15 December 2023

Has wokery killed Doctor Who?


Don’t blink. Whatever you do, don’t blink. If you blinked, you will already have missed the attempted relaunch of Doctor Who, with David Tennant returning in the lead role and Russell T Davies (the man who brought to the series back to our screens in 2005) back in charge as the showrunner.

Last month marked sixty years since the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast and the show is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest continually running TV series in history (although this rather skirts over the fact that only one episode was broadcast between 1989 and 2005).

More importantly, Doctor Who is a firmly established part of British popular culture. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has never seen an episode – and even amongst those who are not regular viewers, virtually every Brit knows that the Doctor travels through time and space in a blue police box, has the ability to regenerate (very helpful when the leading actor is sacked or resigns) and is frequently menaced by the pepper pot-shaped Daleks who shriek “exterminate”.

The Doctor may only have been with us for six decades, but the character has established such a firm position in our hearts and minds that he sits alongside Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur as a British icon.

For sure, the series has ebbed and followed in terms of its popularity. Initially imagined as an educational series aimed at introducing children to a range of historical settings, the show quickly became a science fiction phenomenon. It narrowly avoided cancellation in 1970 and in 1986 and was finally canned by BBC head honcho Michael Grade in 1989.

After a misfire of a TV movie in the mid-1990s, Doctor Who returned to the BBC eighteen years ago. This was not merely a delight to ageing geeks like myself but proved a colossal success amongst a wave of new viewers. It achieved that rare feat of being “event television”. Audience ratings were stratospheric. Merchandise flooded toy shop shelves and filled Christmas stockings.

Under Doctors 9, 10 and 11 (Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith), the series maintained an astonishing level of quality and popularity.

Then things started to go wrong. With Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation of the title role, interest began to wane. Capaldi himself was simply brilliant in the role. He even had a handful of truly fantastic stories (in fact the top two stories of all time, as recently selected by readers of Doctor Who magazine, are both from Capaldi’s run) but generally, the quality of the scripts began to drop off. Average stories were very average indeed. Often, in fact, they were a mixture of impenetrable and boring.

In 2017, the BBC took a decision seen by some as ‘stunning and brave’, others as a limp gimmick and by some hardcore Doctor Who traditionalists as something approaching blasphemy. Jodie Whittaker was cast as the first female Doctor. After an initial burst of curiosity, ratings began to fall off a cliff. The buzz and excitement around the show also withered dramatically. Very few kids yearned for a Jodie Whittaker action figure as a Christmas present.

For many fans, this was the point at which the show was not merely suffering from a collapse in imaginative writing, but also became definitively ‘woke’. The problem wasn’t so much that the Doctor was now a woman – although that was always going to be a controversial move – it was that she wasn’t anything much beyond simply being a woman (and possibly a lesbian). That was pretty much the character’s identity and scriptwriters could not resist the urge to make cringey politically correct points (the mere fact that the latest incarnation was a woman meant the Doctor was “new and improved”, that sort of thing).

Similarly, the Doctor’s companions seemed to amount to little more than tick-boxing exercises. Yasmin was “female, Asian, probably a lesbian”. That was about the totality of her personality. Nominally, she was a trainee police officer but she appeared to display no policing skills of note whatsoever. Ryan was “black and attempting to overcome a disability”. His wider character was so flat that one wondered if Doctor Who had become a show about adventures in just two dimensions.

To the fury of those fans who care about the series’ history and continuity, one infamous episode even changed the Doctor’s origins. No longer was William Hartnell to be accepted as the first incarnation of our hero, rather the original Doctor was now a young ethnic minority female. It is hard to see what narrative purpose such a reimagining of the Doctor’s history this could possibly serve. 

From a time when the series could regularly pull in around ten million viewers, it was now struggling to attract even half that number. True, television ratings have generally declined in recent years. When I watched Doctor Who as a kid, it was one of only three available options. The most watched episode ever was actually only competing with BBC2 (ITV were on strike at the time). Nevertheless, Doctor Who’s decline – admittedly from a high peak – has been dramatic.

So, we come right up to date and the latest major effort to turn around the Doctor’s fortunes. David Tennant was recast in the leading role. Catherine Tate was back as Donna Noble, one of the most popular companions of the modern era of the series. Most importantly, Russell T Davies was back as showrunner – the man who had overseen the enormous success of the relaunch of Doctor Who.

The results have been disappointing. Audience interest has not been woeful – but it has been very flat. Perhaps the show has simply run its course. But the failure to whip up new interest in the series has certainly been correlated with a further doubling down of wokery.

First, we have the return of a favourite villain in the short Children In Need special episode. Davros, the creator of the evil Daleks, was introduced in a Tom Baker story may back in 1975. He was a brilliant scientist who had suffered terrible injuries. We only ever saw his body from the waist up. His lower half was that of a Dalek. Davros was such a hit – intriguing, malevolent and genuinely scary – that he has returned many times since to our screens. Often alongside his Dalek creations (and frequently antagonistic to one faction or another of them).

Now, however, Russell T Davies has decreed that having such a character is “problematic”. This is apparently because Davros is in a wheelchair and there is, I’m told, a long and uncomfortable history of such villains. Put aside that I doubt anyone had considered Davros to be wheelchair-bound (whizzing around in a Dalek casing surely isn’t the same thing?), the new Davros is simply a white, able-bodied humanoid. Once again Davros is brilliantly played by Julian Bleach, but is nowhere near as fascinating or frightening or mysterious as the traditional version.

The first new full episode, The Star Beast, introduces us to Donna’s daughter, Rose, who is a trans woman. I have no problem at all with such diversity of characters, but major parts of the story then hinge tediously on identity politics. The Doctor is challenged on the correct pronoun to use when addressing an alien invader. The return of David Tennant – the favourite Doctor of many viewers – is also undermined by it being pointed out in no uncertain terms that it’s a great pity he is no longer a woman. None of this is morally wrong as such, it just doesn’t tend to make for exciting science fiction.

In the next episode, Wild Blue Yonder, Sir Isaac Newton is played by an actor of colour. True, Doctor Who has never strived for a fully accurate portrayal of ethnic accuracy, but it just jarred and was distracting. Perhaps that was the point?

The final episode of Tennant’s recent trilogy, The Giggle, features the return of a villain from the black and white era of Doctor Who, the Toymaker. Originally known as the Celestial Toymaker, the descriptor has now been dropped – it apparently has racist overtones. For sure, the previous appearance of the Toymaker back in the 1960s was ‘problematic’ – it even featured a nursery rhyme with the ‘n word’ included. So, the new Toymaker now speaks in a cod German accent. That is the sort of person our modern day antagonist apparently needs to be.

Has wokery killed Doctor Who? I’m not sure. It’s important to understand that the series has always tackled contentious political themes – and typically from what could be described as a ‘left liberal perspective’. The 1972 Jon Pertwee serial, The Curse of Peladon, is a veiled argument in favour of the UK joining the Common Market, for example. A wide range of other stories have raised environmentalist concerns, expressed scepticism about the motives of major businesses or even heralded the wonders of the NHS.

I think it’s not so much the ‘messages’ in Doctor Who that are grating with many fans. It’s that such messages are all too often laid on with a trowel and serve no obvious dramatic purpose. Too often these days, the overriding aim of the show seems to be to communicate the ‘message’ rather than deliver a great tale with a potentially interesting, perhaps even controversial, moral hidden within it. This is likely a route towards an ever-dwindling fan base.

There is a market out there – and a big one – for the Doctor’s exciting adventures in time and space, even interlaced with subtle moral messaging or social commentary. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the BBC funding model doesn’t make accessing that market an especially high priority. 

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Mark Littlewood is Senior Economics Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.