It’s November 4th, 2018. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper continue to be “Shallow” at the top of the charts. Little Mix ft. Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris and Sam Smith, Rita Ora, and Freya Ridings also chart.
In news, a plane crash off the coast of Java killed 189 people. Ross Edgley completed his 157 day swim around the entire coast of Great Britain. And eight hundred American troops are deployed to the Mexican border in a brazen attempt to suggest that immigrants are an invading force, although federal law meant that this was largely for show as the troops were legally prohibited from engaging in law enforcement activities and mostly repaired vehicles and operated construction equipment.
On television, meanwhile, The Tsuranga Conundrum. In the eyes of many fans, this marks a nadir of the Chibnall era, which, in the eyes of those same fans, marks a nadir of the show. One of these positions is correct, of course. But the other one is aggressively wrong, and in its wrongness implicates the other position in a way we need to untangle. This will get quite broad quite quickly, so let’s start with the actual episode, ranked in that venerable guide to greatness the Doctor Who Magazine end of year poll as the worst of the season.
Now, of course, that was also Kinda, and more recently Kill the Moon was only edged out to the position by In the Forest of the Night. But for all its failures the Doctor Who Magazine poll still represents a certain faction of fandom—one that’s been down on the Chibnall era in general. Which makes the choice of The Tsuranga Conundrum as a nadir odd, because it’s largely not. It’s undoubtedly flawed—look at the name, for heaven’s sake. Not only is there nothing that’s especially a conundrum, the bits of conundrum there are don’t especially have anything to do with Tsuranga. Also, The Pting Dilemma was right there. But there’s a basic competence to this story. In a sea of Chibnall episodes that are not so much less than the sum of their parts than they are simply a pile of parts that do not actually sum, The Tsuranga Conundrum stands out as a dull parade of science fiction cliches organized into something that can be accurately described as “a whole.” It’s only taken five episodes for that to feel like an accomplishment, but looking at Series 11 and saying, in all seriousness, that The Tsuranga Conundrum is worse than The Ghost Monument, Arachnids in the UK, and whatever the fuck the finale is called is frankly as preposterous as saying that Demons of the Punjab and It Takes You Away are not the best two stories of the season, which, of course, Doctor Who Magazine’s esteemed readers also failed to do.
What, then, is it that is so unlikeable about this episode to this particular sort of reader? One problem, undoubtedly, is the design of the Pting, which is “cute” and therefore “silly,” which remains, for a significant portion of Doctor Who fandom, something Doctor Who—a show whose most iconic monster has a toilet plunger for a hand—is apparently not supposed to be. I think that’s about all we need to say about that at this point. But let’s pretend a silly (not even poorly designed, just silly!) monster isn’t a dispositive reason why Doctor Who Magazine would rate an episode dead last—a bit of credit the magazine may well not deserve, but that we’ll give it anyway, just for fun. What else is going on here?
Well, one thing that jumps out is that this is the first episode of the Chibnall era to go hard on the gender thing. Not, I stress, in any particular characterization of the Doctor—Chibnall, in one of his few absolutely correct decisions, does not write the Doctor substantially differently as a woman except inasmuch as he appears to favor a Davison-style Doctor in the first place. But there are three subplots in this episode: the two ship doctors, the ailing general, and the pregnant person. And of those three, only the ship doctors have what you’d call the normative, default gender setup of the experienced man and the novice woman. The general is set up against stereotypes to be a woman, while the pregnancy plot concerns a pregnant man. We’ll set aside how well any of that is handled, although do bookmark the “adoption is wrong” moral on the pregnancy plot. This is an episode of television that inverts a number of gender stereotypes, and more to the point it does does so early in an era that has already genderswapped its lead after decades of the character being a white man.
And so, of course, certain people went fucking berserk. I’m not going to mince words here, obviously. The people who object to the fact that Whittaker is a woman range from tiresomely misogynistic idiots to tiresomely fascist idiots, and for the most part my response to them can be summarized thusly. On their own merits they would be beneath contempt, unworthy of any sort of attention. But they pose a frustrating quandary for those of us inclined to blast the Chibnall era for other reasons, because these other reasons can quickly turn into carrying water for the aspiring Rorschachs of the world.
So fine. Let’s pretend for a thousand words or so that there’s anything to respond to here, just in case anyone’s confused over my position on men becoming women. After all, they can’t possibly be any more vapid than the Chibnall era, right?
We must, I suppose, start with the most prestigious version of this argument, Tory MP Nick Fletcher, who attracted headlines for linking the casting of a female Doctor to increases in crime. This point was admittedly slightly less stupid than presented in the papers, as it focused not exclusively on Whittaker’s casting but on a general tendency that also included Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and, just to make it clear he isn’t working exclusively off of alt-right talking points, The Equalizer, and that the problem was that this diminishing of male role models left young boys with “the Krays and Tommy Shelby.” And to be fair, this makes sense provided you’re willing to ignore more or less the entirety of material reality, including, perhaps most obviously, the extremely male-dominated Marvel Cinematic Universe, which, if you count the retroactively tied in Venom film, made up literally half of the UK top ten the year Fletcher said this. The other half? All films with male stars in the top billing. So, like, clearly young boys are not, in fact, being driven into the arms of the Kray twins, and there is in fact no fucking crisis in the availability of role models for young boys.
The Fletcher argument can be adjusted in either of two directions. The first of these involves drilling down on the type of male role model, usually to specify the Doctor’s nonviolent nature. There’s a fair amount to quibble with about just how nonviolent the Doctor is (how did these people feel at the end of Family of Blood, I wonder), but this at least makes some kind of sense. But again, you need to be weirdly selective to make it happen. Doctor Strange is not a violent superhero. Steven Universe exists. And, of course, one can validly ask why it is that boys, and let’s drill down a step and specify white boys, cannot simply learn the same “find role models that don’t look like you” skills that girls and people of color have had to learn for decades.
The other adjustment, of course, is to divorce the concern from an assessment of the role model pool and instead to frame some sort of general objection. This tends to trend into comments on the emasculation of western culture, generally from people who want to capitalize Western Culture, or perhaps spell it Cvltvre. To these people I can only repeat myself.
Another line of argument roots itself in the nature of Doctor Who in order to argue that Whittaker/the Chibnall era violates them in key ways. This can sometimes manifest as five hundred page books making cod-structural analysis of the nature of the Doctor as a character that attempts to argue for the inherently gendered nature of this while also arguing that the series has not historically been political. This is an argument I could dismantle point by point, but it involves addressing arguments like that being “arrogant,” “brave,” or “tetchy” are intrinsically masculine traits, and frankly I’d rather try to come up with a close reading of Tsurangan society and what this episode has to say about automation. Or just stab my eyes out.
Let’s suffice it to say that to take a show that is fundamentally about the ways in which it radically changes from episode to episode and era to era and declare that gender is somehow massively sacrosanct is… I mean god, where do you even start. At best this is part and parcel of the longstanding reactionary tendency in Doctor Who fandom that views it as, essentially, just like any other cult sci-fi show, and who thereby tend to resent the very thing that makes it interesting. Tempting as it is to get such people to learn to accept a few more Doctors, at the end of the day these are the sorts of people who dramatically assert that they’re now Babylon 5 fans instead of Doctor Who fans or that writing Attack of the Cybermen would be something to be proud of, so we can probably just give up on the idea that we’re ever going to get through to them with something so petty as common sense. They want Doctor Who just how they remembered it, and apparently tits are a bridge too far.
At worst—and I think in truth it mostly is at worst—this is simply sexism. It’s a resistance to the idea that Doctor Who might be for people other than who it was for in 1986 or so. That these same people are appalled by an episode that can optimistically be described as “Terror of the Vervoids done right” is ironic, but it’s not the fun kind of irony so much as the depression drinking at 3pm sort. Because at the end of the day it’s not about any of the arguments. It’s not about role models or structural properties of Doctor Who or anything else. It’s just about the fact that a bunch of middle aged nerds look at an ad for Doctor Who and don’t feel personally catered to, and so are throwing their fucking toys out of the pram.
Does this mean that we should defend the Chibnall era out of some grudging political necessity? God no. If anything we should condemn the Chibnall era harder for giving so much ammunition to these hopeless dipshits. Without wanting to validate respectability politics, the fact of the matter is that the first person in a role of high profile representation has to do well, and thanks to Chibnall’s incompetence instead the first woman to play the Doctor is saddled with being the literal worst era of the show ever. Chibnall torched vast quantities of good will, and now it is vastly harder to get a second chance at this, with about the only bright side being that Chibnall’s successor is Russell T Davies, someone who plausibly might eventually decide “nah, we’re totally doing a female Doctor again, only harder.”
And that, I suppose, is the flamingly obvious point that I do not want to have to make, but that I clearly do. This could have worked. Absolutely none of the problems the Chibnall era has are because of his decision to cast a woman in the role. Nothing about a female Doctor is even a challenge to write for. The problem is simply that Chibnall is a shitty enough writer that even the easy stuff eludes him. And so you get an era where The Tsuranga Conundrum is a relative highlight.