Posts Tagged ‘Twelfth Doctor’

As Peter Capaldi receives his first official DWM cover, all the agitation and uncertainty of the summer seems to be fading away, and it feels slightly strange to look back and recall some of the wilder discussions and stronger sentiments which were in currency. Nevertheless, fandom did seem unusually exercised this time around. I myself distinctly recall that moment where we were treated to a close-up of ‘the new Doctor”s hand prior to his name actually being announced, and my flood of relief at seeing it was obviously that of a man.

The calls for the Doctor to be regenderated seemed much louder this time than they have been in the past; I don’t recall any but the most cursory discussion of the possibility prior to Eccleston or Tennant being cast, nor in 2008 (though admittedly I was a bit out of the loop at the time). This time round, it turned into a bit of a Thing, even warranting a DWM article on the topic.

Funny. But not real.

Funny. But not real.

I talk about a ‘discussion of the possibility’ but what really struck me about the various outpourings on the topic was just how little discussion was actually taking place: this was such a polarising issue, people either saw the idea of a female Doctor as perfectly unremarkable and a natural development for the series, or a ludicrous bastardisation of the entire character and concept, with no middle ground or room for debate. Did people snipe? Did they accuse? Did they name-call? Yes, yes, and yes. Did they discuss? Not so much.

Personally, and this isn’t really important to anyone but me, I am in the ‘terrible idea – never, ever’ camp, along with most of the other old-school viewers of the programme whom I know. It does seem to me that most of the advocates of the regenderation are people who have come to the series in the last ten years (a few big names like Gaiman and Cornell notwithstanding). Quite why this should be is something I am reluctant to offer an opinion on.

What does strike me is that this more than anything else this resembles some sort of religious schism, with both sides completely entrenched and absolutely certain that their beliefs are correct. I used to feel vaguely disturbed by news reports of Creationist pressure groups attempting to ensure that no Darwinist candidate ever secured the presidential nomination – however, now I am completely okay with the idea of making sure any future showrunner is ideologically sound on this topic (which rules out Neil Gaiman, for one).

However, however, however: when it comes to this sort of radical reinterpretation of a character, I have become aware that I am woefully inconsistent. I had a bit of a problem with the gay Green Lantern DC introduced last year, not because I object to gay superheroes (or indeed gay people in general) but because I thought the whole thing was very cynically promoted. I have no issue whatsoever with Miles Morales, the Afro-Hispanic Spider-Man Marvel have introduced as an alternate version of the character. I’m not even particularly exercised by the feminisation and change of race of Dr Watson in the American TV version of Sherlock Holmes – I think it’s another dubious and arguably cynical idea, and it’s not a show I would ever sit down and watch, but it doesn’t ignite the explosion of outrage and despair within me that I’ve no doubt the announcement of the twelfth Doctor being a woman would have.

I don’t think I’m a misogynist any more than I am a homophobe or racist, so why should this be? I don’t particularly want to go through the reasons why I think the Doctor is essentially male, mainly because this doesn’t seem to be an issue much lending itself to reasoned discussion. But I do think this can potentially tell us about some of the things that makes Doctor Who special as a concept and the Doctor special as a character.

The clue is that there have been female versions of the Doctor in the past, of course, and they left me notably non-outraged – the ‘ultimate’ Joanna Lumley Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death, and the equally final Arabella Weir Doctor from the Doctor Who Unbound series. The difference, of course, is that both of these versions appear in comedy skits based on the series – Lumley, certainly, arguably so in the case of Weir – and are outside the main continuity of the show.

I’m sorry, I usually try and avoid the C-Word like the plague, but I’m going to have to talk about the concept of Canon. Canon presupposes that there are two kinds of Doctor Who story – ‘real’ ones, which all connect to tell a single, consistent story running from An Unearthly Child to The Name of the Doctor and onwards, and ‘unreal’ ones which are somehow even more fictional than the rest. The Lumley and Weir Doctors are both non-Canon, obviously; were Matt Smith to transform into – I don’t know – Miranda Hart, she would be the first Canon female Doctor.

I am much more relaxed about the concept of Canon than I was a couple of decades ago – did the New Adventures count? Did the early Big Finish stories count? Then again, these days I tend to dismiss everything beyond the actual TV series as apocryphal and leave it at that. But Doctor Who’s idea of Canon is different from that of other, broadly comparable series and institutions.

Partly because this is Doctor Who originated as a TV show rather than, say, a series of books and stories. One can meaningfully talk about ‘the Sherlock Holmes canon’ in terms of the stories actually written by Doyle (as opposed to all the pastiches written by other people since). This exists as a sealed bubble and has done since the death of Doyle in 1930. The same could be said of the Cthulhu Mythos, since the death of Lovecraft, and the Conan saga, since the death of Robert Howard.

Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in that manner – it’s been handed on from writer to writer with no-one truly having a claim to being the single key figure in its development. However, this is equally true of characters in other media – for example, comics superheroes, many of whom have histories even longer and more complex than the Doctor’s.

The concept of Canon is a much more flexible one when it comes to comics characters – of the big companies, DC Comics in particular is wont to aggressively re-write the histories of its characters on a regular basis. There’s less an idea of Canon here than one of an archetypal concept of each character – individual story developments may lead to a gradual drift away from this, but sooner or later the character will be reset back to this point. As a case in point, there was some brouhaha in 1991 when Lois Lane discovered that Clark Kent was really Superman, and even more in 1996 when the couple actually married, but as of 2013, in the comics at least, they are not and have never been married and she does not knw his identity.

How is this possible in the same narrative? Well, it’s not, and this isn’t strictly speaking the same narrative. I remember a time when people only ever used to reboot computers, but now it’s always happening to continuities: resetting the clock to zero (or, the archetypal set-up) and allowing writers to tell stories with a minimum of constraints in terms of historical baggage. It’s happened to Superman, Batman and Spider-Man in their most recent movie outings; it’s happened to Godzilla about six times (usually with the respectful proviso that the original 1954 movie remains as the foundation stone of the series); something broadly similar (yet, to my mind, uniquely unsatisfactory) happened to the Star Trek universe when JJ Abrams got his hands  on it.

One of the advantages of this kind of reboot is that it instantly sets the original continuity apart – it doesn’t quite turn it into the equivalent of a definitive canon, in the sense of the Doylean Holmes canon – but it does mean that creative people are less likely to be excoriated for making radical changes to characters. I’m happy to ignore Elementary, with its modern setting and female Watson, because it plainly is just a slightly weird alternate take on the original Sherlock Holmes characters and doesn’t attempt to pass itself off as a genuine continuation of the characters.

Hey, if it floats your boat...

Hey, if it floats your boat…

There have been plenty of alternative versions of Doctor Who – the comic strips, the Cushing Doctor, the Trevor Martin stage Doctor, the Unbounds, and so on – but one of the things about it which is perhaps more surprising than many people realise is that the continuity of the TV series has never knowingly been rebooted: a single narrative thread does indeed continue unbroken, from 1963 through to the present day.

That this has happened is actually roaringly unlikely: Philip Segal’s planned American TV show would have started over again, while at least one of the other proposed versions from the 90s would have seen the ‘canonical’ seventh Doctor handing over to an alternate Doctor from a parallel universe. BBC executives at one point wanted Tom Baker to regenerate into Paul McGann in 1996, which would presumably have created a new continuity with a different fifth Doctor. Mark Gatiss’ pitch to revive the series around the turn of the century would have been a clean reboot of the series from scratch with a new first Doctor.

But Doctor Who has not – so far – been rebooted. I think this is largely down to the fact that the people at the top of the show are fans and love the heritage of the programme as much as anyone – ‘…worst of all, it’ll be a reboot. No thanks’ (Rusty Davies, discussing the possibilities of the 2005 relaunch), ‘…it should be one big long story, not two different versions’ (Steven Moffat, dismissing the idea of a US-made Doctor Who running in parallel with the current show).

There is, I suppose, a strong case to be made that most of the reasons leading to other TV and film series being rebooted do not apply to Doctor Who: the facts that the show is infinitely recastable – that this is actually incorporated into the narrative –  and unlikely ever to run out of ideas are two of the main reasons why it has lasted half a century.

And yet, in a strange way, this also makes the series uniquely vulnerable. Doctor Who doesn’t have a closed canon like Sherlock Holmes, while any archetypal version of the Doctor is a hugely nebulous thing at best. If the BBC does a bad version of Sherlock Holmes, as it has a couple of times over the years, one can simply dismiss it as a poor adaptation and look forward to the next one, which will be an entirely separate entity. Should they make a similar creative misstep with regard to Doctor Who – and here it’s very difficult to resist mentioning Colin Baker’s costume – then the series is stuck with it in perpetuity.

Steven Moffat dismissed the prospect of an American-made, parallel series. I don’t know, but I think I’d rather be showrunner on that show than the British one – it would be a terrific opportunity to revisit the mythology and characters, free of the demands of continuity. I wouldn’t even be against the idea of the Doctor being female some of the time in this sort of show, provided it was seeded into the format properly.

And the existence of a second version of the series running in parallel might go some way towards firming up the archetypal concept of Doctor Who as something existing beyond the confines of any particular incarnation (by incarnation here, I mean TV, films, books, and so on). The existence of two equal valid versions of Doctor Who would be more likely to lead to more – the concept transcending its TV origins to become a genuine cultural icon across different media, which it currently is not. The only casualty would be the existence of a single unified continuity – and given that the continuity we’ve got largely doesn’t make sense anyway, would that be so great a loss?

I started by talking about a schism between Doctor Who fans and find myself discussing the possibility of destroying any idea of Doctor Who as a coherent narrative – and doing so as though this were potentially a positive thing. Whether or not this happens is, I suspect, largely down to who is curating the show at the BBC and their attitude towards the idea of Canon. It would be very interesting to see a modern version of the show not overseen by a card-carrying long-term fan, for this reason and many others.

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As they say in Rome, after a fat Pope, a thin Pope. Anyone wondering what the sound of thousands of men in early middle-age sighing with a combination of relief and joy is had the perfect opportunity to find out on Sunday night, as a generation of veteran Doctor Who fans were delighted to discover that their hero was now back to being older than them again.

There has been a colossal amount of coverage of a piece of news which boils down to seven words: Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor Who. More, in fact, than seems possible, or at least sane: but I suppose this is the modern reality of the show, which is a moneyspinning brand for the BBC as much as it is a fantasy drama.

What do you mean, you're sick of seeing this photo?

What do you mean, you’re sick of seeing this photo?

I mean, even I, who love and think upon the show more than is sensible, thought that devoting thirty minutes of live TV to the announcement was a little bit OTT. Possibly this is mainly because I have an allergy to the brand of brainless, manic enthusiasm which is Zoe Ball’s default setting – but I defy anyone to honestly suggest that the announcement programme wasn’t just twenty-five minutes of pap and filler leading up to a revelation which can’t have shocked anyone who’d been following the news last week.

Ah well. Peter Capaldi, eh? A good choice, surely; but also a very different one and thus a very interesting one. Before I dive into all that with some pointless, empty speculation of my own (everyone else is doing it), it is quite interesting to survey all the ways in which Capaldi’s casting is being analysed and deconstructed.

This is mainly down to the fact that the Doctor is yet again a white male – and back to being a distinctly mature figure (though a quick comparison of photos of William Hartnell and Capaldi will instantly show you that being 55 in 2008 is a very different thing to being 55 in 1963). The chorus of militants who, to judge from their utterances all summer, seem to think that having a male Doctor is a flaw in the programme, are still there, emitting the odd grumble, while the reliably contrarian Daily Mail, ever alert to age-related controversies, have managed to dig up some fans complaining that Capaldi is ‘too old’ – a particularly priceless comment being ‘Very very disappointed! The Doctor meant to be someone young (sic), both matt and David were very cute and funny doctors, and now they give us an old guy, no offence to the new guy he may be an amazing actor but he just doesn’t fit the part’. This was from ‘Fara23’. I am going to stick my neck out and guess that a) Fara23 is a young lady and b) her all-time favourite story probably isn’t The War Machines.

But you know what? I’m sort of reminded of Andrew Cartmel’s contribution to OUTSIDE IN: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers (still on sale at only $24.95), where he sat down to examine the racial politics of The Talons of Weng-Chiang but eventually concluded all the arguing and fretting about this was just refrigerator noise – the only thing that really matters about this story is that it is brilliantly written, acted, and directed (except perhaps for the rat). It’s the same with Peter Capaldi being cast as the Doctor – his age, accent, class, ethnicity, and so on really is very secondary to the fact that he’s a brilliant actor of exactly the right type.

Even so, and even given that we know virtually nothing about what he’s going to do with the part (it’s amusing that every fan seems to automatically assume that any new Doctor will be playing it darker than their predecessor – wishful thinking I suspect), adding to the refrigerator noise is irresistible. Capaldi’s not the first Scottish Doctor – and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t approached when David Tennant moved on, the two of them are a little too similar in appearance and energy – and it’s debatable as to whether he’s more or less of a household name than Christopher Eccleston was when he was cast. The real talking point arising from this announcement is, inevitably, that of Capaldi’s age.

As I said, 55 now isn’t the same as 55 in 1963, but he’s still at least 15 years or so older than every other full-time Doctor cast in the last 40 years, and the question is simply one of how much this will inform his performance and the nature of the show. On the face of things Capaldi looks like much, much more of an old-school Doctor than anyone else this century, and in an odd way this is actually makes him quite a radical choice.

I can’t imagine a Capaldi Doctor having the same quasi-romantic relationship with his companion that characterised David Tennant and to some extent Matt Smith’s takes on the character, and this will be a major departure: I suspect a lot of the new fanbase (the ones I probably wouldn’t get on with if I met them) really gets off on this sort of thing. Also, Christopher Eccleston famously found the schedule of making the programme gruelling; it made David Tennant ill – so how is an actor approaching 60 going to deal with it?

What I draw from this – and I may well turn out to be totally wrong, as usual – is that we may be in for a really radical shift in the dynamic of the series: rather than the dominant, central Doctor of the 70s series, with a single companion, could we be in for a return to a different style of storytelling – three or more regular characters, and a more equal division of screen-time between them? This would lighten the load on Capaldi, for one thing, and allow for the soapy nonsense to take place between the various companions.

It would be a bold step, but I think the series at present needs to take one, and it might even inspire Steven Moffat to raise his game a little and go back to thinking in terms of proper storytelling rather than gimmicks apparently inspired by fanfic and early-80s issues of DWM. He might even think again about doing longer stories, which I’m really starting to miss. But, as I say, it’s much too soon for any speculation to be worthwhile and so I shall stop. At the moment all we know is: Peter Capaldi is the Doctor! And I for one am very happy that he is.


Refrigerator Noise Update:

1. It really does seem to be a fact that everyone automatically assumes that any newly-cast Doctor is going to play it darker than their predecessor: a friend whom I didn’t have tagged as much more than a casual Who watcher came up to me at a party (yes, it was that night of the year) and basically said ‘So – Capaldi! Going to be darker, isn’t he?’

As I said, it’d be foolish to make predictions so very early, but I’d be a little surprised – there’s a limit to how successfully dark you can make the lead character of a Saturday night family adventure series. Also, it kind of presupposes that ‘dark’ is all Peter Capaldi either wants to do or is capable of doing: in short, it’s a form of typecasting.

But even so, why this default presumption of a dark Doctor? Is it what the dedicated fans really think they want, and if so, why? I think it really must be what the fans are after, but it would be unwise to assume a single reason for this, for there is not a single breed of fan. For the older fans, it may be that they still have the strongest memories of Doctor Who as the terrifying experience it was in their childhoods, an incredibly potent brew of monsters and menace. Naturally they are going to associate the best of the show with darkness. Many of the new generation are probably of that age where they still spend time in their bedrooms writing poetry revealing how unfair life is, and a brooding, dark hero would probably appeal to them too. I suspect that both groups are still a little sensitive to accusations that being a devotee of a fantasy adventure TV series is quite silly, and anything which gives the appearance of gravitas will be fine with them, too. I still suspect the twelfth Doctor will end up being a lighter shade than most people are anticipating.

2. Saw my first op-ed piece crowbarring the announcement of Capaldi-as-Twelve into a supposedly serious piece of political analysis (from the London Evening Standard). I don’t have it to hand, but the thesis was that casting a more mature Doctor may influence politicians into thinking that more seasoned patriarchal figures may be acceptable. On average, British political party leaders have got a lot younger over the last twenty years (not unlike successive Doctors, of course), but I am dubious as to whether my show (wonderful as it is) has quite enough clout to convince veteran politicos to revert to electing an older generation as their candidates to lead the country. If nothing else the piece shows just how massively newsworthy the show remains, which must on some level be a good thing.


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