On Sunday, the 16th of July, 2017, the BBC announced their pick for the new Doctor on Doctor Who. One of the longest running sci-fi shows in history, Doctor Who has been broadcasted for over 50 years. In all those years the main character of the series, the Doctor — a time-traveling, double-hearted, slightly mad alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who can regenerate into a new body whenever he is about to die— has always been portrayed as male. Whether sporting a bow tie or a trench-coat, a multicolored scarf or a fez, whether carrying a celery stalk or a supply of jelly babies, the Doctor has always, always regenerated into a man.
Not so now.
Actress Jodie Whittaker was just announced as the new star of Doctor Who. She will be taking over the role from Peter Capaldi, the Twelth Doctor. “I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender,” she says, “Because this is a really exciting time and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. This is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”
I was honestly not quite sure what to think when I heard that a woman would be taking over as the Doctor. On the one hand, according to show canon, a Time Lord can technically regenerate into a person of the opposite gender. At the moment, the world is charged with massive conversations about diversity and equality and feminism and equal representation in the media. This would appear to be the perfect answer to that conversation: the introduction of a woman into a role that has always been played by men. At least, many people would say so.
I have nothing against diversity, as far as it goes (i.e. not making every character in your story white and male). But there is something about this contemporary thrust for ‘diversity’ in the media that feels extraordinarily off. As a writer myself, a creator of characters, I have come to understand that if you force a character to be something that they are not, it can wreck the entire story. Trying to force two characters into a romantic relationship; trying to force a character to feel happy in a situation where they would, in fact, be resentful; trying to force a male character to be female, and vise versa… these things will never work as well as leaving the character alone to be who they are in the first place.
Characters are funny creatures. The best of them are like people, fully formed personalities that you uncover bit by bit, like getting to know somebody in real life. When you force them to be something they are not, you destroy that illusion of reality. You have hijacked a character, a story even, for your own purposes. Stories evolve and grow and change naturally as you write and discover what exactly they are about. They are not meant to be manipulated into saying something else.
The BBC’s decision to cast a woman as the Doctor feels, to me anyway, like forced diversity, the manipulation of a story into conveying a message. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against women having leading roles in television or movies. I don’t think women should be disrespected, or paid less than men for doing the same amount of work, or forced to prove themselves to be just as good as men, because somehow that is a measuring stick for this sort of thing. But there is no one size fits all technique when it comes to diversity. Doctor Who may play by a very esoteric set of rules, but the show’s own lore is fairly contradictory on the point of sex-changing regeneration, and there are a few other objections I can raise to the casting of a female Doctor.
But lets take a step back for a second and really look at this show. It’s not as if Doctor Who isn’t diverse or doesn’t portray strong female characters. Some people seem to forget that the Doctor’s female companions, at least in the reboot, aren’t poor, damsel-in-distress types. Martha and Donna are probably some of the strongest characters in the show. Rose, even though she gets a lot of flack for some reason or other, is creative and brilliant and so, so strong in times of hopelessness. Some people also seem to forget that the female companions of the Doctor are not always there to be love interests. Some people forget that the Doctor had rich platonic relationships with not only Martha, but Donna, Amy, and Clara as well; four out of the five female companions in the reboot (I can’t yet count Bill, as I haven’t seen any of her episodes, but I gather that she isn’t a love interest either.)
Are we out to destroy all shows and books and films with male leads? Have men suddenly become evil, or alien; nonhuman? Look me in the face and tell me that this outlook, rampant in our culture even if not expressed in so many words, is not sexist. Sexism can go both ways, and right now many people are extremely angry at men for being men. Isn’t that exactly what they accuse men of being; angry at women for being women? Aren’t we being slightly hypocritical here?
The dynamic of the Doctor — the mad man in the blue box— and his companions, both male and female, platonic and romantic, his friends and his family, his wife (don’t you forget River), his relationships with the people he meets on his journeys… you could say that it is these dynamics that make the show itself. And this is where I say something that many of you will not like: men and women are different. They are treated differently, because in some situations they have different roles. They act differently. We like to plaster over these differences in the name of ‘equality’, but all it does is cause confusion. But gender, whether we like it or not, is intrinsically tied to personality, to who we are as people, to what we do and how we act. Women will always act in certain ways, see the world in certain ways, be different people than men.
And by changing the Doctor into a woman, the BBC will have changed him into a different person entirely.
Character relationships will break down. Certain dynamics will no longer be possible. The Doctor will be a completely different character. No writer can change that. Or they might try to force it, and run the risk of ruining things entirely. The show will change, and probably not for the better. Change is often good. Variety is the spice of life. But you cannot change the way the world works, no matter how much you try, and I would hazard a small speculation that this change will not do the world longest running sci-fi show any good. In fact, it may doom Doctor Who in the end. The writers will end up trying to push a message so prominent in our culture today: that no one is bound by truth, that you can be absolutely anyone, literally, regardless of gender. And, unfortunately, this message is just not true.
Philosophical arguments aside (for the most part), the show’s own lore seems to contradict itself on several points when it comes to sex-changing regeneration. Please note that there will be some spoilers ahead for River Song’s story arc, so if you haven’t watched this part of the show yet, please proceed with caution!
When a Time Lord is about to die, they instead regenerate into an entirely new body. This is why there are currently thirteen different ‘versions’ of the Doctor (not counting the War Doctor from the 50th anniversary special), each played by a different actor. Although the Doctor says several times that Time Lords can regenerate into people of the opposite gender, there are also very clear differences between male and female Time Lords. One major difference is that female Time Lords (or is that Time Ladies?) can actually control aspects of how they look when they regenerate. Male Time Lords cannot. This is established both by the Doctor (who complains after various regenerations about the size of his ears, his ‘new teeth’, and, most often, that he’s not a redhead) and the female Time Lord River Song, who can concentrate on a dress size or other feature during regeneration and achieve it in her next form.
For there to be specific differences between male and female Time Lords, there would first have to be such a thing as male and female Time Lords. If you were born male, you would not be able to predict or control the physical characteristics of your regeneration. If you were born female, you could. You might still regenerate into someone of a different height or weight or ethnicity, but these are all physical characteristics. And although the current culture would have us believe otherwise, gender is much, much more than physical characteristics.
So, these two things are not logically consistent. If male and female Time Lords have different traits that set them apart, how can a male Time Lord regenerate into a female one? Has he suddenly crossed over that boundary? Can he suddenly control his regeneration? And the reverse is just as confusing. If a female Time Lord regenerates into a male, does she suddenly lose her ability to control her regeneration? Can she concentrate on becoming male in the first place, or is that just random like it seems to be for a male Time Lord?
I would love to see a black or Asian Doctor, or a Doctor of any ethnicity. In fact, it would be an amazing opportunity for actors of different cultural background to bring something new to the show. But a female Doctor, especially at this particular moment, just feels far too much like a blatantly political decision, not a decision which retains the integrity of the show itself. It might even contradict show canon. And any piece of art, be it a novel or a show or a film, should never be made to force a political opinion. That defeats the purpose.
All of this goes to say that I am not thrilled about the new Doctor. But I think I’ll give her a chance. Who knows? Maybe something amazing will happen. I have only one request: that instead of turning this into an opportunity to rant and hate on men or women, we instead judge the character not by their gender or ethnicity, but by their portrayal. Women should not be inserted into the media just because they are women. They should be portrayed because they are people, and a legitimate part of humanity. If the writers of Doctor Who can do that with a female Doctor, and not lose sight of the original message of the show itself, then they will have won.
Thanks for reading this unpopular opinion! What are your thoughts about the new Doctor? Are you excited, or nervous? Do you think that Jodie Whittaker is a good choice for a female Doctor? Let’s talk in the comments below.
See you again next time!