As Doctor Who changes sex, our TV critic asks why ARE all the male TV heroes disappearing – and argues PC casting just masks pay inequality...
PERHAPS it’s my age, but there are some things I don’t feel happy discussing with a female doctor, and saving the world is one of them. The announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the new incarnation of Doctor Who, replacing Peter Capaldi, has dealt another politically correct blow to a TV show that was once simply a children’s favourite.
The news was revealed with a brief, wordless clip after the Wimbledon men’s finals, as an androgynous hooded figure walked through a wood. The camera zoomed in on a small, certainly female hand, holding a key – and as the signature sound of the Tardis echoed, the figure removed her hood . . . revealing Jodie with a blonde hairdo. The new protector of the galaxy dyes her hair, apparently.
Whittaker, 35, an outstanding classical actress who trained at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, made her professional debut at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. She has drawn critical acclaim for everything from period drama (Cranford) to movie blockbusters (One Day).
And Doctor Whittaker was immediately hailed online as evidence that women have achieved complete equality to men. If an actress can seize telly’s top role, surely there can be nothing in the entire universe that the female sex cannot do.
Well, not quite. To the BBC’s embarrassment, top salaries across the organisation will be published later this week, and the numbers are expected to reveal a serious discrepancy between the earnings of its top male and female presenters. Women at the Beeb are equal in all things, except where it really matters – in the wages department. Yes, girls, of course you can fly the Tardis... just don’t imagine you’ll be paid the same.
LIKE the Labour Party, the Beeb loves to wave the banner for equality. But it’s feminism for effect – serious commitment is lacking if you’re not paying female presenters as handsomely as the men.
There is, of course, no limit to the BBC’s dedication to PC causes. The Doctor spent much of the last series campaigning for gay rights across the solar system with his short-lived lesbian companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie), intent on turning the sci-fi adventure serial into a sermon on gender fluidity.
Don’t expect this to stop now that a woman is in charge. Never mind a police box – this new Doctor’s Tardis should be a soapbox. And that means Doctor Who, which has been steadily shedding its audience, is speeding towards its own doom – and the black hole of cancellation.
The move heaps pressure on other TV and movie producers to be ostentatiously feminist. Already it’s rare to see a British detective show with a male lead: Unforgotten, Happy Valley, Fearless, The Loch and Marcella are just a few of the police dramas with women at the forefront, as was Broad- church – the series that propelled Whittaker to fame.
Crime serials are often best with female stars. It’s impossible to imagine The Killing or The Bridge without their heroines. But if that means it is impossible to create a new Morse or Poirot, television becomes very much the poorer.
In almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings with a vicious streak. Characters fall into two distinct categories: women good, men bad. Switching the Doctor’s gender is just another example of this endemic sexism in TV fiction.
Even in telly’s most unlikely fantasies, the women rule while the men crawl. Game Of Thrones returns today with a woman on the Iron Throne, and another coming to claim it. The world of Westeros is now a femocracy.
All this forces TV into narrow alleyways of story-telling, constrained by what is politically acceptable. Imagination is stifled when drama is forced to conform to ‘socially appropriate’ ideals.
TV writers and film-makers who defy the trend will be condemned as sexist dinosaurs – and in this era of Twitter hate-mobs, that can be deeply unpleasant. Many will simply give in, and submit the same pre-approved plots about dauntless single mothers beset by psychopathic males.
The latest series of Broadchurch was a case in point: every man was fatally flawed, and most were sexual monsters. It’s telling that Broadchurch was written and created by Chris Chibnall – the man who now controls Doctor Who.
And Whittaker was not the only Broadchurch actress tipped to play the Time Lord – so were Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Olivia Colman, both friends of Chibnall.
But the problem of PC casting is far more widespread than that. No hero is safe, however long he’s been around. A new version of Dracula is promised on the BBC – what’s the betting the bloodsucker will be more vamp than vampire, a Princess of Darkness... Draculette? When Daniel Craig turns in his licence to kill, already there is incessant speculation that 007 status will be conferred on a Jemima Bond.
But as every parent knows, children are a deeply conservative audience. They cannot abide changes to much-loved characters. Father Christmas cannot be Mother Christmas, just as the Tooth Fairy is never a boy. And, of course, children need positive role models – male as well as female.
If all the men on TV are rapists and villains, how does that help?
Transforming the Doctor into a woman will not please a single viewer under the age of ten. This decision has been imposed solely for the adults.
Sadly, Doctor Who has been ravaged and wrung out in the name of political correctness for too long to be salvageable.
Departing producer Steven Moffat, who liked to call himself the ‘showrunner’, could never decide whether to appeal to middle-aged fans who treated classic Who episodes as holy scripture, or young newcomers who wanted scares and slapstick.
The result was a wretched mess, with a Doctor who wore sunglasses and played electric guitar like a drunken accountant at a school reunion. Comedian Matt Lucas hammed it up as sidekick Nardole, but the show’s time slot zigzagged violently, sometimes going out after the 9pm watershed and at other times shortly after tea.
Viewers endured interminable stories about the wickedness of British Empire Redcoats, and the purity of student same-sex crushes. Hardly surprising that Capaldi looked bored to tears, and admitted earlier this year that the role, one he had coveted all his career, had turned out to be a sad disappointment.
IT’S a miserable decline for a much-loved TV treasure. When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2006 with Christopher Eccleston, 10million young (and young-at-heart) viewers were agog with excitement at the Doctor’s adventures. The monsters were scary, the plots intricate without being nonsensical. And the only concession to political correctness was Eccleston’s earthy Mancunian accent, the polar opposite of the plummy diction favoured by previous Doctors Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee.
‘If you’re an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?’ demanded Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler. ‘Lots of planets have a north!’ retorted the Time Lord.
Pithy, witty and irreverent, dialogue like that has long been absent from the show – replaced by earnest exchanges in which Capaldi’s Doctor preached to Bill about transgender politics, and claimed that his own species was superior to human beings, because all Time Lords were cross-sexual.
At least you know where you are with a Dalek (or maybe they’ll soon be female, too, with little metal tutus). Little wonder the audience drifted away, leaving the show struggling to attract 5million viewers.
When the series was first conceived in the early Sixties, starring William Hartnell as the irascible First Doctor, the BBC had a more patriotic agenda. This was the new era of science and technology, and Britain was in danger of falling behind.
Doctor Who was intended to inspire a generation of young fans to take up science. Children had to be convinced that gadgets, mechanics and electronics were cool rather than nerdy.
The executives at the BBC are so desperate to prove they have left those old-fashioned ways behind that they will try anything, even wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay, to demonstrate how right-on they are.
Except, of course, they are not. When on Wednesday the BBC reluctantly makes public the salaries of its highest earners, we’ll all see how far its female stars fall behind the men.
The BBC’s commitment to gender posturing may be only skin deep, but hypocrisy runs right to its core.