by Z.P. Moo
Sometimes I am frustrated to be a Doctor Who fan. I’m just going to lay that card on the table from the outset before I start to talk about anything here.
This feeling of frustration comes from the fandom surrounding the show rather than the show itself. I am of the opinion that Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner has been the pinnacle of Doctor Who as a series and that in all of its five decades (and counting) it has never been better.
I don’t want to knock the many producers and writers that came before him, nor any of the lead actors that preceded Matt Smith. The fact I hold The Moffat Era in high regard comes from the strengths of that era, not from the perceived weaknesses of the others. It is only a minor, but vocal, portion of the fandom who have that tendency to praise different aspects of the show not on said aspects’ merits but by putting down other things to make their chosen target of praise look better than it is. But they’re a very annoying bunch all the same.
Moffat’s showrunning tenure, for example, can’t be praised for the way it has pushed the boundaries of what Doctor Who can be or for how it has used the show’s time-travel premise in bold new ways. No, nononono, the whole thing’s ridiculous. You have to instead tell me why Russell T Davies was wrong with his creative choices and how Moffat has “broken from the shackles imposed on him” when he inherited it.
The audio dramas made by Big Finish are an excellent supplement to the show that have brought new life to the less popular periods of the show’s run and added new stories to the canon that bring new perspectives to proceedings. Tell me why that is a good thing and cite examples, but don’t tell me why the TV series sucks in comparison because that is not a valid argument. (Sidenote: With the exception of Torchwood.)
You get the idea anyway.
But in recent years this minor portion of the fandom has become more and more vocal as more and more websites appear and have to compete for clicks. So as soon as series ten got underway and people got to know Bill and Pearl, suddenly there were roughly fifty different websites running articles on “Ten Reasons Why Bill Potts Is Better Than Clara Oswald” and variations on that theme as well as a few thousand tweets and Facebook comments.
Are we not allowed to enjoy both of these characters? Apparently not! No, Bill couldn’t possibly be a good companion on her own terms. She has to be good because she is better than Clara Oswald, who is a blot on the history of the programme and proof that Moffat can’t write characters and should have Davies brought back ASAP.
Why can’t we recognise that both of these companions were excellent characters with excellent arcs? Clara is someone who wants to get away from the humdrum of boring life and sees the Doctor as a gateway to this and eventually manages to essentially become the Doctor herself. Bill is an under-privileged minority as a gay black woman, but the Doctor helps her to fulfil her potential eventually managing to even survive becoming a Cyberman and transforming into an immortal water goddess. Both of these are excellent character arcs that resonate with so many people on so many levels. Why do we only get to praise one of them and why can we only do so by putting down the other?
It’s still going. Skip ahead to July of 2017 as the next Doctor is announced and the Internet implodes in on itself. Chris Chibnall has found some inspired casting that I couldn’t be happier about. But why is it that suddenly everyone comes out of the woodwork determined to use this as an opportunity to use this casting news to throw shade onto Twelve? Why can’t we use this exciting news to revisit the 12th Doctor’s life and see how what little we know of the 13th Doctor is the fulfilment of it instead?
Which brings me to the entire point of this article: To examine the 12th Doctor’s character arc, before applying the new context offered to us by the 13th now we know by whom the next incarnation is played.
The 13th Doctor, significantly revealed after the Wimbledon Men’s Final, is going to be played by Jodie Whittaker. Yes, it’s finally happening, the Doctor is going to regenerate into a female incarnation. It’s an idea that has been toyed with many times of course, and I can cite in-universe evidence going as far back as 1976 for it be possible, but now it ceases to be hypothetical and is something that’s actually going to happen. In the upcoming “Twice Upon A Time” we will see Peter Capaldi engulfed in the now-iconic gold dust and see Jodie Whittaker emerge.
Seeing that Chibnall has cast a woman came as something of a shock to many, but really it shouldn’t have been that. The idea of a woman being the Doctor after Capaldi has been on the cards from his very first episode!
Or rather it’s been there as subtext. In “Deep Breath” we see him having to struggle to come to terms with his new identity, which we can describe as “Less User-Friendly” than Matt Smith was. The scene in the restaurant as he confronts the half-face man whilst checking out his own reflection on a shiny surface is a highly symbolic moment, as he does battle with someone who, like himself, isn’t the person they started out as any more.
This becomes a recurring theme throughout series eight as he goes through a character arc of self-discovery. This new incarnation is every bit as dark as Smith’s was but this manifests in a different way and that’s what Clara has to deal with as the audience identification figure. Twelve reveals his true dark nature without hiding it behind the facade of daft hair and a limitless supply of energy. But he struggles with who he is now and doesn’t know what sort of person he identifies as anymore. Famously he takes Clara aside and asks her a question in an infamous scene from “Into The Dalek”. “Am I a good man?” he asks. “I don’t know”, she tells him, “but you try to be and that’s probably the point”.
Twelve’s journey of self-discovery continues; as he grows older in this incarnation’s lifetime, so too does he learn more about what sort of person he is now. “Kill The Moon” has him leave Clara alone trusting her to make the right choice saying that Earth is not his home so it’s not for him to choose but “In the Forest of the Night” has him claiming the planet as his own world in the absence of him having anywhere else.
In many ways the figure of Danny Pink can be seen as an obstacle for the Doctor to overcome in order to figure himself out. Danny is an ex-soldier, like the Doctor, and he has a self-imposed duty to protect Clara in spite of her lying to him, also like the Doctor. When the Master returns and turns Danny into a Cyberman, Danny forces himself not to give in to what that means because he loves Clara. He will never do anything to hurt her; his love for her is too much to let such a thing as Cyber-conversion get in the way.
“Death In Heaven” forces the Doctor and Danny to confront each other and their different means for the same endgoal and it’s here that Twelve finally finds himself by seeing it in Danny. Witnessing Danny Pink die in order to save Clara (and the world with her too which is a nice bonus) shows the Doctor what a true hero looks like, sacrificing himself for the person he loves. So when Clara gets hold of the Master’s zappy thing and is presented with the chance to kill her the Doctor gets to put that into action immediately by taking hold of the weapon for himself. Of course his own best friend does the deed instead, keeping blood off the Doctor’s hands, but the sentiment is what matters. From this moment on Twelve has decided on what sort of person he is: the Twelfth Doctor is going to be a self-sacrificial hero.
Which all goes horribly wrong for him as he lunges through series nine.
In the opener “The Magician’s Apprentice” we get to see what this new version of Twelve is like. On a random trip through space-time he ends up on Skaro during the Thal & Kaled war where he meets Davros as a child but refuses to save him from certain death, instead leaving him alone. Later summoned by Davros, now a dying old man, the Doctor sends a will and testament to the Master and sets off to have a party in the past, with electric guitars and military tanks showing up in the medieval age. It’s clear in these moments that he has grown increasingly reckless, telling the rules where they can stick it because “I’m the Doctor, just accept it.”
But this rubs off on Clara, now without Danny Pink to anchor her to reality. In “The Magician’s Apprentice” she goes off running away from normal life and never bothers to explain it to her newly abandoned class. The cliffhanger to “Under the Lake” has a ghost of the Doctor appear after he’s forced to leave Clara in the present on his trip to the past. Clara has zero trouble believing that the Doctor might go one step too far and then end up dead and she accepts that this could be the real deal. “Before the Flood“ has the Doctor willingly arrange the death of someone else there to test a theory and then threatens Clara being next as a means to motivate himself, because that’s all he cares about. The rules of time-travel that Doctor Who has established are something that Twelve is increasingly defying.
And this comes to a head in “The Girl Who Died”.
In this wonderful gem of an episode that Moffat co-writes with Jamie Mathieson we see Twelve go too far, and not for the last time this season, when his trick to defeat The Mire ends up claiming the life of teenage girl Ashildr. Triumphantly declaring “I’m The Doctor And I Save People!” he uses some alien technology to resurrect her, but it works too well rendering her incapable of death. Suddenly Ashildr’s life is changed forever and all because Twelve is not prepared to accept the rules of the universe and the reality of death.
As the series progresses he grows increasingly determined to break the rules of what he can do and this is the ultimate example of it. When reunited with Ashildr in “The Woman Who Lived” he learns of her immortality and the cost of it, her bodily functions still remain unchanged and thus she cannot remember past the standard human lifespan. She has to cope with the loss this brings her, even choosing to take on a new name – Me – in recognition of her solitude. When they meet he learns that she has put trust in the wrong people repeatedly getting herself into trouble, on this occasion it even allows for some aliens to invade Earth that the Doctor must convince her to help him fight off.
He continues to assert himself not just with individuals like Ashlidr/Me but also the entirety of two species. “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” has him set himself up as President Of Earth and take matters into his own hands and indirectly causes a lot of deaths along the way. “Sleep No More” has him assume he’s successfully fixed the problem despite missing the entire point of what was going on. And then “Face The Raven” happens.
At this point Clara has grown more and more reckless in parallel with the Doctor that she so admires, emphasised in a lovely setpiece in this episode where she dangles out of the TARDIS as it flies over a city. The episode sees her and the Doctor reunited with old acquaintance Rigsy who has a life sentence hanging over him despite his protests that he’s innocent. It transpires that he got this sentence from Ashildr as a means to lure the Doctor there at the Time Lords’ behest, sending him to Gallifrey in his Confession Dial.
But Clara has taken on Rigsy’s life sentence for him, and Ashildr’s deal doesn’t cover her, she cannot be saved. And as Clara’s recklessness gets her killed, the Doctor is sent away into the dial. Except at this point he forsakes being the Doctor and all the promises that come with it, as he struggles for 4.5 billion years to break through a diamond wall and eventually ends up back on Gallifrey with a grudge to bear. Bringing down Lord President Rassillon with ease he commandeers the extraction chamber and brings back Clara, even killing the Eleventh General, who regenerates into the Twelfth General from a white man to black woman. The Doctor then proceeds to steal a TARDIS and run away with Clara.
The Doctor’s ordeal throughout “Heaven Sent / Hell Bent” bears a striking parallel to Danny Pink back in series eight. To protect Clara, he goes through a living hell and then manages to overcome the literal impossible to save her. Danny sacrifices himself and dies, the Doctor forces either he or Clara at random to forget the other, which ends up being him. He gives up his memories of Clara in return for her to go on living, effectively a self-sacrifice. Clara goes off in her own TARDIS with Ashildr to all manner of untold adventures while the Doctor is left alone with no memory of who she was. He sets himself up to be the self-appointed saviour of the universe, and this is where it got him.
The last message Clara leaves for him is an instruction to “Be A Doctor”. So that’s just what he does, but he still hasn’t fully got the message. When he reunites with River Song he tries desperately not to go on what will, for him he knows, be their final date at Darillium. He resists it but the universe has other ideas and so that’s where they end up. The reckless abandon and wilful disruption of the course of history is presented to him as an option once again, but he chooses not to take it this time. He can’t tell River about the library planet or warn her not to go there. It simply isn’t an option to him. All he can do is make sure their date is a good one, so he does. And then afterwards off he goes again, back to adventures. Or not.
The Doctor wants to get back to adventuring but Nardole is sent along by River to make sure he doesn’t. “Extremis” shows the Doctor being forced to guard the Master inside a vault and how Nardole is sent by River to keep the Doctor in check. The Doctor’s desire to have adventures throughout space and time are constantly thwarted by Nardole at every turn, and while he can have the occasional on-Earth adventure, like the one shown in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, he is not able to go out into the stars and see what he finds there.
And then eventually he meets Bill Potts.
Twelve around this time is feeling stifled about who he is, with Nardole telling him he can’t go do what he does or be who he is, but Bill is in a totally different position. A black gay woman but not someone who won’t let her minority status stifle who she is, she embraces it and lives it out with pride. Unlike the Doctor was until now, she is sure of who she is and what she stands for. Unlike the Doctor, she can be herself.
The Doctor is drawn to her through their shared desire to learn and understand everything and their mutual excitement at learning there’s much more to the universe than they thought before. When Twelve eventually agrees to show her the universe in his TARDIS it allows him to once again embrace who he is without Nardole shooting him down at every turn. The first few episodes of series ten are arguably little more than traditional Doctor Who stories that have been done to death before but it works in this context because they’re all about the Doctor embracing who he is once again.
The first true test of the Doctor’s resolve as he rediscovers himself comes in “Oxygen” when he loses his sight saving Bill. After returning to Earth he tells her that Nardole was able to fix it, but he later confides in Nardole that that’s not true and he’s still blind.
To be the Doctor becomes harder than ever for him now as he loses his ability to see what’s going on anymore. But he still manages it. When he prevents the certain end of the human race in “The Pyramid at the End of the World” he does it despite being blind the whole time. At this point he gets his sight back, thanks to Bill’s intervention, but the point is made, he can be the Doctor no matter what. Interestingly it’s only possible for Bill to intervene on his behalf because he decided to open up to her and stop keeping his situation secret. Twelve has been assuring himself about who he is at that point, and here he decides to be truthful about the situation instead of denying it for some idealised version of it.
With that reading applied, it could be seen that series ten is one colossal gay metaphor, with the Doctor deciding he knows who he is now and struggling against Nardole’s opposition to live up to it. With that in mind, Steven Moffat’s two-part finale “World Enough & Time / The Doctor Falls” can certainly be seen to take the subtext and make it text. Bill’s plight as a Cyberman can be seen in this way. Her mind rejects the idea that she could have undergone such a change and through some stellar directing by Rachel Talalay (Look, another prominent woman in the Capaldi era!) we see this through Bill’s eyes with Pearl Mackie being the one on screen and the one who delivers most of the dialogue instead of Nicholas Briggs.
Similarly, the Doctor has his own version of this: Opening up to Bill about how Time Lords are gender-fluid, the fact that his life is saved by two gay women who become literally water-deities, and of course him standing alongside two incarnations of the Master of whom one is female, and when the earlier male incarnation’s protests to the Doctor “Is the future all girl?” he’s met by a response of “we can only hope.”
As the serial progresses, a Cyberman electrocutes the Doctor – it’s unintended and not suicide so “Exile” can suck it – and his fourteenth regenerative process kicks off, but he holds it back. He’s sure of who he is now and doesn’t want to lose sight of it. Twelve has come a long way from the man who didn’t feel secure in his self and was more than willing to throw his life away on numerous occasions, he’s figured himself out now. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me!”, as Bill declared. How perfect that this is the situation he’s in when he comes face-to-face with his original incarnation! The Doctor was many different people before and will continue to be later, so refusing to accept the change is hypocritical of him, and here he has the living proof confronting him.
With the big “coming out” metaphor that the entire era was building up to combined with the personification of why change is good, it couldn’t be more perfect that when the story resumes at Christmas with “Twice Upon A Time” the regeneration creates a female incarnation. It just makes sense!
As I hope I have shown, Twelve’s character development really couldn’t have ended with anything but regeneration into a female incarnation; in-universe it makes perfect sense that this is what the next incarnation would be! And it makes sense from a real life perspective too.
Ignoring the argument of there having been 13 male incarnations up to now, though a perfectly valid argument it is, we can look at the wider context of the world at this time. With women taking on more and more major roles – on-screen we have Star Wars and Wonder Woman and the Ghostbusters reboot to name but three, and elsewhere the most powerful person on Earth is arguably a woman named Angela – so we wouldn’t want our favourite show to get left behind as society becomes more and more favourable to giving women equality like never before. The current President of the United States was a step backwards in this area, given his well-publicised views on women, and it’s important that the media responds not just by criticising him and people like him (but please please please do criticise him at every turn because he’s a monster) but by presenting an alternative, better, view. To put women in positions of authority and in leading roles, both on-screen and off it, has never been more important. Doctor Who did make a positive step with mocking namechecks of President Trump at least three times in series ten, by now combatting his views of women head-on it can go even further without the need to even mention him.
But making the Doctor a woman is not just political – but let’s face it, it is that because television does not exist in a vacuum – it’s also a positive step because of what it represents for the person on the street, the average TV viewer. There’s been talk of how many little girls around the world have been excited about this choice but it feels like the other fans have been ignored in that area.
Well let me tell you something. I am straight, white, male, Christian, and in my twenties. None of that, going by the (often false) stereotypes associated with such a person, would scream out that I’d be happy with this change. And yet I look at her, standing in that forest as she holds the TARDIS key and beams that smile, and I can’t help but feel inspired.
Jodie Whittaker’s casting proves that you can do anything and be anything regardless of what you are, who has done it before, and what people might think or say. That’s what a female Doctor Who is about. That’s so inspiring and it’s a message I hope many people will take on board as they watch her performance throughout her years as the Doctor.
The future’s bright, folks. Be excited.