Political Correctness gone mad? Chronicling the identity politics of Doctor Who

When Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner for UK hit TV series Doctor Who last year, he laid out one simple condition: the new Doctor had to be female.

It was overdue,” said Chibnall at the time.

“It felt really simple and obvious. The world was ready.”

The casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation was the first time in the show’s 55 year history a woman was handed full reins of the TARDIS. For many fans and commentators, it was a sign that the sci-fi series – which revolves around interdimensional time travel –  was quite literally moving with the times.

In the show, the Doctor – an alien from an ancient race known as the Time Lords – travels time and space fighting villains like Cybermen (far left), Daleks (middle) and Sontarans (far right)

The announcement came as a surprise to many, with Kris Marshall the bookmaker’s favourite for a long while. But the choice of a female lead was anything but for fans who had been following the series. Since its revival in 2005, Doctor Who has made no secret of its desire to celebrate diversity, a move surely not lost on its growing millennial audience.

In 2007, Freema Agyeman became the first black person to become the Doctor’s full companion, playing the role of medical doctor Martha Jones alongside the charming David Tennant. It was a subtle nod to black representation in Britain’s elite, at a time when a spate of violent gang crimes involving black youths was gripping the nation. Britain’s black minority had been crying out for an educated, upper class black role model on TV since Eastender’s Anthony Trueman, and Doctor Who duly obliged.

The show’s efforts at exploring the working class, as well as sexual diversity have not gone unnoticed either. Fan favourite Rose Tyler was an unremarkable school dropout raised by a single mother, while Donna Noble was the unambitious 40-year-old who worked temp jobs all her life. Captain Jack Harkness was the first sexually ambiguous character to grace the show, and in 2017, fans were introduced to Bill Potts, a gay black woman who works at a university canteen with an appetite for crashing the Doctor’s lectures.  

The message was loud and unequivocal. Race, sexuality, or socio-economic status, the Doctor discriminated none. Everybody had worth, and anyone could play ambassador to the human race. For the showrunners, a female Doctor was certainly the next logical step in a series of progressive flourishes.  

To be sure, Doctor Who is not the first British show to have attempted to introduce such diversity. Others like short-lived 70s sitcom Mind Your Language and award winning soap opera Eastenders set the stage long before the revival of the Whoniverse, but the show’s global audience and rich history set it apart from the crowd.

The original 1963-1989 run reached more than 110 million viewers from across 60 countries, and its 50th anniversary special, which was simulcast on TV and in cinemas across 75 countries, cemented its place alongside superbrands like Top Gear and BBC Earth. Combined, the three are responsible for a third of the income for the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. It’s a sure testament to the show’s global reach and staying power, despite spending nearly two decades away from the screen.

The latest season, however, seems to have taken political correctness to new extremes.

Female doctor aside, it features two prominent minorities as the new companions – a black teen who suffers from Dyspraxia – a coordination disorder that affects motor skills – and a Pakistani-British Muslim, the first South-Asian to travel with the Doctor.

Ryan Sinclair (left), played by Tosin Cole, and Yasmin “Yaz” Khan, played by Mandip Gill. The season’s opening scene featured Ryan struggling to ride a bicycle, while Yaz has dropped subtle hints at racism and Islamophobia in the UK. 

Even the storylines have not been spared the political correctitude. Of the latest three episodes, one was wholly dedicated to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, with the Doctor et al coming up against the machinations of a time travelling white supremacist from the future. The next featured a cocky property mogul with presidential aspirations and little regard for the environment – a poorly disguised reference to a certain politician across the pond – while the latest one came with a slightly patronising side story involving a pregnant man.

With the anti climate change and far right agenda gaining ground across the globe, such political undertones seem ripe for today. But while the world might have been ready for a female Doctor, Chibnall’s cocktail of political correctness appears to have gone bland with some viewers a mere five weeks into the season.

Last week, the Daily Mail alluded to “Doctor Who’s latest transformation into TV’s most PC show” in its headline. Fans of the show are used to watching aliens week in week out, and the show’s increasingly progressive leanings have not struck a chord with Whovians more familiar with Daleks, Zygons, and attempted alien takeovers. The lack of the usual verve and dash surrounding alien plotlines gives one the impression of a cast holding the fort for a moment of glorious television that may never arrive.

Showrunners will not mind this, with ratings as high as ever and the novelty of Whittaker’s Doctor keeping fans returning for more. If Chibnall’s goal was to turn the franchise into a bonafide champion for minority rights, he will have partially succeeded. Since the BBC launched its diversity and inclusion strategy in 2016, Doctor Who has quite literally become the face of the corporation’s diversity drive, with the promotional card featuring Whittaker’s Doctor gracing the cover of its latest Equality Information Report.

Screen grab from the BBC

All across the BBC, major changes have been introduced to meet its diversity goals. There is now a female presenter on at least half of its local radio breakfast shows – up from less than 20 per cent in 2013. And in June, the corporation pledged that at least two of its senior management team will be from a black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME) background by 2020, as part of an effort to tackle the lack of diversity at its upper echelons.

Diehards of the “old” Doctor Who might well be tempted to point the finger of blame at a growing media obsession with political correctness, but this is not just endemic to the BBC or its competitors. Even the military have jumped in on this too. Last month, the UK Defence Secretary announced that women would be allowed to apply for all roles in the military for the first time in its history. The government is also set to lift its cap on foreign nationals in its military in the face of a major personnel shortage.

This coming Sunday, the Doctor and her companions travel to Pakistan 1947, a country emerging from the horrors of a bloody partition that remains unresolved today. There will be no prizes for guessing if the topic of British colonialism should surface, which, on current evidence, seems all too likely. The polarising nature of the season thus far means that positive reception should be expected, albeit punctuated by exasperated groans from a weary but growing minority.

Only time will tell if the show’s new direction will catch on, but one expects that it will soon be business as usual. Certainly, Chibnall has gone to great lengths to remind us that Doctor Who isn’t – and has never been – just a show about “a mad (wo)man in a box”. Through the decades, the Doctor has traveled the galaxy combating hate and discrimination in the form of Daleks and Cybermen, while weaving themes of compassion into the show’s DNA. It’s at least something all fans can agree on, and the latest season serves as a timely reminder. 

Perhaps then, “political correctness gone mad” is just another way of fighting old evils under a different guise.

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