Monday, 17 July 2017

So...A Female Doctor. #DoctorWho13

There's been a huge explosion on social media since the reveal of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who yesterday. Much of that is a fuss about nothing, of course - ultimately, it's just a TV show. To many, though, the reality is that it's very much more than that. When something is that much of a fixture in the life of a lifelong fan, that emotional link matters to them. It matters to me, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. People care, and they have every right to care. Still, we should, I think, keep it all in some kind of perspective - the nastiness being flung in all direction is pointless nonsense.

Where do I stand on the introduction of a female actor in the role? Well, I'm certainly not with those celebrating it as some kind of revolutionary breakthrough - a moment in TV history to be seen as a landmark for equality. I don't buy that at all, in fact. In some ways, I think it's quite the opposite, though that is not my only objection. Oh, I know that will get me condemned on social media as a 'dinosaur' and a 'misogynist', and all of the other accusations that are being thrown around, including by supposedly liberal people, at anyone who dares to hold an alternative opinion for any reason (it's actually been one of the worst social media outpourings of insulting behaviour based on simplistic assumptions that I've ever seen coming from normally thoughtful 'liberal' people!). I've never been shy of standing up for what I believe, though, and I'm not about to start now, even if that wins me a torrent of entirely wrongly-aimed insults.

My first problem with this is that it looks and feels like a bit of a publicity stunt 'cop out' - an easy route to saying 'look - equality' without really having to think too hard. This is the kind of thing that seems to have been a trend for some years in various ways in a number of different artistic and dramatic fields - changing surface appearances rather than having to go to the trouble of breaking truly new artistic ground or having to go to the trouble of really inventive textual exploration of scripts and characters.

Take Jonathan Miller's 1980s production of the Mikado, for example. In that production, what was 'new' was really just a matter costumes and sets - largely a simple exercise in 'hey, let's set this thing set in Japan not really in Japan'. The Mikado (setting aside some of the accusations of 'racism', which I think are largely a misunderstanding of what it is all about, though there were clearly some lines in the original text that are unacceptable) actually has a fine script, with lots of space for interpretation (despite being stifled for three quarters of a century by the vice-like grip of the D'Oyly Carte company rules) - Gilbert knew how to produce characters, even in such a light and humorous work, that could exist on many levels, and could have many different interpretations and emphases drawn out by clever direction and acting within the confines of the existing text and setting. You could, for example, change the way that Nanki Poo is played to make him firmly the villain of the piece, without changing a single line - that would dramatically alter the relationships between characters, and reveal a whole new aspect to the work. There are many other such ideas that could be pursued to produce the same work in an entirely different light. They chose not to explore any of that, though, and instead make their 'artistic statement' with a bit of a cosmetic overhaul that really just ignored the basic premise of the work's setting for no apparent reason. That kind of thing doesn't really 'freshen up' a piece, in my opinion - it is merely change for the sake of change - a kind of 'faux artiness' that doesn't really contribute to shedding different or additional light, and doesn't draw anything new out of the plot and characters.

Don't even start me on the 'faux artiness' of Quentin Tarantino, by the way, and the use of silly devices like editing out of sequence and slow motion depictions of graphic violence to cover for the lack of basic plot, script or characterisation.

In the case of Doctor Who, there could have been so much done in terms of the existing, original premise of the work without resorting to this kind of obvious publicity stunt. The relationship of the Doctor with any given 'companion' is something that has unlimited scope. What we could have had was a truly strong new (or even 're-discovered' previous) female character - for example, one to whom the Doctor himself effectively became the 'companion' or 'assistant'. It's very easy to do without having to mess with the basic story and characters, and could certainly give plenty of opportunity to explore concepts like gender roles and stereotyping - bringing back Romana in a new 21st century form would be the most obvious way, of course. That would have been a really interesting new dynamic to create dramatically. Likewise on the villain side - the Master regenerating into 'Missy' was just an obvious attempt to push forward the idea that Timelords regenerate in that way, despite the fact that this never seems to have happened or been mentioned before (and Missy turning out to be the Rani would have been more interesting, too, and added extra characters to play with). It was a re-writing of the existing underlying characterisations specifically in order to create the circumstances for a female Doctor, not for any actual dramatic reason or gain within the context of the show. It all feels contrived to me, as if it is just an attempt to make a cheap statement rather than a genuine dramatic device for plot purposes.

And that is really the point - they have allowed a publicity stunt to make a point to guide the story and characters, rather than allowing the drama to take the lead in addressing the concepts that they wanted to address in a way that fitted within the pre-existing context. I don't think that's ever a good idea. The exact same point about equality could have been made more effectively by creating a new strong female character, rather than just inventing a contrived way to make an existing male character female for no dramatic purpose. It feels forced and contrived, and I don't think the cause of feminism is well served by saying 'OK - we'll let a woman do it' rather than creating a new strong female character with a different dramatic relationship with the existing characters.

In order for the drama to lead, I think you need to ask questions of what you are thinking of doing dramatically. 'Is it necessary or helpful?', for example. Is it actually of particular dramatic benefit to do what you are doing with the story. In this case, I don't believe it is. This is a science fiction series, not a soap opera. That's not meant to be insulting in any way towards the soap opera genre - quite the opposite. In that scenario, there is the scope to deal dramatically and at length with issues like sexuality, gender transition, equality, and many other important issues in modern society. They can be explored at length from multiple perspectives in story-lines that last for many years. Soap operas have done great work in dealing with a number of such issues with great sensitivity, and raising awareness of them in wider society. They have been hugely important, but, to be frank, if you want to make a soap opera or serious exploratory drama series, go and make those things - don't try to turn something else into something it isn't to satisfy that urge.

That leads me on to another issue - what I like to call 'the Cagney and Lacey effect' in long-running TV shows. Cagney and Lacey was, in its own time and in its own way, a truly ground-breaking TV show. A police action series that was firmly led by strong female characters, and dealt with equality and discrimination issues within that scenario extremely effectively (for its time - it was 'of its time' to a certain extent, of course, as everything is). The problem, though, was that as it went on it began to lose sight of its own purpose - what had been an effective dramatic device for dealing with those issues through a medium of the action series became more and more a soap opera about the lives of the characters, and as it went further and further into domestic issues it not only became considerably less good as a show to watch, but it also undid some of its own good work by gradually returning to bits of old stereotyping about domestic relationships between genders and so on. Where it has once been an effective vehicle for challenging ideas in a way that would naturally 'bring people along', it began to force ideas down their throats by gradually removing the original premise of the show (and the reason people began to watch it in the first place), and then even began to create a counter-productive counter-narrative to its own good early work on the issues of gender equality and stereotyping.

This drift from original purpose towards a form 'character development' directly at the expense of that purpose something we've begun to see in the NuWho era. True, the original 'monster a week' format allowed relatively little scope for character development, and there was space to shift the balance slightly. In the early days it did that, but then began at times to drift further down that road into explorations that weren't relevant, dramatically useful, or really working within the context of the original premise of the show. We began to see threads of love story and back story for the Doctor, which was OK in small doses as an aside to the main action, but seemed to creep ever more into the forefront to the point where it relegated the original purpose of the show into (sometimes a seemingly quite distant) second place. There is, I think, a serious danger of 'Cagney and Lacey' effect - the show losing sight of what it actually fundamentally is, and morphing into something else entirely. The essence of drama is conflict, but the real conflict in this case should generally be between the Doctor and his 'enemy' - it's becoming more and more between the Doctor and himself and his companions on a personal relationships level, and that is really a different show.

I could wax lyrical here on the last few series, and them being, in my opinion, mostly been below par, and often devoid of really good, inventive ideas. We've even lapsed into what seem to be purely 'magical' things (the point of scifi is to at least attempt some form of 'pseudo science', not to fall back on pure 'magical' impossibility - if you want magic, that's what the fantasy genre is usually all about), and them being defeated purely because 'love'. There have been some good scripts in terms of dialogue, but much of the plot invention and story-telling has been pretty dire. Peter Capaldi has been an OK doctor in some ways, but he could and should have been so much better - he's an excellent actor, and we had the new (for NuWho) 'device' of an 'older' doctor regeneration to explore. They didn't bother to explore it at all, really, and just made him the same jumpy around 'young' character as Tennant and Smith had been, but with added wrinkles (and occasional cheap gag lines on that basis).

And that is another thing that worries me about the idea of a female Doctor - we haven't explored the idea of an 'older' Doctor in any meaningful dramatic way during the time of the latest incarnation, so can we expect a female Doctor to be any different? Let's face it, in the 'Master meets Missy' scenario the scripts actually fell back on cheap nob gags - that might be 'new' for Doctor Who, but I'll make no apology for saying that I don't think it's the right direction for the series to be heading. In a dramatic sense, aside from the 'beyond the 4th wall' issues, is this just going to be an excuse for throwing in a bunch of one-liners about gender? I fear that it might be, and I don't see how that helps to advance the cause of equality.

And 'equality' is an important term here - gender is certainly not the only equality issue, but it is an issue that has required a pretty serious rewrite to the back story to allow for it to be dealt with in this unsatisfactory way, and for no particular dramatic purpose within the context of the whole ongoing story. There were other issues that could and should have been explored in a less disruptive and incoherent way, without need for the kind of ignoring of previous backstory that gender change required.

It all feels like a cosmetic change for publicity purposes rather than a genuine will for fresh dramatic exploration. There are so many things that could have been done in terms of the character of the doctor through this NuWho era, but they've not been done. Eccleston was a genuinely new kind of Doctor, but ever since they have been very much variations on a theme - that has limited the scope for character development, and got us to where we are. I just don't feel that simplistic gender change is a substitute for real in-depth consideration of dramatic relationships and character development.

And that is the basis of my issue with this casting - it's not because I think women aren't equal, or that only men can act in leading roles, or anything of that sort. It just feels like a really, really lazy option created by the desire to make a public statement without there being any real textual or dramatic reason for it. In other words, to use a rather provocative term, it feels 'token' - almost as if they haven't bothered to create a strong new female character, and have fallen back on an easy, contrived solution in the hope that one happens by default and everyone shuts up about all this equality business. I'm not suggesting that's how they see it themselves, of course, but it just feels like the desire to be provocative in society with a big headline now has overridden the desire to do the job properly with by creating strong female role-model characters (in Doctor Who and elsewhere).

Now of course those who say 'well it can be done within the story' are correct, certainly since they contrived to alter the story to make sure that it could be done a couple of years in advance. On the other hand, you could easily have a CGI Jar Jar Binks Doctor within the story, if you turn the Master into a rubbery big-eared alien thing first - that doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do, or has any dramatic benefit or justification. Indeed, the Doctor could easily have his 'life force' inserted into the circuits of the shooty dog thing, if Timelords were suddenly said to have special life force personality memory things that could be magically locked away in pocket watches or something (oh....wait.....!). The question should not be 'can it be done', but 'should it be done dramatically', and 'does it need to be done dramatically', and 'does it add potential value dramatically' - personally I'm not sure that my answer to any of those questions would be 'yes'.

Another example that's been cited by some on social media is that of the Ghostbusters remake using an all female lead cast, in the sense of 'those who don't like this probably hated that too because misogyny'. Well in a sense they are correct - I didn't like that either. I didn't like it because it was a classic film that didn't need to be remade, and I didn't like it because the remake was significantly less good than the original anyway. That was nothing to do with the women being in it. And that is perhaps the crux of the whole matter - what the creative world needs to be doing to truly advance equality (which is something they should be doing, like everyone else) is writing strong new characters, not simply rehashing old ones and using existing ones by making them female as if that somehow makes women 'equal'. It doesn't. It merely makes them 'fit to step into shoes vacated by men', and that really isn't the same thing at all. It's an easy artistic cop out to create a few headlines that I believe actually does almost nothing to advance the cause of real equality, and especially not to advance the cause of real equality within the industry itself (which is something that still desperately needs to be addressed).

Finally (almost), I'd like to make one thing very clear. I don't agree with this casting decision, as I'm sure you've worked out if you've got this far, and I don't think it's been done for the right reasons at all (although I certainly agree that it's probably been done with the best of intentions). That doesn't mean I'm going to 'go off on one', and proclaim that 'I'll never watch Doctor Who again', or whatever - I will give this new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance, as I have given every previous new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance (whatever my reservations about them, and whatever conclusion I have ultimately come to about them in the end). As I said in the first paragraph, it matters to me - it's been a fixture of my life from my earliest memories (Tom Baker era, in case you were wondering!), and I've been watching it avidly ever since (whenever it's been on, at least!). I'm not going to cut that out of my life just because I don't like the choice of new Doctor (hell, if I haven't abandoned it because of the wobbly walls, wobbly rubber creatures and sometimes equally wobbly plots of the late McCoy era, or the way Moffat has treated it more recently, the reality is that I'll probably put up with almost anything!). As much as I'm a lifelong 'Whovian', I can keep it all in some kind of perspective with reference to real life. I'm not falling out with anyone or making this is into  bigger issue than it actually is (nor am I being a 'butthurt' 'crybaby', 'snowflake' or whatever!) - I'm entitled to my opinion and reasoning, though, as they are entitled to theirs.

I have my own opinion, but that isn't to say that some of those condemning this decision aren't doing so on the basis of simple misogyny, sexism and lack of imagination or tolerance for anything 'new' or 'different' - I'm sure that is the case for some, even though it certainly isn't the case for myself and some others. I will make one last observation, though - a number of those celebrating this as hailing some kind of great new era of televisual equality, while attacking anyone who dares to disagree with their view as just being 'misogynist dinosaurs' or whatever, seem to then be quietly admitting that they don't actually watch Doctor Who, or like Doctor Who at all, and never really have, and are never likely to, and really don't know or care much about the whole thing beyond this apparent 'victory for feminism' anyway. Do they actually care about the artistic integrity, the long term internal plot line coherency, or the dramatic value of the show itself? I guess I'll just leave you to decide for yourself about that.

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