A Love Letter to Dr Who
In 1990 my parents threw me a Dr. Who themed party for my 9th Birthday. Though I don’t think I knew it, it was a year after the original run of Dr Who ended, apparently forever. I dressed as a tiny little Sylvester McCoy, still my favourite doctor. My best friend came as Davros. Another raided his dad’s wardrobe and turned up as the Brigadier. The dog was wrestled into a green t-shirt. Other friends and family were allocated characters from the variety of encyclopaedic reference books I’d ammassed over several birthdays and Christmases.
To say I loved Doctor Who was an understatement. I watched the episodes religiously, even enlisting my dad to record them on a VCR. The ABC had played the McCoy episodes as they aired in the UK, and simultaneously aired Tom Baker episodes on other days. I’d borrow the same Baker and Pertwee videos from our local library and videoo store and watch them over and over. I slowly stole a large collection of the novelisations from my cousin, book by book, and devoured them. Some of them I read so often that the covers fell off. I once gave a ten-minute talk to my Year 5 class on Dr who, complete with diagrams on the chalkboard. The talk was meant to be 2 minutes long. My poor classmates were unaffected by my manic enthusiasm, but the teacher let me tire myself out.
I was a clumsy child, and a clever one. In soccer I was always goalie, because that meant I didn’t have to run. In cricket I was wicket keeper because I couldn’t bowl or bat. At 13 I had an asthma attack that nearly killed me. I was plucked from my first primary school in year four and sent to an ‘Opportunity Class’ several suburbs over for gifted children. In year 6 I achieved entry into the Selective School system, which was meant to be a “top 10%” kind of deal. I didn’t just love the Doctor, I identified with him. He offered me a blueprint of sorts: smart, but never conceited; wilful, but never unkind; principled, but never rigid. Sadly for my future self, he was also curious but undisciplined, endlessly distractable, and occasionally supremely and undeservedly arrogant.
I wouldn’t say I was bullied at school, but my lack of athletic acuity and my tendency to read my colleciton of Dr. Who books in the playground did not endear me to my peers. The Doctor was not only a role model but a refuge. In a way, I was Amy Pond in the body of Nardole.
In both ‘Classic’ and ‘Revived’ forms, the Doctor is a wonderful hero. He’s an uneven pacifist but always expresses sorrow and regret at the fall to a violent solution. He argues in favour of environmental conservationism and post-colonial justice for indigenous peoples. Even when confronted with irredeemable evil, he baulks at the idea of killing. He prefers negotiation and promotes mutual understanding as a first and last resort.
Some of my favourite lines come from the revived series. They’re cheesy but they’re expressing something important. “Every life I saved was a victory”. “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, Never give in”. “Without hope, without witness, without reward”. Something clicked for me when I watched Under the Lake: The Doctor bets his whole life on every conflict, no matter how large or how small. There’s nobody he wouldn’t die for. He treats the lives of a gaggle of survivors in a spaceship near a black hole with the same reverence and care as he does the end of the universe and time itself. He’s a secular, time-travelling Jesus. WWDWD.
Moffat has been a fairly rubbish steward of the franchise, let’s be honest. His plots are byzantine and often nonsensical. He repeats himself endlessly, recycling his best ideas over and over until they elicit groans not excitement. I’m as bored as I possibly could be with the ‘feelings save the universe’ ending, which shows up in pretty much every episode. The TARDIS is usually just a Deus Ex Machina except when a contrived plot twist is conjured up to prevent its use entirely (although it was often this way in the original series too). And don’t even get me started on the sonic screwdriver.
And then there’s his frequently-noted problem with women. I don’t think he’s a misogynist per se, but if you don’t bother to work against misogyny in the works you produce you will always replicate the misogynist representations that dominate pop culture. Moffat’s female characters are so often plot points not people, careening wildly from damsel to “strong female character” as required, often within a single line of dialogue. The problem is that they are always in relation to the Doctor, so even when they get to call the shots for a moment it’s always with his leave. Because Moffat has a fairly one-size-fits-all approach to feelings, they almost always get bound up in bland heteronormative relationships as grist to the emotional mill. And of course, he visits suffering and pain on them that defy belief.
But Moffat got one thing right — he walked the razor’s edge between keeping the fans of “Classic Who” happy and building a new audience who love the Doctor deeply, even if it contributed to plots as baffling and tangled as a moebius strip in a shredder.
I really struggled when the revived series first aired. I was definitely a geek gatekeeper of the worst kind. Ecclestone’s first appearance jarred with me. I couldn’t deal with my beloved pacifist hero becoming just another soldier in a militaristic popular culture. It felt like a failure of imagination when imagination was so desperately needed, and imagination was always core to the Doctor’s promise. I have never liked Tennant as the Doctor. He was too manic, too googley-eyed, and too smug. He wore the role like a glove and I couldn’t stop myself feeling like he hadn’t earned it. Nobody except Tom Baker can pull that off. So I griped, and stifled my friends’ excitement with my complaints.
But I also struggled to quash a rising tide of envy as other classic fans started to cash in on their own nostalgia. I’d never given much thought to how important Dr. Who was to me until other people started trying to own it. How could my own attachment, so potent but yet so delicate because it was only mine, survive in the face of this deluge of other people’s feelings?
But who am I to keep that gate? Even as a self-confessed super-fan, I misunderstood some pretty basic stuff about the show. I remember thinking that Tom Baker was just Sylvester McCoy whose hair had grown out. I was convinced that Jon Pertwee was just Tom Baker but older and with grey hair. I don’t think I was even aware at 9 that my favourite show had ended.
For all his flaws as a writer and mine as a fan, Moffat knew how to speak to me. He brought back Daleks and Cybermen, but also Zygons, and the Great Intelligence, and the Ice Warriors, and most importantly of all, Rassilon and Gallifrey. But he brought back the Doctor in a way that Russel T Davies hadn’t managed to, because he’d cut ties too cleanly with the show’s own history.
I saw Jodie Whittaker’s first outing as the Doctor in a cinema surrounded by fans. Most of them were young women but there were a few that looked like me, and a few that looked like I had in 1990. The reboot is pretty comprehensive and it’s a welcome chance to shuck off Moffat’s vice-like grip on the direction of the franchise. Whittaker is utterly wonderful in the role and I already can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next. And there are lots of little signs that I’m still going to be looked after by the show — starting with the use of the Fourth Doctor’s scarf colours on Whittaker’s shirt.
That crowd gave me the same thrill that I’d felt at the first few women’s footy games I’d attended. I remember noticing that there were loads of young women wearing their suburban team uniforms to games even though they were spectators not participants. It slowly dawned on me that this was a claim on footy not unlike the claim I wanted to make on the Doctor, but from a very different position. In both cases it was powerful to watch access expanding; to watch something grow in the sharing. It is humbling to realise something so important to your selfhood has moved on past you, and very special to still be included in it because there is ultimately room for everyone. It’s a beautiful thing to encounter something that it costs one nothing to share.
I’m not a gatekeeper anymore. I of all people know why it matters to have a hero like the Doctor on screen, and to all the new fans out there, it’s definitely your turn.