Doctor Who: ‘There are worse heroes for young men than women’
With original material, all you have do is worry about being good or bad. With Doctor Who, I also had to worry about being wrong
Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) and Doctor Who (Jodie Whittaker)
There is nothing quite like starting a new novel. It’s that primary-school joy of that blank first page, as bright and clean and rich with potential as a field of pristine snow. And it’s something to be cherished, because it lasts just until someone asks you to explain what said book is about.
Cue stammering. Cue potential becoming pressure, as you try and fail to put your idea into words and then remember that putting ideas into words is generally what this entire writing business is about.
It becomes even more challenging when it’s a Doctor Who book, because Doctor Who is about so many things already. Depending on the decade, it’s either a programme intended to educate children or the most violent show on the BBC. It changes genre from week to week – adventure, horror, ghost story, fairy tale – with an ever-shifting roster of characters that include Agatha Christie, William Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh and, now, Rosa Parks.
When I wrote the Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy, it was me writing it. That sentence may not be the best advertisement for my ability, but it’s true – I was the creator and cartographer of a brand-new world. The details, the characters and, above all, whether or not the reader believed in them, was completely up to me.
Doctor Who, in comparison, has 36 seasons, half a century of lore, dozens of writers across several mediums, an ever-evolving and often contradictory timeline, a main character played by 13 people (and John Hurt) and a robot dog. It’s survived cancellation, missing episodes and even Eric Roberts. With original material, all you have do is worry about being good or bad. With Doctor Who, I also had to worry about being wrong.
Wrong about Cyberman naming protocols. Wrong about the Silurian attitude to polytheism. Wrong about whether Judoon have the right bone structure to hold a human’s hand. Or simply wrong in tone; it’s intimidating as a sophomore writer to see a creation so loved that fans can confidently state what the Doctor would and wouldn’t do, as if this face-swapping immortal is someone they bump into down the shops.
At least BBC Books’ brief was simple. Twelve Angels Weeping – 12 short stories about the Doctor’s classic enemies that add a dash of Christmas to that particular brand of horror that a show nominally for children has become so famous for.
For a lot of people, Doctor Who is about the villains. Jovial warmongers shaped like baked potatoes. A twisted reflection of the Doctor with maniacal plans and a neat goatee. Angel statues that move when you’re not looking at them, and pounce in the space between your blinks. Fascist pepperpots that should be ridiculous, but absolutely are not, because they run on hate, and hate is terrifying to a child. So many of Who’s villains are like that. Childish nightmares; moving mannequins, someone mimicking you and refusing to stop, getting lost and being alone. Fear – the quickest route to being young again.
It was scary trying to think of something new to say about this universe. I had to reduce it, dissect it, ask why the ideas behind it have endured for so long. What’s the throughline in this story that has kept this hero and these villains alive for so long?
A change has come, in this new season. There was some resistance to the idea of the Doctor being played by a woman (though not as much as you’d think, happily) A lot of the arguments against gender-flipping established characters revolve around ownership. Heroes are needed. Who will our young men look up to?
And there is a disparity. Hundreds of school events have taught me that girls write male heroes in class because they think that’s the default. Only 27 per cent of Marvel and DC characters are female (8 percentage points higher than the US Congress) and the numbers become even more depressing when you look for diversity in sexuality and race. And male role models are disappearing. Creators, comedians, men of high office – they’re tumbling from grace every day. The difference is, these falls are grotesquely and malignly their fault, and characters of other origins were never let in at all. As always in stories, heroes must rise to fill the gap.
And there are worse heroes than doctors. There are worse heroes than swashbuckling pacifists who listen to kids and are delighted by science, heroes with two hearts who want to build and heal and help. There are also worse heroes for young men than women, actually, which is why Jodie Whittaker’s take on the Doctor is not just about time, but long past.
Change is the source of Doctor Who’s endurance. When the First Doctor, William Hartnell, left, the character regenerating at the point of death kept the idea alive. Evolution can be terrifying. It’s no accident that so many of the Doctor’s foes are unable to adapt; either fiercely hidebound, stagnant, or utterly convinced of their own perfection.
As the 13th Doctor herself puts it: “There’s this moment, when you’re sure you’re about to die, and then…you’re born. It’s terrifying. Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them.”
Because Doctor Who is, at hearts, not about the Doctor at all. It’s about Rose Tyler finding out there is at least one more thing stressful than a career in retail. It’s about investigating the uncanny like Barbara and Ian, or sneaking aboard like Adric, or taking the controls like Leela of the Sevateem. It’s about stepping out into a wider universe and defying the expectations of your time and place. Student or stowaway or soldier or stewardess; the universe is yours to explore, to contribute to, to add to in a way that hasn’t been done before.
That’s the story that is not told nearly enough. That’s the story that should endure.
After all, children are watching.
Twelve Angels Weeping by Dave Rudden is published by Puffin, priced €14.99