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Mark Shenton: Doctor Who casting furore echoes idiotic controversy over Harry Potter play

Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the 13th Doctor. Photo: Colin Hutton/BBC
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The Doctor is, at last, going to be played by a woman. More than 50 years after the BBC launched the franchise about this time-travelling extraterrestrial being from the planet Gallifrey, it has finally been acknowledged that this alien creature could, after all, have been a woman. Jodie Whittaker will play the role.

TV audiences have been all too happy to accept different actors playing the character already – we’ve watched 12 actors come and go, including stage and screen stars such as Peter Davison, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi – but now the show’s executive producer and new head writer Chris Chibnall has announced a new route: “I always knew I wanted the 13th Doctor to be a woman and we’re thrilled to have secured our number-one choice. Jodie is an in-demand, funny, inspiring, super-smart force of nature and will bring loads of wit, strength and warmth to the role. The 13th Doctor is on her way.”

Predictably, perhaps, some fans are not quite as happy. Paul Burston, a journalist and author, commented on Facebook: “People having a meltdown because the new Doctor Who is a woman. It’s a television programme about a time-travelling alien who changes shape every now and then. Grow the fuck up.”

Singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg tweeted:

It reminded me of the controversy surrounding the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger for the original cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End. JK Rowling pointed out at the time: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.” She told the Observer: “With my experience of social media, I thought that idiots were going to idiot. But what can you say? That’s the way the world is. Noma was chosen because she was the best actress for the job.”

That’s exactly as it should be. But there’s a social responsibility to effect changes in attitudes that such casting decisions can create, too, by exposing the racial or gender bigotry of the dissenters. It also galvanises the show and gets it spoken about again.

As Mark Lawson has noted in the Guardian of Whittaker’s casting, “The choice of Whittaker creates a fresh buzz around the series, the feminisation of the character automatically offering exciting new possibilities.” He also stated: “It remains to be seen whether the UK still has a woman prime minister when Whittaker makes her debut on Christmas Day, but the first female in this other key position has the potential to be popular in a way Mrs May can only dream of.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Hogan pointed out that Doctor Who “is a family-friendly entertainment show”. He added: “And half of most families are women. If we can’t rely on a series about aliens, spaceships and time travel to be forward-thinking, what can we?”

In the theatre, we’ve seen the classical canon opened up and considered anew by women playing great Shakespearean roles, such as King Lear (Glenda Jackson), Henry V (Michelle Terry), Malvolio (Tamsin Greig) and Prospero (Harriet Walter), in the past year.

Susannah Clapp said in the Observer of the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeares, of which Walter’s performance was a part: “These productions proved something more essential: that the norm did not have to be male. They also showed how arbitrary our sense of difference is. The news was about gender. With your eye and ear on that, it was easy to overlook the fact that the stage was being remade in other ways: full of round as well as skinny bodies, black and brown as well as white. That Scots and Irish inflections were not restricted to subordinates. Good actors make you notice the differences between characters, not the differences the actors bring to a show.”

In the same way, we are ready for a female Doctor. Though, as the Daily Mash hilariously spoofed, the BBC has deemed that Britain is not yet ready for a Glaswegian Dalek. It quotes a putative BBC spokesman: “The Dalek voice is designed to be really intimidating. We would take a huge risk by giving it a Glaswegian accent. Many of our male viewers would find it even more frightening than the prospect of a female Doctor.” As ever, it is a comic slant that makes one see the absurdity of the position.

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