British public broadcaster the BBC was both hero and villain this week – and, naturally, it was its heroic act that threatened to break the internet.
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On Sunday the corporation revealed that, for the first time ever, a woman would be playing the iconic role of Doctor Who in its eponymous, long-running sci-fi show.
And on Wednesday, it revealed a huge gender pay gap for its on-screen talent: while the corporation paid 64 men over £150,000 in 2016/17, the comparable number of women was 32 – and when a male and female actor or journalist were employed on the same show with equal billing, the man earned more. A lot more.
Can you guess which story the internet lost its shit over?
Yes, it was the gender pay gap (or “series of seismic faultlines,” as The Guardian memorably described it).
Sorry, sick joke – it was the casting of a woman, Jodie Whittaker, as the new Doctor Who. The only surprise is that President Donald Trump hasn’t voiced his disgust on the matter.
The BBC chose to announce the news after the men's final at Wimbledon with this trailer. (Irony alert: BBC, please note that Wimbledon pays its male and female champions the same prize money.)
When you've viewed the trailer above, watch this young girl's reaction to seeing who the new Doctor is.
If you’re currently asking “Doctor who?” – here’s a little background to get you up to speed.
“Doctor Who” is the BBC’s flagship sci-fi show, drawing a devoted worldwide following stretching all the way back to its 1963 debut. The original version of the show ran until 1989 and was renowned for its scary alien monsters (most notably the Daleks and Cybermen) and, in its latter seasons, incredibly cheap special effects and inane storylines.
It also developed a loyal audience in the United States over the years, so it was no real surprise when the BBC rebooted the show in 2005 with bigger budgets, better actors and better scripts. In the internet age, the show was a massive hit with “Whovians” (the show’s superfans – a bit like “Trekkies,” but with fewer social skills).
The show’s longevity can largely be credited to the plot device at its core: the time-travelling Doctor Who – a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey – regenerates every time the actor playing the character asks for too much money; gets fed up signing autographs at sci-fi conventions; or wants to be taken more seriously as an actor (delete as applicable).
Twelve actors have played the Doctor over the years (we’ll overlook the dreadful one-off U.S. special with Paul McGann), and they had three things in common: they were all white, British and male.
Because on Sunday the program’s new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, brought the show into the 21st century and declared that the new Doctor is to be played by Whittaker. But instead of being happy that the BBC had at least kept two out of three characteristics of previous Doctors, the internet went gender gaga.
Now, I don’t know about you but I never got that email from Moses announcing a belated 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not cast women in roles hitherto performed by men. Verily, hath ‘Ghostbusters’ taught thou naught?” (Oops, just checked – it was in the Spam folder.)
To me, it seems obvious that the best way of keeping a fictional character fresh is creative casting, and experimenting to see what different actors can bring to a role. It’s why Maxine Peake’s “Hamlet” won rave reviews in Britain three years ago, ditto Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of “Julius Caesar” in the West End last year.
And if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, surely it’s good enough for “Doctor Who”? That’s also why the show itself has hired actors as diverse (in a non-diverse way, sadly) as Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy and, most recently, Peter Capaldi to play the 2,000-year-old Time Lord (or, to put that in Israeli terms, a year older than Shimon Peres when he died).
Casting Whittaker – best known for playing grieving mom Beth Latimer in the wonderful crime drama series “Broadchurch” – is just the next natural step in the sci-fi show’s evolution. (Actually, if I have a quibble about the casting, it’s only that Whittaker’s “Broadchurch” co-star Olivia Colman would have made a perfect Doctor Who – but I guess that can wait for the next regeneration.)
You could understand some of the online outrage if Doctor Who were, whisper it, a real person. I mean, I was furious when I heard that Meryl Streep had been cast to play Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” I still remember screaming at the computer: “Are you seriously telling me they couldn’t find one British man who could play the role?”
In a bid to try and restore some equilibrium to the universe, I suggest we strike a pact: Actors playing real people on screen should at least come from the same continent and ethnic background, and possess the same number of chromosomes. And actors playing fictional characters can be whoever the creatives desire.
Let’s save ourselves the faux indignation and agree that no fictional character is off-limits when it comes to casting: There are no sacred cows in this particular field.
There is no reason James Bond cannot be played by Idris Elba (I’d argue that playing 007 is less of a stretch for the Brit actor than portraying Nelson Mandela); no reason that “Ocean’s Eleven” cannot be remade with a group of women – although the fact that the spin-off has already been downsized to “Ocean’s Eight” suggests the BBC is not alone in devaluing women); and a very good reason why “The Handmaid’s Tale” will never work if recast with men.
For those sharpening their cyber pitchforks over Whittaker’s casting, here’s a radical thought: she may actually be a good Doctor (let’s be honest, it’s impossible for her to be any worse than Colin Baker). She always manages to bring a real warmth to all of her roles (she’s particularly good in the low-budget alien-invasion flick “Attack the Block”), and what could be more apt for a character blessed with two hearts?
If you’re not sure about her, watch the acceptance speech she delivered on behalf of a fellow actor at the British Independent Film Awards in 2016 and tell me she couldn’t be inspired casting (almost as good as Olivia Colman, in fact).
Still, at least all the cyberhaters can console themselves with the knowledge that Whittaker will probably be earning less than her male counterparts. When a supposedly progressive organization such as the British Broadcasting Corporation treats its female talent so poorly (assuming the term “poorly” can be used for people earning over £150,000), you’ve got to worry about the rest of society – from academia and banking through to yoga trainers and zoologists (well, you try and come up with professions beginning with Y and Z).
The BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, has vowed to close the pay gap by 2020, although he’d be better served borrowing the Doctor’s TARDIS and going back in time to correct his corporation’s shameful policy – which has tarnished the image of a beloved institution.
Fellow internet users: If we are going to storm the virtual barricades, can we please make sure it’s for the right battle?
That internet reaction...
Here are a selection of the most memorable (and awful) reactions to the news that Whittaker will be the 13th Doctor.
Let's get the worst out of the way first. Full-time British troll Katie Hopkins posted this:
I'd hoped for better from a woman who should be grateful her hometown is an equal opportunities employer when it comes to village idiots.
Luckily, not everyone was so hateful, so let's celebrate those tweets instead.
Finally, someone had the common sense to point out that the driving force behind "Doctor Who" was a woman, Verity Lambert. Without her guidance, the show would probably not still be around to trigger Twitter wars today.