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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

34 Comments

  1. Aristide Twain
    February 26, 2024 @ 5:49 am

    It doesn’t cover itself in glory either but I would argue Thasmin as the other bit of the Chibnall era which specifically accounts for the Doctor being a woman. It’s very specifically a weaksauce rendition of an outdated “repressed sapphic yearning” narrative, and would scan very differently if the Doctor was male.

    (As for that alien universe where the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz are both men, it’s a truism that mainstream media are, for various questionable reasons, quicker to foreground WLW relationships than MLM. I don’t think there’s a world where the first gay male Doctor romance is put on television by anyone short of RTD. So maybe this cashes out in one of the uses of making the Doctor a woman being to facilitate the First Gay Doctor Romance? Which is something. Of course the plotline is a damp squib and we know it wasn’t the plan until very late in the game, but…)

    Reply

    • weronika
      February 26, 2024 @ 10:55 am

      if we count Thasmin, then surely we must count The Doctor/Captain Jack or The Doctor/The Master?

      as for the truism, i found the 2021-2022 GLAAD report on LGBTQ representation on TV; this was the first time in its history that lesbian characters outnumbered the gay ones (40‐35)

      Reply

      • Aristide Twain
        February 26, 2024 @ 5:34 pm

        Eh. In terms of NuWho tropes, Thasmin is the Doctor/companion relationship or almost-relationship of its era — the Rose/Doctor, the Martha/Doctor, the Amy/Doctor, the Clara/Doctor — in a way which the other two were not. The first on-screen gay spin on “the romantic tension between The Doctor and The Companion” is still a notable milestone, I feel, in terms of public perception, even if there are important technicallies and footnote… in much the same way that Ncuti Gatwa is still The First Black Doctor in an important sense, even with Jo Martin.

        Regarding the truism, that’s an interesting fact-check, but I do feel there’s a qualitative difference. I did say “mainstream media”, and I didn’t just mean “aired on TV”, both in that I meant “in media that are not primarily selling themselves as being About Queer People” and that I wasn’t just thinking of television. I worry that I’m no-true-scotsmanning here but if you’ll bear with me, it does seem to me that “major female protagonists of media not primarily advertised as LGBTQ Narratives(TM) are more likely to be incidentally gay or bi than their male counterparts”. Thinking on it more, protagonist status also matters here; a number of shows might have a secondary character who’s gay, but that’s not what I’m talking about, I do mean leads, and leads in populist stuff.

        In short it just seems obviously true to me that in a series like Who, a gay romance between a male Doctor and companion would/will be more surprising and incendiary than a sapphic one. (I would likewise guess there are more textually-queer female superheroes than male ones in the big hitters’ stables, etc.) And one cannot help but suspect that this has something to do with a certain tendency on make sexists’ part to fetishise lesbians but feel that male homosexuality is emasculating. Whether all of this matters in the grand scheme of things, I wouldn’t want to say — the interesting stuff is indubitably happening far from media that are populist enough to be influenced by such things — but if we’re talking about what 21st century Doctor Who is doing, that’s the field it’s playing in.

        Reply

        • Benjamin Barack
          February 26, 2024 @ 7:33 pm

          Regarding your comment on superheroes… Yes and no. All in all, I think the ratio is fairly even — it’s just that non-straight female superheroes are usually bigger names. You know, like Wonder Woman, Harley & Ivy, Catwoman, Mystique, Batwoman… Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure the highest-profile non-straight male superhero is Loki, who’s traditionally a villain, followed by Constantine and… I guess Deadpool? Maybe?

          (cue debate whether Constantine is actually a superhero, to which I say “while the definition of ‘superhero’ is fairly nebulous, I think that someone who was a main character on an Arrowverse show for three seasons more than qualifies, whether you like it or not”).

          Reply

        • Rei Maruwa
          February 26, 2024 @ 10:54 pm

          I honestly think “lesbian content only happens more because of Men” wouldn’t stand up that much to a case-by-case inspection as people assume. It probably has some systemic impact, but I’m also not aware of any women heading up Torchwood, Sherlock or Supernatural.

          Reply

        • weronika
          February 27, 2024 @ 10:01 am

          tbh i focused on television because i felt maybe it has a bigger chance of being true there; when it comes to literature, i’m mostly familiar with discussions going on in romance and sffh, where there’s a noticeable skewing towards gay stories rather than lesbian ones (and then there’s the whole BL/yaoi/danmei phenomenon…)

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        • Ross
          February 27, 2024 @ 11:23 am

          I suspect that perhaps even more important than straight men’s fetishes, women are just in general considered “less important” by society (I mean all over but in media particularly), and thus a woman having a same-sex relationship in the media doesn’t attract as much attention – NOTHING a woman does attracts as much attention a man doing the same thing.

          Now that I think of it, you know what doesn’t happen in this era as far as I can remember? The story where the bad guys ignore the Doctor because they assume a “mere woman” is of no importance, giving her the freedom to bring down the system unnoticed. Heck, that’s a classic Doctor Who story structure if you swap “woman” for “buffoon”

          Reply

  2. Einarr
    February 26, 2024 @ 6:08 am

    It would be remiss if nobody in the Eruditosphere comment circuit brought up the curiosity of Joy Wilkinson’s Witchfinders novelisation going all out on Hell Bent / Clara and Ashildr nostalgia, of all things (so I might as well get in there first). If nothing else, it’s an odd but fascinating little wrinkle that proves that one of the guest writers, at least, seems to have watched and engaged with the Capaldi era.

    Context – the book gives Willa Twiston (the young girl with the pagan-adjacent herbal healer grandmother, for those who have deleted most Chibnall era one-off character names) a fair bit more material, all quite sympathetic stuff, and at the very end she goes on to become a travelling healer-Doctor, as she says she will in the episode. This means she ends up on trial for being a witch some thirty years later, and in her jail cell she writes to the Doctor and co. begging them for help. Somehow they receive this letter, the Doctor consults her sonic’s readings of Willa and finds out that because her grandmother had been feeding her herbal remedies etc using the bark of the Morax tree she has some sort of magically enhanced blood, something “ancient and eternal”. In a rather on-the-nose bit of “fucked up Chibnall era morality”, the fact of her having special magic blood is enough for the Doctor to agree to altering time and saving her from the witch trial.

    Then it gets really interesting: after being rescued, the older Willa ends up joining Clara and Ashildr/Me “somewhere where the tree came from that isn’t a tree. A whole not-forest strung with not-fairy-lights”, a place at the end of the universe where the three of them, “three girls from the North”, become some sort of variation of the Three Norns or the Greek Fates, “holding the threads that weave the universe together”. Because she looks older than either of the other two, they call her “Mother”. The last detail is that they are “warming themselves by the light of the threads, which are golden like [Mother Twiston’s] hair. Like hope.”

    On the one hand, there is something snigger-worthily bathetic about Wilkinson elevating her OC to such a mythical status both within the fiction and in terms of positioning her alongside two superb, iconic characters from what one could certainly argue is the best season of the modern era (while also gatecrashing their runaway romance). And if you read the other two calling her “Mother” as deferential that’s gotta sting (though personally I think it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek). And lastly I don’t know if my personal headcanon of Clara/Me is that they do anything quite as static as becoming the weavers of stories rather than having stories of their own. But at the same time … it’s kinda hard not to be charmed by a corner of the Whittaker years clinging to a weird bit of pagan mythology while also remembering S9 exists and wanting to engage with it and respect two of its greatest characters, as well as recognising the slightly Norse sub-flavour that season has got going on.

    Reply

  3. William Shaw
    February 26, 2024 @ 8:40 am

    I remember being very confused by the ending of this – the episode feels like it’s setting up ‘they’ve gone into the wind and the earth and the rain,’ as the final line, then it ends on a lame ‘where did the TARDIS go’ beat instead.

    That said, I liked the line about Tarantino. Quite a clever gag, that.

    Reply

  4. Corey Klemow
    February 26, 2024 @ 2:13 pm

    My primary memory of this episode is tensing up when the Doctor and fam came across the impending accused-witch drowning and angrily thinking to myself, if the Doctor doesn’t fucking intervene and just watches it happen, I am DONE, I am switching this off and won’t be watching any more Chibnall episodes. And, given the season we’d gotten so far, it seemed like pretty reasonable odds that that might happen. When it didn’t, I relaxed and ended up enjoying the episode, my expectations low enough by this point that “not a moral disaster” was the only bar it needed to clear, apparently.

    Re: the Doctor encountering sexism and this being the only time – I think the worst part of this is the fact that it was in a historical episode. Not only is this extremely low-hanging fruit, but the lack of any exploration of sexism in the modern day or in future-based stories that could be an analog for current day society tacitly implies that sexism WAS a problem in the past, but ISN’T today. There are in theory tons of genuinely interesting ways for the Doctor to interact with sexism as a woman, either as the main focus of a story or in small asides, but none of it occurred to anybody involved. (Hell, it took a fan-art comic just to make the obvious joke about the Doctor finding women’s clothing with pockets.)

    Reply

    • Einarr
      February 26, 2024 @ 4:12 pm

      The EU seems to have handled this a bit better. Juno Dawson has that novel where a civilisation thinks Graham is the Doctor and venerates an idol of him for however many years, instead of her, for basically sexist reasons. I think there’s an Eruditorum post coming up on it toward the end of the S11 run.

      Not to do with sexism, but a Jenny Colgan short story (kinda surprisingly) has Yaz and the Doctor discuss periods. Yaz seeks the Doctor out because “it’s my time of the month” and she’s feeling rotten so the Doctor takes her to a nice bathroom in the TARDIS, gives her chocolate and a hot water bottle, and tells her a story about celebrity historically encountering Amelia Earhart to take her mind off things. It’s all quite earnestly meant – she’s one of the sisterhood now so she’s better at understanding this kind of thing (specifically: “it’s easier looking like a girl”, but nb. not actually ‘being’ one) – but there are the slight TERFy alarm bells ringing in there of the Doctor referring to past women she’s travelled with as “human females”. I don’t think this was meant as a dogwhistle, from what I gather of Colgan, so much as ‘quirky but unfortunate Doctor phrasing’, but yeah. It’s a bit gender essentialist at best, even if it’s trying a lot harder than the show (and maybe going further than the show realistically could, idk).

      Reply

    • Przemek
      February 26, 2024 @ 5:49 pm

      I’ve had the same reaction to that witch drowning scene. What a glorious fucking era of DW: we’re elated that the Doctor bothered to try (and fail) to save someone.

      Reply

  5. LiamKav
    February 26, 2024 @ 4:31 pm

    On Whittaker being on board with what Chibnall was doing… the thing is, surely RTD and Moffat must have been as well? They kept using him. I’ve heard people say “maybe he got his scripts in to spec and on time”, but for two of arguably the best showrunners in British TV of the last few decades, is that enough? Was the initial script to The Hungry Earth of such high quality that Moffat thought “I HAVE to use this guy again!”? Was Cyberwoman so amazing that Davies believed that he’d been absolutely correct in getting Chibs to run his spin-off?

    Reply

    • Einarr
      February 26, 2024 @ 6:53 pm

      Tbf the original drafts for ‘Hungry Earth/Cold Blood’ do sound pretty lit, actually. The whole second half was going to be done Memento-style through Amy’s subjectively unfolding memories of the adventure, getting more and more broken up and fragmented and ragged as we get closer to Rory dying / the denouement. And there were great big armoured dinosaur monsters the Silurians had as guard dogs. All cut for budget and hasty edit reasons and they cobble together that patchy narration by the Silurian Elder to try and give the story weight.

      Reply

    • Rei Maruwa
      February 26, 2024 @ 11:04 pm

      “Writing an average script that’s easy enough to touch up” isn’t objectionable at all to someone in the showrunner’s position; they kept using multiple “meh” writers because they really were good enough for that production process. Chibnall as showrunner is a completely different job with different responsibilities for one to be on board or not with. As for Torchwood, none of the writers were really sure what to do with that show except Davies who didn’t stick around, so Chibnall’s not really the problem there.

      Reply

  6. Przemek
    February 26, 2024 @ 5:47 pm

    I’ve always found the “good Doctor bogged down by bad scripts” defence as applied to Whittaker simply baffling, for reasons this essay articulates better than I ever could. I struggle to think of any scenes where her Doctor has the kind of magnetic screen presence that Capaldi or Tom Baker had. At her best, she gives off “Tennant lite” vibes, just without Tennant’s charisma or depth of performance.

    Reply

  7. Arthur
    February 27, 2024 @ 4:00 am

    “Good Doctor bogged down by bad scripts” is, at the end of the day, an eminently testable hypothesis. It was said of Colin Baker, and lo and behold once people wrote him some decent audios a critical reappraisal was well underway. It is currently said of Jodie, but the hypothesis has arguably not really been tested to any significant extent yet. (I’m willing to go to bat for It Takes You Away and Demons of the Punjab as being actually good stories, but the Doctor is only particularly significant in one of those and therefore it’s wholly possible to write off as an outlier.)

    The thing is… OK, so with Davison you had some genuinely good stories slip through the cracks during his TV era. And with Colin Baker, it was self-evident by the end of the era (in part because of Eric Saward spilling the beans to Starburst) that he was the victim of creative strife behind the scenes, in the kindest version of the story. (And in the unkindest version, he was outright sabotaged by a script editor who never wanted to give him a chance.)

    Colin is, to my mind, an exceptionally good actor for allowing a glimpse of a better version of his Doctor to emerge in brief flashes during television stories largely designed to undermine him, and it was those flashes people used as a basis for later stories. Many of his best audios (at least of those I have heard, and I admit I’ve only heard the early ones up to The Holy Terror or thereabouts) seem to be built on the idea of “OK, what if we let Colin do more of That Thing or This Bit, in a story which better supported it?”, and to his credit he grabbed those opportunities with both hands and wholly exonerated himself.

    I’m much less sure what anyone could use as the kernel of a Thirteenth Doctor Story Only Good This Time. The bit at the end of It Takes You Away where she manages a bit of conversational manoeuvring to get the humans to reject/be rejected by the Solitract, in order to propel them out of the mirror world to safety, perhaps, but that’s literally one moment in three seasons and a cluster of specials.

    I really don’t think she has any other truly great moments in her run which make you sit up and think “Yes, this is what the Doctor is supposed to be about”, particularly once you get to entire seasons based around her getting upstaged by Jo Martin or blithely watching the Master do a Powerpoint presentation in the Matrix and then assuming it’s true, after the Master has demonstrated that the Matrix can lie in literally every preceding story involving the Master interacting with the Matrix. Sure, it’s not Whittaker’s fault, but it still means that there’s precious little material to build on there.

    Honestly, the absolute best thing she did as the Doctor was that video message she improv’d at home at the start of the COVID lockdowns, but whilst that was nice and heartwarming and a lovely gesture, it’s not a foundation you can build a full-size story on, any more than you can infer World Enough and Time or Heaven Sent from that video message Capaldi did in-character to the autistic kid who was struggling with grieving a grandparent.

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    • prandeamus
      February 27, 2024 @ 1:16 pm

      “Honestly, the absolute best thing she did as the Doctor was that video message she improv’d at home at the start of the COVID lockdowns. ”

      This is so true. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. If she improvised it, it shows a grasp of the character that she rarely, if ever, got to portray in “proper” episodes. And it almost physically hurts me to say that.

      Reply

      • Elizabeth Sandifer
        February 27, 2024 @ 1:17 pm

        That was scripted by Chibnall.

        Reply

        • Arthur
          February 27, 2024 @ 7:36 pm

          Really? Pfffffft where was that writing in the actual episodes?????

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        • Prandeamus
          February 29, 2024 @ 1:07 pm

          Thanks for the factual clarification.

          Hypotheses: Chibnall writes better sketches than episodes. Chibnall writes the Doctor better with kids in mind. There was something in covid that made him rise to the occasion.

          Dunno if there is any evidence or counter evidence for any of the above. Come to think of it, can you think of any of his material that was written with kids in mind?

          Reply

  8. Richard Lyth
    February 27, 2024 @ 9:58 am

    Read this article earlier and thought it was weird Mandip Gill hasn’t been in much since she left Doctor Who, but now it’s been announced that she’s starring in a new show called Curfew, set in a world where all men are forced to wear ankle tags to stay off the streets every night. (Not sure if this applies to trans men.)

    Reply

    • weronika
      February 28, 2024 @ 12:40 am

      you can bet it applies to trans women though

      Reply

  9. Narsham
    February 27, 2024 @ 11:34 am

    I’m not sure this acting critique is entirely fair to Whittaker. Let’s first situate what “salvaging a scene” can amount to: when Tom can be bothered to do it, he’s by far the best Who performer at managing that task. He was also egotistical and abusive, insisting he owned the part, and those characteristics partly explain why he made performance choices that turned poor scripts entertaining. Those are also characteristics shaped powerfully by gender. It is quite possible that Whittaker lacks the acting skills to manage a “salvaging” when one was needed, but I’d argue that she never makes that choice to begin with.

    Whittaker, far more than any other performer of the Doctor, owed her job to Chibnall. They’d worked together before, he opted to cast a woman, and he picked her. I’d identify her greatest fault not in her limited ability to perform, but in her deference to Chibnall. She clearly wants to perform the character as he envisions it (and I’m unsure his vision is very clear), and that, coupled with the shortness of her tenure in the role, means that she never quite puts her own stamp on the part. She’s trying to play Chibnall’s version of the Doctor, not Whittaker’s version of the Doctor. Given that Chibnall told her not to research the role, he actively wanted her to do that.

    I also think the fundamental flaws with the Chibnall era aren’t ones an actor can salvage. He cast the first woman in the role; he doesn’t actually seem interested in exploring issues related to gender in the show itself. And only 7 out of her 31 stories don’t have Chibnall’s name on them as writer or co-writer: Demons of the Punjab, Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, It Takes You Away, Orphan 55, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terrors, and The Haunting of Villa Diodati. I doubt even Capaldi could salvage Orphan 55; the others feature most of her best performances.

    Is she able to out-act Alan Cummings? No. Plenty of actors can’t. I think it matters that Alan Cummings is another actor with a reputation of being “willful” and sometimes difficult to work with. He would never accept a part without planning to own it.

    I’d say Whittaker’s greatest acting strengths on display as Thirteen are being able to nail the “sense of wonder” while staring at a green screen, and emotional connections with people. She gets lots of ignorable opportunities at the first; Chibnall’s writing constantly denies and undercuts the second. That she plays the part as Chibnall wants her to, pretty much, doesn’t make her a bad actor, it just doesn’t work for this role.

    Arguably, she does a fantastic job portraying the character as Chibnall imagines her. That’s the poor acting choice she makes.

    Reply

    • Narsham
      February 27, 2024 @ 11:36 am

      *Cumming, not Cummings.

      Reply

    • Cyrano
      February 28, 2024 @ 4:10 am

      I think this is a good angle on it. I also think we get to see less versions of her Doctor than Tennant, Smith or Capaldi. Even with Russell T and Stephen Moffat’s close involvement with scripts and wholesale rewriting, there was at least a writer or two whose own style came through. Gatiss, to the extent we can identify whole different phases of his engagement with Who scriptwriting. Moffat under Davies, Chibnall…Toby Whithouse? Gareth Roberts, alas? Which means we get see slightly different takes on the Doctor, quite apart from the fact that Davies and Moffat also like to place the character under stress to show unexpected reactions and different facets.

      It doesn’t feel to me like any of the individual writers under Chibnall were ever allowed to make much of their own mark. We don’t really see Malorie Blackman’s Doctor or Vinay Patel’s Doctor. No one is allowed to escape the not-a-style house style.

      And all this leaves me wondering…what exactly Chibnall was such a fan of? He’s such a big fan of the show he was criticising it on TV when he was 16. But put in charge of it, there’s no vision he’s eager to make real, no “this is how Trial of a Time Lord should have been done”, not even just playing the greatest hits of the past. Just nothingness.

      His most radical idea isn’t The Timeless Child, but his first series where he has no monsters or characters from the past. But he puts nothing in their place. Which ironically centres them: the Daleks and Cybermen and Master and Mentors and Voord are so important that them not showing up is the most radical thing he can imagine for Doctor Who.

      Reply

    • David Cook
      February 28, 2024 @ 10:56 am

      “coupled with the shortness of her tenure in the role”

      She had five years or so (Christmas 2017-Autumn 2022) so was longer in the role than Matt did (Christmas 2009-Christmas 2013)

      Reply

      • Cyrano
        February 28, 2024 @ 11:33 am

        But with significantly fewer minutes of screen time, no? Two and a half series, three new year episodes and two additional specials. It’s substantially less of an opportunity to put your mark on the role.

        Reply

        • David Cook
          February 28, 2024 @ 12:20 pm

          Tom Baker, Chris and David (for example) put “their mark” on the role in their very first seek and built upon it. By the time of Power Of The Doctor, Jodie had been the Dr for five years or so, yet she still seemed the newbie.

          Reply

  10. Frances Smith
    February 27, 2024 @ 3:58 pm

    To Tosin Cole’s credit, once he gets given some material that’s worth getting out of bed for, he absolutely. brings it: I’m thinking particularly about Can You Hear Me, but also his scenes in Revolution of the Daleks where he decides he’s done with the Doctor and wants to bow out.

    “Eccleston got it with Simon Callow, Tennant with Pauline Collins and Anthony Head, Smith with Ian McNeice and Iain Glen, and Coleman with Peter Capaldi.”

    That might be a better line than most of those in this era of the show.

    Reply

  11. Jesse
    February 29, 2024 @ 9:59 pm

    I enjoyed this one, for reasons that were approximately 80% Alan Cumming and 20% lowered expectations. (How quickly I adjusted to the Chibnall era.) But I’m still amazed that the episode about witch-hunts somehow ended with the Doctor in a witchfinder-general hat leading a mob with torches as they chase creatures possessed by an evil alien force.

    Reply

  12. Michael
    March 3, 2024 @ 2:14 am

    I have read a couple of these reviews. As far as I am concerned they are just an exercise in masochism. You hate this era of program for both it’s lack of ideas or the ham fisted-ness of those ideas. That is perfectly valid stance to have on the program but there also comes a point you have to know when to walk away and write about something that actually makes you happy.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      March 3, 2024 @ 2:20 am

      I approached these at a rate of one a month to prevent burnout. But ultimately Eruditorum is the site’s most popular feature, and a girl’s gotta eat, so I write it.

      Reply

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