Like nerds the world over, I was delighted to learn this weekend that the role of Doctor Who will soon be played, for the first time in the show’s history, by a woman. In case you’ve somehow missed the iconic show’s 36 seasons, you should know that this is a very big deal: the Doctor is a Time Lord, a merciful being who hops across space and time and keeps the universe safe from no-goodniks, occasionally slipping into a new body and a new personality whenever a new actor is ready for the challenge. Twelve have assumed the role so far; all have been men. And now comes, Jodie Whittaker, a fine British actress.
“I’m beyond excited to begin this epic journey,” Whittaker said in a statement. “It’s more than an honor to play the Doctor. It means remembering everyone I used to be, while stepping forward to embrace everything the Doctor stands for: hope. I can’t wait.”
It’s a touching sentiment, because it neatly captures the original intent of the show’s creator, Sydney Newman. The son of impoverished Jews who emigrated from Russia to Toronto and eked out a living running a small shoe shop, Newman dropped out of school at 13, made propaganda films for the Canadian army during World War II, and found his way to England where, in 1963, he came up with the idea for the Doctor. And the Doctor, as I wrote in a paean to the show a few years ago, is arguably the greatest Jewish character in television history: “wildly intelligent, intergalactically cosmopolitan, with a biting sense of humor and a commitment to quite literally repairing the world. He is constantly wandering, never at home. His relation is not to space, a place to call his own, but to time, which makes him highly dependent on memory.” Sound familiar?
Whittaker’s casting, then, fits in neatly with this neverending story, the story of the struggle for a slightly more equitable world. But as we celebrate her much deserved ascension, it’s hard to ignore another fact, seemingly unrelated but deeply troubling: while the beloved show, created by a Jew in Britain, breaks new boundaries of social progress, actual British Jews are persecuted like never before in modern history, and very little is being done to offer them the security and the protection they deserve.
As a recently released report by the British non-governmental organization Campaign Against Antisemitism suggests, while hate crimes targeting British Jews have soared by 14.9 percent in 2016—the third year in a row in which the number continued to climb up—British police opted to bring charges in just 8.3 percent of the cases on record, leading some communal leaders to believe that British authorities now accept violent harassment of Jews as the new normal. Gideon Falter, Campaign Against Antisemitism’s chairman, said that “The failure of police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service to protect British Jews is a betrayal. The solutions are simple, but whilst the right promises are being made, little has been implemented. The result is that British Jews continue to endure intolerable levels of hate crime… There is a very real danger of Jewish citizens emigrating, as has happened elsewhere in Europe unless there is radical change.”
And radical change, as the Twentieth Century has taught us all too well, rarely happens without a culture that demands it. This is why it behooves us, as we celebrate Doctor Who for registering another small victory for positive transformation, to remember that contemporary life in Britain is not quite so hopeful for Jews.
Newman, who has witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust, created the show in part as a meditation on the sort of benighted fascism that had claimed so many Jewish lives, fashioning the Doctor’s main nemeses—a species of homicidal robots called the Daleks—after the Nazis. It’s bitterly ironic that his creation breaks new ground just as the sort of anti-Semitism the Doctor was conceived to rectify is on the rise. But now we have a new Doctor, and with her, as always, there’s hope.