The announcement that Jodie Whittaker will become the first woman to play the title role on the world’s longest-running science-fiction television program elicited reactions so predictable they could have been scripted. Those who had clamored for the last decade that the next Doctor should be female applauded Whittaker’s casting as a blow for female equality and finally bringing Doctor Who into the 21st century. Those who snuff the approach of political correctness in every tainted breeze took to Twitter (do they exist anywhere else?) to rail against this surrender to the social-justice warriors and vowed never to watch the show again. And those with better things to do used their Sunday in more productive pursuits, such as betting on which character(s) would die on the season premiere of Game of Thrones.
I don’t care about reactions to the announcement, positive or negative. My concern is the impact such a radical change will have on the fabric of a series whose first episode aired the day after the JFK assassination, and fans’ relationship to it, a relationship that has experienced more than its share of trials and tribulations. Put simply, Jodie Whittaker’s success in the role will depend on whether she’s the Doctor or a woman first. Yet because of the circumstances in which she was chosen, she may not be able to be either.
From Doctor Who’s inception, its makers have operated under the assumption that their hero is male. One need only look at how he has been characterized over the last half-century to see the truth of this. Take the current Doctor. He is abrupt, condescending, domineering, and brusque, has little sense of social decorum, and often treats humans as amusing pets who can talk but have nothing worthwhile to say. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly or care what others think. The Doctor’s lack of social graces became so bad that his traveling companion had him write cue cards with dialogue suggestions on them so he could feign a modicum of empathy and have normal interactions with the humans he met.
Whatever the Doctor’s personality in each incarnation, its traits are generally ones we associate with men. From William Hartnell’s grandfatherly gentility (the First Doctor was literally a grandfather, his first companion being his granddaughter) to Peter Capaldi’s evolution from “rude genius” to “aging rock star” to “hip teacher,” the Doctor has been recognizably male.
Each Doctor has a different personality and temperament. So too will the 13th. Yet by making the Doctor a woman, new showrunner Chris Chibnall and company have placed themselves on the horns of a dilemma.
Even the kind of fictional character the Doctor is, is prototypically male: the eccentric mad scientist. None of the Doctors was madder or more eccentric than Tom Baker’s Fourth, with his teeth and curls, impossibly long scarf, and penchant to offer jelly babies to everyone he encountered. The Eleventh, as eccentric as ever, described himself as a “mad man with a box,” a box that travels anywhere in time and space. An eccentric woman is Eleanor Abernathy.
Each Doctor has a different personality and temperament. So too will the 13th. Yet by making the Doctor a woman, new showrunner Chris Chibnall and company have placed themselves on the horns of a dilemma. The 13th Doctor must be different, but in ways that cannot be immediately attributed to her biology. For if she is different in ways that can be chalked up to her being female, then it does make a difference that she’s a woman. Whereas the whole point of casting a woman in the role is to prove that it doesn’t matter. (Though I suspect those who spent the past decade advocating the change rather think it does.)
The Doctor can be a woman because there’s nothing special about being one. There’s nothing unique or significant about womanhood. It’s not an essential trait or characteristic — and that is the only way the Doctor can still be the Doctor while being a woman, that it is something indifferent. For if the Doctor changes in some fundamental way because he is now a woman, then he won’t be the Doctor any more. Which would mean, therefore, that in fact the Doctor can’t be a woman. Hence the dilemma.
The most beloved of all the Doctor’s companions, Sarah Jane Smith, once asserted that “there’s nothing only about being a girl.” The BBC no longer agrees. Actions speak louder than words, and the BBC’s says that men and women are interchangeable.
What purpose, then, does making the Doctor a woman serve? If the answer is that “it proves that a woman can be the Doctor,” that is an answer in terms of the real world. What is the answer to that question in terms of Doctor Who? That’s the question to ask. What will change with a female Doctor?
One of the main differences between the current version of the show and the original that aired from 1963 to 1989 is that there is, to coin a phrase, a lot more hanky-panky in the TARDIS now than there used to be. The Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, was something of a romantic idol. His female companions pined after him. Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor even became a husband, marrying a character who in a plot twist was revealed to be the daughter of his companions. With Capaldi, the oldest actor to play the part in several decades, occupying the TARDIS, the program has been thankfully free of soap-operatic elements.
One can readily envision them returning with Whittaker, who is 35. The relationship stuff was tedious when the Doctor was a man. Imagine how rebarbative it will be after three years of everyone hitting on a female Doctor, villains included. And worse yet, commenting on her looks and questioning her intelligence, competence, authority, leadership, what have you. Aha! you say, that’s exactly what happens to women in the real world. Just so. But Doctor Who is not a university course on sociology. It’s a television program. A single note played endlessly can no longer be heard.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, turning the Doctor into a woman and seeing how people react to that. But a TV show isn’t a thought experiment. One season of “Oh my God, Doctor, you have breasts!” would be bad enough. Three seasons’ worth, the average length of an actor’s time in the role, would be intolerable. Viewers will get very tired very fast of being reminded each episode that the Doctor has internal plumbing now.
The temptation to remind them will be strong, especially if hostility to Whittaker’s casting persists or even increases. When asked in February about the possibility of a woman’s taking over the role, Chibnall declared that he didn’t want the casting of the new Doctor to be a gimmick. Yet in a statement accompanying the announcement of Whittaker’s casting, he proclaimed that he always wanted the 13th Doctor to be a woman.
Either Chibnall is lying now or he was lying in February, because casting a woman in the lead after it’s been played by men since the program’s debut is the definition of a gimmick. It can’t come across any other way. This puts Whittaker in an untenable situation, since she is being asked to solve problems that are beyond her ability and remit to fix.
Doctor Who’s ratings are currently half of what they were at the peak of the revival’s popularity at the start of the decade. A common refrain is to attribute this decline to Capaldi’s age; younger audiences, this argument runs, simply can’t relate to an older Doctor. More likely, fans have realized that the show is out of ideas and running on fumes.
The series is ripping itself off more and more. This season was especially egregious, with each episode containing numerous homages, references, and allusions to earlier stories. The season finale was especially notable in this regard. It was inevitable that “new” Who would borrow elements from “classic” Who. They are, after all, supposed to be the same show. The problem lately is that new Who has taken to rehashing itself. Stories in this, its tenth season, bore strong resemblances to ones that aired only a few years ago.
The problems besetting Doctor Who are of a nature that cannot be resolved by giving the Doctor a sex change. Repetitive plots, convoluted story arcs, uninteresting villains — what ails the show isn’t who plays the Doctor but unimaginative writing that more and more each week rehashes and repackages earlier storylines. Doctor Who has become one big metacommentary on itself. No wonder fans have gotten bored and casual viewers have drifted away.
How does Jodie Whittaker solve that? If you’re just going to do the standard base-under-siege or monster-of-the-week scenario, but now with double the X chromosomes, the metamorphosis is literally going to be a cosmetic one. This would make casting a woman seem even more like a gimmick born of desperation to boost ratings.
The pressure on Whittaker to deliver will be immense. The pressure on fans will be even greater. Which is why the most unforgivable consequence of the BBC’s decision is the way it forever alters fans’ relationship to Doctor Who.
Every fan likes some Doctors (my favorite is the Fifth, played by Peter Davison) more than others. Hitherto this has been a matter of personal taste and aesthetics. No one suspects ulterior motives if a fan doesn’t take a shine to William Hartnell’s First Doctor, an obstreperous codger whose serials unfold at a leisurely, even turgid pace in black-and-white without modern flourishes; or dislikes Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, whose adventures often descend into interminable environmental sermonizing.
Will anyone be allowed to dislike the 13th Doctor for normal reasons? I doubt it and strongly suspect anyone who demurs will reflexively be accused of sexism. The imperative to defend Whittaker’s selection and everything it stands for will simply be too strong to overcome. As Hannah Long writes, “the casting insulate[s] the show from any artistic criticism, because it elevates the enterprise from entertainment to cause.”
The producers have made it so that liking (or not) the new Doctor can no longer be merely a matter of individual preference. It is, rather, an obligation, a duty, an expression of one’s social and ideological attitudes. Embracing her is a sign you’re a good citizen and human being. To oppose her is to oppose progress and the emancipation of women. The BBC needn’t worry. Its viewers would never do anything so vulgar. They’re too busy basking in the good feelings to wonder why a TV show that is a half century old suddenly must transform itself into a vehicle for proselytizing feminism or why one person’s art should be conscripted into another person’s cause.
What happens if they start wondering? Who gets the blame if things go wrong, if the 13th Doctor proves unlucky? Whittaker, for not being up to the task of bearing the burden placed on her shoulders? Or will fans be accused of being Luddites unwilling to accept the 21st century?
A recurrent motif in “new” Who is that the Doctor is a killer with the blood of countless beings on his hands. His quest for redemption for having annihilated his own people to end a war that threatened the universe is arguably the primary theme of the 2005 revival. The Doctor’s decision to wipe out his own people to end the war and save creation was so awful, so cataclysmic, that future Doctors disowned the incarnation that made it, denying him even the name “Doctor.”
It was a judgment imbued with a kind of divine fury and righteousness. It was terrible. Yet it was just. In other words, exactly the sort of decision we can envision a man making. Can we envision a woman making it? Can there, that is, be a female War Doctor (as the Doctor who made it is known)? And if there were, for which would she incur more opprobrium — pushing the button, or not? Such is the trap the BBC has now placed itself in. People will complain when a woman acts like the Doctor — and when the Doctor acts like a woman.
If the Doctor can’t be a woman, then Doctor Who with a woman in the title role is no longer Doctor Who. With this change, something essential, something ineffable, is being lost which, once gone, will never be regained. The Cloister Bell is tolling. I fear it won’t stop as long as the 13th Doctor is piloting the TARDIS.
— Varad Mehta is a historian who lives in suburban Philadelphia.