For the first time in the 55-year history of the British sci-fi show, “Dr. Who” is a woman. For the uninitiated, the show’s titular character—“The Doctor,” as she is credited these days—is an alien who journeys through time and space having adventures. She travels in a spaceship called the TARDIS which looks like an old-fashioned British police box, usually accompanied by one or two “companions” she picks up along the way. Like her ship, the Doctor is bigger on the inside. She has many different faces and two hearts, both of them bursting with compassion. She’s highly intelligent, vastly knowledgeable, and has an inexhaustible capacity for wonder. And now she’s a woman.
There were the usual online grumblings when it was announced last year that Jodie Whittaker had been cast in the role. Doctor Who has become something of an unlikely hit with global audiences since its reboot at the hands of writer Russell T. Davies back in 2005. A certain amount of internet griping seems to be the inevitable accompaniment to global fandom these days, so it was hardly surprising that the same kind of fanboys who took issue with an all-female Ghostbusters had a problem with a bubbly Northern lass taking over the job, especially when the alien Time Lord had previously been played by a succession of no less than twelve (or, thirteen, or possibly even fourteen, depending on who you ask) male actors. But if there’s one thing the Doctor knows how to deal with, it’s small-minded humans.
Doctor Who began life in 1963 as an educational programme for children. It was the brain-child of a man called Sydney Newman and was intended to capitalise on the growing popularity of science-fiction television as a means of teaching younger viewers about history and science. It’s easy for Whovians, as the show’s dedicated fans are known, to get misty-eyed about the programme’s origins, but there is a certain poetry about the fact that the key figures in its conception were almost as alien to the stuffy, patriarchal world which was the British Broadcasting Company in the sixties as the Doctor was to Earth. Newman was Canadian and, horror of horrors, an import to the BBC from its rival, commercial television channel ITV. While he came up with the idea, it was a young, Jewish woman called Verity Lambert who was largely responsible for Doctor Who’s early success. The first female producer at the BBC, the indomitable Lambert overcame not only the scepticism of her bosses and peers, but also a daunting lack of budget to turn what started life as a cheap and cheerful slice of children’s teatime entertainment into something approaching a national pastime, enjoyed by adults and children alike. The task of directing the show’s first episodes fell to British-Indian director Waris Hussein. (As he recalls it, none of the BBC’s other, white directors would touch the ridiculous-sounding children’s programme with a bargepole.) It was this motley bunch who birthed the Doctor, as first played by William Hartnell: an alien refugee from a far-flung civilization who, finding himself on a backward planet called Earth along with his granddaughter, Susan, would become a reluctant friend to the human race.
As was the case with that other TV sci-fi phenomenon born in the sixties, the Doctor’s encounters with history and other alien races held up a mirror to the lives of the humans from contemporary Earth who came along for the ride. The programme’s second block of episodes famously introduced the Doctor’s sworn enemies the Daleks, twisted mutant relics of a devastating nuclear war who believed themselves to be the superior race on their planet and exterminated all others in their path—a deliberate allegory of Nazism. Like Star Trek, Doctor Who didn’t always get it right, and not just because of the infamously wobbly sets, and monsters made from boiler suits and bubble wrap. After all, the same Doctor who condemned the Daleks’ racism likened his human companions’ disbelieving reactions to his time machine to the “savage mind” of the “Red Indian” encountering a steam train for the first time in the programme’s first episode. Meanwhile, many of the women who played companions to the Doctor over the years grew frustrated with scripts which sometimes required little more from them than the ability to act the damsel in distress convincingly in a series of fetching outfits. But like the Doctor, the show has evolved. It still doesn’t always get it right, but like many women who have come to love it, I have always been keen to believe that it strives for better.
All of which brings us to the show’s most recent reincarnation. New showrunner and head writer Chris Chibnall has gone with the tried-and-tested method of taking the programme back to its roots, but with a twist. He’s even revived the original two-men-two-women TARDIS team blueprint which began the show back in 1963. There’s the over-protective older man and his stubbornly independent grandchild who don’t always see eye to eye. There’s the one who thinks of themself as an action-hero type but is secretly a bit of a dork. And there’s the feisty, knowledgeable woman who frequently acts as the group’s moral compass. It’s just that this time the latter is the Doctor; the action-hero type is not a be-cardiganed, white, London schoolmaster but a Muslim policewoman from Sheffield; and there’s not a damsel in distress in sight.
It wasn’t only the internet killjoys who had concerns about how the new season of Doctor Who would handle the Doctor’s gender. The question the newly regenerated Doctor asked in the season opener, The Woman Who Fell to Earth (“Does it suit me?”) echoed the speculation of fans. What would a female Doctor be like? Would the writers choose to engage with the ways in which her being a woman might alter humans’ perceptions of her, or would they downplay it? Both approaches have their potential pitfalls but, so far, they seem to have been avoided. From the moment she crash-landed in Sheffield—which, incidentally, made a nice change from the revived show’s tendency to make all alien invasions of the UK London-centric—it was business as usual. There were hostile entities to be negotiated with and humans to be rescued. The Doctor jerry-rigged a new version of her trusty sonic screwdriver using some “borrowed” alien tech and a bucketful of spoons (Sheffield steel, naturally). And there was a literal leap of faith—apparently the new creative team’s placatory message to those more sceptical fans. “Trust me,” Whittaker seemed to be saying as she took a courageous but decidedly inadvisable leap to the rescue from the arm of a giant crane, “I’m the Doctor all right.” In short, not much had changed.
And yet, everything has. In one sense, it’s all the ways in which Whittaker’s Doctor remains the same character which could potentially have a subtle but significant impact with viewers young and old, by virtue of a simple “twist” of gender. For starters, her incarnation of the time-travelling alien is just so damn joyful which, although nothing new for the character, is something we still get to see precious little of from women leads on television outside of sit-coms. Then there’s the specific way that infectious enthusiasm is communicated, those moments of intense focus which see her halting in her efforts to divert probable catastrophe to, say, deliver an impromptu lecture on anti-matter technology to her young companions. I’m not sure that the Doctor has ever been neurotypical by human standards in any of their incarnations but, again, to see a female character who is valued not only for her intelligence and her approach to problem-solving, but for the atypical way in which she interacts, and shares her knowledge with the world around her still feels refreshing. Like many a previous Doctor, Whittaker’s is unapologetically nerdy, a bit out-of-step with humanity’s social norms (sometimes wilfully) and only ever really “cool” without meaning to be. That being said, I can’t begrudge the actor those moments when she strikes a heroic pose and brandishes her sonic screwdriver with such flair (especially when the new slate of directors and cinematographers working on the show seem to be enjoying using the anamorphic shooting lenses introduced this season to frame her against the landscape as epically as possible).
And then there’s the way that this latest regeneration makes the character so delightfully queer. Arguably, the Doctor has always been rather queer, in all senses of the word, but the addition of a female incarnation queers the character’s past, present, and future in suitably “timey-wimey” ways. After all, she is technically still married to a woman—a woman whose personal timeline is so convoluted that you need a flow chart to unravel it, but a woman all the same. So, does that make the Doctor gay now? Well, yes. And, seeing as they have been known to snog the occasional Zygon too, perhaps they’re omnisexual, like beloved former companion Capt. Jack Harkness. And, as many of their previous incarnations seemed to have little interest in that sort of thing, maybe they’re asexual as well. That’s the wonderful thing about having so many different selves and lifetimes to live through—you get to do it all. Is the Doctor trans? Again, I’m sure Whovians could while away a few hours contemplating the question of the character’s gender identity alone, but representation-wise the simple fact that trans viewers might find themselves identifying with the “call towards who I am” which Whittaker’s Doctor describes feeling when discussing regeneration in The Woman Who Fell to Earth makes the scene beautifully layered. Introducing a female incarnation of the Doctor takes nothing away from the character—or, indeed, from fans of the show—but it enriches it for everyone.
As the first female Doctor, the pressure on Whittaker to make her mark on the role inevitably remains. While she has been definitively “the Doctor” from the moment she fell from the sky, fighting the good fight on the side of the lonely and oppressed across all of time and space, the question of what will become the Thirteenth Doctor’s defining traits is an interesting one. I personally like the way that, with Whittaker in the part, the character shows every sign of having become someone who very much wears her heart(s) on her sleeve. It’s a nice corrective to the occasional bouts of manpain and inscrutability to which the new series Doctors have been prone in the past. The first female Doctor is a chronic communicator, whether she is reasoning stubbornly with one of those aforementioned small-minded humans; pausing mid world-saving to give her TARDIS “fam” a pep talk; or, just “going off on one,” as her new friends describe it, and rambling excitedly about the beauty of the universe. Not to mention the fact that the Thirteenth Doctor seems to have inherited her former companion Bill Potts’ inability to stop her facial expressions from betraying exactly what she’s feeling at any given moment (all credit to Whittaker’s comedic acting skills).
Above all, though, Whittaker’s Doctor has so far been defined not so much by her individual quirks but by her actions. The first two historical episodes of Season Eleven, Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, tackled racial segregation in America, and the Partition of India respectively. In both, the Doctor was rightly forced to acknowledge the privilege which the white Britishness of the character’s outward persona affords and has afforded her in her passage through Earth’s history. And both episodes did the Doctor a necessary cruelty by forcing her to go against her every instinct and not interfere, but rather bear witness to the suffering and heroism of others. The Twelfth Doctor evolved by learning when best to speak and when best to listen. Now the Thirteenth Doctor is putting that into practice. And that’s something we should all get on board with. To paraphrase two former Doctor Who writers, only those who stay behind have any regrets. The Doctor’s a woman now. And she’s brilliant.
Words by Alice Thorpe