It’s About Time: Joy as ‘Doctor Who’ Casts a Woman as Lead (Column)

Doctor Who
BBC

Oh, thank goodness: hooray for the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor on “Doctor Who.”

The last thing I wanted to write today was an angry screed about “Doctor Who.” I’ve been watching the show loyally for four decades; I’ve been through every up and down and alien invasion. No matter how much it may frustrate me in a given episode or a season, I love it so much. It’s about people without guns who roam around trying to do good and save people. With a screwdriver. At its best, “Doctor Who” irreverent, whip-smart and deeply humane.

So I was going to be disappointed and not a little furious if the Thirteenth Doctor was yet another white man.

For more than 50 years, every Doctor has been from that demographic, and of course, some versatile actors have done wonderful work in the role. I’d have a tough time picking my favorite: Is it Tom Baker? Peter Davison? David Tennant? Peter Capaldi? Matt Smith? Jon Pertwee?

(It’s Baker. They’re all fantastic, but of course, it’s Baker.)

The fact is, we’re living in a time in which a lot of people feel frustrated and fearful about the state of the world. Women, people of color and the LGBT community feel especially under siege. The daily headlines are like something out of a “Doctor Who” (or “Black Mirror”) dystopia. 

So if women were once again going to be asked to go to the back of the line and wait their turn when it came to the idea of seeing themselves as one of the iconic interstellar heroes — well, many people would have been upset. Even some white guys. 

But no one had to wake up to that disappointment, thank Gallifrey. Coming from one of the biggest media franchises on the planet, the news that the new “Doctor Who” is female is huge — and almost completely delightful. 

Some might be disappointed that this makes for the thirteenth white Doctor in a row. I do want to see a woman of color, or a non-white man, as the Doctor, of course. Those fans are still being asked to wait, and it would be hypocritical not to note that that is still not ideal. 

But the fact that Jodie Whittaker has been named the Thirteenth Doctor is cause for celebration. Not only is Whittaker a fine actor — she was fantastic in “Broadchurch” and “Attack the Block” — her casting sends a message.

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are — and who gets to be a hero — matter a great deal. Witness the huge success of films as varied as “Wonder Woman,” “Get Out,” and “Hidden Figures,” not to mention the slew of vital and terrific TV shows created by those who’ve been traditionally shut out of the showrunner role. We truly engage with the present through the fictional worlds we create, and we change the future in part through the people who populate those worlds. Clinging to the same old patterns, especially at this moment in time, would have been a big step backward. 

Those who’ve been shut out of seeing themselves on screen in the plum roles — as the problem-solvers, the heroes, the romantic leads, the witty ones who think of the brilliant solution — have won a victory. What a relief it is to see the Doctor added to the growing roster of role models for young girls (and boys).

How cool that a woman will now have a chance to not just explore the future but travel through all of time and space? Fixing disasters and outsmarting bad guys with a sonic screwdriver, a brilliant plan and a quip?

It’s worth noting that a queer black woman has also taken up residence in the TARDIS (though it’s not clear how long she’ll stay on). As the Doctor’s companion, Bill Potts, Pearl Mackie has been a breath of fresh air and a very welcome addition to the roster of companions, and I hope she sticks around. She’s lively and smart and challenges the Doctor in all the right ways.

Months from now, in the hands of new showrunner Chris Chibnall, we might see two women have wild, unpredictable adventures all over the galaxy, in a TARDIS that has thus far been the property of a guy. This is one very British changing of the guard that I cannot wait to see.

As Tennant’s Doctor would say, “Allons y!”

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  1. Michael Wasson says:

    A four decades watcher of Doctor Who and yet you were going to be angry if they cast another white male in the lead. What so many get wrong is that this show isn’t about another male or a woman of any color or creed in the lead. It’s who can do the job and continue the show that so many love to watch. Remember the years where there was no doctor who and we lived off the books and audio dramas.

    This show is all about the story and the interaction between the characters, not just the one person. I remember how much I hated Adric, yet couldn’t believe how he died. Seeing Tegan tear into people with her mouth like butter. Watching Sarah Jane Smith getting left on earth in the wrong city.

    Everyone needs to try to ignore the possible reasons for her casting and just hope that she brings something new to the part that we can enjoy.

    Here’s to 50 more years of doctor who.

  2. Sean Martindill says:

    Ah well I do love an American transposing American racial and sexual politics onto the UK which are totally different, particularly when it comes to race.

    Whatever you may think DR Who isn’t a show about an Alien time traveller; it is actually a show essentially about a Brit flying about in space. The show may be big internationally but it’s position as a family show with icons which even if you have never ( which in the UK is rare) watched it, know. Daleks, Tardis( so associated with the show the Metropolitan Police lost a licence case), regeneration, quarries, wobbly sets and once upon a time jelly babies are all icons that people will say instantly Dr Who in Britain.

    Britain is vastly different in history and demographics and up until the late 80s deeply conservative. It always has had an anarchist side and a unique sense of humour but even that knew it’s place.

    Image a Britain that up to the late 80s which was very white. Britain has always had a multi ethnic population but in small numbers. At times such as the Elizabethan times Britain had peaks in a visible presence but only until it was dealt with or due to economic circumstances the black population just bred into the larger white communities. Ethnic experience even now is largely linked to class and so ironically it is the white working class population who were the most welcoming and suffered as much at the hands of rulers of Empire and industry. It even now appears differently within different ethnic groups. In the UK it is Indians for example who are culturally and economically the most important group after their white peers.

    So race plays differently. It is not surprising but our ethnic population only exceeded 8 percent of the population in 2001. So during the initial 26 year run it ran barely to 2 percent and remained slowly growing due to natural birthrates and immigration restrictions. The well established black Caribbean community largely married into its economic white working class. This is why the bc has grown slowly. Our fastest growing group was the product of white/bc heritage. In the UK Obama would be considered mixed race and mixed race people often consider themselves a separate demographic whilst being effected by the same racial impacts to an extent. Most adverts here would favour a mixed raced individual for a time. This means that though here in numbers and having an immeasurable impact on our development, communities like this were confined to cities. The majority of the country outside the South East and Midlands was white and quite conservative. So though black actors and shows were appearing it probably was to radical for the audience. Britain was a racist country and DR Who was not the show to make to big a leap. At the time the Beeb would not have seen it their job to more than reflect. Children’s shows like Grange Hill were more reflective of urban schools but were considered risky. Now during the last decade refugees, black African migration from both Europe and Africa itself has increased. Now the black African population heritage population is essential double that of black Caribbean. Even so only 3 percent of Brit population is black African origin. About another .5 percent of mixed parentage and about 5 per cent at school age level. This is far below the 13 percent in the USA. So it’s not surprising that it was not until David Tennant left that a black actor was offered the part. We know he was young and due to the fact Beeb bosses were concerned about the loss of David, it is not a surprise that a woman was not considered. Whatever had happened with Eccleston I do believe David would have always come next. He was a rising star and as a fan would not have said no. We have no idea who else auditioned with Matt and if they were black.

    Now we focus on one ethnic demographic. I am afraid it is the Indian subcontinent that has had the biggest impact, linguistically, financially, demographically and culturally. With a population of 7.5 percent over all in the UK and also being the largest ethnic group in one area, Scotland and one in ten of pop in England. What would be most representative of the nation for an ethnic Doctor would be one of Indian descent. So again it was only in the 90s it began to change from a few percent to larger. Also remember when Susan left an Anglo Indian girl was the potential replacement in the Salem Invasion of Earth.

    Now women. Not a chance in the 60s and in the 70s, the culture was different. Let’s put into context a very structured society, even Margret Thatcher had a view of women based on those family values and in the early 80s the country was in such a level of unrest that a woman would have been a big step. Powerful women were an American oddity in drama and the likes of Juliet Bravo and Angels would illustrate how good women roles were rare even in adult drama. By the time the late 80s came and even with Sydney Newman’s suggestions the show was not as we know having more than lip service done to it’s shelf life. As we know if production values and BBC support had been there in the 80s then by the late 80s or 90s we would have seen a woman that was not Joanna Lumley.

    So up to then DR Who would have needed to have been the flagship brand it is now to have that opportunity. It was as much of its British culture and social time.

    When it returned it was not going to be anyone but a man. Rtd did create a strong central character in Rose who was the focal point. David Tennant as I said would have always been next. For reasons as above. I suspect the only reason that the Beeb did not pull their threat about axing the show on DT departure was the guarantee of a minor tweak with a man. Losing the unnamed black actor meant we were given Matt Smith. Moffatt most likely would have chosen a black actor or woman if Capaldi had said no.

    So there we are. No rhyme or reason or conspiracy just based on where British society was ( not the USA), the situation of the show and timing. It’s the right time for a woman. She will play the Doctor with her own traits not for all women (I am.a disabled, gay man in my 30s and not one Doc has been like me just because he has a penis)

    • Billy Bob Johnson says:

      That’s *Doctor* Who. It’s a name, not a title, so it shouldn’t be abbreviated to “Dr.”.

      Yes, the show started in Britain and has been produced in Britain all along. However, ‘Doctor Who’ is now an international show, so other-than-British opinions ARE relevant. The BBC allowed Chibnall to select a woman because they most likely would not have been able to hire him if they didn’t. He has said he knew all along that the next Doctor would be female. The BBC also wants to give ‘Doctor Who’ a ratings boost, since this last series was the lowest rated in the 12 years it’s been back on. Will the show lose a bunch of “fan boys”? Probably, but perhaps it will pick up the “fan girls” lost when Matt Smith left.

      All I know is, I’ll be watching Series 11 (Season 11 in America). :-)

      • Sean Martindill says:

        NHS not BHS

        Dalek not Salem

      • Sean Martindill says:

        Where did I say that Chinaball did not insist on a woman. He did. He said so himself. I was explaining why a woman or someone from another non white ethnic background had not been cast particularly in the original run.

        Actually I may deflate your ego. Of course International opinion is important but American fan views actually don’t really factor in the creative decision. Due to it’s long history of broadcast and how there are strong links between the countries, Australia is the shows most important and warm history.

        Under the BBC Royal Charter only the views of the UK audience are allowed to influence content. There has been a big debate around diversity not just in casting women or minorities but also making sure all the regions and countries are represented. For such a relatively small country each county and country has it’s own way of life which the dominance of a London and it’s hinterland is a point of anger. So the BBC like the BHS defines and binds us in away an American could not understand unless they live here.

        We may criticise it but where the BBC goes out other media follows. That is why it is fighting a battle for its survival. Murdoch is much less powerful but he still is working on destroying the BBC with some politicians by a thousand cuts.

        The casting of a woman reflects other voices coming through. Doctor Who is part of the DNA of the UK. The Brexit vote, the possibility of the UK falling apart, the Grenfell fire and the deaths of those who have no voice, the surge in progressive votes, the utter shock of the Conservatives using a billion of tax payers money to bribe the homophobic DUP to prop up the Government and that could lead to the peace process falling apart, the fact it looks like leaving the EU will lead to an economic collapse and that as part of a trade deal American health companies will swoop in and destroy our brilliant health service.

        So the choice of the Doctor is very important. It’s a minor defining moment. We know that due to timing clips of all the Doctors were cut at the 2012 Opening Olympics.

        You cannot and the writer of this piece understand this from a UK social perspective. In America it is not positioned as a family show. It is something here parents watched, they watch with their young children, teenage interests happen and most lose interest, they drop in and out later and the cycle starts again.

        America like the UK may think it is the centre of the world but you cannot transplant all the dynamics of one country on another.

        I live here and not unfairly know a little more about how we work. Even where I am from there are jokes about how a Doctor has not been cast from the East of the country which if only 80km from outer London but has a variety of different traditions and outside one or two main towns is not diverse.

        My father remembers sitting watching the first episode, my very older brother remembers sitting at 3 on my dad’s knee watching Power, I remember holding my dad’s hand at 2 watching the Destiny and having nightmares for years about a Salem crashing through that glass, remember my mum and Dad talking about Tom Baker going as if it was an election, I remember last time as a family we watched season 19 together, the rest of the family losing interest with season 20. The shock of the axe here in our news, my father getting interested in Remembrance and then thinking wtf with Happiness. Everyone knowing against Corrie ( Coronation Street affectionate name) , the general excitement with the relaunch with Bill board ads everywhere. The pleasure when knowing the Queen was a fan and requested a box set for her viewing. The Queen. Even if you are a republican she defines you. Of course more so she defines us due to having been on the throne and seen the country change so much. DR Who is like that for us it as I said the DNA. This is why it is happening now we get a woman. Even if Chinaball insisted. It says we are not afraid of change and as we are only second to America in soft power we know it has the world looking and we can say this is a statement about us. We are not a racist, sexist nation and Brexit is not another definition of who we are. We are a diverse nation and we are now comfortable showing that.

        Britain as I said does that. When East Enders showed in the mid 80s two men having a quick peck on the lips in the early evening then there was up roar. However, it was one of those moments when 20 years later a companion can be a lesbian because of it.

        Britain is ready for a woman Doctor in away that is would not be in the 80s. So TV licence payers are in the right place. The BBC has to be seen representing a diverse nation of 65 million.

        Feel free to be pedantic about any spelling mistakes

  3. Hereforthecomments says:

    I think the Doctor should remain male, if for no other reason than that he IS male. The character is male and has been since the beginning. A female time lord is fine, but she should be a different character than the Doctor. Introduce a new female time lord character and then do a spin-off or let her dominate the story lines for a while. But *The* Doctor should still be a man. Just like the actual James Bond character shouldn’t ever become Jane Bond all of the sudden.

  4. NotThatAgainAlready says:

    Mistake! Please don’t tell me the next James Bond is going to have to be female.

  5. fenngibbon says:

    So her casting sends a message?

    And does it occur to anyone that maybe people watch Doctor Who for entertainment, not to get messages they can get from multiple other sources?

    Anyone who watches TV knows that Very Special Episodes that try to teach us an important lesson are the ones that end up getting derided the most. I don’t want a Very Special Incarnation of the Doctor.

    And if you MUST sent a message, how about this one?

    Dear Women,

    You are important and we respect you. So much so that we, the entertainment industry, are going to take the time and effort to develop strong, capable, and unique female characters from scratch, not just lazily appropriate an established male character, gender flip him, and then sprain our arms patting ourselves on the back for our social consciousness. You matter on your own, and you deserve better than hand-me-downs.

  6. tony says:

    The master would have been a woman originally but the bbc bosses said no in the 70s.

    Romana solo show would be a spin off but always seen as second to another male flying the tardis.

    Yeah its changed things but not really.
    Up to chibnal and others to make it work.

  7. Well Said Mo Ryan! I’m very excited about the change. I am going to love Doctor Who no matter who is driving the TARDIS but it is great to see a great actress get a chance to show what she can do!

    • Sean Martindill says:

      Nonsense. Susan Jameson was the original female guest baddie in Colony in Space. However, Ronnie Marsh Head of Series said no. Roger Delgaldo was the own choice for the Master. Read any interview with Terence Dicks or Barry Letts

  8. Bob-C says:

    I find the whole gender change offensive to both men and women. My boy wanted to know this morning why the Doctor doesn’t want to be a boy anymore, if there is something wrong being a boy and if being a girl is better. Broke my heart. When Star Trek decided to give women the strong role model they deserved, they created Captain Janeway and built a show around her. She was great and can hold her own against any male Captain. Why couldn’t that have been done here? A show about Romana, an existing female Time Lord, was a no brainer. If I were a woman, I’d be more offended they didn’t go that route. Is like saying that a Time Lord who is already a female can’t be a strong role model on her own. That she just doesn’t measure up to taking a man Time Lord and converting him to a woman.

  9. currentbin says:

    Pearl Mackie’s Bill was a brilliant companion. It’s a shame she won’t be travelling with Jodie’s Doctor.

  10. It’s About Time we get a male Lara Croft

  11. elliotjames2 says:

    The producers can pick WHO they want but please give the Daleks a long vacation.

  12. mikeholloway says:

    Apparently Time Ladies are regenerated with makeup, and their eye brows plucked. Maybe its genetically coded and metabolically produced.
    So you want to poke at our gender biases? Remove the make up. Replace the eye brows. See what you think of it then.

  13. Glenn Graham says:

    “Oh, thank goodness: Hooray for the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor on “Doctor Who.”

    What does that even mean?

    Since the 1970’s there has been a systematic dismantling of everything male and now white.

    Men only clubs have been made illegal/sexist while at the same time we see an increase in woman only fitness clubs and safe spaces.

    I know what you’re thinking, those poor fragile men, right?

    Problem is, why is it considered so egregious that there are strong male characters on TV?

    Changing because it’s the “in thing” to get a different audience is a weak excuse in my opinion when you endanger losing so much more.

    Do a search for female centric shows then for male on TV. You will find entry after entry of shows that promoted female characters… some that since moved to male centric shows… what does this tell us? It tells me that even women like good stories with believable charters and even men, shocking I know, right!

    I will give the new show time to grow on me. If it fails to deliver, I’ll stop watching.

    At least the end of the current season gave some form of closure with the scene where Capaldi’s Doctor is lamenting his end before regeneration making the statement to the shadowy figure question “who is that” with Capaldi replying;
    “I’m the Doctor”
    Figure comes into view that looks like William Hartnell (David Bradley playing his part from the BBC special about the making of The Doctor) and says;
    “You’re A Doctor, not THE Doctor..

    Then and there I new we had a gender change on it’s way..

    I wish the cast and crew al the best with this new direction. I hope it works.
    But trying to get a new audience by pandering to a minority doesn’t seems like a good move to me.

    • How about because for a millennia white, straight, cisgender men have controlled the world and things have to change. Take a seat crybaby.

      • Steven says:

        Oh, and also – I know that Moffat made The Master a woman – that always was idiotic and went against everything that the past 54 years of the show had set up.

        And everyone is applauding that The Doctor is a woman. But she’s a freaking WHITE woman. Why not a black male? Or a black woman? Why does it always have to be white?

        A black male would have been far more daring than the PC white woman.

      • Steven says:

        I’m a gay black male who has watched DW since I was 6 years old in 1978. There are Time LORDS and there are Time LADIES. They don’t change. Romana regenerated 6 times in a row just to try on new bodies – but all the bodies were female. Because she’s a Time Lady. We’ve watched Borusa regenerate 4 times – always male. The Doctor has regenerated how many times now (if we’re including the stupid double David Tennant and War Doctor – which I do not) always male. The Master – always male. The Time Lords have 2 different sexes.

        I am not necessarily bothered that a woman has been cast. I am bothered that the rules with which the show has used (quite successfully) have been changed. I am always against that in storytelling. If you want to change the rules, create your own character and your own world. Don’t take a world and a character that exists and mess with it.

        I would LOVE to watch this actress play a Time Lady running around in a TARDIS. I will not watch her as The Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord. Not a Time Lady – end of story.

  14. Tom says:

    Hate to say it… but if the news put forward how Whittaker excelled as an actor, how she played in other significant rolls, maybe even pointed to other works, I could accept some of it.

    We recently had the Master (a Dr Who Male Timelord) who became a woman. That was novel and worked. In the US it was suspected that the BBC would go Gender Changing because it’s the IN thing to do.

    Of those one of the favorite female actors for the part was Tilda Swinton. Strong, inagmatic, can act crazy/mad and has a full line of strong rolls was one of the names tossed around as a great pick.

    We have had cross species lesbian relationships, android/cyborgs, and even the open metrosexual Capt Jack. All of this had it’s place. I would have preferred if they were going for a female doctor that they pick up with the clone Doctor (who is in her own time machine and explore that arc..)

    They could have left Capaldi changing while taking off and picked up with her in space.. because regeneration often have memory loss.. and left the fans without knowing it was not the doctor.

    Why was it not a black female islamic who was out to save the earth? Put in all the PC tropes, or just make the DR an other (non-gender)

    It was expected, it is a Hollywood/TV?Social Justice trend, it failed with Ghostbusters, it was horrible changing Johnny Storm… and since it was just done with the master it looks like pushing an agenda rather then a character development.

    I hope it works for the Series, I hope Ms Whittaker excels in the show, I will watch with an open mind. I fell in love with the 4th doctor, enjoy the quirks of them all.. and wait to see how this will play out.

  15. Author pretends to be a fan and the show runner is a pretender as well. Any real fan would know that there was already a female Timelord with a TARDIS that deserved more screentime. If a female character was so important than Ramona would get her due as opposed to the gross propaganda that men can just decide to become women.

  16. David Graf says:

    I’m surprised that anyone still cares about this show. It’s well known for the cheesy nature of its stories even though the special effects are a bit better. I can only assume that for many that Dr. Who is like a pair of old, comfortable slippers which are bit worn and threadbare but they can’t yet bear to part with them.

  17. Arthur Pewtey says:

    Men quite happilly accept strong female lead scifi roles (Eg Ripley) when the acting and story are great. As soon as the message to men and boys is ‘watch this or you are a mysoginst’ they are unlikely to be similarly motivated.

  18. tony says:

    So happy I could cry.

    And this is coming from a black male viewer of the show since 1972.

  19. Mark says:

    What a load of rubbish, it was no more than political statement. P.C destroyed the show. screw this feminist the show is officially destroyed.

  20. I LOVE strong female characters in shows and films (check out the animated films from Studio Ghibli for some fantastic examples), Capaldi’s Doctor really brought me back to the show.

    But what is with the constant GENDER SWAPPING of established characters in pop culture (which for some reason is always female replacing male)? Hey… why not just start another show with a strong female lead instead? I’ve read that the character of the doctor “simply could not continue without at some point being black or female”. Why??

    Sighhhh… I guess we can always just revisit a lot of the old episodes right?

    • Tommy P Marx says:

      With all due apologies, but the “which for some reason is always female replacing male” sidenote actually made me laugh out loud. Answer your own question, much?

      I always go back to the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica”. Some of the characters were “swapped” from male to female because the original seemingly couldn’t even conceive of a future when women (gasp!) could pilot fighters. And the result was one of the best science fiction series of all times, even if they didn’t nail the ending.

      And you do understand that we are talking about a fictional character that’s an alien, right? The idea that the Doctor would ALWAYS come back as yet another white male isn’t just illogical, it’s insulting. The Doctor is an alien! Why would s/he/it be limited to only one gender/race? That makes no sense.

      • Rex Graham says:

        What is so insulting that a character that is a while male come back as a white male..?

        You’re gender baiting… it’s not about if a female charter could carry the role… its about the role being swapped because of a very loud minority…

        Money talks, bull sh!t walks.

        The success of a show will be on the quality of the show, not if the lead is male or female.

        On Battlestar Galactica, false equivalency… if you said in season one the commanders was a man then in season two suddenly became a female with same title, name etc… then you would be making a legitimate comparison.

        At the moment you’re just talking SJW rhetoric.

        There is no reason to make the Doctor any particular gender… the problem is why change… Not because of failing ratings or poor reviews… just because people are holding their breath and stamping their feet saying “we want a female Doctor, James Bond… etc”

        If there was a story of your life as a man or woman, one would think the person playing the part would reflect that fact.

      • Rex the Wonder Dog says:

        There were female fighter pilots in the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.

      • Going by what you said there (about Battlestar Galactica), I’m guessing reading my comments you assume I’m against the idea of a female character in a lead role? I’m not that narrow minded. It’s just hard to imagine after 54 years the doctor being female that’s all (which doesn’t mean I’m completely against the idea of change generally either). It’s just an opinion I’ve formed after years of watching the show. I am of course aware that it’s a fictional character (Sigh). Strange that the idea of the Doctor continuing as he can be considered insulting. The ‘female replacing male character’ comment I made is just an observation, please feel free to give me some examples of the reverse. I welcome intelligent constructive comments from anyone.

  21. W0NK042 says:

    As a male Whovian, of 35 years, I am frankly embarrassed by the amount of narrow-minded, Victorian era, thinking of so many males. Time-traveling, two hearted, regenerating, alien, that flies around in what looks to be a Police box: No problem. Have this being (that can regenerate every cell in their body) become a woman: Meltdown.

    It is not that the BBC have caved to pressure, it is that they have pulled their head out of their ar$e$ & realised it DOESN’T matter what sex The Doctor is.

    • Thomas says:

      Are you kidding me the only reason is somewhere some one n charge wants a woman lead for the Doctor and that is a shame because there is nothing wrong with a white male as the lead. It’s people like you that just whine about everything that isn’t how they perceive it should be in their shallow closed minds.

  22. Sensible Enough says:

    She’s going to slay it. She’s terrific in everything she does.

  23. Shirley says:

    The ratings on this show will crash, and then the PC Police will wail like the blubbering whiners they are.

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