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Doctor Who’s that girl

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Published on 05 October 2018

Dr Who is set to return in a new guise
Dr Who is set to return in a new guise

The career of the Timelord and his (and now her) various incarnations has shaped the career path of lifelong Doctor Who fan, and University of Sunderland academic, John Paul Green.

Four decades of fascination with the time-travelling hero has resulted in academic papers, public lectures, three appearances as an extra in the BBC programme, and is an integral topic for the Film, Media and Culture lecturer’s science fiction module at the University of Sunderland.

And as the new series hits our screens on Sunday, 7 October, with thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker taking over the TARDIS helm, John Paul welcomes the first female incarnation of the fictional hero, with Doctor Who a central figure due to his/her continuing popularity, ability to weather all storms, and the changing face of heroism with each regeneration.

“The why and how of Doctor Who’s success since 1963 is multi-faceted, however, the Doctor’s ability to regenerate, to change with the times, is key to the series’ success,” explained John Paul.

“Regeneration has allowed both the series and the character to rejuvenate itself, refiguring and re-enchanting the figure of the hero, and reflecting what was happening in democratic society. The character is its own reboot button in that respect.”

Though turning the character of the Doctor into a woman may have initially seemed radical, John Paul argues that the character has always been in step with the modern world.  Compare William Hartnell’s grandfather-like figure in the 1960s, during a time when society feared science and the young looked to their older peers for guidance, with the vulnerable and softer figure of Peter Davison in the 1980s, a time of fragmentation in masculinity and the resurgence of feminism.

“By the time we reached the clown-like, comically sinister character of Sylvester McCoy in the late 1980s, a lot of respect among the casual audience and even fans had been lost for the show,” explained John Paul.

“By 2005, however, the dense mythology had been stripped away from Doctor Who in the guise of Christopher Eccleston, whose northern character was much more gritty, brash and acceptable as a recognisable figure for the twenty first century.

“Once the audience was back on board, David Tennant was introduced and became this almost Messianic figure, a hero of Biblical proportions, bringing people back to life and making heroes of those around him.

“He was a traditional hero, mythical, quasi-religious and incredibly popular.”

He added: “The formula worked and Tennant did so much for the programme that it’s now become mainstream family drama.”

But it’s John Paul’s introduction as a boy to the most successful incarnation of Doctor Who - in terms longevity and popularity - which has left a lasting impression.

“Tom Baker will always be my favourite,” he said. “I grew up with him. The stories were very dark and gothic, they were horror stories for children.

“Baker was so eccentric, borderline insane. There was a hint of menace with his performance, an instability that pushed him towards the villainous at times, but you always trusted in him at the same time. Incidentally, Baker would often tease the audience with speculation that his successor should be a woman.  He was the anti-establishment hero of his time.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that the casting of a female Doctor is seen as radical in some quarters. Given the Doctor is an alien, with the ability to physically change I don’t see the issue with such gender fluidity. Under showrunner Steven Moffatt, audiences have already been introduced to the idea that Timelords can change gender and race. Missy successfully proved that the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the villainous Master, need not be a male character.

“The Doctor transcends boundaries – the show is about heroism, adventure and fun. The Doctor can succeed or fail on the strength of the actor and the quality of the scripts. Jodie Whittaker has proved herself a great actor, let’s hope the scripts are up to her ability.

“Trust her. She's the Doctor.”

Originally from Birmingham, John Paul enrolled as a media student at the University of Sunderland in 1993. After graduating in 1996 he held down a number of jobs, from his early career as a stagehand at the Sunderland Empire to working on music magazines, as well as a stint as a research administrator and a technician.

But it was his passion for science fiction which eventually led him to taking a Masters in Film and Cultural Studies, and he now lectures full-time at the University, with his favourite fictional hero, alongside James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, a regular topic on the timetable.

John Paul said: “I run a science fiction module, it’s very popular, Doctor Who plays an integral role of course.”

He added: “It’s the Doctor’s regeneration, but also elements of the familiar like the TARDIS and the monsters, which keeps the topic ripe for discussion and keeps us glued to our TV sets.

“It’s great family TV, and because of its changing nature, there’s always a new entry point for any new audience to enjoy, it’s a flexible format that can go anywhere.

“That’s what keeps us asking who is Who?

Doctor Who returns on Sunday, 7 October on BBC1.

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