5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

Reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the new Doctor pretty much broke the internet last month. While the majority appear to be in favour, a significant minority reacted with hostility.

At first glance, the haters did seem to have a reasonable point. The Doctor is a man, has always been a man, so it’s weird to regenerate them into a woman. After all, there are constants across every regeneration, different as it may be to its predecessors. For example, the Doctor always has a British accent. If the Doctor ever gained an American twang, there would be outrage; the Doctors’ Britishness is a fixed point of their ever-changing character. Is it so unreasonable for their gender to be another fixed point, something to anchor their character and reassure viewers that despite the new actor, this is still the Doctor you know and love?

But as soon as you start to think about it, this argument collapses completely. After all, Doctor Who‘s 54-year history is littered with contradictions and continuity errors. The majority of the episodes produced under Steven Moffatt were full of plot-holes, so to suggest that there is anything fixed, immutable and logical about the show is utterly ridiculous. It’s pure fantasy. Fantasy – that’s a key word that I’ll return to later.

Let’s consider some of the most common negative reactions that appeared online…

 

1. “It’s Not Doctor Who any more.”

People said that in 1966 when the Doctor first regenerated. They said it when he was exiled to Earth in the 70s. They said it when it got campy in the 80s. They said it when the American TV movie was made in 1996. They said it when Russell T. Davies resurrected the show in 2005. They said it when Tennant left in 2010. And now they’re saying it again.

Change, evolution, moving with the times – these are the reasons that Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi show on the planet. The world has changed enormously since William Hartnell first flickered onto the screen with his magic blue (grey) box. It’s the show’s ability to develop in step with the real world  that makes it a continued success. These changes are visible in the ever-improving VFX, the topical themes of the stories, the shifts in tone under new showrunners, and crucially through Who‘s groundbreaking concept of regeneration.

Doctor Who is change.

 

2. “We have lost an important male role model.”

I saw a post from a man who was angry and upset to lose what he saw as a crucial role model in his life. His argument was that male heroes are usually more physical and violent, whereas the Doctor’s more intelligent approach made him great for encouraging men into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers. Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor, expressed a similar concern.

But it is women who are under-represented in STEM industries, not men. And if you’re looking for other intelligent male role models, how about super-brainy Sherlock? Or engineering genius Tony “Iron Man” Stark? Or most of the Star Trek captains and science officers? Even if you reject every other film and TV show’s male heroes as not intellectual enough, you still have the other twelve Doctors. Can’t we let 50% of the population have one female Doctor in there to look up to?

 

3. “It’s a cynical move.”

It’s no secret that Doctor Who‘s ratings have been steadily declining in recent years, so some people have come to the conclusion that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall cast a woman purely to generate controversy and draw attention to the show.

Undoubtedly Chibnall would have seen the press and social media interest as a bonus to casting a woman, but it can’t have been the sole or primary motivator. Chibnall is first and foremost a writer, and no writer would ever cast a lead actor to bring their character to life if they didn’t believe absolutely that that actor was right for the part. The first woman in the role is bound to attract a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than another man when her episodes start screening, so if the show is to have a hope of impressing the critics then the Doctor has to be an excellent actor with an impeccable track record. And Whittaker is definitely that.

This move is far from cynical. It’s bold, refreshing and relevant, and for this fan at least it gives me more excitement about the next season than I have felt for some time.

 

4. “It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Political correctness has become a dirty phrase, but all it really means is being careful not to offend oppressed or minority groups unnecessarily. So to say that Whittaker’s casting is political correctness gone mad is to suggest that it’s placating people who have no valid complaint of oppression or under-representation.

Let me say it again: twelve of the thirteen Doctors are men. (Thirteen of fourteen if you count the War Doctor.) Only one is a woman. That’s less than 10%, compared with 50% of the population being female. That is the very definition of under-representation. And let’s not forget that Whittaker’s casting was announced after the men’s Wimbledon final, not the women’s, because we still live in a world where women, and all the things women do, are considered less important than their male counterparts.

Casting a female Doctor is not “political correctness gone mad”. It’s taking a small step towards correcting a huge imbalance.

 

5. “I won’t be watching any more.”

I suspect the men who wrote comments like this did not stop to consider the more limited choices their mothers, daughters and sisters have in this matter. If women threw their toys out of the pram every time a TV show or film came along with a male lead, they wouldn’t get much else done. Women have got used to watching stories led by the other gender; we men must learn to do the same.

To the people who still say, “but the Doctor is a man,” and suggest that casting female leads in new shows would be better than swapping the gender of an established character, you may be right. And when 50% of all big franchises have female leads there will be no need to do this kind of thing, but until then, it’s necessary. Until then, us men whining that we’ve lost something in this situation is like a millionaire crying because they dropped a penny down the drain.

 

Finally, let’s return to that keyword, fantasy. Because I think the most significant things about Whittaker’s casting are the kids in the playgrounds who will grow up with choice. The girls won’t always have to play the kidnapped princesses, or the love interests, or the companions, while the boys get the roles with agency; they can play Rey, or Wonder Woman, or the Doctor. That can only be beneficial to the future of our society.

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5 Rebuffed Complaints About a Female Doctor Who

How “The Crown” Uses Broad Key Lighting to Evoke Tradition

Earlier this year I blogged about a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, studying the lighting in traditional portraits. I noted that, contrary to the current cinematographic trend for short key lighting, almost all of those paintings used broad key. And while watching the high-end Netflix series The Crown this week, I noticed the same thing. Why might this be?

Short key (left) vs. broad key (right). Photos from SLR Lounge
Short key (left) vs. broad key (right). Photos from SLR Lounge

First of all, a reminder: a short key is a key light on the side of the face away from camera, while a broad key hits the side of the face towards camera. Short key is generally preferred amongst cinematographers because it gives better “modelling” – i.e. a better sense of the shape of the face – and focuses the viewer ON the face, rather than the ear and the side of the head. A broad key, meanwhile, presents less shadow to the camera, and arguably shows the hairstyle and the shape of the head better – which may be reasons for the preponderance of broad key in classical portraiture, which were more concerned with overall appearance than with emotion/performance.

An array of broad key paintings at the National Portrait Gallery
An array of broad key paintings at the National Portrait Gallery

But I don’t believe these direct pros and cons were the primary motivation in cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland’s decision to use broad key lighting in a crucial scene from The Crown.

The central themes of the series, which dramatises the early life of the Queen, are tradition and duty. Queen Mary often reminds her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II of the long and noble lineage of the English royal family, a weight of history and responsibility which Elizabeth keenly feels. “The crown must always win,” Mary intones in the trailer.

In episode 4 the young Queen seeks advice, desperate to ensure she does not tarnish the monarchy’s centuries-old reputation. To symbolise this burden, Birkeland evokes the imagery of traditional portraiture – the subjects of which were always high-born individuals, often royals. Consider this frame grab from the scene, beneath an official portrait.

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See how the light models the face the same way in both images? Note also the absence of backlight in the frame grab, another feature common to traditional paintings, which typically relied on a single window light source. Elizabeth’s dark hair blends into parts of the dark background.

Combined with the timeless regal production design, this lighting subtly places the Queen within the frame of an official portrait, trapping her within the overwhelming tradition of the monarchy. Can I say for certain that Birkeland did this deliberately? No, but I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t looked at royal portraits while prepping the show, and I’d be equally surprised if they hadn’t at least influenced him unconciously.

Either way, this is a first-rate example of the power of cinematography to enhance theme and narrative by guiding the viewer to make subconscious associations. If you haven’t seen The Crown, I can highly recommend it; it’s not just the cinematography that’s top notch.

How “The Crown” Uses Broad Key Lighting to Evoke Tradition

Forced Perspective

The Ark
The Ark

The other day I watched a 1966 Doctor Who story called The Ark. It’s easy to look at a TV show that old and laugh at the stilted acting, rubber monsters and crude effects. But given the archaic and draconian conditions the series was made under back then, I can only admire the creativity displayed by the director and his team in visualising a script which was scarcely less demanding than a contemporary Who story.

Studio floor plan from the very first episode of Doctor Who, showing camera positions (coloured circles)
Studio floor plan from the very first episode of Doctor Who, showing camera positions (coloured circles)

In the sixties, each Doctor Who episode was recorded virtually as live on a Friday evening, following a week of rehearsals. BBC rules strictly limited the number of times the crew could stop taping during the 90 minute recording session, which was to produce a 22 minute episode. Five cameras would glide around the tightly-packed sets in a carefully choroegraphed dance, with the vision mixer cutting between them in real-time as per the director’s shooting script. (Interesting side note: some of Terminator 2 was shot in a very similar fashion to maximise the number of angles captured in a day.) It’s no wonder that fluffed lines and camera wobbles occasionally marred the show, as there was rarely time for re-takes.

But what’s really hard for anyone with a basic knowledge of visual effects to get their head around today is that, until the Jon Pertwee era began in 1970, there was no chromakey (a.ka. blue- or green-screening) in Doctor Who. Just think about that for a moment: you have to make a science fiction programme without any electronic means of merging two images together, simple dissolves excepted.

Setting up a foreground miniature for a later Who story, Inferno (1970)
Setting up a foreground miniature for a later Who story, Inferno (1970)

So the pioneers behind those early years of Doctor Who had to be particularly creative when when they wanted to combine miniatures with live action. One of the ways they did this in The Ark was through forced perspective.

Forced perspective is an optical illusion, a trick of scale. We’ve all seen holiday photos where a friend or relative appears to be holding up the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The exact same technique can be used to put miniature spaceships into a full-scale live action scene.

In these frames from The Ark, two miniature landing craft are lowered into the background before the camera pans to a full-size craft in the foreground:

The camera pans from a miniature descending in the background to a full-scale craft in the foreground.
The camera pans from a miniature descending in the background to a full-scale craft in the foreground.

And in these later frames, another miniature craft is placed much closer to the camera than the Monoid (a.k.a. a man in a rubber suit). The miniature craft takes off, pulled up on a wire I presume – a feat which time, money and safety would have rendered impossible with the full-size prop:

The camera pulls focus from a foreground miniature taking off to an actor in the background. A greater depth of field would have made the shot more convincing, but  the principle is sound.
The camera pulls focus from a foreground miniature taking off to an actor in the background. A greater depth of field would have made the shot more convincing, but the principle is sound.

Of course, Doctor Who was not by any means the first show to use forced perspective, nor was it the last. This nineties documentary provides a fascinating look at the forced perspective work in the Christopher Guest remake of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, and other films…

And Peter Jackson famously re-invented forced perspective cinematography for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when his VFX team figured out a way to maintain the illusion during camera moves, by sliding one of the actors around on a motion control platform…

So remember to consider all your options, even the oldest tricks in the book, when you’re planning the VFX for your next movie.

Forced Perspective

The Miniature Effects of “The Day of the Doctor”

The cannon miniature
The cannon miniature

The fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who has been lauded for its cinema quality FX; indeed, I saw it in a cinema and at no point did I feel like I was just watching a TV show on a big screen. The Time War sequence was particularly impressive, and in amongst the CGI and special effects you may be surprised to learn there were some miniature effects which helped to up the ante. These were created by Mike Tucker and his team at The Model Unit, who a few years back did such a brilliant job of building the Wooden Swordsman for my Dark Side of the Earth pilot. This press release from the Model Unit reveals their contribution and how it was done.

The Model Unit’s involvement in Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor was for the Time War section of this historic episode, providing several cutaways of the Time Lord staser cannon (including its destruction) and a longer sequence showing John Hurt’s TARDIS crashing through a wall and destroying several Daleks that are unlucky enough to be in its path.

Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker working on the Wooden Swordsman for The Dark Side of the Earth back in 2008
Model Unit supervisor Mike Tucker working on the Wooden Swordsman for The Dark Side of the Earth back in 2008

Following an initial discussion with producer Marcus Wilson to establish the sort of shots that might be needed Miniature Effects Supervisor Mike Tucker met up with stereo supervisors Adam Sculthorp and David Wigram to work through the practicalities of shooting high speed miniature effects sequences in 3D – a first for a British television drama production.

A proof of concept test utilising an existing miniature established that the models shouldn’t be smaller than 1/6th scale, and ideally at 1⁄4 scale. Further research established that the miniature effects sequences for the Martin Scorsase movie ‘Hugo’ had been done at 1⁄4 scale and with the same Alexa high speed camera rigs that we were planning to use, and so we were able to proceed with a certain amount of confidence that what we were about to do was realistically achievable.

Blowing up the cannon
Blowing up the cannon

With a five-week lead-time and a two-day shoot in Cardiff in April of this year model construction was split between several Model Unit regulars. Alan ‘Rocky’ Marshal was given the task of constructing the staser cannon, Nick Kool took on the TARDIS model and associated rigs and Colin Mapson worked with new recruit Paul Jarvis on the ruined Arcadian buildings and breakaway wall sections.

In a nod to past effects sequences, the Dalek miniatures were achieved in the time honoured way by utilising off-the-shelf toys (in this case the 18 inch voice- interactive toys that had been produced by Character Options a few years back), albeit with a few careful modifications in order to match them more closely to the actual props. Further detail was added to the interiors, including a scaled model of the mutant creature.

Model Unit DoP Peter Tyler worked closely with main unit DoP Neville Kidd to establishing a lighting design for the miniatures as, due to camera rig availability, we were shooting our miniatures in advance of the live action unit – a complete reversal of how things are usually done.

Close collaboration was also needed with the production design team with Mike and assistant art director Richard Hardy constantly swapping notes about the final design details of both Time Lord machinery and architecture to ensure a seamless blend with the location.

Day one of the shoot concentrated on the shooting of the cannon allowing the more complex rig of the TARDIS to be set up and tested, whilst the second day took in several takes of the TARDIS shots. The 1⁄4 scale TARDIS miniature was fixed to a steel rig mounted on a trolley system that allowed us to fire it at the wall using bungee cord.

Filming the Tardis breaking through the wall
Filming the Tardis breaking through the wall

Two takes of each set up were shot on two high speed Alexa stereo rigs shooting at 120fps.

Mike and his crew watched the completed episode at the Doctor Who Celebration at Excel with an audience of 2000 fans.

Visit The Model Unit’s website at www.themodelunit.co.uk

The Miniature Effects of “The Day of the Doctor”

Flog It!

Thanks to everyone who’s sponsored Stop/Eject so far, and also to everyone who’s shared and forwarded the call for sponsors. It’s been a great start to the crowd funding campaign.

Paul Martin
Flog It! presenter Paul Martin, a favourite with the senior ladies

The BBC’s Flog It! programme came to Hereford Cathedral yesterday, and since they were looking for stewards I decided to sign up. I’ve been a filmmaker for twelve years but I have almost no experience of broadcast TV, so this was a good opportunity to dip my toe into a different section of the industry.

If, like me, you’ve never seen Flog It! it seems to be exactly the same as Antiques Roadshow only they take your stuff to an auction at the end and sell it. Yesterday was a valuation day, meaning members of the public show up with the tat from their attic and a few will discover they were sitting on a nice little nest egg. Any items whose owners wished them to be sold would then be packaged up and sent off to auction at a later date.

The day kicked off around 7am with the usual rearranging of chairs and tables, unloading of vans and setting-up of the green room. Representing the cathedral was Dominic Harbour, who I last worked with back in 2003 when we filmed a couple of scenes from Soul Searcher in the Chained Library. (Veteran blog followers may wonder at his ever letting me back into the building.)

Filming the queue with a crane
Filming the queue with a crane

Filming was meant to begin at 9am with shots of the huge crowd waiting outside, but only about fifteen Herefordians had shown up so things were delayed for a while as we waited for people to get up. It actually wasn’t long before the queue was quite impressive – almost as impressive as the jib which was being used to film it and the speed with which this jib’s two man crew could move it and set it up. At this point my job was to stop passers-by from wandering into shot. The very first person I stopped and asked to walk around the back of the jib turned out to be one of the presenters – well done, Neil.

When the doors opened, us stewards had to lead the throng into an elaborate snaking queue which, at its peak, would represent a three hour wait for the dollar-eyed hopefuls. Once that was up and running, my job was to stand at the door and ask people entering if they were here for Flog It! (since the cathedral was still open to the public as normal) and if they were then to hand them an information sheet and apologetically point them towards the very back of the queue. It made me weep for the soul of humanity how many people were dull-witted enough to answer the question “Are you here for Flog It?” with “How much can I get for my wife?” Anyway, this job wasn’t very demanding and I was able to observe the shooting MO.

A view from behind the cameras
A view from behind the cameras

The crew had obviously done this many times and they had their system down pat. The front part of the queue formed a horseshoe around three sides of the main open space which was evenly lit with four 1.2K HMIs bounced off large polyboards. (Flog It! banners hid all the stands from the cameras.) This area was treated like a three-walled studio set. The cameras always stayed at the “fourth wall” end, where two or three kinoflos provided extra kick for the foreground tables. At these tables the show’s resident experts were filmed discussing items with their owners. This meant no re-lighting, apart from a bit of moveable fill which was provided by handheld or camera-mounted LED lights. In the background, two further 1.2K HMIs were angled up at the roof and attractive gubbins of probable religious significance around the altar. Job’s a good ‘un.

HMIs bounced off polyboards provided the main light source
HMIs bounced off polyboards provided the main light source

I was surprised at the number of cameras in use – five or six split into three units each with its own director and support crew. Two units were constantly shooting valuations at the aforementioned tables, while the third was at the other end of the cathedral shooting other valuations which had been picked out by the production team as particularly interesting.

At lunchtime I got a bit of a shock by how civilised the arrangements were. On low budget films I’m used to half a slice of pizza out the back of someone’s car, but this being a BBC production we were treated to hot cottage pie with steamed veg and bread at proper tables with real plates and cutlery and nicely folded napkins.

Ray Bullock Jnr. during filming in the Chained Library for Soul Searcher
Ray Bullock Jnr. during filming in the Chained Library for Soul Searcher

At 4:15pm we derigged in the cathedral to make way for evensong and moved everything into the narrow museum area leading to the Mappa Mundi exhibit and Chained Library. Here several more valuations were filmed and I was called upon to sit in the background of shot to fill up the frame. I was also put on tea and coffee duty around this time. To deliver the drinks to the unit at the back of the museum area I first had to get past the other two units, which involved a wait of several minutes at each one for a break in recording, like city traffic lights.

Filming wrapped a little after 6pm and after helping carry stuff back to the vans and put the cathedral’s furniture back where it had come from I bade goodnight to all and sundry and headed home.

It’s a long time since I’ve been right at the bottom of the crew structure, but it was a great experience – everyone was really friendly – and I was reminded of a few things I learnt earlier in my career about how to make a good impression as a runner. So here are my top tips:

  1. Get the tea and coffee orders right. Write it all down, including names, and then transfer that info to the polystyrene cup when you’re making the drinks so they’re easy to distribute. If there’s any chocolate around distribute that too. It’s always good for people to associate you with receiving tasty snacks.
  2. Your tasks will invariably be boring but complaining about this is a definite no-no. Make use of the time to observe what the crew are doing – but not to the detriment of carrying out your task.
  3. Make sure you’re projecting “keen and eager” at all times. Don’t dawdle eating your lunch and get back to the action as soon as your plate’s clear.
  4. If you have to walk in front of a camera (not while it’s rolling of course) remember to say “crossing” as a courtesy to the camera op.
  5. If there’s an opportunity to stay a bit later than most other people and help load those last few cases into the van when everyone’s knackered, do it and you’ll be remembered with warm feelings.
Flog It!