lördag 6 oktober 2018

Jodie’ll probably be all right – it’s Chris Chibnall I’m worried about

The more time progresses, the more I’m starting to wonder whether having  the Doctor regenerate into a woman in Doctor Who wasn’t a genuinely bad idea. I’ve voiced my doubts before, but I also diplomatically said that we’ll wait and see, and a sex change worked well for the Master. The Master isn’t the focus of the whole show, though. The Doctor is the central, iconic, much-loved character of a 50+ year-old series. All that time he’s been a guy. Changing something so fundamental about him as his gender could have serious repercussions, not least because it feels so unnecessary. Was this something real fans of the show were crying out for? Or did BBC just want to make a point about how wonderfully enlightened it is?

Having said all that, I’ve liked the few glimpses we’ve seen so far of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. If anyone can pull this off, it will probably be her – and I love the Yorkshire accent. (Could it be that regional accents always sound cuter in a foreign tongue? There are Swedish regional accents that sound awful to me, but could conceivably appear melodic to, say, a Brit.) Also, my grumpiness regarding the whole female Doctor thing may partly be due to the aggressive way it’s been marketed, along with other changes to the series.

I do hate it when I get the feeling that someone is trying to catch me out with being a bigot about things I’m actually not bigoted about. I happen to love strong and preferably non-stereotypical female leads in films and on TV (though to be honest the feisty, kick-ass female has become something of a stereotype in her own right – but still enjoyable to watch). However, it’s provoking when the new Doctor Who series is being marketed with the tag line “It’s about time” – as if to say “Yes! Haven’t we all waited for the boring old Doctor dude to finally turn into a woman? No? Then you’re a sexist!” Another instance of “Don’t like it? You’re a horrible person” marketing was the boast put forward that the almost-all-new Doctor Who crew of writers included women and people of different ethnical backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the only thing that interests me about writers for Doctor Who is the quality of their writing. If I’d been one of them, I’d have been offended by the implication that I’d been hired, not because of my immensely popular children’s novels or for that tense TV screenplay I wrote, but because of my gender or the colour of my skin.

These are contentious waters, and before I’ve seen the new series I won’t be venturing out further in them. The odd smug, clumsy phrase shouldn’t damn a series of Doctor Who’s pedigree. From what I gather from an article in Doctor Who Magazine, the new Who writers have very solid credentials, and at the end of the day, the one I’m most afraid will be lecturing us rather than entertaining us is a white male: the show-runner himself, Chris Chibnall.

In preparation for the new series, I’ve been rewatching two Chibnall-scripted Doctor Who episodes: 42 and The Power of Three. I couldn’t bear to rewatch the preach-fest two-parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood where a poor woman is roundly berated, and made to hang her head in shame, for (accidentally) killing an obnoxious alien hostage who was goading her, whose venom was poisoning her father and whose species were holding her little boy prisoner. In that situation, world peace would mean little to me too. Dinosaurs On A Spaceship – where a non-reconstructed big game hunter is roped in as one of the Doctor’s team, only so that the strong women on said team could sceptically roll their eyes at him – wasn’t tempting either, especially as I do have a problem with the Doctor cold-bloodedly killing the villain off at the end. True, it’s not out of character: the villain, Solomon the Trader, was guilty of genocide, and the Doctor has been known to be implacable (my heart still goes out to the poor Family of Blood). Still, if Solomon had not been the Trader but rather, say, the Freedom Fighter, I can’t help wondering whether the Doctor wouldn’t have acted differently, even if the atrocities committed had been the same.

On to the episodes I did rewatch, then. 42 is an episode I routinely skip when rewatching Who because of it’s insultingly daft premise. The Doctor and his then companion Martha land on a spaceship which is heading towards a sun, and something on board is possessing some of the crew members and sabotaging the crew’s efforts to get away. In time, the Doctor and Martha realise that the sun in question is alive and taking revenge on the spacecraft because it has scooped out parts of it for fueling purposes. Martha dumps the sun particles back where they came from, and the severely decimated crew is saved.

People who criticise this episode usually give it some credit for its “interesting ecological message”. But it’s the eco message that’s the problem for me, because it’s plain dumb. Once again, a character is shamed (and if we’re to play the gender game, as in the later The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood it’s a woman) for causing the calamity the crew is in. Her failing? Because scooping sun fuel is illegal for some reason, she didn’t “scan for life” before mining the sun. But how the blazers was she to know there could be any life on a sun, or  that the sun itself would be alive, when this is a bonkers premise to begin with? And if the sun is sentient enough to convey the message “burn with me” through possessed crew members, how about instead ventriloquising “I’m alive, you clowns – drop that sun fuel now?”

To be fair, though, 42 didn’t dwell on its wonkily set out moral message too much, and there were other things I quite enjoyed about it, such as Martha’s heart-to-heart with a crew member when they think they are about to die. And I really liked The Power of Three, which is also Chibnall’s latest Who offering (42 was the first). Yes, as has been pointed out, the denouement was a rushed cop-out, the villain reveal a let-down and many questions left unanswered. But who cares, when all kinds of preachiness are mercifully absent? Instead, the main plot – concerning the mysterious appearance on Earth of millions of small cubes, which then do absolutely nothing for a whole year before causing trouble – becomes the pretext for exploring the relationship between the Doctor and his then companions Amy and Rory. He becomes part of their everyday life and hates it. They start to appreciate their everyday life more and worry about how their exploits with the Doctor can have a negative impact on it. “It seems we have two lives – real life and Doctor life.” It’s an insightful and funny (“Patience is for wimps!”) episode about human/Time Lord relationships and some intriguing space stuff. This is the Chris Chibnall I’m hoping we’ll see in the next series, not the PC finger-wagging one. So maybe everything will turn out fine – we humans are “creatures of hope”, after all.