Image Description: Jodie Whittaker, Regina King, Amandla Stenberg, Chloe Bennet and Camila Mendes at a SDCC 2018 Comic Con Panel
By Georgia Harper
After eight months of hype, the reality of Series 11 finally came in October. As with any new series, it wasn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. For some, the new flaws overshadowed the new strengths, while others talked for months on end about how it wasn’t as good as whichever era they coincidentally grew up with – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That said, I found it much harder to enjoy the discourse this time round. Particularly towards the second half of Series 11, I often found myself more nervous about the reaction to the episodes than excited about them. Make of that what you will, but it’s little wonder when you consider that this was the debut of the first female Doctor, and the not insignificant number of people who were against her from the very beginning.
Let’s start with the outright sexists, who take precious time out of their day to angry-react every Facebook post, and push online review scores down for episodes yet to air. They tend to declare themselves as “not sexist but,” before coming out with “ditch the bitch.” They might paste Jodie Whittaker’s face on a cartoon dog, or even attack the nine-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer on Children in Need who said she preferred Whittaker to the “boy Doctors”. It need not even be as obvious as that. As any woman in any fandom will know, you need to demonstrate proof of having consumed and memorised every morsel of relevant media before you’re allowed an opinion. So imagine my amusement when I saw all those who would usually mock women referring to the character as “Doctor Who” suddenly understanding all the nuances around that name as soon as Whittaker alluded to knowing it’s not usually “Doctor Who” in an interview. The gender of a lead actor in a TV show is hardly the most pressing feminist issue in the world, but if these people are so angered by a programme where only 13 of the 14 leads are male, I dread to think what they’d make of an actual human woman in a position of power.
And while the online trolls can (and should) be muted and blocked, this doesn’t stop other, more influential, media outlets capitalising on their narrative. This is most apparent in the narrative around Doctor Who’s ratings, which, like a diablo, seem to have discovered how to fall upwards. Whilst ratings did drop over the course of the series to a low of 6.42 million for It Takes You Away, this is still higher than nearly all of Series 9 and 10. Don’t believe me? Aside from the Christmas Specials, which always have high ratings, only the series openers (The Magician’s Apprentice/The Pilot), and the star power of Maisie Williams (The Girl Who Died) were sufficient to overtake this figure. Despite this, the articles about ratings worries were going viral before even the halfway point; from the outset, there’s always something more to prove. Many of these used The Woman Who Fell To Earth, which almost reached 11 million viewers, as their benchmark, in an oddly literal case of women being held to a higher standard! You know, that episode where many of those who aren’t regular viewers tuned in out of curiosity and hype around the first female Doctor. Of course, as Series 10’s diminished audience demonstrates, ratings don’t equal quality; but to point that out only after bemoaning the ratings is more than a little insincere.
Likewise, commentary detailing a “backlash” over “forced diversity” and “political correctness” seemed in some cases to have been virtually pre-written. Because apparently it’s so unbelievable that anyone other than white men would be there on their own merits? A memorable example of this was Twitter’s Moment for the #DoctorWho hashtag following Demons of the Punjab, which was captioned “Doctor Who’s historical approach divides viewer opinion”. This was particularly odd when, at least at first glance, it was far more well-received than The Tsuranga Conundrum the previous week. Indeed, closer inspection revealed the compilation of top tweets to be entirely positive. Seven days later, Kerblam! turned out to be one of the most divisive episodes of the series, yet mysteriously escaped the same treatment. It’s almost as if stirring up racism and anti-diversity narratives makes people click…
Thankfully, with most of the fandom now having progressed from “The Doctor is a woman?!” to actually discussing the substance of episodes, it’s easy to forget about the misogynists, or at least, that’s what I’ve heard from those outside the target range. On the other hand, this means it’s also easy to forget how big a step it was for Chris Chibnall to cast Jodie Whittaker in the first place – though that doesn’t let him off the hook for the more questionable decisions around representation later on.. Would Whittaker’s Doctor have been better written under Steven Moffat, as some have suggested? Maybe so, but when Moffat could have chosen to make that scenario a reality, he instead chose to joke about how the Queen should be played by a man. Not that I’d wish away the Capaldi era (or indeed the wider Moffat era) for a second, but throwaway lines like that really highlight how far we’ve come in the space of a few years.
Unfortunately, the sexism is still visible enough that some equate it with criticism, setting up a divide not between hardcore fans and hardcore critics but between hardcore fans and completely disingenuous trolls. At best, this does a massive disservice to the critics. At worst, it legitimises misogyny and hatred as “part of a debate” – the above set-up of a divide tends to be followed by “both sides are as bad as each other”, as if one side wasn’t a reflection and amplification of structural inequality and oppression. It also means that every mention of the misogyny has to be followed up with endless repetition that “yes, it’s okay to criticise the series”; “yes, I know not all criticism is sexist.” Suddenly, the focus has shifted towards that criticism and away from the topic at hand, which is distinctly not what being a critic is.
That said, it doesn’t help matters that a vocal minority of genuine critics persist to the point of resorting to regular reminders they disliked this series, devoid of context or indeed, content. Coupled with a wider Twitter culture in which arguments are encouraged, and it’s cool to dislike popular media, this ends up being carried with such a glee – however unconscious, however unintentional – that it becomes almost indistinguishable from the wider misogynists.
There is, of course, a lot to criticise about Series 11, even leaving aside subjective matters of taste. The promised LGBT characters “from across the spectrum” were rapidly killed off with unnerving consistency, with Richard in Resolution having just 28 seconds between appearing, mentioning his boyfriend, and then being murdered. Yaz, meanwhile, was often sidelined in favour of Graham and Ryan, and Grace didn’t even last a full episode before dying to further the development of her male relatives (fridging). Particularly held up as problematic, and understandably so, is Kerblam!, which set up a robust takedown of an Amazon stand-in only to instead attack, er, one of its exploited workers instead. This prompted a social media revival of some of the more anti-capitalist – and brilliant – lines from Peter Capaldi’s time in the role. As enjoyable as this is, it’s frustrating to see the Twelfth Doctor framed as entirely unproblematic in comparison to his apparently irredeemable successor. I’d rather focus on the many things I enjoyed about the previous era too, but when you’re using the previous era to attack the current one it’s disingenuous to gloss over the frequent insults aimed at Clara’s appearance (see Into the Dalek and Listen), the episode that garnered attention from Oxford Students For Life for its anti-abortion parallels (Kill The Moon) and the literal sexual assault going unnoticed (Dark Water). This isn’t a zero-sum game. When it comes to treating people with respect, the higher standard to which Whittaker’s Doctor is being held can only be a good thing. It’s interesting, though, to see what is considered unforgivable and what is explained away or forgotten altogether – the latter category often ending up full of issues which predominantly affect women.
It has also been rather striking to see how much discussion has focused on whether the Doctor “really feels like the Doctor”, even beyond The Woman Who Fell To Earth. Does she have the gravitas? Is she too generic? Too different? Too jokey? Too serious? Some have highlighted that the first female Doctor being more passive serves to reinforce gender stereotypes. I’d add that the first female Doctor being a flawless heroine would also have served to reinforce gender stereotypes, but that’s what happens when you only have one incarnation representing women in 55 years. The Doctor has encompassed a huge range of personalities over the years, but this one is expected – again – to prove something more first. These days, my three least favourite words on Twitter aren’t “Not My Doctor” but “for some reason”, as in “I just can’t see her as the Doctor, for some reason… she’s not there yet, for some reason…”. Perhaps we should all reflect a little more on what those mysterious reasons we just can’t quite put our finger on might be…
We relentlessly scrutinise Doctor Who because we love it and we want the show to be the best it can be, even if we can’t agree on what that means. It’s a shame to see that big conversation tainted, both consciously or not, by the biases and assumptions that would inevitably surround the first female Doctor. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective, to discuss and debate away as we always would, to ensure that the misogynists don’t take over the conversation entirely.
Oh, and remember to keep in mind that the young girls finally getting to see themselves in the hero really don’t care one jot what we boring old grown-ups think.