Monday, July 24, 2017

The Doctor Is Still In

Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth (current) Doctor
I have seen more people shaming the Doctor Who haters than I’ve actually seen Doctor Who haters. With the recent announcement of Jodie Whittaker’s nod to play the thirteenth (or fourteenth, or fifteenth) version of the title character in the BBC’s Doctor Who, social media has been alight with people mocking and belittling those tender souls who cannot stomach a woman in the role. Actual tender souls, however, have been rare and hard to find.

Perhaps that’s because I haven’t been looking for them. The Internet allows such fungal undergrowth to flourish beneath various rocks on Reddit and 4Chan, but unless one of their number gets elected President, few actually venture into the sunlight, knowing the general cultural trend has moved away from them. Their sexist, homophobic, bigoted attitudes belong to a long-gone era, and they know it. They have the common decency to stay away from us normal people.

Yet rather than let such attitudes fester and die quietly, members of the progressive call-out culture feel obliged to share, retweet, and otherwise publicly announce the existence of such attitudes. They qualify the shares with snarky comments or condemnations of regressive attitudes, which maybe gives such shares the vestments of sanctimony. But as working journalists discovered last year in sharing Donald Trump’s message, vocally refuting regressive attitudes doesn’t change the value of free media attention.

Every time some white, male yob claims that a female Doctor, female Ghostbusters, or female Jedi “ruined my childhood,” they get free publicity from those who purportedly oppose that position. I’d think having a childhood so brittle that you’re still hanging “No Girls Allowed” signs on your door, would be ruined without outside intervention. But by giving these self-proclaimed martyrs sunlight, my fellow progressives allow these attitudes to flourish and propagate, past their sell-by date.

Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor
Weirdly enough, while rewarding such conservative crybabies, progressives nourish their own crybaby culture simultaneously. I’ve witnessed liberals whining that the female Doctor doesn’t count because she’s too late, or because she’s white. In other words, progress doesn’t really matter unless it happens on my timetable. Besides being just plain arrogant, this attitude overlooks the commercial demands of media. Even a publicly owned resource, like the British Broadcasting Corporation, is still a corporation, beneath the surface.

Richard Walter, professor and chair of screenwriting at UCLA, writes that “American television seems to love last year’s— or last decade’s— controversy.” In other words, media won’t embrace a position until it’s safe enough to handle without getting burned. Hollywood refused to touch the anti-racist message of Broadway plays like Finian’s Rainbow until history had made the message essentially harmless. The BBC is British, yes, but it suffers under the same constraints as American television.

So yes, a character created in 1963 will carry the whiff of the white, patriarchal influences under which he (she?) was created. Though original showrunner Verity Lambert was a twenty-something woman, the character she oversaw was old, male, and white, reflecting the British power structure in her era. The Doctor didn’t get a black traveling companion until Mickey Smith in 2006, or an openly gay one until Bill Potts in 2017. Hispanic? Sorry, not yet.

But the show planted seeds for the Doctor’s more inclusive regenerations years ago. We saw our first on-screen Black Time Lord in 2008, two years after Black actor Patterson Joseph was briefly considered to play the Doctor. We saw a male Time Lord regenerate into a woman in 2016, demonstrating that such transitions were possible. (Don’t bring me Steven Moffett’s “The Curse of Fatal Death,” where Joanna Lumley plays the Doctor. Gag episodes don’t count.)

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
So. Progressives who’ve already seen that the Doctor will become more diverse in the future, complain that such diversity isn’t happening right now. Simultaneously, crusty back-numbers who want Doctor Who to remain a museum piece of their supposedly bucolic, girl-free childhoods, complain that diversity happens at all. The BBC must satisfy the largest number of viewers, so change has to happen, but it cannot alienate large audiences, so change happens slowly. That’s what corporations do.

Which is why I cannot take either side seriously. Calls to make change happen instantaneously, even when such change is legitimate and overdue, are as unreasonable as demands to forbid change and keep things static forever. The Doctor will become a non-white woman someday soon. Possibly even a gay woman. (I favored Sue Perkins for the role, after all.) Conservatives cannot stop it, but progressives cannot rush it. Corporations are slow, but change is inevitable.

No comments:

Post a Comment