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The Carletonian

David Tennant’s Return to Doctor Who: A Sign of Sexism and Male Saviorism

There was widespread celebration among “Doctor Who” fans in Oct. 2022, when, at the end of the episode “The Power of the Doctor”, Jodie Whittaker disappeared in a blast of orange light, revealing a familiar suit beneath her burnt clothes. It was indeed David Tennant, back as the titular character in the British show that ran from 1963 to 1989 before being renewed in 2005. This celebration was not just in reaction to seeing an old favorite return, but also in leaving behind a sub-par era. For those who have not watched “Doctor Who,” the show follows an alien who travels through space and time in a time machine disguised as an old-fashioned police box. As lead actors come and go, the character changes faces and personalities in increasingly more dramatic and special effects-heavy scenes. I use the word “actors” to mean mostly men, as Jodie Whittaker, who is a fantastic actress in all of her other TV and movie appearances, played the only female Doctor in the show’s history.

The decision to hire Whittaker as the Doctor following Peter Capaldi’s exit in 2017 caused both support and consternation among the “Doctor Who” community, with former lead actors either voicing their agreement or disagreement with the casting. Whittaker, who has been appearing in films and television since 2006 and has been nominated for several high-level British awards for her work, spoke to the backlash (which came from a significant minority of the fanbase) in 2017: “’Doctor Who’ represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.” Unfortunately, her run as the Doctor was marred by poor production and writing, making her character hard to watch and, frankly, boring.

The plot of her first season was fine, but the episodes had no real connection to each other, especially when compared to Peter Capaldi’s poignant final season that led up to his and the First Doctor’s emotional regeneration. While Capaldi’s run did suffer from odd writing, he had episodes where he could shine and plots that proved his strength as a Doctor who solved serious issues. The supporting characters, companions Yaz, Graham and Ryan, only developed as people when it assisted the episode’s plot. As an example, Ryan was introduced as someone who struggled with dyspraxia and disliked his step-grandfather Graham. He never seemed to struggle with the coordination disorder after the first episode until his exit, and patched up his relationship with Graham remarkably quickly. Ryan and Yaz are characters of color and this was used as a prop to make the show seem more “woke,” confirming naysayers’ fears.

Now, I’m all for more diversity in television, but it’s frankly insulting when used inconsistently and in cliché ways. I don’t want a female lead to have to verbally declare that she’s a strong woman, I want to see it through her actions. None of the male Doctors overstated their strength, they demonstrated it through speeches, winning battles against terrifying enemies and saving as many people as they could. What struck me the most about the difference between the way Whittaker was told to portray her character and the way David Tennant, who will play the 14th Doctor for the 60th Anniversary Special, played his version is the extent to which they expressed emotion. The 10th Doctor could be joyful and silly, but also strong, serious and burdened by past trauma. His last words were “I don’t want to go,” performed with such grief and fear that is a great step forward in normalizing emotion in men. Whittaker’s Doctor fell into the stereotype of a generally cheerful, unemotional woman that took a leadership role but didn’t play a primary role in solving huge issues, especially not when compared to her predecessors.

So, as much as I’m excited to watch David Tennant reprise his fan-favorite role for another episode alongside Catherine Tate, who played one of my favorite companions for a season in 2009, it grates on me that a man had to be brought in to “fix” the problem by replacing a woman. Tennant won’t stick around — Ncuti Gatwa will take his place as the 15th Doctor for at least one full season. He is the first Black actor to take the lead role. In the background, Neil Gaiman has returned to the show. That should right the ship for “Doctor Who,” but I’m concerned that the poor writing and directing while Jodie Whittaker was the Doctor will harm the chances of another woman getting the chance to take on the role. Also, on a surface level, it seems as though Tennant taking over for Whittaker is an example of a woman not being able to take on a male-dominated job, as the naysayers (including former Doctor Peter Davidson, though he retracted his statements quickly) said back in 2017. It’s an unfortunate turn for a show that has been a staple of sci-fi television for decades and has the potential to contribute positive representation of minorities to television.

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