Here’s a line from “Day Of The Doctor”, the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special episode released in 2013.
“Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.”
The Doctor’s oath of sorts. A call to arms for kindness. A beacon to shelter under or to push towards.
Here’s a line from “The Pilot”, the first episode of the 2017 season.
“She was fat. I’d fatted her.”
From a call to arms for kindness to fat shaming in three and a bit years. That may be some kind of record.
Just before the legions of, “But she said she fancied her anyway!” and, “It was just banter!” people rush to arms to defend a joke that wasn’t fired at them, we know, we get it. The rest of the episode was great, maybe the strongest season opener since Tennant. We love Bill, we love the new set-up for the Doctor and we especially love how this seems to be 12’s quietly disreputable retirement. “The Pilot” was, those first two minutes aside, great fun and we’re really excited to see where the rest of the season goes.
But those first two minutes are still there. And the arrival of that line is so unexpected that it almost blows the landing. The landing the joke desperately needs to be redeemed and, in doing so, turn Bill from someone who judges a crush because she’s fat into someone who’s accepting and fun and who you want to spend a season of TV with. There’ve been less well thought out jokes in the show’s history but none of them spring to mind right now. Very few that were meaner too.
Looked at it in context, it’s a stupid choice. This is the first time we’ve met Bill, she’s completely charming up until this point and then… boom. It rattles you, rattles your perceptions of her away from, “clever, looking for a challenge, funny, and a little odd” into “superficial and mean” and that gear change is so hard it blocks the next few lines out. This was about as close as it was possible for the show to come to killing any sympathy for a character outright. At least since Martha’s dad spent an entire scene yelling, ‘I’M PUTTING MY FOOT DOWN!’
Looked at as a means of introducing the show’s first openly gay companion it is, again, a stupid choice. Introducing a show old enough to be many viewer’s parents to its first gay companion by having her go, “I really fancied this girl and then I fed her lots of chips and I don’t fancy her anymore because I’d made her fat,” is crushingly unsubtle, mean and offensive.
It’s also galactically stupid business practice. Doctor Who is a show with an immensely diverse audience, which is one of the big reasons it still IS a show and not a piece of pub trivia. Rolling out the first companion that directly represents its gay viewers with her complaining about someone’s weight is tone deaf on a level that even the Duke of Edinburgh might look twice at. You really want to court the gay audience? Don’t make fat jokes that are cruel and damage your gay leading lady. Better still, don’t walk right up to an off the shelf “doomed gay romance” trope, file the serial numbers off it and then pass it off as something new just because neither of them died. This time.
Oh, and then there’s the near biological impossibility of Bill’s crush getting fatter off 10 extra chips every day for a few months. But, never mind accuracy when you’ve got the cheapest of cheap gags to throw at your audience, right?
Doctor Who is a show that has, throughout its history, appealed directly to an audience outside the mainstream. This is a show so many people gravitated towards because they were odd, or clever, or funny, or kind or didn’t fit in. Doctor Who was the show that told them that wasn’t just okay, that was brilliant. It’s a series about someone who doesn’t fit in, but is a hero anyway. A strong percentage of its audience will identify with that. It will have saved lives because of that. A show about a brilliant misfit that shows misfits their brilliance.
Last week it showed them a fat joke.
Yes, it paid it off. Yes the two lines after that make it clear that Bill has no problem with her being fat and are even a typically Moffatian attempt to say something nice and inclusive in the most obtuse and oddly snippy way possible.
But those two lines get drowned out by the one that comes before and by the sneaking suspicion that the show is laughing at its audience. Maybe it won’t do that ever again, but last week it did. And in a turbulent season with a regeneration, a showrunner hand over and a near total reset on the cards that is the last thing an audience deserves to be put through.
Actually, that’s the last thing an audience ever deserves to be put through.
By Alasdair Stuart