Monday, 17 July 2017

Shifting sands and Doctor Who

Like shifting sands, assumptions that underlie a culture change as it moves through time. The change can happen so slowly it is hard to perceive, in individual minds adjusting, children accepting and rejecting their parents’ paradigms, understanding and disseminating ideas and assumptions, a sand dune moving grain by grain in the winds of change. After a while, if we are able to compare the present with past horizons, we can see the contours of the landscape are entirely rent.
--- Emma Restall Orr

And so breaking news has come of a female Doctor Who in the form of Jodie Whittaker.

My point of view is perhaps more detached than many, either fulsome in praise, or as you might expect from Ian Levine, shouting in anger.

That’s because my Hartnell, from the ages of 6 to 9, growing up, from the first, was William Hartnell. I watched him battle the Daleks, as well as all manner of other strange creatures, and he was Doctor Who, this wonderful, eccentric old man, who was the one fixed point. Susan left, then Ian and Barbara. New companions came and went, but the Doctor remained the same.

Until suddenly, he mutters, at the end of the encounter with the Cybermen, “this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin”, and collapses, and the screen flares, and suddenly there is this younger, shorter, darker haired stranger on the floor.

And yet, I think I liked this new Doctor from the first. I had vivid memories of his first Dalek story, of Polly about to be turned into a fish creature, and suddenly, he was very much the Doctor. Cleverly, his first outing had two familiar companions and Daleks.

But I could still revisit William Hartnell of course in those wonderful early novelisations published in hardback by Frederick Mueller – Dr Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton (much better than the TV serial), Dr Who and the Crusade by David Whitaker, (it may have been purely history, but it was Dr Who!), and my Armada paperback of “Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks” by David Whitaker again, priced 2 shillings and six pence, and the first Doctor Who Annual, probably written by Whitaker because the prose was so good.

And yet Troughton was my Doctor – the Monster Doctor – where there were Cybermen returning to scare you (behind the sofa, of course), Ice Warriors, Yeti, a Sea Weed creature, more Daleks, and finally the War Games with the Time Lords, and the end of his time.

But it was even more than today, a great chance the producers took. If the public had rejected Troughton’s Doctor, there would be no more Doctor Who. They had toyed with other ways of doing it – the Doctor becomes invisible in the Toymaker, and reappears with a different appearance, but pulled back at the last minute. It was a massive gamble: a change of lead actor.

And yet it worked, and set the template for the future.

And in time, Jon Pertwee became my Doctor, and Tom Baker, and Peter Davison, and Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, and then it died, until it was reborn in 2005.

This too is a different step like that of 1966, a change of gender for the Doctor, but I don’t think it is such a change now as that first change. For one thing, the climate is perhaps right now for a female Doctor, just as we had a female Master – Missy. Doctor, is however, a gender neutral term.

I still remember when there were the first TV police shows – Policewoman in the USA, Juliet Bravo and the Gentle Touch in the UK, which seemed groundbreaking, but now we would not think twice about a woman taking the lead in a police procedural or detective series. It no longer seems unusual.

The same is true of female newsreaders. Goodness, what a fuss was made when Angela Rippon and Anna Ford began on the main new channels – BBC’s 9 pm news, ITN’s News at Ten. Would we really bat an eyelid if we turned on the news today and it was a woman reading it, rather than a man. Of course, not, because society has changed. We have female news readers now, but it is no longer groundbreaking.

When women priests came in the Church of England, the Vicar of Dibley on TV addressed the groundbreaking move. But we have many women priests now, and even women Bishops, and outside a few conservative factions, it is now acceptable. The appointment of a woman Rector for St John was greeted with delight, and not with raised eyebrows.

A female Doctor Who is perhaps groundbreaking in some respects, but I’d venture to suggest that it is not as groundbreaking as it would have been back in the 1980s. In a way, the shifting sands have moved so much over the past decades, that far from being groundbreaking, it is almost a case of saying that the time is surely right for such a move, if not overdue.

[Incidentally first Script Editor, David Whitaker - one "t" - is not related to Jodie Whittaker, but it's a rather pleasing synergy]

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