Well, The Power of the Doctor aired this week, officially bringing the Jody Whittaker/Chis Chibnall era to an end. The five year reign of Jody Whittaker, through three foreshortened seasons and a handful of specials is over and done with. So it goes. What a waste of time and money.
I don’t suppose this matters to anyone. The Misogyny brigade will cheer. The feminist brigade will gnash their teeth.
But honestly, I ended up watching Legends of the Sea Devils three times over a few months, and it broke me. I’ve rewatched Flux, Whittaker’s third series. I rewatched her Dalek specials. I’ve been rewatching episodes from the first and second series.
And you know what? It’s just terrible. Half assed, appalling writing, trite and cliched. Endless dropped threads, subplots that get abandoned. Even the episodes we’re supposed to like because they’re ‘good for us’ are sub-par and trading on their virtue. Once in a while something good or interesting comes along, a notion, an idea, a bit of characterization. But it’s immediately ganged up on and beaten to death by the mediocre elements.
But watching it all over again made me realize something.
Whittaker herself? She was terrible. She was absolutely terrible.
Maybe she’s a really good actress in other movies or television series. But she’s not here. Her performance is flat, wooden, preening. It’s a terrible, inconsistent performance without a scintilla of life or charisma.
And before you call me a misogynist pig, I’ve actually written books about Women playing the Doctor and succeeding. The Pirate Histories of Doctor Who. Barbara Benedetti played the Doctor through four stories from 1984 to 1988, and the Seattle actress was flat out brilliant. Sharon Horton played the Doctor in two stories, one of which was a three part serial in the 1990s, and she did it well. Lily Daniel played the Doctor through two episodes of the Ginger Chronicles a decade ago. Krystal Moore played the Doctor in Doctor Who – Velocity, through nine short episodes, right now.
They all brought different interpretations to the Doctor – confidence, resilience, flamboyance, cleverness, compassion. But they all had one thing in common: They were better Doctors than Whittaker.
I excused Whittaker for a long time. I was putting a lot of it down to the writing, and the writing is terrible on many levels. I mean, this is seriously terrible writing through the Chibnall era – clumsy exposition, shallow characterization, cliched plots, awful pacing, plot threads introduced and abandoned, and basically a lack of creativity.
But really, beyond the writing, Whittaker is just bad. The writing masked her ineptitude in the role, not by concealing it, but by taking the blame. But Whittaker’s performance…
There’s a difference between bad writing for the character, and bad acting. We’ve got both going on.
Let me give you an example of bad writing for the character: Throughout the series, Whittaker’s Doctor continually gives these rushed breathy monologues where she’s constantly talking to herself, explaining plot or story points. But WTF? She has three companions standing around? And she’s monologuing? What happened to “Doctor, whats that?” What happened to dialogue – people asking questions or pointing out things, and the Doctor explaining? Okay, that’s not brilliant writing, it’s basically lazy, and uses the companion as a kind of sounding board, a dialogue box. But that kind of basic laziness works. That’s why they were doing it. It basically amounted to ‘minimum level of competence.’
But they wouldn’t even do that. Instead of ‘minimum level of competence’ we have clumsy expositionary monologues, with three companions standing around… So consequently, they are all left with nothing much to do. There’s no avenue for them to challenge the Doctor, to actually question events, to question the bad guys, to have any role. They’re simply standing around. In the 70s, the Companions were strong realized characters. In the 80s, they became ciphers there to give the Doctor someone to talk to and to scream on cue. Under Chibnall? Sub-ciphers? Sketches? Stick figures propped up as background?
These clumsy expositionary monologues continue right through the series and up to the end of Power of the Daleks. Whittaker’s Doctor doesn’t talk TO people around her, mostly she talks AT them. And indeed, in the middle of a conversation, her character will seem to lose interest, turn away and drift into an expositionary monologue.
It’s just a major disservice to all the characters – including the Doctor herself. But that’s the writing. That’s distinct from Whittaker’s performance.
Which performance is terrible.
Basically, Whittaker’s entire approach to her performance as the Doctor is to curl her upper lip, squint a little and wrinkle her nose. For emphasis, she goes “Eh!” Seriously, that’s pretty much the whole thing.
Puzzled? Curl the upper lip, squint, wrinkle her nose.
Happy? Curl the upper lip, squint, wrinkle nose.
Furious? Curl the upper lip, squint, wrinkle nose.
Thinking hard? Curl lip, squint, wrinkle.
Jesus Christ, nuance amounts to curling one side of the upper limp, or varying the squint, but it doesn’t track to anything. She’s just making faces. It’s like Vampire’s Kiss, where Nick Cages entire performance is him trying to see how wide he can make his eyes, it’s no relationship to the script or character.
The voice is basically a monotone. She’s like a speeded up elevator voice, talking fast and breathy, but basically mostly flat. It’s not completely flat, sometimes she chirps angry, sometimes she chirps happy, but the range is decidedly narrow, and it’s the same tool kit. There’s not much in the way of emotional range.
She gives the character no humour. There’s no sense of insight. Another actress or actor walks into a room, and you get a sense that they’re looking at things, that they’re reacting to things, there’s focus, perspective, interaction. Whittaker’s Doctor walks into a room… and she simply walks into a room.
Her Doctor talks to/at someone, and it’s all the engagement of buying a packet of crisps. There’s no charisma, no personality, no engagement. She just walks in, says her lines, makes sure she’s facing the person she’s supposed to be talking to and that she’s in her light… and that’s it.
Apart from that, she jogs competently when the script calls for her to “run!” and she waves the sonic around on occasion, and seems to think that’s all that’s needed. But there’s no real physicality – think of the physical performance of Ecclestone, or Tennant or Capaldi, or even a Tom Baker. If the script isn’t calling for her to do something, she doesn’t do it, she might as well be sitting in a chair. These are the tools of an actor – expression, voice, physicality, interraction. And Whittaker gives us almost nothing.
Her performance is restrained to the point of somnolence. She gives almost nothing, she does almost nothing.
I watched an interview with Chibnall and Whittaker, where they gushed at each other in the usual fashion. Chibnall said he was careful not to give Whittaker any direction for the character, he didn’t even want her to watch previous performances. He wanted a performance that was all Whittaker being the Doctor, and according to Chibnall, she hit it out of the park. Whittaker, in the same interview said everything was in the script, that’s where she got her direction, her portrait of the Doctor. This is the usual auto-fellation that goes on, but I think it was revealing. Neither of them believed it was their job to create the Doctor, they just looked to each other, like two vacant mirrors reflecting nothing back endlessly. In the end, there’s nothing there. And yes, this passage feels like some pretentious empty slam. But I still think there was something in that interview that gives us a clue to the vapidity and failure of Whittaker’s performance.
I keep coming back to the near monotonal restraint of Whittaker’s performance. There’s so little to it, so little there. For all the capering, the running about, the monologues, the erratic characterization, all the things I can safely blame on the writing… there’s a hollowness to Whittaker’s performance. If it’s not in the script, it’s not there at all. It puzzled me.
The closest I can come to understanding this, the most I can compare it to, is that she’s playing the Doctor as if she was a supporting character in a movie or television series. In a film or television production, there’s the star of the show – that’s the person that we’re supposed to be watching, the person that should be holding our attention. That’s the person that needs to be charismatic, outgoing, to draw the eye and engage the sympathies. That’s the person that’s larger than the script, that imbues or exudes personality, dynamism.
A supporting character? They need to stay in their lane. They can’t upstage the star or the main actors. The show isn’t about them. So their job is to stay in the script, to do what the script gives them, nothing more, nothing less, to hit the marks, face the direction of persons they’re supposed to be talking to, deliver their dialogue, support the main actor, and go away. No going beyond the lane, no charisma, no dynamism, no more or less personality than demanded. Their job is not to upstage, but to support. That’s Whittaker.
And I don’t know, possibly that’s been Whittaker’s career – excelling as a supporting actor, endlessly staying in her lane, never venturing beyond the confines of the script, doing only what the script directs, nothing more, nothing less. Safe, predictable, comfortable. I can respect that. Being a good supporting actor is fine.
But that’s definitely not a starring role, and that’s very definitely not the Doctor, a character that, by rights, needs to be large and needs to command any room they walk into.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Colin Baker from the Classic Who series. It seems that Colin played a Commander Maxil in a serial called Arc of Infinity. Basically, he was a supporting character, a Guard Commander who was supposed to give Peter Davison’s Doctor a hard time. He was so arch and intent, that Jon Nathan-Turner, the show’s producer, had to take him aside and explain that the show was called “Doctor Who” and not “The Adventures of Commander Maxil.” No idea if its true, but I think it illustrates the gap in Whittaker’s approach.
Peter Capaldi as the Doctor had some epically bad stories, potentially some of the worst stories in the series history – stunningly catastrophic misfires. But if you watch it, even in the worse scripts, there’s Capaldi giving the performance everything he’s got. Bent over and struggling to lift the weight of a terrible script, straining to the point you can hear his vertebra popping one after the other like popcorn. His performance always went beyond the script, sometimes making it the only watchable thing to an episode. Given good material, he was off like a racehorse.
I suspect that given really good scripts, scripts with strong and consistent characterization for her Doctor, she could have done well. But she wouldn’t have gone beyond that. Given bad scripts, she gives nothing at all. She offers monotones, and a single fixed expression for any emotion with a few random variations, and quick squeaky breathy mutterings to her monotone. She gurns low key.
She’s giving a second or third tier supporting actor television performance – safe, restrained and unobtrusive… except that she is playing a central character.
So yeah, terrible writing, terrible scripts.
But also a terrible performance.
The Whittaker/Chibnall era is a failure. And that’s on her as much as Chibnall.