By Jerry Chandler
We’ve heard the speculation for years. We’ve heard it from as far back as (even if it was purely a joke then) the era of the last few original Doctors. We’ve even heard specific names attached to the talk more than once. But somehow the talk never panned out. Certainly the talk intensified in recent years. Not just because of the changing times, but because of other changes of this nature being introduced into Doctor Who. Still, it seemed a longshot given the reported frontrunners for the role over the majority of the last year. But that all changed on July 16, 2017. The next Doctor is a woman.
It is now official. Jodie Whittaker (Wired, Attack the Block, Black Sea, Broadchurch) has been revealed as the Doctor who will usher in the new era of Chris Chibnall (also best known to many for Broadchurch) as the Doctor Who showrunner. The immediate reactions have been what one would expect; wildly mixed.
Certainly we’ve seen the easy to anticipate flood of comments from the two extreme ends of the spectrum. The afternoon of the announcement saw any number of forums and threads filled with declarations of being done with Doctor Who after anywhere between ten to fifty years watching because of this “PC stunt” as well as the those declaring that it was great that this was finally being done simply because “it’s time” and characterizing any and all comments not supporting the change- even if the person commenting was a woman -as misogyny.
The reality around what the BBC is about to do with Doctor Who and the ramifications of that act are far more complex than either of those two groups of Who fandom make it out to be or are likely able to understand. The other reality of the situation is that it’s also amazingly simple.
There’s a simple truth when it comes to hesitancy or resistance to changes like this that has nothing to do with misogyny, racism, or any other “gyny” or “ism” one could think up for an online spitting contest over such matters. That simple truth is the more ingrained, iconic, and popular an existing image, concept, or character is in pop culture consciousness, the more the existing image, concept, or character is comfortably seen as the “right one” that does not need to be and should not be changed from what it’s been.
I’ve said this before when it comes to switching the race or gender of characters that have achieved a high level of iconic pop culture status. As I’ve said in past Needless Things columns and on my own blog, I’d no more want to see James Bond black than see Shaft white if the only reason someone could bring to the table was that “it’s time” to make that change. I wouldn’t want to see Wonder Woman suddenly become Wonder Man either. None of those have anything to do with any “ism” or “gyny” people can come up with. It simply has to do with all three of those characters are hugely iconic, and they’re deeply ingrained in my consciousness as well as others in the form and appearance they have now. Seeing them suddenly appear radically altered from what’s become the basic template of that iconic image in anything other than an Elseworlds style of story would be jarring and possibly more than a little off-putting. That’s true for even cosmetic changes. Look no further than the reactions by some fans to Superman’s casual jeans and t-shirt look in comics a short while back or the extreme reactions to Superman Red and Superman Blue years ago. Plus, well, you know… Marvel's Wonder Man kind of sucked as a character anyhow.
That wall in people’s minds, that resistance to change, is very normal and natural in many ways. It doesn’t even apply to just those things we’ve lived our whole lives with. Many of the people I’ve seen advocating such changes because “it’s time” are also the first people I’ve seen flipping their lids when Facebook changes its appearance, MSN radically alters the look of Windows, a classic logo for something they like is changed, their favorite superhero changes their costume, or a movie translates their favorite book/comic book character to the big screen and changes the appearance of the character. People, no matter who they are or where they are, don’t always react well to change in the early going even if they eventually become used to the change and will eventually accept the new as the way things are supposed to be as they once did with the old.
If you want to intellectually get past the actually rather natural and normal objections to changing such characters, you need more than simply “it’s time” to do so; especially when, as can be argued with Doctor Who, a new character could easily be introduced and spun off. Preferably, that reason would be based on telling good stories first and foremost, not simply making a change for the sake of change and then hoping the stories don’t fall flat. Interestingly, one of the things Doctor Who does do is eliminate as an issue the need to create a completely new character based on any such changes.
One of the issues that would arise with a gender or race swap of other characters is that you would in fact have to start rewriting the past of the character as well as how the character acts and reacts in the here and the now. It’s one of the things that many who say that it’s time that we see a black James Bond or a black Bruce Wayne don’t seem to take into consideration.
A Bond or Wayne introduced into 2017 in their thirties or forties would have faced three to four decades of challenges and prejudices based on their skin color that the James Bond and Bruce Wayne we know never did. While you could keep the basics, the big things as it were, intact in the bios of a Bond or a Wayne, the reality is that they would have lived lives with a million little differences that would all add up. These things would have to be reflected in the characters as depicted on screen. They would see and react to some things differently than a white Bond or Wayne would; even if the difference is only one of intensity. They would also be treated differently in some scenarios simply because there are some places that Batman and 007 go where the color of your skin matters. You would in part be creating new characters. If you didn’t, you would run the risk of turning off the part of the audience you would be making such a change for since they would likely see the character as black on the outside only. Then you’ve lost them along with the chunk you lost who refused to go along with the change.
But being an alien, the Doctor interestingly sidesteps that issue. An alien that grew up in a different society on another world entirely has no reason to have a history with the racial issues we have had and still have on this world. The Doctor suddenly changing the color of his skin requires nothing when it comes to changing the character in any way due to having to take into consideration the life he would have lived before and how that would change him from the Doctor we knew. Although, it absolutely would open up some interesting storytelling issues with a time traveler who on more than a few occasions has adventures on Earth in time periods where the color of one’s skin did impact how freely one could move about across all levels of society.
The absence of that issue combined with the hesitance to make what seemed an even more radical alteration is one of the reasons I also thought we would see a black or Asian Doctor before we saw a female Doctor. I still thought that up until the most recent years of Doctor Who, but something happened to start to change that a bit.
Despite comments made by the Doctor in the new era of Doctor Who that indicated gender switching was a common thing with Time Lords (See the Matt Smith story The Doctor’s Wife for an example), we had never actually seen a Time Lord who was or was indicated to be gender swapped. That almost but maybe didn’t really change with the revelation at the end of season eight. The introduction of Missy, formally the Master, was seen as a game changer by many who wanted to see a woman cast as the Doctor. Now, they said, we had a Time Lord who had gone from male to female. It was now canon that the Time Lords could gender swap. I stopped telling people that this wasn’t really the case early on.
Missy was an interesting case. The thing a lot of people seemed to forget, or, in the case of fans of the new series only, not know was that the Master wasn’t exactly who he always was before. As a matter of fact, for a time I wasn’t even sure that he was truly a Time Lord any longer.
The story that saw Anthony Ainley take on the role of the Master followed the viewers seeing a Master at the end of his regeneration cycle and clinging to life using a method that had him look like a cross between the incredible melting man and a mummy. He survived, and assumed the form of Anthony Ainley’s Master, by stealing the body of an alien; the father of a young woman, Nyssa, who would go on to become a companion for Peter Davison’s Doctor. In some stories, such as The Five Doctors, it was implied that he could no longer regenerate, but it was also implied that it was within the powers of the Time Lords to grant others a regeneration cycle.
It was never clear if the Master ever got that reward by the end of the original series, but it ultimately didn’t matter. The character was changed even more greatly in the 1996 Paul McGann television film. The Master was executed at the beginning of the story, but survived when some sort of strange jelly snake managed to reform itself from his ashes and take over the body of an ambulance driver on Earth. But it seemed that the human body couldn’t handle whatever that thing was and would not have been able to continue on for long. Indeed, a huge part of the Master’s motivation in that story was stealing the Doctor’s body and his remaining regenerations. It ended badly for him as he was sucked into the heart of the TARDIS and presumed to be as dead as such villains ever are.
I think many assumed that the Master’s body was destroyed at that point. Even the official continuation of Doctor Who in 2003 (that then got turned into the unofficial and not canon continuation and canceled after the announcement of a new live series), the animated Scream of the Shalka, went with that idea to a degree. It gave us a Master, voiced by Derek Jacobi of all people, who had lost his physical form and was placed into an android body. But even discounting Scream of the Shalka, the Master was in a strange place insofar as being an example of a typical Time Lord by the time he reappeared as the older Professor Yana and regenerated into the John Simms Master trying to be Batman’s Joker.
Then he died. Then he came back through some strange way that had nothing to do with regeneration and was interfered with before he was properly reformed. This gave him some insane powers never seen in a Time Lord, but it was also destroying his body. Then he sort of died again as he forced the Time Lords back into facing the fate they were destined to face in the Time War. At the very least, he was deemed lost with the Time Lords while in a body that was falling apart and who the hell knew if it was even still Time Lord in nature or not.
Then, years later, we got Missy and the reveal that she was once the Master. But who knew what qualified as normal for the Master at that point? I could certainly see how Missy could be used to normalize in the minds of many fans the idea of gender switching major characters in Doctor Who, but I could never see how people could say that this was an example of just your typical Time Lord. For all we knew, the Master had hit the end of the limited regeneration cycle he had and stole another body in order to survive. So, no, that was, for me at least, not the moment that changed things a bit when it came to thinking that the powers that be were really moving in that direction. That came when they actually showed us that the change could happen just like that at any time.
Just like that we saw a white male turn into a black female in no time at all. Of course, we also once again saw a Time Lord regenerate without the various issues that the Doctor always seems to face. So now no one could say that such a change was not canon. They even had her deliver a line indicating that this was a switch back to being a woman rather than being a man changes into a woman for the first time.
But, honestly, the idea of serious cosmetic changes during a regeneration go much farther back than that. We all saw on TV and in canon as Romana changed her body several times during regeneration, controlling the regeneration through some changes that had her looking completely alien. That last word there, the word “alien” in that sentence, is a really important one here.
The Amazingly Simple
Time Lords are aliens. You can point to fish on this planet that change their gender if the population imbalance between male and female demands it. Remember Nemo, everyone’s favorite clownfish? Nemo could do it.
Clownfish as well as wrasses, moray eels, gobies, and some other species of fish are known to change their sex, and that does mean changing their reproductive functions. It’s actually common with clownfish. Their schools are built into a hierarchy with a female fish at the top. When she dies, it’s not uncommon for the most dominant male to change sex and take her place. This is something that happens on our planet with creatures we are all intimately familiar with. If this is a fact of life, a reality rather than fiction, on our world that we can accept, then it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that an alien species that changes its form with an explosive release of energy that rebuilds them radically on the cellular level in moments can exist in speculative fiction that gender swaps during that change.
But that still won’t get some over that wall I mentioned earlier. The truth, keeping it amazingly simple, is that nothing will get some people over that wall. So, here’s another amazingly simple truth.
Doctor Who with a woman in the lead is going to lose viewers. But the fact is that Doctor Who has lost viewers in large numbers with male leads in the classic era and again in recent years. The popularity of the male leads didn’t change that either. Sylvester McCoy was a popular Doctor. Peter Capaldi has fans of both old and new Who saying that he’s easily in their top favorite Doctors if not their favorite Doctor. But the ratings don’t reflect that. Doctor Who is losing ratings, losing viewers, now and with a male lead. Because at this point the gender of the lead isn’t the most important factor here.
The fact is that the writing has let the character down in the past and certainly recently. The stories in the show and the direction of the show have turned off more existing fans than turned on new fans. The amazingly simple truth is that, in the end, that’s what’s going to matter the most when it comes to gaining, losing, or keeping viewers and surviving as a show.
I am one of the people who has said that I would like a better reason than “it’s time” as the reason to make such a change. But, here’s the most important thing in this. I’m a fan of Doctor Who. I have been a fan of Doctor Who since sometime in the mid-eighties. I was a fan who was really getting ready to hang it up as a fan for a while after the last few years of the Moffat era and would have hung it up had the announcement of a new showrunner not come when it did. All I want out of Doctor Who is good stories that feel like good Doctor Who.
If this Doctor is served well by being given good stories, then this will be a good Doctor for Doctor Who fans. If this Doctor is served well by being given good companions and good adversaries to play off of, then this will be a good Doctor for Doctor Who fans. This is a character that has always been to some degree about change (and not a moment too soon) every few years. This is just another change. It’s a somewhat more radical change that offers some interesting possibilities as well as some dangerous pitfalls with the storytelling though. But if this Doctor’s new creative team can navigate those possibilities and avoid those dangers and deliver to us good Doctor Who stories, she is a Doctor that will ultimately be worth traveling on the TARDIS with as a fan.
But, ultimately, that’s a choice everyone will have to make for themselves.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.