I don’t usually emote while watching television, but the trailer revealing Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor caused me to shriek. Ever since I began watching the show, I’ve often wondered what it would be like – or whether it was even possible – to have a woman play the Doctor. I’m still a little shocked that in the not to distant future, I’m going to find out. To my surprise and delight most of the reaction has been positive and enthusiastic. Almost every woman’s reaction I have seen has been one of joy, with a mixture of shock, and the words, ‘they actually did it!’ With this, Wonder Woman, the new Star Wars trilogy, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, it’s a great time to be a female geek.
The moment I started shrieking
Some of the not-overwhelmingly-positive reactions have been understandable. Time Lords may to be thousands of years ahead of us in terms of attitudes towards gender, but us primitive humans still struggle with it, and there has been some uncertainty as to how they feel about the Doctor changing gender. Even a former Doctor has expressed some doubts, with Peter Davison saying, ‘If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for.’ (1) In fairness to him, I can see where he’s coming from. In a show about adventures in space, facing off against enemies that threaten death and destruction, having the central male character not immediately resort to fighting or killing is a positive message to send to boys and young men who are so often bombarded by all that macho bullshit. But at the same time, I question why the person sending that message to them can’t be a woman. If I had a son who was a Doctor Who fan, I would tell him that this changes nothing, that the Doctor can still be his hero, and can still be someone he looks up to. What this group of people probably just need is time to adjust to the change, and I hope that the rest of fandom give them that time.
Predictably, though, there have been some who have responded negatively to the news of a female Doctor and have declared – without ever seeing an episode – that they are done with the show. What they’re failing to remember is that Doctor Who is a series that relies on change, and that the Doctor and companions are in constant rotation. The tone, look, and style of writing also changes when a new showrunner takes over, such as the change from the Troughton to Pertwee eras, or the difference between Graham Williams’s season 17 and John Nathan-Turner’s season 18. Sometimes it’s a change we love, sometimes we’re not so fond of it, but it’s always done with a desire to keep the show alive and interesting. The regeneration has become such a staple part of the show that we forget that changing the actor who plays the title character was a brave one in 1966. We remember that Patrick Troughton took on the role and was marvellous in it, what we forget is the backlash when it first happened.
The show is also at its best when it makes decisions that are bold and may be difficult. A mere one serial in, showrunner Verity Lambert ignored Sydney Newman’s insistence that there be no ‘bug eyes monsters’ in Doctor Who because there was something deeper going on in Terry Nation’s script about giant pepper pots than Newman could see. Lambert winning that fight ultimately resulted in a massive boost in the ratings that guaranteed Doctor Who would be around longer than anyone had predicted. Had she not gone against his wishes, no one would be reacting to who the thirteenth Doctor is. The show would have been cancelled after its original thirteen episode run, and the only people who would know about it would be media academics who have a thing for TV history.
That being said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. There is a tendency with genres that are male dominated – both in front of and behind the camera – to portray women in terms of limitations. Both Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden have spoken of their frustrations while working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, that the writer did not seem to know what to do with the female characters. It was the actresses who had to explain to them that they should just write the characters as they would the men, without limitations, without thinking, ‘well we can’t have Troi do this, because women wouldn’t do that.’ Once they started taking that approach, the stories with the female characters began to improve, though sadly this was quite late in the day (2). So if there is one thing I think will be absolutely essential, it will be to continue writing the Doctor as they have always been written, brave, intelligent, refusing to suffer fools gladly, trying to find a smart solution to a problem, all while retaining a child-like enjoyment of the universe.
I’m nervous that they’re going to make a big out of the Doctors gender in the first few episodes. While it would be wrong to not acknowledge it at all, I certainly hope they don’t go down the same route as they did with Capaldi and all the insufferable references to his age and Scottishness. Perhaps, given that Time Lords are so much more advanced on this topic, the Doctor shouldn’t even really notice, and it should be a human who has had contact with them before that points it out.
I hope they dress Thirteen like they would any other Doctor. I can’t imagine after two thousand years of dressing in shirts, ties, and fancy coats, the Doctor is suddenly going to be all about dresses and tights.
Hopefully the male writers could not dwell on the things they think women do. We do not play with our boobs all day, and we do not obsess about fashion and make up. The Doctor has never been shown to care about their hair style* so please don’t have thirteen start considering styles and colours.
I’m not one for angry shouting on Twitter, but I will do it at the first hint of a period ‘joke’.
And please, for the love of god, no ‘tits and ass shots’. One of the things I love about the above image is that the coat is big and doesn’t emphasis her body, which is what tends to happens when women are photographed for promotional images, especially in science fiction. She’s also in a powerful pose, with her back straight and her right leg elevated. I hope they continue to do this, as the Doctor is often photographed in powerful or energetic poses.
* On screen anyway. Three, Ten, and Eleven’s hair didn’t just magically look like that when they got up in the morning.
- Two former Doctors clash over Jodie Whittaker casting
- It is worth pointing out that Peter Davison’s comments are being taken a little out of context and are being jumped on by the media, particularly the tabloids. The above link is to the Guardian, who did a slightly better job of representing his fuller answer in which he praised Jodie Whittaker as an actor, wished her every success going forward, and encouraged viewers who had doubts to approach the next series of the show with an open mind. A transcript of his full answer can be found here.
- Mission Log – The One With Marina Sirtis