Every Doctor Who fan, every few years, undergoes the worry and fear of the regeneration. It starts with the dreaded announcement – ‘this will be the last season’ for whichever actor is playing the Doctor. The BBC and the Doctor Who production team then start this crazy game of who will be the next Doctor, the press weighs in and then the betting starts. It is all a crazy, crazy environment which is used to publicize the show, and well it causes much existential angst amongst the fans.
The merits of the top contenders are weighed, the bets are laid, and the wait ensues. Ultimately a new choice is made, and there is general discussion about whether the producers were drinking a lot, or if this was the best choice made, and so on.
This has been going on since 1966 when William Hartnell left the show and Innis Lloyd the producer had to replace him. This was big stuff – Hartnell was the original Doctor, and nowhere was it said that he could change. It was a risk in just replacing him, but they did, with Patrick Troughton. He managed it by being completely different. And so it came to pass that when the actor playing the Doctor decided that it was time to move on (and in the case of one – when someone else decided it was time to move on) the fan was faced with the suspense of the regeneration. Would the actor be good in the part, were things going to change too much, would it all work?
The first regeneration I remember is when Tom Baker left the series in 1981 and Peter Davison was announced as the new Doctor. I was a bit surprised. I knew Davison as “Tristan” in All Creatures Great and Small, and loved him in the part. How would he work as the Doctor? Added to which, he seemed awfully young. Ultimately, I loved his Doctor.
For me, the key to a good regeneration – or rather the key to having the series last when the lead actor leaves – is to make the character of the Doctor different enough so as to lessen comparisons between performers, while keeping the essential elements which the audience understand and recognize. This is a very tricky balance to keep. It all depends on the ability of the producers and writers to make sure that the stories provide the actor with the means to portray the Doctor, and please the audience. It is a rather hard place for an actor to be in, to have to take over such an iconic role, with such weighted expectations, huge history, and devoted fandom. It takes a deft hand, and a lot of talent to manage this. For the most part the series has been successful. Although I have to say, the first season for Capaldi was really a disappointment, so it was a good thing that the actor was so good in the part that he was able to overcome rather lacklustre scripts.
I have now gone through this whole regeneration merry-go-round 8 times, and well, honestly, it is getting silly. When it was announced that Matt Smith was leaving it became a rather heated debate as to who would replace him. I think that the added muscle of social media made this particularly noteworthy. There was the feeling that the role of the Doctor should reflect more of its audience. There was a lot of talk about having the Doctor be less WASP-y, with the casting Idris Elba or David Harewood, both fine actors of colour, and good choices. Then there was the talk of having the Doctor be less manly, and hiring a woman for the part. Neil Gaiman’s great episode “The Doctor’s Wife” had already suggested that Time Lords were not gender fixed. So why not have the Doctor be a woman?
A lot of people were outraged, the Doctor a woman? Not happening, it isn’t traditional, it won’t work, etc. They hired Capaldi, so the point was moot.
And then, during Capaldi’s run they brought back the Master as a woman. Missy was brilliant, and the chemistry between the Capaldi and Michelle Gomez, who plays her, is captivating. The issue of regeneration then as a woman was answered by the producers – male characters can regenerate into women. Any restrictions imagined by the fans or others were gone.
So when Capaldi announced that he was leaving, the discussion became more pronounced. Soon after there was a lot of buzz about Tilda Swinton being offered the role (an interesting idea). But with this seeming openness about gender in casting, the haters came out. I must say that this brave new world of social media has not only increased conversation, it has created a platform for people to express some not so pleasant views about women in roles of power (and the Doctor is a power role). There are also a number of people who expressed disdain at the idea of a female lead in a science fiction work. And then it was announced yesterday that Jodie Whittaker would be the Doctor. Boom!
I must say people can be disappointing, saying such hateful things, and making such rash judgements. We haven’t even seen her play the Doctor yet, and people are trashing the choice, making statements that are rather misogynistic and cruel. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a female lead in Doctor Who. And in an interview Whittaker actually had to defend her gender. Defend it, as if somehow the choice was wrong. Ridiculous!
Every time the role is recast, there will be changes. As fans we have to accept that. The actors we enjoy will not play that role forever. They are talented people and want to enjoy a variety of parts in their career. We have to accept that the change is inevitable, and that while we may picture the Doctor in our heads in one way, and this is usually biased towards our first Doctor (you never forget your first) that is not necessarily how others do. So the Doctor will be played by a woman now – so what? It is not the gender that is important.
Like other regenerations the proof will be in the pudding. We have to hope that the producers and writers of Doctor Who come through with solid scripts, that the casting for all the parts is solid, and that the ultimate product – the episodes, are true to the series, its past and its present. Seeing as the show will also have a new Executive Producer (Chris Chibnall), and there will be new companions as well, it will be interesting to see how the whole changeover goes. I look forward to it!