11 Giants for the price of 1

Warning: this could get long. It also, at least technically, contains spoilers.

I love Doctor Who. I love Star Trek and BSG and Bab5 and Firefly, too. No question. But they’re not Doctor Who. Neither was Blakes 7, or any of the other sci-fi classics where the future had a British accent. The show’s commercial success is quite extraordinary, particularly now that the international mass market has bought into New Who.

The 6th Doctor?

The 6th Doctor?

The actors, some of the writing, the comedically awful special effects and low-budget instants of genius, the eccentricity, the power and pathos of moments like Adric’s sacrifice in Earthshock or the death of River Song in Forests of the Dead; Doctor Who has been a source of magic and wonder for three generations of British children. And all along, there’s been exactly two things one might argue are wrong with it; the Doctor is never a woman, and the Doctor has always been white British. Even making the Doctor northern was sufficiently challenging that it needed to be addressed in dialogue.

In a bit, I’m going to discuss my hooks for this piece of thinking, which are these two alt-history experiments. But first I want to address why I’ve put the Doctor up as a Friday Giant (even late!).

My construction of the Giants of my theme is that they are sources of thought and inspiration; ideas, viewpoints, axioms and paradigms. They are the heritage from which we can choose to learn. Any culture which has survived any time at all generates a huge legacy (even, contra Wilde, the United States). One cannot climb all of the giants of one’s cultural heritage; not least because that inheritance carries the echoes of giants from both sides of any question of history. We remember James VI and I, as well as his mother and his aunt. We remember Robert E. Lee as well as Ulysses S. Grant.

And we remember Birth of a Nation as well as Roots and The Colour Purple. We remember Locke as well as Mills, and Candide as well as Gulliver. Many US Republicans remember John Galt, and many US liberals remember Hagbard Celine. In the last case, I could, and most would, say that we remember Rand and RAW, but with the Doctor it’s not that simple. Yes, we remember Terry Nation and the Cartmel master-plan; the playful, much-missed insight and humanity of Douglas Adams. But we mostly remember Hartnell and Ecclestone, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. The Doctor is a towering figure in the philosophical develpment of many Britons from a very early age, just as James T. Kirk and Katherine Janeaway were for many Americans.

Over the decades the character of the Doctor has changed and evolved, but the princples of the show remain consistent and seductive. We don’t like guns. The future is made by those who run towards the explosion. We gain our greatest advantage by talking, but only if we listen. Courage is found in the strangest places. Details matter, but not as much as people. These values, among others, have been communicated across the generations to a great many of us and have left their mark on our society. The 11 Doctors represent a powerful and enduring narrative of tireless hope for the future: an eternal effort toward the triumph of the better angels of our nature.

Alisdair Stuart’s hypothetical list of female Doctors is, quite simply, brilliant. He took everything that was grand about each Doctor and lovingly translated those values and characteristics into a completely new paradigm, which tilts given plotlines into new directions; for example, the complex affair of the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler takes a whole new spin if the Doctor is Sue Perkins. My personal favourite picks were 1st Doctor Grenfell and 6th Doctor Margoyles, but all of them are inspired choices which collectively examine the Doctor’s contribution to our society through a new lens.

Equally, Jef with one F’s American Doctors carry that contrast across the Atlantic. They speak to the strands of US history and popular culture which never had a vehicle like Doctor Who (Star Trek did something very different with its vision of the future). Consider the much greater role of the military-industrial complex in 1970s America, and how bitterly immediate that would make the 3rd Doctor’s tenure in exile among warriors. For me, though the best item on that list is the quite perfect choice of Alan Alda for the 4th Doctor. I would dearly, dearly have loved to have seen that.

But there’s also a fundamental difference between the two lists. It’s very interesting to look at what the Doctor could have been to, and in, American society. But in doing so, the Doctor also changes substantively. For a start, an American Doctor could not easily have rejected guns. The plot-lines and the enemies would have to have been intrinsically alien to the British Doctor. The nature of his actions and ethics would have been modified and re-formed by the difference in his adversaries. The very language and direction of his timeless principles would have been very different had the 1st Doctor come from the US: even if he was from California.

The female Doctors, though? Grenfell’s 1st Doctor and Hartnell’s would have needed no more real difference in writing than to change the pronouns, in most plots. It would require hardly any editing at all to place Tom Baker’s meditation on genocide from Genesis of the Daleks on the tongue of Penelope Keith, or Sylvester McCoy’s rant to Davros in Rememberance to hear it delivered by Siobhan Redmond. If they’d cast Patterson Joseph as the 7th Doctor or Idris Elba as the 10th, those actors would have imprinted themselves on the role like every other Doctor, but they could happily have lived in the same scripts as McCoy or Tennant. That’s simply not true had you cast, say, Forest Whitaker.

These two lists highlight for me something important; that to make the Doctor American would be to reform the drama into something else, something different: but to make the Doctor female, or black, or Asian, or a Scouser would simply make the show better. Such casting courage would have added nuance and texture to the existing values and visions; it would have greatly strengthened several of the core messages of the show, particularly if the Doctor was at times both male and female. But it would still be our Doctor in a way that Alan Alda and Steve Martin simply could not have been.


3 Responses to “11 Giants for the price of 1”

  1. 1 Helen 03/03/2013 at 8:44 pm

    Great post. I’m with you on this – skin colour and gender would shape the themes of the show far less than shifting the whole culture of it westwards. I’d dearly love to have seen all of the alternate female doctors, especially Grenfell, Keith and Margoyles.

    The 10th and 11th would also have been wonderful choices, but less good analogues for Tennant and Smith – I don’t think they’d have worked so well with the scripts as they played out.

  2. 2 johnqpublican 04/03/2013 at 8:46 am

    I can see Sue Perkins playing the scripts Tennant did, though in the modern writing you would definitely need more flexibility with dialogue and details to sell it; it would put a different direction on the 10th Doctor but I could see the end result being recognisable. I think Miranda Hart’s Doctor would be an interesting successor to the Hattie Jacques 2nd Doctor, but wouldn’t be anything at all like Matt Smith.

    While it didn’t stand out the way some of the others did, I really liked the idea of Honor Blackman as 3rd, as well. That’s one where you could have played her in all the same scripts, but the actual impact of everything would have been very different. Thanks for stopping in :)

  3. 3 Gareth Thomas 04/03/2013 at 1:55 pm

    I thought Sue Perkins was a deft choice, not only because there actually was a campaign to get her appointed as the Doctor after Tennant left, but also because her being openly gay fits quite neatly with Russel T Davies view of the Doctor as a gay icon. It seems of a piece with the more deliberately progressive things that the show was doing in that era (like having all the companions be working class or black, or Captain Jack’s cheerful omnisexuality).

    On the other hand, her comic style always struck me as cynical and deflating – almost the opposite of David Tennant’s manic exuberance – so I completely agree that you would have to rewrite the scripts. Most David Tennant episodes ended with a massive enthusiastic speech about how brilliant something was, whereas I suspect a Sue Perkins episode would probably conclude with her surreptitiously pushing the villain du jour down a well.

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March 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith


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