Category: Doctor Who

Review: Doctor Who Christmas Special – Twice Upon a Time

The urge to indulge in long goodbyes proved too hard for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi and so we all got a Christmas special heavy on farewells. I wish they wouldn’t do this, it didn’t work for David Tennant and as much as I like Peter Capaldi, he’s had a shorter tenure and less impact on shaping the new version of the Doctor as a character. Aside from anything else, it has been a long-established character trait of the Doctor that he does his utmost to avoid long goodbyes.

Still, this was an episode that wasn’t short of ideas, jokes, references to old episodes and cameos but very short of a plot. David Bradley reprised his impersonation of the First Doctor that he’d deployed as William Hartnell in An Adventure in Time and Space to great effect. Pearl Mackie got another send-off as Bill Potts but no hint that she might reappear in the next series (no hint that she wouldn’t either).

I’d still would have preferred less obvious sentimentality and more story though.


The Name’s Who, James Who

As we are on the topic, let’s talk about James Bond* and Doctor Who. Along with Sherlock Holmes, these characters are the superheroes of British pop-culture: they exist independent of their stories, they are re-inventable and yet recognisable, and effectively have super powers.


With a woman cast to play Doctor Who people have cast around for suitable analogies for an equally significant change. As a new James Bond has not been cast and as Daniel Craig is moving on, comparisons with James Bond being cast as a woman have been made. I don’t think the comparison is apt.

Having said that I very much NOT saying it couldn’t be done or that it would be a mistake. Certainly, we’ve already had women cast successfully in similar super-spy roles of one kind or another. There is no reason why a ‘Bond Film’ (i.e. a film with the core elements of the movies and the same dramatic beats and set-pieces) couldn’t have a woman as the lead character. However, I think successfully creating a version of James Bond who was both a continuation of the character AND a woman would be a substantial challenge for both the actor and the writers in a way Doctor Who simply isn’t. Nor is that a reason NOT to do it – if anything it is a reason TO do it. Avoiding doing something because it would be difficult and challenging is not what James Bond would do, now is it?

So what’s the difference? Aside from one era, Doctor Who as a character has never been about ‘maleness’. Now by ‘maleness’, I mean a fiction – a fiction that comes out of a bigger fiction about society having two distinct gender roles. This isn’t to say both the show and the character hasn’t reflected social views of its day, including hefty heaps of casual sexism but they have not been central to the character.

The exception was (I believe) the Matt Smith/Stephen Moffat combination. I’m not rehashing all the various arguments about Moffat’s sexism or lack there of but rather a core element of his writing. Moffat’s comedy gold mine has been his particular view of the ‘battle of the sexes’ which in turn arises out of British TV comedy. Repeatedly (and it has to be said amusingly) Moffat has relied on a number of tropes/stereotypes around heterosexual romantic relationships:

  • Moffat men are emotionally illiterate
  • Moffat men are essentially big kids
  • Moffat men are infuriating to their partners
  • Moffat women are confusing to their partners
  • Moffat women are great and lovely etc but also hard to fathom
  • Moffat women are mercurial

Note I’m not saying this is Moffat’s actual view of human society but rather this is a formula he works into his comedy writing that has worked for him and with he applied to Doctor Who as well. He returns to it because it allows for a comedy of errors that feels modern and fresh but which rests on a very simple view of society. That doesn’t mean he never writes gay characters nor does anything in those trope force women into specific kinds of professions or wider social roles but it does shape how characters interact. So, in this sense, the Matt Smith Doctor had existing elements of the character emphasised so that the Doctor became a Moffat male comedy lead.** Ironically this kind of self-deprecating maleness is something that the assorted forces of misogyny currently howling about Jodie Whittaker becoming the Doctor, should be glad to see gone – while it emphasised a Mars v Venus dichotomy it was less then complimentary about maleness (yet still steeped in privilege i.e. men-are-a-bit-crap-but-you-should-love-them-and-find-their-faults-endearing).

Back to James Bond – unlike the Doctor, Bond has always been tied not just to attitudes of the day but also to a specific view of masculinity both as supposed ideal but also a wish-fulfilment. Bond is physically fit, strong and virile. He is rarely prone to self doubt, he is hyper-competent, he has excellent taste but is not pretentious, he is knowledgable but not intellectual, he understands women better than they understand themselves and so on. He is also a sexist pig.

More broadly he is also a kind of walking avatar of privilege. Even his iconic double-O code is a privilege: a license to kill. He does things and gets away with doing things. While he, himself is not rich nor politically powerful, he moves easily among the rich and powerful. Now, arguably the Doctor does all that as well but there is a dramatic difference. Bond is comfortable in the surroundings of wealth, power and authority and belongs to what is best described as the British military officer class (not necessarily rich or from an aristocratic family but familiar with that world). Both Bond and the Doctor might, in the course of their adventures, walk into a room full of military officers and boss them around, Bond is doing so in a way that doesn’t subvert of disrupt the existing order, whereas the Doctor does so subversively and in a way that requires suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Of course of the two it is the Doctor who is actually from a kind of aristocracy (i.e. a lord of sorts…) whereas Bond isn’t and arguably the Doctor’s tendency to disrupt and subvert the existing order of things (including everything from the chain of command to what genre the story is in) is also a kind of privilege.

Casting a woman as Doctor Who has been a long time coming but part of that, aside from the general lack of leading roles for women actors, is that it was never a truly radical change for Doctor Who in terms of its own structure and in terms of the character. The Doctor’s capacity to walk into any situation, any social structure or civilisation or organisational hierarchy and reshape things has never been based on him being a manly-man who people obey because he is so manly but rather has been on the basis of an implied super-power or psychic ability (in reality plot convenience that has become a character trait). Overtly sexist characters being discombobulated by the Doctor upending everything will be fun to watch but also quite in keeping with the various ways a ‘dandy and a clown’ have bossed around brigadiers and space monarchs.

Bond is a bigger challenge to recast as a woman precisely because privilege has been a core part of the character operating within environs in which racism and sexism is entrenched. However, that doesn’t imply it shouldn’t be done. The two Lovecraft themed Hugo 2017 finalist novellas demonstrate that there are rich creative possibilities in looking at existing fiction within which racism and sexism are deeply baked and looking at them with new perspectives. The challenges in recasting Bond as a woman are revealing in themselves, as indeed they would be if the character was cast as non-white. The issue is not his physical strength but the assumption that only a person with the right appearance and accent and gender is entitled to act that way in the circles he moves in. Of course, attempts have been made to update that setting – Timothy Dalton’s Bond was less promiscuous, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond retained the casual sexism but was cast with a formidable Judi Dench as his boss. More interestingly in terms of re-examining the character, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale played an agent called James Bond through most of the film but one who doesn’t adopt the sociopathic demeanour of James Bond until the end (with the classic them, and gun barrel animation only playing at the end of the film).

My point being, a woman Doctor is never going to be as interesting or as challenging to our view of the world as a woman James Bond would be – or indeed any James Bond that departs from white-male-British-military-caste. Casting a woman as James Bond forces people to think about how Bond has functioned as a character and how that relates to maleness not in terms of, say, physical strength but in terms of a character who can act with impunity because he acts on behalf of a monarchy, a military caste and British interests. These are all reasons for casting a woman as James Bond, simply because it would be a more interesting world if that happened.


*[throughout I’m referring primarily to the movie character rather than Ian Fleming’s character or later written versions]
**[I think the Clara/Danny Pink relationship may have been an intentional attempt by Moffat to reverse and subvert his own tropes, with Danny often taking the emotionally more sophisticated and long term perspective of the relationship. Moffat has many faults but he does change.]

A woman being cast as Doctor Who is so traumatic that it causes a science-fiction author to forget when he was born

How powerful is a work of art? Can it inspire awe or merely amusement? Does its presence cause a lasting cultural impact or is it some minor fad, soon forgotten amid the new season’s schedules?

With Doctor Who we can see the sudden and immediate impact. Take this experimental subject – a 55-year-old male from the United States who works as a professional science fiction writer:

“I read that the 13th Doctor is slated to be female. Well, I have had enough. In the last few years, Thor is a girl, Wolverine is a girl, Hawkeye is a girl, Vision is a girl, Hulk is a girl,Iron Man is a girl, The Question is a girl. These are not merely female sidekicks or variations, as when Batgirl or Supergirl don a costume to help out. These are replacements for the male meant to erase the masculinity from the name brand.

I have been a fan of Dr Who since age seven, when Tom Baker was the Doctor. I have tolerated years of public service announcements in favor of sexual deviance that pepper the show. But this is too much to tolerate.

The BBC has finally done what The Master, the Daleks and the Cybermen have failed to do. They killed off the Doctor. Dr. Who is dead to me.”

The sudden shift in perspective has apparently caused a subjective loss of ten years of memories and/or a radical shift in the space-time vortex and/or the author jumping to the often confused continuity of UNIT.

Or…maybe it was a typo and John C Wright meant “seventeen”, as 1978 fits with both Tom Baker and the show airing on PBS in the US. I prefer the other explanation though.

The Doctor Who/Star Wars crossover movies

We now have enough for a list:

I think that’s it – less than you would imagine given the heavy use of British actors in Star Wars.

[ETA: aside from the many examples below, I also forgot that the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) was also a wizard along with Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in the Hobbit movies]

And the next Doctor is…

Jodie Whittaker

Not somebody on my list but fits the casting habits of Chris Chibnall the new showrunner. Chibnall who had worked on Doctor Who and show-ran Torchwood, had a habit of casting Doctor Who actors in other shows he was involved in (Law and Order: UK, Broadchurch). Consequently, there was some chance that it would be an actor who was in Broadchurch who might be the next Doctor. I was keen for it to be Marianne Jean-Baptiste but apparently not.

For SF fans, Whittaker most notable SF work was Samantha, a nurse who gets mugged and who is then caught up in the alien invasion of a London council estate.

A not-to-adventurous choice. Some quarters (e.g. our old pal Vox Day) are complaining that casting a [gasp] woman will ruin a show they don’t watch. I’m more worried about where Chibnall will take the show than the gender of the actor but a casting decision that suggests some originality is a hopeful sign.

Review: The Doctor Falls

I was tense mainly because the show’s track record with two-parters had been so poor. The episode was not flawless – in particular some dialogue was rushed and some reveals under-explained but…all the main cast got some great opportunities to shine.

Pearl Mackie was excellent again. Bill has repeatedly been under used as a character and given really shitty situations over and over but Mackie has given the character great depth and emotional range. In this episode split between her self-perception as herself and the reality that she is a cyberman, she managed both humour and pathos in a way that gave the role great humanity. Given that she had to compete with Michelle Gomez, John Simm and Peter Capaldi doing some tremendous speechifying, it is even more extraordinary that her performance stood out.

Much of the episode had a kind of twisted take on the post-apocalyptix zombie film but without zombies. On the next floor up from the industrial cyberman world we saw last episode is an agrarian level. The small number of farmers (apparently all the farms keep their kids in a single farm house) are menaced oon a regular basis by the most basic hospital-gown cybermen.

Into this setting come, the two versions of the Master (Harold Saxon & Missy), a wounded Doctor, Nardole and Bill-as-a-Cyberman. Things only get worse and more desperate from there as the episode gets bleaker and bleaker.

The ending…

Well, without spoiling things Bill’s deus-ex-machina salvation is both clever and trope subverting. It gives a nice end to her misused character but leaves open the possibility of a return.

Meanwhile the other ending…well fake out regenerations have become so over used that any tensions from them has gone. Even so, a very clever end.



Review: Doctor Who – World Enough and Time

I’ll start with the problems:

  1. The trailers spoiled what was a cleverly done slow reveal of the baddies. So we all knew John Simm was coming back to play the master and that the classic Mondasian Cybemen were going to appear.
  2. Pearl Mackie put in another tremendous performance but once again Bill had to die-but-not really to give the Doctor something to do. As an actor Mackie is getting opportunities to shine in a role that is easily overshadowed but as a character Bill is being treated badily by the scripts. I do hope she continues into next season.

Yeah but, this was very good. Lots of great concepts including a spaceship on the edge of black hole with huge time differences between the top and the bottom. This sciency enough idea was well integrated into the whole story – allowing Bill’s stay in the creepy body-horror hospital to last for years while the Doctor spends a few minutes on exposition and trying to get into the elevator at the other end of the ship.

Michelle Gomez has been somewhat more restrained as Missy this series but got to have more fun this episode. Mocking the basic tropes of the series (including the role of the ‘companion’ and the real name of the Doctor) added more levity to what was a very dark episode.

Good solid science fiction but will the curse of the two-parter strike next week?