Are Doctor Who characters representational or realistic?

When the first lesbian companion was written into Doctor Who for the 10th Series–and a person of color at that–many saw Bill Potts as a representative character. Whether you were complaining that it was a liberal conspiracy by the BBC to push their PC agenda, or hailing the casting as an appropriate (though belated) way to diversify the regular cast to help break down the barriers of prejudice, either way, you may have believed Bill Potts was there to represent.

As one lesbian woman put it, “It wasn’t until I saw Bill on screen that I realised how significant the move was, and with it, how important representation is as a whole. I’m not talking about the BBC hitting its diversity quotas here, but how important it is to see someone like me on screen, on the show I grew up with.”

Similarly, with the recent hiring of Jodie Whittaker to play the Doctor, many have seen another way for the show to represent: now women can more easily identify with the hero of the series.

This raises an interesting question: Are characters in Doctor Who meant to be representational? Writers don’t think much like viewers, commentators, or execs. They want to create great stories, and in their experience, great stories are populated by realistic characters–not in the sense that they are ordinary, but that their motivations, desires, and personality traits coincide with what we might find in the real world. Perhaps you think that realism and representationalism do not have to be mutually exclusive, but the fact is, the more representational a character is, the less realistic, and vice versa.

Realistic characters most resemble a real-life person. A realistic character is complex. They are depicted in a very detailed way, with a host of attributes, an “identity” that sets them apart from everyone else. There is therefore less room for interpretation or for the viewers to identify with the character by attributing their own identity to that character.

A representational character, on the other hand, is more generalized, so that a greater number of people can identify with the character. Moreover, a representational character also is idealistic: if the character is a hero, only the best and most exemplary qualities will be on display, and if the character is a villain, just the worst comes out of them. If the character is too nuanced or carries too many specific attributes, the idealism breaks down, and the representation narrows considerably.

Pearl Mackie, the actor portraying Bill Potts, has seen her character as very much three-dimensional in nature. “I’m here to play one person,” she said. “I’m not here to represent the entire lesbian and gay community, and I’m not here to represent the entire ethnic minority community. I think that kind of thing can be quite dangerous as well because essentially, lumping everyone together is something that we should stay away from anyway. I just play one individual who is a lesbian and if people identify with that positively then that’s great.”

Is it possible to meet the norms of representational correctness without sacrificing the realism of a character? Yes, to a certain extent. If you don’t have a character that your fans can identify with, empathize with, or care enough about to want to learn more about them, then they won’t want to watch the show. Sure, some characters can be unappealing jerks, but the regulars need to have at least some representational characteristics. The success of Bill Potts is that, even though she is a realistic, complex character, viewers have identified with her in many ways, even those who are not lesbian or people of color. This has occurred because she has qualities a large number of people can identify with.

Nevertheless, one can go to an extreme with representation. Realistic characters need to believable, and to be believable they need personality. Quirks. Idiosyncrasies. Anything that sets them apart from a general “type.” After all, no one on this planet fits a stereotype. We all deviate in some way. Even more importantly, to be realistic a character needs to be flawed. This is especially important for protagonists. Nobody’s perfect, not even heroes. In fact, heroes are often defined by their weaknesses. Nobody is completely selfless or completely malicious. Characters who do good or evil for the sake of good or evil are flat.

A flawed character can be representational, but we can’t then expect that the character will be wholly ideal. Some people expect this from representation. Have you ever had a friend you really cared about, and you make sure everything you tell others about her presents her in a positive light? A writer can’t do this even with heroic characters. It kills the realism.

When watching and critiquing characters in Doctor Who, and how they are depicted, a beneficial approach is to ask ourselves how realistic the characters are first. Representational interpretation is valuable, but if it is the first thing on our minds, we may miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.

What is representational interpretation? Basically, it analyzes the presentation of characters in an effort to determine whether those representations are objectionable because they depict that character stereotypically or prejudicially based on their race, sexual orientation, or other category. A typical claim would be that the writing for, or portrayal of, character X perpetuates prejudicial beliefs and is therefore objectionable.

Fortunately, grotesque caricatures of “the other” are no longer acceptable in media today and have mostly disappeared. Still, there are some stereotypes that have remained: the sassy black woman, the Asian kid who is a math genius, the black man who is great at basketball, the ultra-effeminate gay man, the Latina seductress, the submissive Asian woman, the Indian who works at the 7-11, etc. Not all the stereotypes are negative, but they are still stereotypes that have been far overdone in entertainment media.

To portray individual characters in these ways is not always bad–such people exist in real life–but when only a handful of these stereotypes are used to depict diverse kinds of people, when these are the only depictions available, and when actors are typecast in these roles, we are continuing to perpetuate misunderstandings about people and the barriers of prejudice.  Stereotyping is, in fact, unrealistic, because it squashes individualistic portrayals.

Of course, attempts at political correctness can also be misguided. Simply casting minority groups into leadership roles, for example, is a kind of overcorrection. It still on its own does not constitute a genuine attempt to develop realistic, three-dimensional characters.

Our desire for sympathetic portrayals of minorities might also cause us to be unduly sensitive to anything and everything that a script imposes upon that character, so much so that we may miss the larger picture.

Prejudices can be decreased through learning about a minority group through entertainment media, especially if a person has limited personal contact with that minority group.  But prejudice is not best combatted through idealistic and unrealistic portrayals of the minority group. The important thing is not whether the character possesses certain stereotypical characteristics, but whether there is sufficient mixture with other characteristics to complicate the viewer’s impression of that minority group. In order for prejudices to be broken down, the viewer must have sufficient contact with such characters, and the portrayals of those characters must be relatively positive (i.e., they have to be at least as positive as the portrayals of the majority group characters). They do not have to be 100% positive. If they are, we have lost our realism.

In analyzing a character, we should look at the whole range of their attributes. Otherwise we could overestimate the significance of a particular scene or line of dialogue.  When a person from a minority group is cast in a role, our first thought should not be to develop a list of all the things the writers can’t do with the character, and then when the character violates one of those rules, to get upset. Our biggest concern should not be whether we or our friends are made “uncomfortable” by something a character says or has happen to them, but whether the portrayal of the character overall is helping to whittle away the audience’s prejudices.

Doctor Who: Have boys lost their best role model?

The next series of Doctor Who will bring us a brand new actor in the role–a woman in the lead, the first time in the program’s history. Although most of the fans and the public are thrilled and highly anticipating how Jodie Whittaker will play the part, a vocal minority have been resistant to the change. One of the reasons you might hear cited is that, with a male actor no longer playing the Doctor, boys have now lost a positive role model in their lives, and this is the downside of the decision to give the role to a female. I think it’s wise to give greater thought to this idea.

There can be no question that youths need positive influences, and heroes presented on TV are a force for good, when used in the proper way. Moreover, it is true that the Doctor was one of a few male heroes in visual entertainment that generally used his brain to solve problems instead of violence. He is a figure that consistently displays valuable attributes, who stands up for good and right and justice, and sticks up for the lesser people and the ethical treatment of the unlike. With a woman in the role, have young males lost this valuable role model? Not in the least. And here’s why:

The male version of the Doctor has not gone anywhere.  If a boy loses his father, either through death or abandonment, then yes, one can say that he has lost an important role model in his life (assuming the father was exemplary at least in some ways). The influence of that father is gone. Oh sure, there might be some old photos, letters, or videos taken of the dad, which the boy might be able to view sometimes, but the everyday interaction, the spending of quality time, the intimate conversations–those days are over. Yet it is not the same with Doctor Who. The episodes featuring a male version of the Doctor, hundreds of them, still exist. Oh yes, there may be a few missing episodes, but for the most part, a young man can watch the vast majority of those episodes any time he wishes. He just has to turn on Amazon, or Britbox, or his DVR, or pull out a DVD, and William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, John Hurt, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi are right there in front of him, doing their thing exactly as before. And I mean exactly, because each time that boy watches the episode, there is no difference in what he sees from when it was first aired. For all intents and purposes, those Doctors are alive again. And my bet is that most boys have not even seen all the episodes of these Doctors, so many of the productions might be new experiences for him. It even may be that Jodi Whittaker’s time as the Doctor will be over before that boy can even finish watching the old ones. So that positive role model has not left the building.

A woman can be a role model for a boy. Role models come in all shapes and sizes, and they serve different purposes. A young person can learn from many people, and they don’t all have to be the same gender. Ask a single mother, and she will tell you. Yes, a man can certainly be a helpful and very important model for a boy, if the boy needs an example of how to be a man. But a boy does not only need to know how to be a man, he might also need to know how to be a good student in school, or an obedient child, or an industrious worker, or a kind person, or a decent human being in general. Models for those parts of his life do not need to have the same “equipment” as he does. Let’s say your son wants to be a scientist. Who might be his role models for that? Other scientists, of course. And if he wanted to be a firefighter, other firefighters would be his role models. Do those scientists and firefighters need to be men? Of course not. And the reason is because he doesn’t need a scientist to teach him how to be a man. He needs a scientist to teach him how to be a scientist.

Now, the Doctor is a great role model–no doubt about it–an exemplar as a fighter against evil, an investigator, a teacher, a student, a leader, an engineer, a helper, a thinker, a champion of the underdog, etc.–but as a man? Maybe a bit, but that certainly isn’t the primary trait that he is modeling. Saying that the Doctor needs to be male to be a role model for boys is not a far cry from saying he needs to be white to be a role model for whites. His gender, just like the color of his skin, is one of his least important characteristics, and I say this objectively, based on what the program has shown over the years, because it has never really highlighted his manhood or his skin color, other than simply showing his appearance on the screen. When has any Doctor Who script emphasized the Doctor’s maleness as important? Never, as far as I can recall. There are many girls who have cited the Doctor as a role model, even though he is male. And it’s because he provides an example in so many other ways. Should it be any more difficult the other way around? No. A female actor playing the role can still exhibit all of the Doctor’s great features, providing a positive role model for both boys and girls.

The Doctor isn’t the only role model in the program. Since 2005, two names have appeared on the opening titles of the show with regularity, the actor playing the Doctor, and the actor playing his companion. The fact is, the companion is a role model too. Guys who say the tradition of a male Doctor and a female companion should not be messed with agree. On occasion I have heard them say that the Doctor is a role model for the boys, and the female companion is the role model for the girls. Unfortunately they see no reason why young women would need to have any other role model than the companion. What this means is that, for them, the male must always be in the dominant position. He must always be the leader. The female must play the secondary role. She must be the supporter. Perhaps unwittingly, if we say that the Doctor rightly is the role model for boys and the companion the role model for girls, we also seem to be advocating the rightful position of women in subordinate roles in society in general. “Not so!” someone might argue. “Other shows can have women be dominant. I am only saying that about Doctor Who.” But you see, if you are emphasizing the need for exemplary role models in the show, then you must also believe in the example they set.

When the show returns for Series 11, there is a strong likelihood that the companion will be played by a male. If you feel that it is necessary for a role model for boys to be a man, then you should be able to see this companion as such a role model. In fact, wouldn’t you want your son to see how a man might sometimes serve in a secondary position? He may end up getting a job in which a woman is his supervisor or boss. He’ll have to get along with her and show her proper respect. Wouldn’t it be important for him to see, not only how to be a leader, but also how to be a follower? These next few years with Jodi Whittaker might be just the thing for him.

These are three strong reasons, I believe, for rejecting the notion that a positive role model will be lost for boys once a female actor takes over as the Doctor next series. Perhaps on the surface, it may have seemed like a decent and valid reason for being put off by the idea of a woman playing the part. I hope that some deeper thought on this matter will have changed your mind.

Ten Things You May Not Know About the Recent Casting of a Woman to Play the Doctor

On July 16, the world was introduced to the 13th Doctor, female actor Jodie Whittaker. There’s been a lot of chatter about the new lead in Doctor Who, but here are ten things about the casting that you may not be aware of.

  1. It was a long time coming.  Some might think the idea of casting a woman is the product of a new-fangled leftist plan, the strategy of the modern PC police, but the idea has a history that goes way back into the recesses of time. The idea was broached first in 1981, after 4th Doctor Tom Baker had announced he was leaving the show. When asked in an interview what kind of man he thought he 5th Doctor would be, he replied, “Well, you’re making an assumption that it’s going to be a man.” This may have been said partly in jest, but the current showrunner at the time, John Nathan-Turner encouraged speculation that the next Doctor could, in fact, be a woman. In 1986, when the show was put on hiatus, Sydney Newman, the creator of Doctor Who, was consulted about how the program might get a shot in the arm. His recommendations? ” First, to “engage the concerns, fears and curiosity” of young viewers. Then, “at a later stage Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman. This requires some considerable thought – mainly because I want to avoid a flashy, Hollywood Wonder Women because this kind of heroine with no flaws is a bore. Given more time than I have now, I can create such a character.” He offered his services but was never engaged. More than thirty years have passed since then, and each time a new Doctor is cast, people brought up the idea of a female Doctor. The 6th Doctor, Colin Baker, has long been in favor of the idea, and over the years has seen the subject brought up numerous times at fan conventions. “When I have been asked that question at conventions,” he recalls, “I have taken the opportunity to take a show of hands (from large numbers of predominantly Doctor Who fans in most cases) about their view of whether the Doctor could or should be a woman. I confess to being surprised when about 20%, or sometimes more, have considered the notion unthinkable – and many of them were women, whom one might think would be offended by the exclusion of their gender from the Tardis.” Though he did not understand the 20% opposed, it is notable that on average 80% of fandom was accepting of the idea. Other who have in the past expressed their support for a female Doctor include 8th Doctor Paul McGann, Captain Jack John Barrowman, Amy Pond Karen Gillan, and Rose Tyler Bille Piper. The question is not why a woman Doctor has been cast so soon, but why has a woman been cast so late? 
  2. The BBC did not make the selection; Chris Chibnall did.  Never in Doctor Who history has the BBC told the showrunner who to cast as the Doctor. It is no different in this case. The BBC wanted Chibnall so badly, they did all they could to woo him, including allowing him to make some bold moves. In a recent interview, incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall revealed: “I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it. When I went to them and said, ‘This is what I would do’, I actually expected them to say, ‘Ooh, let’s talk about that’, but they said: ‘Great!’” If anyone is to praise, or blame, for the decision, it’s Chibnall.
  3. Jodie Whittaker auditioned for the part in early 2017 and was Chibnall’s first choice.  On January 30, 2017, Peter Capaldi announced he would be leaving Doctor Who after Series 10. Shortly thereafter, Chibnall approached Whittaker and encouraged her to audition for the role. She explained in an interview: “We had a strange chat earlier this year where he tricked me into thinking we were talking about Broadchurch. And I started to quiz him about his new job in Wales, and asked him if I could be a baddie! And he quickly diverted the conversation to suggest I should consider auditioning to be the 13th Clooney [her codename for Doctor].” Although Chibnall is the one who floated the idea to her, knowing of her acting chops, she still had to go through the process.  Piers Wenger, Controller BBC Drama wrote: “She aced it in her audition both technically and with the powerful female life force she brings to the role.”  Said Chibnall: “I always knew I wanted the Thirteenth Doctor to be a woman and we’re thrilled to have secured our number one choice. Her audition for The Doctor simply blew us all away. Jodie is an in-demand, funny, inspiring, super-smart force of nature and will bring loads of wit, strength and warmth to the role.”
  4. The BBC video clip announcing the casting currently has over 16 million views, breaking all BBC records. It would seem that, no matter what one’s view of the decision, there is no question that it has created a lot of buzz. From a PR standpoint, this can only be seen as a success for the BBC, and it is encouraging for potential viewership of Jodie Whittaker’s first episode as the Doctor.
  5. The vast majority of fans and viewers are fine with the decision.  If you’ve been frequenting forums, threads on Facebook, or tweets that aren’t representative of fandom as a whole, you may have gotten the impression that a lot of people are upset. Not so. The Radio Times did a poll after the announcement was made, and of the 12,000 respondents, only 15% of them were against the casting of a woman as the Doctor. Of the rest, half said the decision was “fantastic,” and the other half said they would reserve judgment to see how she does first.  An analysis of social media stats from the U.S. and U.K revealed that in the day following the announcement, 80% of the mentions were positive and 20% negative. Despite this support, Chibnall doesn’t believe in consulting fandom when making casting decisions: “A TV show isn’t a focus group. It is great that people are speculating about who the Doctor will be… but it won’t affect in any way what we do with the show.”
  6. The casting is true to the character of the Doctor as established in the program.  No one who has watched the show regularly in recent years can deny that it is established lore that Time Lords can change their sex upon regeneration. From very early on, the program has shown that not a single vestige of the Doctor’s physical body remains after regeneration takes place. K’anpo tells Sarah in Planet of the Spiders that all the cells of the Doctor’s body were devastated and would regenerate. The Tenth Doctor tells Rose in “Born Again” (the 2005 Children in Need mini-episode) that every single cell in his body was replaced. The new body not only is new on the cellular level, the Doctor has a very different outward appearance each time it happens. Physical differences can include height, weight, hair color, skin color, eye color, voice, apparent age, and perhaps even species. That biological sex could not change would be surprising. But we know it can change, because it has been made explicit in the program since 2010. At the conclusion of The End of Time, a newly-regenerated 11th Doctor tugged at his hair and expressed fear that he may have changed sex– “I’m a girl!” he exclaimed. He thus was aware of the possibility. Neil Gaiman, in The Doctor’s Wife, wrote in a reference to a Time Lord named the Corsair, who became the first explicit example in the TV series of a Time Lord changing gender upon regeneration. In 2014 we were shown through the character Missy that the Master, whom had been male previously, had regenerated into a woman. In “Hell Bent,” we saw a Time Lord actually regenerate from a man into a woman. But perhaps, while acknowledging that it is possible for the Doctor to regenerate into a woman, someone might argue that it is still an affront to the Doctor’s character for the show to depict him as a woman. To this, I have to ask: what part of the Doctor’s character is damaged by a change in biological sex? Can you name me one aspect of his character that would suffer? I certainly can’t think of any. Let’s see…what are the main features of the Doctor’s character? Well, the Doctor is fundamentally an altruistic person. The Doctor  consistently opposes injustice, prejudice, slavery, inequality, authoritarianism, and legalism. Instead the Doctor stands for the values of tolerance, freedom, equality, justice, and individuality. The Doctor exhibits a desire to interfere in history in order to help people or set matters right. Love for family and friends, beliefs and convictions, an interest in all things scientific, in solving puzzles, in learning and coming to understand things better–all vital to the Doctor’s character. Which of these characteristics would disappear in a change of sex?  None. So clearly the Doctor’s identity is not directly tied with masculinity. The Doctor has a set of character traits, all of which can be passed on to the next body, whether male or female.
  7. Casting a woman was not a political statement. Although Chibnall committed to casting a woman from the get-go and likely did not audition any male actors, this does not mean that the choice was made for political reasons. He claims it was all about the story. “We’ll cast the role in the traditional way: write the script, then go and find the best person for that part in that script. You couldn’t go out and cast an abstract idea,” said Chibnall back in February. And that is precisely what he did. Casting is done for the service of the story, and the story that he developed works best with a female actor. It’s as simple as that. “You don’t cast for any other reason than for passion and for aesthetics,” said Steven Moffat. “It’s not a political decision, it’s an aesthetic decision and will always be.”
  8. Insisting that the Doctor should be a woman or man is a political statement. While a decision to cast the member of a certain sex, or race, or sexual orientation in a show is not inherently political, insisting that it be so is definitely political. There’s a difference between saying “I’d like the Doctor to be played by a woman” and saying, “The next Doctor should be played by a woman.” The former statement is an expression of taste or fancy. The latter is a judgment. Any judgment of this sort carries a political message, because it supposes that there are good and valid, and even moral, reasons for the position taken. Similarly, saying that the next Doctor should be a man carries a political message as well, even though it wants no change in the tradition. The status quo is a political position. It’s called conservatism. And it suggests that there are good and valid, and even moral, reasons for the Doctor to be played by a man. The only politically neutral position is to say, “I don’t care either way.”
  9. The Doctor character is not going to become a woman. Did you read that right? Yes, the Doctor character, even if played by a woman actor, will not actually be a woman–at least not in the sense we are accustomed to here on Earth. In describing the Time Lords, the Doctor revealed: “We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.” For Time Lords, sex exists (perhaps for procreative reasons, or simply because of their evolution), but they see gender, at least as exhibited on Earth, as a social construct that they have moved past. The Doctor has had a man’s body, but has never in that period thought of himself as fundamentally a male, and when he takes on a woman’s body next season, will not be fundamentally a woman. The Doctor is simply the Doctor. Always has been, always will be.
  10. A male actor is likely to return to the role in future. One of the great things about Doctor Who is that it is constantly changing. If there is a period when the show is not to your taste, you can rest assured that all you have to do is wait a few years, and it will be a much different show. It’s highly unlikely that all future Doctors will be women, or will be white, for that matter. So if you don’t like Jodie Whittaker (no judgments until you see her in action), do not fret. Someone to your liking will no doubt show up soon. Doctor Who is so ingrained in the cultural consciousness, it is likely to be around for a very, very long time.