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Space For All: Thoughts on the Current State of Doctor Who (and its Fanbase)

My intention had been to write a post today about the various theories on the big reveal in “Fugitive of the Judoon”, Episode 5 of Doctor Who Series 12, but I've decided it will be better to do this one first. Before we begin, SPOILER WARNING: I'm about to dive into all the events of the most recent episodes, so don't read on unless you're caught up or you don't care about spoilers.

In the most recent episode, showrunner Chris Chibnall took the bold step of revealing a new–and possibly old, as well–incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jo Martin. So far, there are some hints that she is somehow a past Doctor, but we don't really know anything for sure about her yet. Despite that, there has been a certain degree of controversy in the fanbase about this surprising twist.

I use the word “controversy” guardedly, however, because shining a spotlight on arguments among fans of any franchise often serves to blow small disagreements out of proportion. This is a subject I approach with extreme caution, as someone who generally takes the middle ground with regard to the current era of Doctor Who. I'm willing to call the show out when it makes mistakes–for example, the disappointing episode “Orphan 55” this year and a number of lackluster stories last year. Also, as a person with conservative values, I don't like the common practice of labeling everyone who disagrees with political themes in entertainment as racist or sexist. Those are extreme words which are thrown around far too carelessly these days.

Technically, I'm not taking a side in the debate over the Jo Martin Doctor–or, to put it another way, I'm taking my own side, which diverges from both extremes on a number of points. I think that a calm and balanced analysis of the current status quo is what's required here, not anger and name-calling from either camp.

Is there a controversy?

This question is worth asking, because it only makes things worse to use the word “controversy” when that's not what's actually going on. Yes, I've seen some angry remarks on social media and elsewhere from both camps about the Jo Martin Doctor, though none that I would characterize as actually hateful. I'm sure that far more un-civil comments are floating around out there, so you don't need to convince me that they exist. But on the whole, can we really say that the majority of Doctor Who fans are in an uproar over a woman of color being cast as the Doctor? I don't think so. The majority of the comments I've seen about her performance in the role are positive, despite some understandable concern being voiced over what this Doctor's existence will mean for established Doctor Who canon.

Yes, there's some disagreement about the big reveal, but I question whether this is really any different from the debates Doctor Who fans have been having for a very long time. I've been active in the fanbase for over ten years now. Trust me, every crazy thing Steven Moffat did annoyed a certain percentage of fans–it's just that back then, the show was more niche, and the mainstream media didn't pay a great deal of attention to the debates. Now that recent casting decisions have generated headlines, more people are noticing the grumpiness (and yes, occasional hostility) that has been a part of Doctor Who fandom since the beginning.

The very unhealthy atmosphere that's arisen around the Star Wars franchise has made the media eager to dive into the fray every time fans of anything disagree about something, but I'd argue that even after all these years, the media doesn't really understand fan culture. Arguing is part of fan culture. There's never any excuse for that arguing to get ugly, but if you're waiting for fans to all get along perfectly, I hope you brought snacks and pillows.

I don't deny that there's been undue hostility over recent developments in Doctor Who, or that people on both sides have been hurt by it. I know they have. I've heard their stories. But dismissing whole segments of the fanbase as hateful because of what a few loud voices have said isn't going to help anything, regardless of which side of the debate you're on.

So yes, there is a controversy, of sorts. But let's try not to make it worse.

Is the negativity justified?

There are a number of people on YouTube who post videos every week pontificating about why each new Doctor Who episode was worse than the last, spreading unverified rumors about future episodes, and decrying the destruction of Doctor Who (as well as other franchises) by “woke” agendas. Are these people wrong?

Negativity gets clicks, and just like with Star Wars and every other franchise that's allegedly gone “woke”, it's possible to get a decent income by cashing in on fan discontent. I'm all for free speech, and I certainly don't think these people should be silenced, but I don't care for this trend–especially since it only adds fuel to the fire and brings out the worst behavior in fans. I don't follow the YouTubers I've mentioned, mainly because I already know what they're going to say every week. Perhaps they do occasionally praise one or two creative decisions by the current Doctor Who team, but it certainly doesn't appear that way.

Here's the thing: if you think that Doctor Who is a bastion of conservative values that's been overwhelmed by woke politics, you haven't been watching Doctor Who. The show has been very liberal since the 1980's. The Moffat years that everyone misses (including myself) were so third-wave feminist that there were frequent moments of blatant sexism against men. Historically, Doctor Who has been a decidedly liberal TV show that was still clever and fun enough for people of all political persuasions to enjoy. It's never had the strong Middle-American conservative fanbase held by franchises like Star Wars. So claiming that Doctor Who has “gone woke” is a little ridiculous.

That said, while Doctor Who has always been liberal to a degree, it hasn't always been explicitly political. That's where the problem comes in. The people who call the show “woke” just because women are playing the Doctor now aren't necessarily correct, especially when you consider that both Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin's introductory episodes actually contained less third-wave feminist rhetoric than episodes led by male Doctors in earlier years of the show. Yes, the decision to hire Whittaker and Martin may have been politically motivated, but that isn't reflected within the show itself.

But, when the show does overtly get political in episodes like “Orphan 55”, causing the actual storytelling to suffer as a result, that's where problems creep in. Most of the comments I read about “Orphan 55” criticized the script, not the politics. The same was true for multiple episodes of Series 11. So attacking the people who didn't like those episodes because of their alleged conservative politics is wrong. They do have a point. And to the degree that YouTubers are critiquing the quality of Doctor Who's scripts without making blanket statements based only on the Doctor's gender or race, they have a point as well.

Is the praise justified?

Doctor Who Series 11 was hailed by the mainstream media as a breath of fresh air based primarily on Whittaker's casting and the inclusion of political themes. Meanwhile, the program shed a worrying number of viewers and returned to middling ratings in Series 12 as a result. Interestingly, I've seen a lot more negative reviews of Series 12 from the media and more praise from the fans.

Doctor Who Series 11 had its moments, but I still consider it to be the most disappointing year of Who since the revival. I think many fans would agree with me. That said, a lot of people are praising the way Series 12 is shaping up, despite the misstep that was “Orphan 55”. This is because the scripts have improved, overall, and the show is finally doing justice to its vast legacy by tying into established continuity.

“Fugitive of the Judoon” was not a good episode of Doctor Who just because it introduced a female POC Doctor. Nor was it good solely because it had a number of surprising moments. “Let's Kill Hitler” had plenty of fun surprises, but the script was pretty uneven despite that. “Fugitive”, on the other hand, was carefully plotted from start to finish and did a great job juggling all its big moments. (Plus, Jo Martin was excellent in her scenes as the Doctor.) I'm not saying the reveal of this incarnation isn't a landmark moment for the show, but it's not the only thing that makes “Fugitive” such an important episode. If the repercussions of “Fugitive” are handled well (and we have yet to see if that will be the case), then it could represent a welcome return to the high standards set by past seasons of Doctor Who, a fusion of the old and the new that could give the show a new lease on life. Casting a female Doctor was not enough to make Series 11 good. Casting a female POC Doctor will not be enough to make Series 12 good. In the end, they both stand or fall based on the fundamental tenets of good storytelling that remain true for all time.

Is Doctor Who “just a TV show”?

At the risk of getting very controversial, I will say this: I suspect that if Jo Martin's Doctor had been a white male, the reaction to her reveal would have been different across the board. The highly-critical fans might have been more willing to give the twist a chance and see how it played out, but on the other hand, the fans who are solely concerned with liberal politics would likely have excoriated Chibnall for undercutting Jodie Whittaker's female doctor with a male “replacement”. I think this scenario demonstrates much of what's wrong with the Doctor Who fanbase right now, on both sides.

The “culture war” with regard to science fiction and fantasy has gotten out of hand. Yes, the “woke” crowd started it by sacrificing quality in favor of subversive twists, as was the case with “The Last Jedi”. But the anti-SJW crowd isn't helping matters. They voice criticisms of bad storytelling choices, but remain determined to hate whatever the people responsible for those choices do next, even if they try to improve things based on fan feedback. Then the woke crowd reacts with more anger, and the vicious cycle continues. And sooner or later, somebody snickers about the fact that people are getting this upset over something that's “just a TV show”.

Doctor Who is not “just a TV show”. Nothing that brings large numbers of people together and gives them shared joy is “just” a TV show, a movie, a book, etc. Franchises that have gained significant fanbases deserve to be respected and protected, by both the fans and the creators. Both have a responsibility to remain civil, even when mistakes happen or disagreements arise.

But while these franchises do have a greater significance beyond mere entertainment, they are still supposed to be entertaining. Doctor Who is meant to be fun. Everyone who forgets that hurts the show. The creators hurt it when they write scripts that are more about bashing viewers over the head with politics than telling a good story. The fans hurt it when they lash out at each other and tell people that they're not allowed to enjoy a particular episode because it was either too liberal or not liberal enough. As I've seen other people point out on social media, this drives people away from the fanbase and causes it to shrink instead of grow. That's what's happening to Star Wars now, in addition to other franchises. It shouldn't happen to Doctor Who.

There's a lot to be happy about in Doctor Who right now. Better scripts (usually), intriguing mysteries, and truly shocking moments on a scale we haven't seen in years. I've really been enjoying the discussions I've been having with fellow fans about where this season of the show might be going. It's an experience I used to enjoy a long time ago, and that I've missed. And yes, I may not like the way it all pans out in the end. If the Doctor had incarnations prior to the First Doctor, thereby turning a great deal of Who canon on its head, I won't necessarily be pleased. But hey, I've been disappointed by changes to canon before, and it didn't stop me from enjoying the show in the long run.

There's a beautiful moment in “Fugitive of the Judoon” that no one seems to be talking about. As the Judoon close in on the Doctor and “Ruth” in the cathedral, the Thirteenth Doctor says sternly, “This is a place of worship. Show some respect.” The Doctor, a character who has frequently dismissed religion and expressed atheistic sentiments, demanded respect for a belief system she didn't share. As a conservative Christian, I found that very moving, and I applaud Chris Chibnall and Vinay Patel for including this scene. I wish that many Doctor Who fans could be this considerate. There really is space for all in this fanbase, even if we don't agree on everything. Doctor Who used to bring people with varied opinions and beliefs together in a way that few other franchises could. There's no reason why it shouldn't keep on doing just that.

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Comments (2)

*heartily applauds* Thank you so much for saying all this. I was never very active in the Star Wars fandom, even when it was my main fandom (translation: when Rebels was still around), but I’ve heard that the fandom got really terrible. Really the only thing I know about in that is that fans started going too far with Andi Gutierrez, one of the Lucasfilm PR reps and the gal who gave us Rebels: Recon after every. single. episode. Anyway, some people apparently were being… unkind… to her, and I got slightly upset over that.

I’m not terribly active in the DW fandom, either, seeing as I don’t have any social media, but I do scroll through Twitter occasionally, so I at least *keep up* with the fandom. It really bugs me when people turn a fun thing, that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things (certainly not in eternity!) and that shouldn’t be worth arguing over, into a catfight.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I quote-unquote “argue” with my (two) Whovian friends all the time. I’m a Clara fan, Twelve is my favorite Doctor, and before you ask — yes, I ship Whouffle/Whouffaldi — don’t @ me. Oh wait. You can’t, I don’t have social media. XP But one of my friends is a humongous Eleven fangirl and we can spend hours “arguing” over our Doctors — but it’s all in good fun and only teasing.

It kinda frightens me when fandoms start to spiral into toxicity, I don’t want that to taint my personal experience as a fan, you know?

Absolutely; I completely understand. I’m glad you liked the article. I really hate to see when any fanbase gets taken over by this sort of negativity, regardless of who’s responsible or what the quality of the actual media is at that point. There really isn’t any excuse for a breakdown in civility in these situations, I feel. I wasn’t aware of any of that stuff regarding Rebels; that’s a shame.

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