Trouble in the Tardis - is the Dr Who fan base ready for Jodie Whittaker?
Doctor Who returns next week, with Jodie Whittaker as the first ever Time Lord. Is the fan base ready for a girl from Gallifrey
Who does Jodie Whittaker think she is? That was the response of many fans of time-travelling middle-aged men, when the 35-year-old Yorkshire actress was unveiled as the new 'Doctor' in the 13th incarnation of Doctor Who last year. With Whittaker's first full-length outing in the part fast approaching - she will alight the Tardis on Sunday, October 7 - the grumblings have now grown louder than a dozen Daleks trying to climb the stairs.
The problem wasn't that Whittaker was slightly too fresh-faced for the part. Dr Who had already given 'yoof' a chance by choosing 28-year-old Matt Smith in 2008. Nor was it that, with her strong regional accent, she wasn't sufficiently posh. Her predecessor in the part, Peter Capaldi, was, after all, happy to declaim in his native Glasgow burr.
So what was the objection? The rainbow braces she sported when unveiled after the Wimbledon men's singles final in 2017 (professional tennis and time-hopping science fiction having a long-shared history)? Or could it have possibly been something else?
The answer, of course, is that Whittaker isn't sufficiently blokey for the role. And by insufficiently blokey, we mean she's a woman. "The doctor has always been male," tweeted one outraged Whovian. "Call it sexist but its how it's always been." "WHO is that woman? What total rubbish. I shall never watch it again. #jodiewhittaker #travesty," railed another. The backlash was at one level predictable. We do like our pop culture franchises frozen in time. Which is why fans were aghast when last year's Star Wars: The Last Jedi re-imagined Luke Skywalker as a grumpy hermit with a green-milk fetish (to be fair, the film stank like a Bantha's breath). And consider the paroxysms gripping James Bond. Danny Boyle's vision of a darker "socialist" Bond led to his exit from the next 007 film - so heavens knows how long it will be before we have a non-white actor or female in the part (hint: quite some time).
Still, for a while there was a concerted attempt to play down the backlash. "I am really tired of the objections. It's outrageous to me, you meet these fans and they are very, very happy that this is happening," said Russell T Davies, who oversaw the resurrection of the Doctor in 2005 with grumpy Christopher Eccleston in the lead and Billie Piper as his assistant (Corrie's Bradley Walsh will play second string to Whittaker). "Maybe 10 people online with different aliases are spouting saying you've ruining the programme and it's all that gets reported."
One former Doctor, David Tennant, wrote off the grumbles as business as usual in the Who-niverse. "Whenever the Doctor changes, there's a backlash because that's a character that people love, so people get very affectionate about the Doctor they knew," he said.
However, the BBC finally acknowledged that not everyone was thrilled. "Some viewers contacted us unhappy that Jodie Whittaker has been cast as the new Doctor," the broadcaster admitted in a statement. "Since the first Doctor regenerated back in 1966, the concept of the Doctor as a constantly evolving being has been central to the programme. The continual input of fresh ideas and new voices across the cast and the writing and production teams has been key to the longevity of the series. The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey and it has been established in the show that Time Lords can switch gender."
That said, science fiction has always been open-minded on matters of race and gender. Star Trek gave us American TV's first inter-racial kiss - this at a time when African-Americans in the south were being truncheon-whipped for daring to use non-designated restrooms. More than that, the genre has yielded some of the great female heroes of the age - from Ripley in Alien and Aliens to Carrie Fisher in the early Star Wars movies, delivering her lines with an almost visible eye-roll.
Doctor Who is, moreover, in undoubted need of a shake-up. Capaldi was good value in the part, with his very 'Whovian' eyebrows and high-octane grumpiness. The problem was that the show has lately been overseen by the wayward Stephen Moffat, whose scripts were cheerful exercises in defying logic.
You'll know Moffat from his other big hit, Sherlock. You'll also know that, as Sherlock became more successful, the writing descended into a proper load of old Watsons. The nadir was the Christmas 2016-2017 comeback series which culminated in an episode in which Sherlock's antagonist - his estranged sister Eurus - was introduced as a panic-stricken child on a plummeting airliner. The 'twist' was that the crashing plane was a metaphor for her unprocessed anger and madness. This was a barking contrivance that put everyone off Sherlock. On Doctor Who, Moffat was just as wayward - as evidenced by his sign-off episode last Christmas in which Capaldi's Doctor teamed up with a rogue Dalek named Dusty (obviously) to bring about the famous World War I Christmas truce between British and German soldiers.
It doesn't make much sense written down - and even less on the screen. The high point was the final minutes in which Capaldi transformed into Whittaker. She got just one line - "brilliant!" delivered in her Yorkshire accent - but immediately brightened the episode.
The big positive as we count down to the new season, then, is that Moffat has left with Capaldi and Doctor Who is now in the hands of Chris Chibnall, writer and show-runner of Broadchurch, a show that could never be accused of gimmicks or failing to take its characters seriously. The BBC has moved Dr Who from its Saturday slot to early Sunday evening, and critics who were treated to a special screening of the first episode in Sheffield (where it is set) were enthusiastic. They praised Whittaker as a "breath of fresh air" and for bringing "energy, fizz and modernity to the role". Provided disgruntled Tardis-heads can get over Whittaker, rainbow braces and all, Dr Who's heroic break with the past might just be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Dr Who is back on BBC One, Sunday, October 7 at 6.45pm.