Jodie Whittaker has been cast as the next star of Doctor Who—the first woman to play the rôle. There has been much discussion about the significance of this: Of the slow but noticeable trend towards more female characters leading major science fiction and fantasy stories; and about the backlash from those men who oppose this trend in general, and the casting of a female Doctor in particular.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my young nerd self that she's not going to have to pretend to be the boys forever. pic.twitter.com/YX8ti03jRe
— Mackenzi Lee (@themackenzilee) July 16, 2017
The absurdity of people complaining that a fictitious alien must be played by a man has been adequately dealt with on social media. I can only add that within the Doctor Who universe (the Whoniverse) the idea of a female Doctor is unremarkable. The show has often depicted female Time Lords (Time Ladies? Time Baronesses?) including, most recently, the marvellous incarnation of The Master played by Michelle Gomez (‘Missy’).
A Woman’s Turn?
Once Gomez joined the series, it was established beyond all doubt that Time Lords can transition (all previous versions of The Master had been played by men, including Derek Jacobi and John Simm). From then on, the expectation that the next Doctor would be a woman grew to the point of seeming inevitability.
During this extended cultural discussion, one argument I’ve seen repeated is that since the previous twelve Doctors (and John Hurt’s ‘War Doctor’) were all men, it is now a woman’s ‘turn’ to play the part. To my mind, this is an unsatisfactory formulation. It implies either that the fourteenth Doctor should revert to a man, or that the next thirteen doctors (which would take the series into its second century) should all be women. This kind of alternation would be identity casting of the worst kind and would help no-one.
Time for a woman Time Lord
What we really want is for the gender of the actor to not matter at all. So there are better ways to phrase what we mean. Instead of saying that it is a woman’s ‘turn’ to play the Doctor, we can instead declare that it is ‘time’. Time to abandon the male exclusivity of the part. Time to expand what the character can be. The casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first woman to play The Doctor will, we hope, mean that the casting of future incarnations are open to all genders.
I thought of this today when I read about the Bishop of Llandaff, Rev. June Osbourne. She happens to be a woman, but her appointment was controversial because she was the alternative to Rev. Jeffrey John, who is gay. The first ever female Bishop, Rev. Libby Lane, was consecrated in 2015. And yet only two years later, a woman is seen as the socially conservative alternative to a gay bishop! When it comes to the Church of England, the glass ceiling has not just been shattered, it has been forgotten. One hopes that a similar mentality will prevail with Doctor Who (though of course, without the institutional homophobia that is at the centre of the Llandaff story).
Why Does This Matter?
Establishing a precedent for a character being played by either a woman or a man is not the same as saying that it doesn’t matter who plays a character. If that were the case then there would be no need for casting directors! Of course, the talent and method of an actor is important, but how they look, how they sound, and frankly who they are is surely relevant too.
We, the audience, bring our own preconceptions and assumptions to any piece of art, and the demographics of the actor—their race, their gender, their ‘look’—is surely an important factor in how that art is interpreted (this is a normative claim, describing how the world is, not how it should be).
Inside the Whoniverse, the Time Lords of Gallifrey are billions of years beyond the petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes. But unfortunately, outside of the show, the Earthlings of the early 21st Century have yet to do so. So the gender of The Doctor will reflect our interpretation of the character and how we understand the forthcoming series.
This is a marvellous development. The fact that the Thirteenth Doctor will be played by woman presents the possibility of some interesting stories and character exploration that might not have materialised if the character had been played by another man.
Ever since the speculation began about the possibility of a female Doctor, I’ve been thinking about an amusing Catherine Tate scene in the Tenth Doctor episode ‘Journey’s End‘. Tate’s character, Donna Noble, imbibes ‘Time Lord knowledge’ during some kind of Tardis ex machina mishap. While the actual Doctor is indisposed (held hostage at plunger-point by rogue Daleks), Donna saves the day by out-thinking the bad guy, Davros. That done, she explains her victory to her companions (and the audience) in a self-satisfied-but-genius Doctor-like way.
The scene succeeds because of Tate’s comic acting, and also because it is such a delight to see the familiar Doctor-traits manifest in someone new and unexpected. It echoes the fun and important moments in other episodes when we ‘recognise’ the established character inside a new incarnation.
More, though: the jargon-heavy boasting that Donna exhibits in the scene feels very masculine. It’s the sort of self-satisfied exposition that we expect from The Doctor. It’s the sort smugness that we expect from a man.
Male and Female emotions?
Of course, both men and women can be arrogant. But many human emotions are nevertheless ‘coded’ as male or female in general discussion. I’d say that one reason why Doctor Who is so popular is that The Doctor, in all his incarnations, often demonstrates characteristics that we usually code as ‘female’. The Doctor is an incredibly compassionate character, who eschews weapons and who even shows pity to Daleks, Cybermen, and mass-murderers like Missy. The fact that a character played by men has consistently demonstrated this feminine ‘coded’ trait is held up as the most obvious evidence that he is an alien. Our culture assumes that no male homo sapien man would behave in the way The Doctor does. Moreover, any slide into violence or revenge—’male’ traits—is presented as failure: the Doctor Who equivalent of Falling Off The Wagon.
The final episode of the most recent season highlights these differences between how male and female characters are portrayed. In ‘The Doctor Falls’ we are presented with two incarnations of The Master on screen together: John Simm and the aforementioned Michelle Gomez. These two people are playing literally the same character (albeit at different points in their timeline). Given the chance to stand and fight alongside the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Simm’s Master shows callous indifference. Meanwhile, Gomez’s Missy shows kindness and self-sacrifice.
In other words, the characters play up to gendered expectations. Missy is capable of empathy; The Master is not.
Now consider what will happen when The Doctor regenerates into a woman. The audience (and many of the characters within the Whoniverse) will expect her to be empathetic and compassionate. Kindness and forgiveness will be the expected default, and not traits that mark out the character as an off-world one-off.
In turn, I think it will become more interesting and frankly more dramatic to see the Thirteeth Doctor display ‘male’ coded traits. Previous versions of The Doctor have been capable of vengeance and selfishness. They have made rational decisions to allow good people to die, and then shown indifference to that outcome. And of course, we have seen how The Doctor is, at his lowest ebb, capable of an actual genocide. It may be that the scenes in the forthcoming series that we find most memorable are those when the Thirteenth Doctor is at her angriest or most vindictive.
A Character For Everyone?
The thoughts above are based on how we currently interpret the world. I’ve kept the quote marks around the ‘male’ and ‘female’ labels for character traits, because of course, in reality we know that those traits have no gender. Women have always been capable of extreme brutality and men have always been capable of extreme sensitivity. A female Doctor is exciting because she will bring that neutrality into focus, and force the viewer to confront it.
And more: finally, a character that everyone can identify with! The regenerative aspects of The Doctor make her almost unique in popular culture, because it means that s/he could be everyone and anyone. What other pop-culture characters can make a similar claim? I can think of only cartoon characters and monsters.
Time for a Doctor of Colour
There’s just one problem with all of this celebratory claptrap. It still excludes.
The Doctor Who casting is great, but it's also a step forward for WHITE women as WOC don't get chosen to head up these nerdy franchises.
— Stitch So Kitsch (@stichomancery) July 16, 2017
The issue of race persists. I mentioned above the semiotics of having a given actor play a role. Just as it (currently) matters to the meaning of a scene whether a person in that scene is male or female, there are many dramatic situations where the skin colour of the actor is equally important.
In many (I’d say, the majority) of Doctor Who episodes, our hero finds himself thrust into a position of authority. Whether he is saving the crew of a stricken spaceship, or rescuing a platoon of historic soldiers from an alien they do not understand, the Doctor effortlessly slides into a leadership role. In the most recent run (series 10) this happens in 8 of the 12 episodes. It is a near-constant trope in Doctor Who.
The fact that The Doctor has been, until now, a White Man, is relevant to this. It seems natural to the audience, and to many of the in-world characters, that he should be able to bounce into a capsule or cave and take charge… because for centuries white men have been afforded that privilege. I think that watching a black actor in such a scene would be fascinating, however it played out. Time for a Doctor of Colour?