Sunday, June 02, 2013

Doctor What?

Pictures courtesy of the BBC

Those who remember the BBC's "anarchic" 80s comedy The Young Ones may recall its final episode which begins with Rick, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil very bored indeed in the garden on the first day of the college summer holiday.

"I'm bored and deserve to die! This is the end. Armageddon!" declares Vyvyan, adding the Sex Pistols' "No future!" for good measure. He then pulls out a hand grenade, removes the pin and waits for the bang. It doesn't go off. "Bastard!", he exclaims. 80s comedy, eh?

Summer is, mostly, boring. If you're of school age, it's six weeks of amazing adventures, which actually soon becomes two weeks of bucket-and-spade time followed by four weeks of kicking a football against the garage.

If you're the sports editor of a national newspaper, it's three months of idle speculation about which manager is going where, and what players are being bought for silly amounts by clubs with more money than sense.

Showbiz editors rarely get such a summer as they're too busy pouring over pictures of papped celebrities turning pink on a beach, and then calling it news because a) they've "dramatically" lost weight and friends are now "concerned", b) they've "dramatically" put on weight, and friends are now "concerned", or that they're wearing clothing of such skimpiness that they have "left little to the imagination" (note to newspapers who do this - if you keep saying that items of clothing leave little to the imagination, our imaginations will soon get the message. OK?).

This summer, in Britain at least, showbiz editors and, for that matter, online betting sites, will be whipping themselves into a frenzy over the identity of the next star of Doctor Who (an occasional feature which, along with speculation about a new James Bond, is the closest Brits get to the Vatican appointing a new Pope).

Because, within minutes of news escaping on Saturday night that Matt Smith would be stepping down in December, at the end of the show's 50th year, the speculation began in earnest. Already names like Idris Elba, John Hurt (who cryptically appeared as 'The Doctor' at the end of the latest run), David Harewood from Homeland, Harry Potter's Rupert Grint, and Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman, are being tipped.

There have even been ridiculous suggestions that Tom Cruise should do it, as well as, bizarrely, David Beckham. And, maddest of all, Simon Cowell, although one can imagine most Doctor Who viewers actually willing the Daleks to exterminate him back to the grammatically torturous Britain's Got Talent on ITV.

However, the maddest suggestions of all have come from newspapers suggesting the next Doctor should be a woman. Odds have even been shortened to 20/1 on Dame Helen Mirren getting the gig, or Twenty Twelve's Olivia Colman or Zawe Ashton from Channel 4's Fresh Meat.

This is a touchy subject: suggestions that a future James Bond could be played by a black actor have met with howls of disagreement, not from racists but traditionalists who still see Bond as the Ian Fleming ideal - tall, dark and white. That the role is currently being played by a short blond man has shown some tolerance. But the traditionalists do have a point. The character was designed a certain way.

I know we're dealing with the creative industry here, darling, and that if Ken Branagh wants to remake Henry V as a modern day battlefield epic he damn well will, but does everything have to be turned upside down and inside out just for the sake of freshness, creativity and interest? Would you recast Mary Poppins with a bloke? Should we remake The Diary of Anne Frank as The Diary of Anton Frank? Should the Wonder Woman reboot star...OK, you know where I'm going with this.

When he first appeared in 1963 - in a fragile world still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy 24 hours earlier - the Doctor was a strange and even sinister character, a grumpy, grandfatherly time traveller escaping his home world in a hot-wired time machine.

William Hartnell played this character to distinction. Over the years - as Hartnell gave way to Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee (my 'first' Doctor), Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and all the rest - the character evolved into something more whimsical, right up to Smith today. That no female actor has been cast up until now probably does have something to do with television's inherent sexism - the Doctor's long line of comely assistants (shout out, there, to Nicola Bryant as Peri) hasn't been any accident, any more so than the real star of Baywatch was never the beach or The Hoff.

And while, I'm sure, a female Doctor would give the scriptwriters all sorts of licence to go off into directions never before travelled by the previous eleven incarnations, wouldn't it just feel wrong?

Since Doctor Who was revived in 2005, its showrunners Russell T Davis and latterly Steven Moffat have boldly gone where no British teatime sci-fi show has gone before, wonderfully testing the Daily Mail's anti-BBC intolerance by introducing the bisexual Captain Jack Harkness character and the bizarre lesbian relationship between Madame Vastra, who appears to be a lizard, and Jenny Flint, a Victorian Londoner. OK, different. Brilliant, actually. Quite properly, the fact that these characters are gay never becomes a focal point, although there are one or two reactionary journalists amongst the British tabloid press who might deem this to some form of pinko BBC PC subversion.

In addition, they've given Doctors Ecclestone, Tennant and Smith some strong female co-stars - Billie Piper's Rose Tyler (one of the best 'human' characters in the series' history), Catherine Tate's gobby Donna Noble, not to mention Alex Kingston's cross between Indiana Jones and Alien's Ripley, River Song. But the idea of making the Doctor female is just mad to me.

The fact that, according to The Sun, "Sources said several female stars are in the running to be the show’s 12th Time Lord", suggests that this is more than just an early summer silly season story. In fact, it sounds more like the kind of BBC political correctness that had moved half its staff from London to Salford to be more representative and have more sports presenters read out the footy results with a Northern accent.

If some sci-fi writer wants to go ahead and create a female time traveller, or a male nanny who flies across London by umbrella, or dramatise the story of a teenage Dutch boy who hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, go ahead, with my blessing, and fill your boots. Just don't put a lady Doctor in the TARDIS. Apart from anything else, we now know the TARDIS is a she, and that wouldn't be good for the chemistry.

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