When Jodie Whittaker was announced and then debuted as the Thirteen Doctor, there was a lot of media and fan attention at the first female incarnation of the famous time-traveller. Some of it was positive, some negative. The negative contingent was much smaller than the more reasonable ‘Let’s see how this goes…‘ stance (which is often the deliberate, default position when the series regenerates from time to time and needs to find its footing) but often louder and vociferously complaining that a science-fiction series about an alien who could change everything about their appearance when their body wore out or was significantly damaged could never be a woman!
Almost as soon as Whittaker stepped into the police-box (taking over from Peter Capaldi) and new-showrunner Chris Chibnall took over, a section of fans were asking how long they’d stay and already selecting their replacements – again, something that every team that’s come on to the show has had to face amongst divided and opinionated fandom. But, arguably, this time it was more vitriolic – the #notmydoctor hashtag circulating with something that went beyond quality-control and into a degree of unapologetic sexism that did fandom and the show few favours.
Fandom is infamously and somewhat understandably subjective – a show resonating (or not) at different levels for each individual viewer. To be fair, some gripes were better articulated than others. The shift to Sunday nights was notable – Who moving away from its traditional Saturday slot was no small thing. Undoubtedly the over-all tonal shift of the show (that had nothing to do with the lead’s actual gender) was significant and there was a distinct feeling that the stories were deliberately looser and aimed at a younger audience – almost as if the remit had been to steer away from the more solemn and cynical and go back to the earlier days of the show from the 70s and 80s. Despite Who‘s history of having a hero who prefers to talk their way out of danger rather than shoot, there were complaints over overt ‘messaging’ and the acronym-friendly battalions got repetitive strain injury from typing ‘SJW’ (Social Justice warrior to the uninitiated) on their keyboards. It is true that almost entirely gone were the more complex timey-whimey shenanigans (clever but not always accessible or consistent) that were the signature of the modern Moffat era and in came more simplistic, broader-stroked romps with cultural markers. Whittaker, an admired and successful actress could easily have brought an intensity and edge to the role, instead played the acerbic time-lord with wide, gurning facial expressions and a wide-eyed gusto that was more positive, all-ages and vigorously outgoing than previous Tardis owners. With a newly-designed Tardis (which admittedly looked like a mish-mash of previous models but less the central hub of a space-craft and more the studio set that it was) packed with more ‘regulars’ than some scripts could handle, there were bound to be people who felt the long list of high-profile changes weren’t to their liking. Your light-year mileage was always going to vary.
This week, though, the stakes were raised with the internet abuzz with furrowed-brow certainty that a formal announcement about the departure of Chibnall and Whittaker was mere hours away. People touted ‘well-informed sources’ as confirming such or different variations on a theme – though the so-called confirmation failed to appear with a new swathe of reports doing a 180 with BBC sources said to be bemused by the ‘false’ rumours. Some fans quickly shifted from the ‘The BBC aren’t denying it!‘ form of validation to ‘Well, the BBC are denying it – why do they feel the need to do that if it’s just a silly rumour – clearly it’s disinformation!!!‘ from the nay-sayers, oblivious to the circular-logic yank of confirmation-bias. It would all seem completely non-sensical – though one could make an argument that the Beeb has had a habit of having leaks of behind-the-scenes problems with Who in the past, denying them and then a portion found to have some merit. Some tabloid stories on departures, firings, scheduling-problems have turned out to be at least partly-true and in that sense, the Corporation has something of a 5th Doctor-sized sticky-wicket of its own making… but keeping interest alive while avoiding spoilers has always been such.
But in this case, the constant stream of doubt from some quarters makes the latest surge of righteous indignation seem less likely to be true – even if there were any smaller elements within based on fact. Despite some claims of ratings dropping during the last run as the show progressed, it still started notably higher than most recent Who seasons and hardly dropped to devastating levels thereafter. Reviews have been mixed, certainly, but wider audiences, beyond the internet, seem just as engaged. Scrutinising the Whittaker/Chibnall rumours on their own merits: even if there was some genuine trouble in the Tardis that went beyond the inevitable stresses, tensions and different agendas of those involved (which is not impossible) it’s highly unlikely that showrunner and star would be departing halfway through a tight filming schedule and short of photographic evidence of people coming to blows or other such damning evidence, it’s equally unlikely that if it were true the BBC would feel any urgent need to announce any departures during/after the next run that won’t even begin screening until next year. Formal announcements (such as the departure of a Doctor) have usually only come when the recasting process is initiated, a regeneration scene is being readied or for the sake of the talent needing schedule availability etc.
Who is always about change, the show evolving and turning in unexpected ways that are bound to please some more than others… and, listen, I’ll express the opinion that this lastest run hasn’t been a Who that I feel as close a connection to, as I once did. There are a raft of things I can criticise, that I’d change or do very differently… but that’s the irony of being a fan: I get to have an opinion on the result without having the pressures of producing it. The only real assurances are that the departure of Whittaker and Chibnall will inevitably come at some point (with star and showrunner often departing simultaneously to give the new team a clear run at it); that could be next week, in the next year or several more years down the line. (People with ‘sources’ say different things, so a pinch of salt may be required) and that when it does, some will feel their ‘Fire them all!‘ rhetoric was clearly been validated.
And then someone will sagely note that the new Doctor isn’t half as good as the last one…