The objects of two of my fandoms – Doctor Who and The Archers – have been in the news in the past few months because of cast changes. Tom Graham, who has played Tom Archer in the BBC radio soap for 17 years, took to Twitter last month to announce that he had been ditched by the show’s producers who were looking to re-cast the role.
Some fans reacted with sympathy and disappointment, one describing it as ‘an undoubted tragedy’. Others saw it an indicative of a programme that ‘seems to have lost its way’ or, in more extreme versions, as an opportunity to criticize the BBC as ‘a foul and malignant cancer eating away at all that is kind and decent about our nation’. Doctor Who has also caused a stir with its recent cast changes. In August the series returned with a new actor in the lead role. The casting of the 55 year-old Peter Capaldi was, however, not the only headline-grabbing cast-change this season. The series also saw (spoiler alert) the return of The Master, another renegade Time Lord, who had regenerated into a woman, played with glee by Michele Gomez.
The casting of a woman in a role previously occupied by male actors again caused much fan reaction, some more regressive than others. Amidst all this debate it seemed a good opportunity to reflect back over the latest season of Doctor Who and the changing nature of the central characters within the show. Be warned, there will be spoilers.
Peter Capaldi: from spin doctor to the new Doctor Who
This was the headline with which The Guardian introduced Peter Capaldi as the latest actor to take on the role of the wandering alien time traveler. As with many other press reports, attention was draw to Capaldi’s previous performance as foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It as well his age – at 55 he was the oldest actor to take on the role since the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, in 1963. Surrounding this announcement was, therefore, concern that Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor would be tainted by his association with the tough, bitter, aggressive and unscrupulous Tucker, alongside recognition that his age marked a significant departure in new Who from casting younger male actors in the title role. These concerns emerged within the series itself, particularly in the opening episode. The story focused much of its narrative action on the Doctor’s companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) and her response to the regeneration. Here Clara stood in for the disgruntled viewer upset at the transformation of the youthful, handsome Matt Smith into the old, dour and Scottish Capaldi. This narrative device in itself is not a problem given that the history of Doctor Who is littered with anecdotal stories of kids being upset when ‘their Doctor’ regenerated. Yet the way that this storyline was handled seemed to display a profound lack of confidence in the decision to cast Capaldi. Rather than having the Doctor win Clara round, or having Clara recognise something of value or interest within this new incarnation of the character, the series resorted to a piece of time travel trickery. In its denouement Clara took a call on the Tardis’ phone from the previous incarnation of the Doctor (Matt Smith) who appeared unimpressed that his new persona turned out to be old, but offered reassurance that he was, despite appearances, still the same person.
While I can understand this attempt at reassurance, it also worked to prevent Capaldi from owning the role from the outset, and the episode was littered with moments in which the actor appeared as if he was forced to perform lines written for Smith’s version of the character, rather than being given the opportunity to really make it his own.
Luckily, as the series progressed Capaldi seemed to gain more confidence in the role and the writers started developing some rather lovely character touches. I particularly liked the Doctor’s repeated offhand references to the strangeness of humanity. In the first episode (Deep Breath) he struggled with the concept of a ‘bedroom’, asking what the point is of a room in which you are never supposed to be awake.
In another episode (Time Heist) in which Clara was getting ready for a date the Doctor exclaimed ‘Why is your face all coloured in?’ These small moments contributed to the construction of a character that finds humanity strange and in doing so did what all great science fiction does, which is to make us strange to ourselves. This sense of othering was developed with real nuance in the penultimate episode ‘Dark Water’ when Clara tried to persuade the Doctor to take her back in time to save the life of her boyfriend Danny by tricking him and threatening to destroy all of the keys to the Tardis and strand them on a volcano.
After the Doctor thwarted her plan Clara asked, ‘why are you helping me?’ and he replied, ‘Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?’ Then as Clara started to cry he exclaimed, ‘Stop it with the eyes. Don’t do that with the eyes. How do you do that anyway? It’s like they inflate.’ Here the Doctor’s outward attitude – his seemingly uncaring and critical comments – is revealed not as a reflection of his inner feelings but as a symptom of his own otherness and difference. In such moments we are cautioned not to judge people by how they appear or even behave on the outside, but to take the time to understand them from the inside. This moment encapsulated for me the great sensitivity and care with which Capaldi approached the role, bringing real subtlety to his performance. I hope that with greater confidence in the character (and the audience) this will continue into the next season.
Clara Oswald: from object to subject
While season 8 saw the emergence of a new actor in the role of the Doctor it also saw changes to the character of Clara Oswald. Peter Moffatt has accepted criticisms that in season 7 Clara functioned largely as the object of the storylines rather than the subject, and, as a review in The Atlantic claimed ‘In terms of giving the Doctor’s companion a story with a beginning, middle, and end, season eight is Moffat’s best to date’. Yet for me, while an improvement, this didn’t really address the gendered problems that have characterized new Who, particularly in its representation of the Doctor’s companions. Sure, Clara had far more story time and more agency within stories in season 8, but that agency was still determined primarily through her gendered roles as teacher and girlfriend. In fact, much of Clara’s storyline over the season was situated as a choice between her life of adventure with the Doctor or her romantic relationship with Danny. Essentially her dilemma was structured around choosing between the experiences offered to her by two men – she is far from a self-determining hero here.
I think this can be tied in part to a perennial problem I have with new Who which seems unprepared to countenance anything other than a twenty-something female contemporary human as the Doctor’s companion. Indeed, new Who has struggled to imagine its Doctor/companion relationships without dealing with issues of romance. And this denies it the possibility of exploring other forms of inter-relationships (between and within the sexes). This all makes me wistful for the original series, which was far more open-minded in casting a broader range of companions, including humans and aliens, men and women. Once again I think this speaks to a lack of confidence that the producers have in the ability of the audience to make imaginative leaps – a sense that they don’t trust us to be able to identify with an alien or with someone from a different time/place, despite the fact that that is one of the great benefits and strengths of science fiction as a genre. I find myself longing for the days of Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury), companions of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in the 1960s.
While not entirely without its problems, this pairing offered a far more interesting range of interactions between the three primary cast members. Zoe was a human from 2079, super smart, often displaying greater knowledge and logic (if not always intelligence) than the Doctor. Here we had a female character that could tell the Doctor when he was wrong and challenge him on his own terms. She was paired with Jamie, a highlander rescued from the Battle of Culloden in 1746, out of depth and time, without Zoe’s knowledge, but with bravery and a kind heart. There was no romantic involvement between the characters, but a strong friendship that gradually developed over time through conflicts, challenges and threats faced together. And these characters were not juggling their travels with the Doctor and the demands of their everyday lives. They, like the Doctor, were orphans, refugees, rescued and in need of sanctuary and friendship.
I’d like to see new Who take these ideas into the 21st century. A little more ambition and imagination with the companions could really help it to offer more complex and progressive representations.
Missy: ‘something sacred has been violated’
While I may have been disappointed by the series’ treatment of Clara, I was delighted with the re-introduction of one of my favourite Doctor Who villains The Master, regenerated into a woman and renamed Missy. I’m a big fan of the character of The Master and was infuriated by the travesty of ‘The End of Time’ in which Jon Simm’s talents were wasted in a two-part Christmas special that was poorly plotted and resolved. By contrast, season 8’s finale allowed Missy to be fun and dangerous and Moffatt made great use of cultural references, transforming The Master into an evil Mary Poppins who reveled in her dastardly deeds. As Sarah Arboleda commented, ‘Gomez is exactly what the Master should be: cartoonishly sinister, fun, and definitely insane’.
The Master’s transformation into a woman has raised a number of interesting debates around sexuality and gender. The relationship between the Doctor and the Master has long held a homoerotic edge for many Doctor Who fans, something that, while not explicitly stated in the show, bubbled below the surface in the portrayal of David Tennant and John Simm as the Doctor and the Master. Yet it is only now that the Master is a woman that this sexual tension is explicitly represented, with Missy kissing the Doctor and referring to him as her ‘boyfriend’.
It seems problematic, then, that the Master has to be transformed into a woman before their potentially sexual relationship can be realized on screen. At the same time as erasing some of the queerness of the Doctor/Master relationship, the implication of a sexual relationship between Capaldi and Gomez equally contributes to the series’ continuing inability to imagine male/female relationships outside of a sexual framework.
The casting of Gomez as the Master has also been criticized in the context of the ongoing debates about whether the Doctor should be played by a woman. Here the producers are seen to have played it safe – gender-swapping a villain, rather than the hero. For my part, and despite these concerns, I love the character of Missy and I hope that this recasting is used by the producers as a step towards the introduction of a female Doctor. The response by a minority of the more misogynistic Doctor Who fans to the Master’s regeneration as a women, with one fan claiming that ‘something sacred has been violated’, seems evidence enough that we need a female Doctor. (These responses were rather wonderfully satirized by usvsth3m). I only hope that the BBC do it with more confidence and less apology than the introduction of an older Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi.
Catherine Johnson is Associate Professor in Film and Television at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television (Routledge, 2012) and Telefantasy (British Film Institute, 2005) and the co-editor of Transnational Television History (Routledge, 2012) and ITV Cultures: independent television over fifty years (Open University Press, 2005). Her new book The Promotional Screen Industries (co-authored with Paul Grainge) will be published by Routledge in Spring 2015.