Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Edinburgh #4: And then Matt Smith left “Doctor Who”...

Matt Smith as the Doctor (2010-2013)

Over the last 48 hours, I might have given the impression that my Edinburgh Fringe show, “Who Are You Supposed To Be” is all about Doctor Who. It isn’t.

It’s a romantic comedy about fans, fandom, obsession, pop culture trivia, anxiety and "Doctor Who". It just happens the hook at the start is an amusing discussion between a woman and a man at a science fiction convention about whether or not a woman could or should play the role of The Doctor.

As I’ve learned over the past two days, the discussion of a woman playing the role of a thousand-year-old alien with two hearts who travels across time and space reaches back about thirty years to when Tom Baker left the role. He wished luck to whichever man or woman took over.

I’m not really sure how seriously that comment was taken at the time. Personally, I’m a pretty late bloomer when it comes to “Doctor Who”, but the notion of the character changing genders is fascinating to me. Even though, really, since he changes his entire form every few years – soon for the 12th time in 50 years – it’s not that he’s really changing who he is any more than he has before. We just perceive it that way. Us humans, we’re so limited.

I remember the rabid and constant discussions of who should take the role when David Tennant announced he was leaving. I’m not sure I took the idea of a woman in the role that seriously, mostly because I didn’t expect it would ever happen. I’m still pretty much unconvinced it will happen now.

The strongest discussions I remember from the last regeneration speculation was whether the BBC would try something new and cast a Person of Colour. Whether it be a black man or someone from East Asia or South Asia. Fans discussed whether the show would go against type and cast a non-white man.

Equally, people argued that maybe they should cast older, since everyone felt like Tennant was too young, even though Peter Davison was younger when he was in the role – after taking over from Tom Baker. In the end, Matt Smith became the youngest of them all. So even if the BBC stay conservative and cast a twelfth white guy, if he’s over 50, it’ll be almost daring.

Almost.

Some of my play is about gender identity – what we expect from men and women and the roles they play. Ash, the main female character, is dressed as the Doctor. She loves dressing up as fictional men and women, but she’s the Doctor when she meets Gene. Gene doesn’t know what to do. He jokes with her a little – why isn’t she dressed as a female character from the show? Doesn’t she know, the Doctor isn’t a woman?

Inadvertently, “Who Are You Supposed To Be?” became a comedy about meeting people with similar interests who approach that same object of affection from an opposite point-of-view – and a play about casting the role with a female actor.

Then Matt Smith announced he was leaving the show. By the end of the year.

My first thought was, “Yay, lots more interest in the show! And about casting! And about casting a woman!”

And my second thought was, “What if they casting a woman? What if the BBC destroys the entire premise of my show?”

My Sunday afternoon planning a simple marketing campaign that rode the coattails of the 50th Anniversary celebrations became something more like a battle plan. What if? Can we? How about if we? Jesus, do I have to re-write the whole thing?

In the end, I figured out an angle to take – and I sent out a bunch of press releases tying the show directly into the speculation about who would be cast. But the frenzy over a woman in the role took off without anyone needing to say anything. The mere suggestion lit up the forums. And Twitter. And Facebook. And...

The play was more relevant than ever. Some fans have vowed never to watch the show again if a woman plays the role. Some are highly skeptical. Some would give her a chance, but... Some worried about confusing the children. Some wanted to defend tradition. Some wanted to defend men.

Some of the posters at Gallifrey Base almost word-for-word quoted the character of Gene from “Who Are You Supposed To Be?” Because I’ve heard all the arguments before. And they are all happening again.

I’ve written about writing for women before. I’ve written about why sometimes it’s better for a character to be a woman. How it can make a dramatic situation more dramatic. Or more interesting. And I love the idea of gender-blind casting new scripts and old characters.

But the reason I love the idea of the Doctor as a woman is because... why not? The character changes all the time anyway. Some of his changes in personality over the years have been vastly different from one incarnation to the next. Sometimes changing the gender of the character makes a story vastly different. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing the pronouns.

Men and women aren’t that different, I don’t think. And a thousand-year-old alien with two hearts who travels across time and space is about as different from you and me as you can get, but we can still empathise with him. Are we that worried that if he was a she that we might not empathise with the Doctor in the same way?

And isn’t that reason enough to give the whole notion of a female Doctor a try? To see what new things the character can explore within herself and within us, as well?

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“Who Are You Supposed To Be?” runs from August 14 to August 26, 2013 at C Venues as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Tickets on sale now.

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