Doctor Who, with its 55 years of continuity, regularly-rotating-cast-and-crew, and deep long-term generational fandom, is like no other television show. While many elements of Doctor Who are iconic and fascinating as pop culture phenomena in their own right, the identity of the ever-changing leading man has always been a matter for great scrutiny, from hardcore fans, mainstream media, and casual viewers alike.
The Doctor is not merely recast; the character regenerates, shifting from one actor to another while retaining (supposedly) all memories and personality. In effect, however, the Doctors’ memories and their personality do shift dramatically from regeneration to regeneration, taking scripting and production changes into account as well as each performer’s own interpretation of the character.
The Doctor is the same person. The Doctor is many different people. Both of these statements are true.
In 2018, finally, our Doctor is a woman. How did we get here?
Fannish reaction to regenerations generally has three stages, which can loosely be described as:
3. OMG UNHOLY ATTACHMENT ONE TRUE DOCTOR I LOVE THE NEW ONE BEST.
The latter is usually taken care of by the first episode in which the new Doctor properly steps into their role… but the first two are at their most powerful during the time (somewhere between a few months and over a year) between the casting announcement and that key first full episode.
This “casting shock” element isn’t just a feature of modern TV and New Who. The Doctor has always been announced to the world via the media first, whether it be the Radio Times, a dramatic photo shoot for British newspapers or, more recently, live TV announcements with interviews (Capaldi), or a “reveal” vid released to the internet (Whittaker).
Fan response to these actor announcements often involves a very frantic Fear—Anticipation—Fear—Anticipation circuit, as elements of the new Doctor’s persona are speculated upon wildly based on very small amounts of information. (Remember that month where fans talked about nothing but Matt Smith’s ears and hand-gestures?)
Traditionally there are three things that have caused the most controversy and animated speculation in the lead up to, and fall out from, a New Doctor Casting Announcement: Age, Race, and Gender.
Long term Doctor Who fans, many of whom have grown up with the show, fret a lot about whether the actor playing him is “too young” (help, he’s younger than me, as is my dentist, does that mean I’m getting old?).
Peter Davison, in the 1980s, was the first Doctor considered “too young” for the part, and it led to concerns particularly about the narrow age difference between 29-year-old Davison and his young companions.
In 2009, the casting of 26-year-old Matt Smith sent shockwaves through fandom. His youth and the drawn-out agony over David Tennant leaving (slowly, over a series of specials, instead of the usual sharp shock regeneration transition at the end of a season) meant Smith was regarded with especially high suspicion and trepidation by traditionalist fans.
What is often forgotten about this Time Of Wondering If Matt Smith Would Be Any Good is that a lot of the more progressive fans were dealing with a different disappointment—for the first time, there had been credible speculation that the Doctor might regenerate into someone other than a white man. It was race rather than gender which dominated the discussion in 2009—Patterson Joseph was the actor believed to be the front-runner until the wild card Smith made his appearance on bookie slips only days before the announcement. Other “not white dude” actors seriously speculated upon at the time included Catherine Zeta-Jones (Russell T. Davies’ pick when asked to choose a female contender), Chiwetel Ejiofor (I KNOW RIGHT?), and Billie Piper.
At the time, it was believed that having a male actor of colour play the Doctor was far less controversial than the idea of a female actor, and that this was “bound to” happen first. No women of colour were part of the mainstream media conversation of possible contenders at all—it was usually presented as an either/or discussion. Will he be a man of colour or female? The answer, in 2009, turned out to be “neither.”
Still, the idea of the Doctor theoretically regenerating into a woman has been around for a very long time. Back in 1981, before the casting of the very young Peter Davison was announced (and only three years after the show acknowledged the existence of Time Ladies at all), his predecessor Tom Baker put a cat amongst the pigeons by wishing luck to his unknown successor “Whoever he… or she… may be.”
While this was clearly a joke, the British media adored the idea and repeated it often, with later casting announcements, as if it was a real possibility. Fans both loved and hated the idea, which led to speculation, fantasy casting and of course That Discussion at conventions on whether the Doctor could be a woman.
(The real questions, of course, have always actually been: will the BBC be brave enough to cast a woman, and how many fans will be utterly furious about this choice without really considering where that anger stems from.)
Two not-quite-canon Doctor Who productions during the Wilderness Years experimented with the idea of a female Doctor: both of them doing so for humour.
In Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who special for Comic Relief, a rapidly-regenerating Doctor was variously played by Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant… and Joanna Lumley, all of whom played the part reasonably straight, despite the joke-filled script… and it was Joanna Lumley’s 13th Doctor who walked away arm-in-arm with the Master at the end.
In Big Finish’s 2003 series of Doctor Who Unbound audio plays, each dedicated to a different “What If” version of the character, the Doctor was variously played by Geoffrey Bayldon, David Warner, David Collings, Michael Jayston, Derek Jacobi… and Arabella Weir.
Note that in projects such as these, we’re only ever allowed one female Doctor, while a variety of male alternatives are included. Note also that all these “not quite but almost canon” alternative versions of the Doctor were played by white actors.
Weir’s Doctor in the audio-play Exile written by Nicholas Briggs, was not received with the same level of critical acclaim as the others, and was not given a sequel. I personally enjoyed her interpretation of the character quite a lot, though it was frustrating how the story ran rings around itself making a Big Deal of the gender-switch, like it was something that had to be explained at length, as a result of specific trauma.
These examples have been discussed over and over again, as that question returned on convention panels every year. “Can the Doctor ever be a woman? Yes, I do mean apart from that one time with Joanna Lumley.”
I sat on a version of this panel at Aussiecon 2010 with Paul Cornell and others, and the answer was clearly “Yes, obviously, next question.” Given that we had a whole hour to talk, we delved into the why and the who rather than the whether—and inevitably, our “Yes, obviously” became a “Yes, but…”
The questions we asked ourselves then were “Will they ever be brave enough, will they actually do it, who would they choose…” I remember one of Paul Cornell’s points was that there was a certain list of actors who could walk into the part if they expressed interest to the BBC, and Helen Mirren was one of the actors on his list.
When showrunner Steven Moffatt took over Doctor Who in 2010, breadcrumbs were strewn here and there to imply the future possibility of a Not White Male Doctor. In “The Doctor’s Wife,” a fan favourite story written by Neil Gaiman, we had the first TV canon mention of a Time Lord who was sometimes a Time Lady: the Corsair, whose continuing non-appearance in the show is something I find personally devastating.
We also learned more about the time-hopping, mysterious River Song, who was clearly set up as the Doctor’s future wife, and referred airily to wives of her own… dare we hope at least one of those was also the Doctor?
Steven Moffat has a controversial reputation with Doctor Who fandom, which is true to some extent of all showrunners since the mid-Seventies. Moffat’s era has been responsible for great strides in female representation in the history of the show, but he has also come in for some high criticism for representation of race, gender, and sexuality. Many of his romantic storylines in particular come across as old-fashioned rather than progressive, at odds with a modern fanbase which has its passionate traditionalists but also, increasingly, a high number of vocally progressive fans who expect the show to do better with inclusivity and equality.
Peter Capaldi’s casting was hugely popular with many fans, despite the fever pitch of the anticipation for a non-white or non-male actor this time around. Age turned out to be the most controversial element of his casting—with many fans wondering if he was too old to take on the more physical aspects of the part, to appeal to American viewers, or to be considered sexually attractive to viewers (bless their hearts).
However, criticisms built over the Doctor being a white man yet again. Moffat addressed the racial question by issuing a statement that the part had previously (before Smith was cast) been offered to a Black actor but “it didn’t work out.” This statement did not make anyone feel better, and was comparable to similarly vague statements made in an attempt to address the lack of diversity among the writers and directors of the show.
Despite his actual casting choices for the role, Steven Moffat continued to build a world that made space for a female Doctor. In a particularly bold move in 2014, he cross-cast the Doctor’s most iconic antagonist of all time, his best enemy The Master, by giving us the delightful Michelle Gomez and her interpretation of Missy.
Even as Missy won hearts all around with her batty intergalactic murderlord, her existence raised a few questions: was a female Master something we were being given INSTEAD of a female Doctor? Did this mean we would have to wait longer, because they wouldn’t cast both characters as female? Well trained in the rule of “there can be only one,” it was hard not to be paranoid.
There were more crumbs. First Amy and then Clara’s narratives often skewed towards “I’m turning into the Doctor” plotlines. This was made explicit in the Season 8 finale “Death in Heaven,” where Clara successfully convinced the Cybermen she was actually the Doctor in a cold open, only for her own eyes to replace Capaldi’s in the opening credits.
A year later in the Season 9 finale “Hell Bent,” a Time Lord known as the General regenerated from a white male actor into a Black female actor, and acknowledged that for them a male identity had been the exception, not the rule.
This gave us another example of a Time Lord changing gender, and confirmed that racial appearance was a changeable factor for Gallifreyans. (This had previously been established in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, where the Doctor told Clyde Langer it was possible for him to be Black.) The General’s regeneration scene also addressed one of the Big Questions often raised in opposition to the idea of the Doctor changing sex or race: wasn’t it extra unlikely they change now, after 12 incarnations of appearing both white and male?
Surely they would have done it already if it was possible, right? But no, we learned from the General that it’s quite possible for a Time Lord to be mostly one gender identity and have the occasional incarnation which is an exception.
It’s 2018 and the Doctor is a woman. “Brilliant!” she exclaimed as she discovered her new face on Boxing Day last year, shortly before falling out of the TARDIS, leading to a lot of raised eyebrows about competency and whether or not this was a crack at lady drivers.
(Let’s remember that Matt Smith was canonically often quite terrible at flying the TARDIS, as was William Hartnell)
Understandably, fandom got very excited about Jodie Whittaker’s casting, in both directions. There were jokes and wails of desperation and delighted squees and laments for ruined childhoods, all pitched at a frequency so high only a robot dog could hear.
Of course she’s going to be brilliant. The Doctor is always brilliant. It’s a universally fascinating role, and any half-decent actor will make a fine job of it. Within ten minutes of the first full episode featuring the first Thirteenth Doctor not played by Joanna Lumley, I fully expect most of us to be fully swept away with OMG UNHOLY ATTACHMENT ONE TRUE DOCTOR I LOVE THE NEW ONE BEST.
There are a still a lot of questions to be asked. Is this the Only Female Doctor we’ll ever get? Why is the Doctor still white? Will the TARDIS actually fill up with bras (or period jokes, or romantic subplots, or any other half-assed speculation that means the person saying it thinks women are inherently ridiculous)?
Will the writers allow this Doctor to be the Doctor regardless of gender? Will the writers acknowledge this Doctor exists on a different axis of privilege than the white man who blithely told his Black female companion to walk around Shakespearian London as if she owned the place?
Will Whittaker be forgiven for being female as quickly as Smith or Capaldi were forgiven for being too young, or too old?
Still, at least there’s one question we won’t be asked again, on convention panels, in comments threads, randomly in public if we’re wearing a TARDIS T-shirt:
We won’t be asked if the Doctor could possibly EVER be played by a woman.
© 2018 by Tansy Rayner Roberts