Yes, robot dogs make perfect sense, but Romana as the Doctor would be too crazy.
Recently, rumors rippled across the Internet that actor Matt Smith, who plays the eleventh Doctor on the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, would be leaving the show. Nothing has been confirmed, but when stories like this pop up on blogs, there’s a flurry in the comments sections about what actor would be the best next Doctor in the beloved series. Rupert Grint, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Andrew Garfield? Meh. Idris Elba? Yes, please! Helen Mirren or Tilda Swinton? That would be incredible!
But while many Doctor Who fans agree that it’s about time for a woman Doctor, some do not. When Mirren and Swinton’s names are mentioned, a series of comments appear, with a tone of exasperation—”As a big Doctor Who fan, I am highly resistant to anyone other than a male from the UK playing the Doctor because of history and tradition. Change for the sake of change is not always the way to go.”
A brief rundown for those unacquainted with the series: The Doctor is an alien, the last living Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He travels through space and time in the Tardis, a vessel that looks like a blue police box, usually with a woman companion. A British or Scottish white man has always played the Doctor. Another thing to know about the story is that when the Doctor is fatally injured, he can regenerate into a new body. The original series ran from 1963 to 1989, and during that time, there were eight Doctors. The new iteration started in 2005, and there have been three Doctors - Christopher Eccleston (my fave), David Tennant, and Matt Smith.
Yes, the show sounds nerdy but fans—myself included—are devoted to the series. We know its history and we care about how it’s done. We’re a bit of a community. But the argument over a hypothetical woman Doctor Who is divisive. As a fan, I’d like to dissect the reasons given against a woman Doctor Who and how it doesn’t reflect any internal logic inherent to the show.
1. “It doesn’t fit the logic of the series to have a woman Doctor.”
And logic matters all of a sudden? Look, the Doctor is a Time Lord who can control space and time. An acceptance of cognitive leaps is necessary to enjoy this show in the first place. The Doctor’s severed hand regenerates into a second Doctor Who. There are reptilian people living at the center of the earth. Earth is moved to a different galaxy and then returned, with humans worldwide clutching their furniture to steady themselves for the ride.
And amid all this, we can’t handle how unbelievable it would be to have a female Doctor? The Doctor an alien on a sci-fi series. He can be whatever the writers decide he can be.
2. “But he always has been played by a white British/Scottish actor, so he always will be.”
Except the Doctor has never been black, yet when Idris Elba is mentioned in these online debates no one bats an eye. That’s because he’s a great actor who could pull off the role. Why then are Helen Mirren and Tilda Swinton - two also great actors who could pull off the role - so controversial? It’s interesting that in this case gender is more important than race or age. Matt Smith is by far the youngest Doctor, but this doesn’t bother too many folks. What about the Doctor is inherently male?
When fans cite this argument, there is a bit of nostalgia in their tone, like the fact that the Doctor has always been, always will be is comforting. Because questioning white and male as The Norm causes us to question how we conceive of reality in an incredibly personal way. Many people want their entertainment to be unchallenging. But think of the leap women and people of color have to make all of the time in identifying with and loving characters that don’t look like them. It’s time to allow for new representations and share the burden of identification with unlike.
3. “As long as Steven Moffat is the Executive Producer, the Doctor will never be a woman.”
On this point I agree. Steven Moffat doesn’t have a wonderful track record when it comes to writing women. The Doctor’s female companions written during Russell T. Davies’ tenure (he was the head writer before Moffat) are badass. Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble all have their flaws, but they’re tough, smart, and nuanced. They save the Doctor as often as the Doctor saves them. Can we really say the same about Amy Pond or Clara Oswin Oswald, the companions penned by Moffat? Yes, River Song is tough, but she flits in and out of storylines too much to be considered one of the Doctor’s main companions.
Here’s the thing about the relationship between writers and fans in the Internet age: they listen to our comments. A Veronica Mars film is being funded through Kickstarter. They resurrected Futurama. Let’s dare Moffat to change his ways.
4. “He’s the constant while everything around him changes.”
This isn’t true, though. It was hard for me to get used to David Tennant, because I loved the chemistry between Christopher Eccleston and Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper. But I adapted. There is a certain amount of heartbreak in change, in watching the characters you love evolve. But Doctor Who is a strong enough franchise to weather the shock of a woman Doctor.
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Shows reflect the era they’re made in as well as the level of bravery and vision of their creators, and sexism and misogyny are not new to the world of Doctor Who. In the 1978-79 series, Time Lady Romana is supposed to take over for the Doctor but this never happens. The actor who played her, Mary Tamm, left the show because of the subordinate position her character was written to have to the Doctor, and Romana I is replaced by the younger, blonder, less sassy Romana II.
Importantly, casting a female Doctor isn’t just “change for the sake of change”—it could make the show a better, more interesting show. The 2007 series was made far more complex and riveting because the show dug into race issues, casting Martha Jones, a Black woman. Imagine the storylines that could be possible with a Doctor who looked like a woman? What if the Doctor was essentially the same heterosexual, white male only this time in Helen Mirren’s body? Dare to tell me that she couldn’t that off!
Through the layers of star fleets, zombies, and aliens, sci-fi is powerful in the way that it is a mirror to our society, what it is and what it could be. The Enterprise had a desegregated crew before most American workplaces did. Night of the Living Dead used zombies and its star Duane Jones to dissect racism. The genre allows us to bravely envision a new world but also new ways of constructing identity. What the argument against a female Doctor Who proves to me is that as a society, again, we still think of white and male as the norm. The question is: are we brave enough yet to rethink that?