Christmas 2017 brought with it the very latest interpretation of Shada – a story with a powerful grip on Doctor Who fans by virtue of never being completed. It is a story I hold in very high regard, and I was delighted to see it imagined as it was (almost) intended. One moment early on in what would have been episode 2 provoked an interesting line of thought: What if Lalla Ward had become the Fifth Doctor at the end of Season 16?
This provocative thought was prompted by a scene in what would have been the second episode of Shada. The Doctor has set off to retrieve ‘The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey’, an ancient Gallifreyian artefact disguised as a book, from Chris Parsons’ laboratory. During his absence his friend Professor Chronotis is attacked by the villainous Skagra. Shortly afterwards Chris arrives at the study to discover the Professor unconscious on the floor, being ministered to by Romana.
As Romana applies a medical collar to the Professor she explains that the collar will take over the functions of the autonomic brain (i.e. breathing and bloodflow) allowing him to ‘think’ with his autonomic brain. A bemused Chris begins to protest that the human brain doesn’t work that way, leaving Romana to explain with gentle exasperation: “The Professor isn’t human!”
As I watched the scene, perhaps it was something in the reworked score that produced a lightbulb moment. In that one moment, Lalla Ward’s interpretation of Romana managed to convey something I failed to pick up with Jodie Whittaker’s interpretation of the Doctor – a powerful, evocative sense of alien otherness. In that moment you could believe Romana was over one hundred years old, and that Chris could not begin to understand the universe as she did.
While my biggest problem with Jodie Whittaker’s debut season of Doctor Who was the writing (abysmal), closely followed by the screen time (inconvenient), I also found myself unable to picture Jodie as the Doctor. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, I found it hard to picture Jodie as a Time Lord, the crucial first step.
Take another moment from Shada. Romana and Chris find themselves incarcerated inside Skagra’s spaceship. As Chris laments “all this is beyond me” Romana coolly replies “I expect so.” It is the same kindred spirit that had Pertwee frequently lament the narrow mindedness of the Brigadier; the same spirit that has Tom Baker reply matter of factly “I’m not human Sarah Jane” in Pyramids of Mars, as she begins to cry “Sometimes I think you’re not … [human]”; the same otherness expressed so powerfully by Chris Eccleston in his debut story as he speaks of feeling the earth rotating and moving in space.
We must acknowledge that this is not entirely Whittaker’s fault. While actors can undoubtedly work with poor material to make it better than it deserves, there is only so far you can redeem poor content. The character of the thirteenth doctor fails to come across as this untouchably other and ancient creature. With the focus on the ‘fam’, Whittaker is given the unfortunate vibe of being a mum on a school trip. For that, Chris Chibnall must take the brunt of the criticism as the ultimate authority on the Doctor’s character under his tenure.
We cannot completely absolve Whittaker of all blame however. Romana was frequently and frustratingly written as the damsel in distress, but on the moments she was given to shine, Lalla Ward showed how a Time Lady should be played. Shada is the best example of this, but we also see glimpses in stories such as City of Death and The Nightmare of Eden, where Ward steps up as the de facto Doctor while Tom Baker has taken to goofing around.
Put another way, if Season 16 of Doctor Who had finished with Tom Baker regenerating into Lalla Ward, I have no doubts whatsoever that she could have pulled it off, given how she portrayed Romana during Season 17. We know it is not a matter of how Ward interprets characters, as the character of Princess Astra from Season 16 finale The Armageddon Factor is portrayed fundamentally different to how she subsequently portrays Romana. She took what she was given (not always superb) and ran with it.
Her interactions with Chris Parsons and Clare Keighley in Shada give some flavour of how she would have treated her companions as the Doctor – indeed, it is not hard to imagine Chris as a Harry Sullivan like companion, to Clare as Sarah Jane; Romana very much treats both in the same way Baker did Ian Marter and Elisabeth Sladen in Season 12. There is a degree of friendliness and sympathy, but she also has no doubt whatsoever that Time Lords have an understanding and experience of the universe far greater than humanity.
Does it matter? Surely it is in the gift of the show runner and the actor to decide how the Doctor is portrayed? To a certain extent this is true, insomuch that the show has survived and thrived through constantly reimagining itself. That creativity however has always been pulled back to some core principles and shared understandings. Patrick Troughton’s first season as the Doctor is perhaps the best example. For much of Troughton’s first three stories, he revels in playing the clown, seizing multiple opportunities to disguise himself in The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace. According to then companion Anneke Wills, it took director Morris Barry, in fourth story The Moonbase, to get Troughton to take the role seriously – with the Second Doctor noticeably much more like his ‘old’ self in this story. Troughton brought a fresh impish humour to the role, but his characterisation was only permitted to stray so far.
This then is perhaps the hugest pity of Jodie Whittaker’s tenure as the Thirteenth Doctor. I remain sceptical that you can change the gender of a character and maintain character continuity, while open to being persuaded that I’m wrong. I am completely confident however in asserting that so far Whittaker has failed to capture the ethereal and unsettling otherness that surrounds the character of a Time Lord. Most unfortunately for her, 40 years ago another actress showed us how it is done, and Lalla Ward set a standard that Whittaker has sadly yet to match.
About the author:
Dan has been watching Doctor Who for nearly 30 years. He blogs at www.dantalksdoctorwho.wordpress.com and lives in Oxford with his young family, where he works for a charity.
Twitter handle: @dantalksdrwho