the Doctor is an alien male.  Always has been; always will be.

As to female Time Lords, there have been numerous over the years including Susan, Romana, Chancellor Flavia, Rodan, the Rani, River Song and others.  All great, fabulous and outstanding characters in their own right.

Now before you start sending me emails by the dozens, hear me out.

I would say I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the character of the Doctor and to Doctor Who overall.  I prefer the original 1963-89 series to the modern series.  I haven’t been happy with some of the changes made to the Doctor’s character in recent years, and I’ll be the first to admit that much of the Moffat era was pure crap.  I can’t help thinking—why screw around with the show’s format?  It’s worked successfully for the past 55 years.  Why change the sex of the Doctor?  If you wanted a show about a female Time Lord, why not bring back Romana or create an all-new series centering on the travels of a female Time Lord?  There is nothing wrong with strong female characters on television—we need to see more of these.  In fact there have been many on television in recent years who are admired and respected by both male and female viewers such as Agent Peggy Carter (Agent Carter), Alicia Florrick (The Good Wife), Buffy Summers (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Dr. Julia Ogden (Murdoch Mysteries), Phryne Fisher (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) and more.

I think children should have strong role models.  I don’t care what gender they are as long as they are a positive force in a child’s life.  So, yes, children watching Doctor Who should be shown positive examples of humanity, that it isn’t wrong to be kind and do things to make the world a better place.  But that’s not reason enough to radically alter the make-up of a fictional character.

Series 11 came and went for me.  I have not seen it, and I have no interest in seeing it.  In fact, this is the first time since 1981 I haven’t seen or eagerly awaited a new season of the show.  While the debate over the first female actress to play Doctor Who will continue for quite some time yet, my disinterest in the show has been a-brewing for several years now.  I attributed my increasing dislike of much of the Moffat era to my growing dissatisfaction.  For me, it’s not the show I grew to love and couldn’t miss anymore.  I’ve lost interest.  If you’re still watching, good for you.  I’m glad that you’re enjoying it and still watching.  There is a great deal to enjoy in Doctor Who, and it has always been must-see TV.  But for this fan, I’ve come to the realization it’s just not my cup of tea at this time.  Maybe in a few years, I’ll start watching again—I don’t know.  I do know that while I may not be watching new seasons for now, I still remain a fan of the show, and I still find immense enjoyment from watching the original series.

Article by Bob Furnell