Could we maybe...not? (A Doctor Who appreciation post)
There was a bit of a rumor going around a week or two ago that Hugh Grant might be the new Doctor once Jodie Whittaker hands over the keys to the TARDIS. I was thrilled to hear it. Not only had Grant already done a turn as the Time Lord but he also had everything necessary for a really good portrayal: the gravitas of a well-lived life, the talent to do drama and comedy with equal grace, and a posh British accent. He’d make a perfect Doctor.
Except for the fact that apparently, it’s not true. Bugger.
Finding out he won’t be the Doctor brings back the question of who will be and honestly, I just want a safe option. Throw a rock during the BAFTAs and whoever it hits gets the gig.
Look, I think one of the most important things a critic can be is honest with themselves about when they’ve lost their ability to be objective. It happens, you know. There are times when we simply cannot retain a professional distance and this is one of mine. I’ve been watching Doctor Who for something like 40 years; he’s arguably been more important to my development as a person than my own family. My blueprint for personal responsibility was heavily influenced — if not created outright — by Tom Baker’s Doctor. If someone needs help and you’re in a position to give it, you do. Stay curious. Be kind. Teach others. Dogs rule. These are just some of the things I learned at the knee of a tall, garrulous, be-scarfed man with a head of unruly curls, and they matter to me deeply. I’m far from alone in that, of course, but I’m just trying to explain why I care so much about the casting decisions of a silly TV show.
Now, does the Doctor have to be a white British guy to do all that? Not at all. (Well, the British part, yes. Sorry, but whether the actor is or not, the Doctor himself needs to sound like he’s from England. These are the rules.) And I accepted Jodie Whittaker in the spirit of that…and holy bonk, did her Doctor suck. Suuuuuuucked. That’s partly the fault of the stories she was saddled with, which were just plain awful, and likely due in no small part to showrunner Chris Chibnall’s choices. Whittaker herself is a fantastic actress, so it’s not due to a lack of talent. But someone, somewhere, either due to a directive from high above or their own vision, just plain blew it when it came to the first female Doctor. I wouldn’t trust her Doctor to make toast, let alone save the day, and though the version of The Master who cropped up in her eps was fun, that was all those seasons really had to offer. It was bad.
To be completely fair, DW had been going downhill for a while. Though Matt Smith understood the assignment on an atomic level, he was burdened with overwrought story arcs (don’t even get me started about Melody Pond or I’ll never stop) and just plain bad writing. Peter Capaldi’s run had bright spots, for sure, but made some regrettable choices. (Sonic. Sunglasses. I can’t.) He gave it his level best, but it all stopped being fun after a while. And whatever else Doctor Who is, it should always be, on some level, fun.
I can’t say I really blame the BBC for wanting to shake things up and attract new viewers. The show’s been running forever and then some, and TV viewers are a wee bit more sophisticated than it used to be. Look at Star Trek Discovery and you can see the American reflection of the Doctor Who problem; a long legacy that should feel like inspiration but often feels like shackles. Change it too much and you’re betraying the fans, but don’t change it at all and you’re likely turning away a new audience.
I get it, I really do. I just don’t care.
I treasure this character and this show. All I want is a monster of the week. I don’t need season-long mysteries or stunt casting of TikTok influencers or anything. Put a man in a box and let him go from place to place and fix things. That’s it. There should be running, and explosions, and technobabble, and aliens, possibly robots, and definitely schemes to take over the planet/galaxy/universe/other. Stop trying to make it into something it isn’t.
I understand the desire for Doctor Who to be more than just an episodic sci-fi show. It has this history, this importance for people that is genuinely rare. But can we just not? Can we please just let it be the kind of stupid entertainment it’s been for most of its life? Can we just not try so damn hard? Not forever, just until it finds its feet again. Until it once again has its rhythm and remembers, oh, right, this is who the Doctor is and this why they’re zinging around in a Police Box. Not because of The Impossible Girl (fuck you forever for that one, Moffat), not because they’re soooo aloooooone in the universe. But because they can, and they’re curious, and they want to see what happens if you push this button.
A guy traveling through time and space, having adventures. Bad guys wanting to do bad things are thwarted by the good guy because he’s clever. Strand him on Earth again if you want to keep the budget down, I don’t mind! Succeed on that very, very small scale and then I’ll wholeheartedly support your efforts to make Doctor Who into some sort of beacon of truth or hub for other series, whatever it is the moneyhats want it to be. But first, can we please, please just nail the basics? Please?
PS. If you’re wondering about that header image, it’s the secondary console room from Tom Baker’s run. The wooden sets warped due to moisture during the offseason, which is why it was only used for a short time. Glorious, though, isn’t it?