Why casting a female Doctor Who is long overdue
Much has been written about Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the 13th Doctor – so much so that I’m loathe to add to it. Some of it has been journalists and bloggers who don’t really care about the show as such but have leaped upon the news as a springboard for the usual discussion about gender issues. (This is not something I particularly have a problem with but it’s not a debate I feel that I can add much to at this time.)
No, I’m more interested in formulating a reply to what seems to be a minority of fans who have a problem with the casting. At the more rabid end of the spectrum these complaints have been pure misogyny, some have been simple sexism and some have just been a kind of kneejerk argument from traditionalism. The first two are not worth engaging with but I wanted to give some form of answer to the arguments offered up by the third group. (Be warned, advanced nerdery lies ahead. Viewers of a sensitive disposition may want to turn away now.)
1. The Argument from Tradition. This roughly goes that the Doctor has been male for 50 years, so having a female one now flies in the face of established continuity. I don’t think this really convinces, primarily because it has been established for a number of years now that gender change is possible by Time Lords. We’ve seen numerous instances of it, from references to other characters, to the regeneration of the character of the General, but most notably in Missy, the female incarnation of the character of the Master.
Yes, the Traditionalist will argue, but that’s a relatively new development in the 50-year context of the show and it’s been essentially tacked on by Steven Moffat so that he can inject this politically correct change into the show. However, Who is almost unique in the sense that the core concepts of the show as we understand it now weren’t conceived at the programme’s birth. The concept of the Time Lords, for example, didn’t make an appearance until a good six years into the show’s run (incidentally the same number of years between the first raising of the possibility of gender change within regeneration and it actually happening). What’s more it flatly contradicted the backstory offered in the show’s first episode, and yet you don’t hear the uber-fans getting too exercised about that. Similarly, the (it now turns out eminently circumventable) limit on regeneration wasn’t introduced until another six years later. Once again, that seemed to be accepted into Who lore with barely a murmur.
The point here being that Who wasn’t designed as a fully formed entity – it’s had bits of narrative and lore added it to it over the years and it is not a credible argument to argue about one particular ‘new bit’ just because it’s something you ideologically object to. It’s always been – and always will be – something of a jerry-rigged, mongrel show.
But extending this out of the show’s narrative world, the idea of a female Doctor is hardly a new one and really shouldn’t have any serious fan clutching for their pearls. Famously, Tom Baker suggested that his replacement could be a woman when he stood down from playing the title role in 1980. And Sydney Newman, one of the people credited with the original conception of the programme, suggested, when drafted to save the show as it floundered in 1986, that it was time for the Doctor to become a woman.
So, no not a new idea, and not one that’s just suddenly been injected into the show in the name of novelty or diversity.
2. The Role Model Defence. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this argument is another former Doctor, Peter Davison, who has, rather depressingly, been hounded off Twitter for expressing this view. And it’s an argument that I have some sympathy for. Shouldn’t the Doctor, as a rare hero known for intellect and non-violence rather than brute force, be maintained as a positive role model for boys? It’s not as if girls don’t have their own role models, is it? Their Wonder Womans and their Starbucks and their Scullies. Why do they have to steal our ones too?
I suppose I have a couple of ways of answering this one. The first is that the ‘Doctorly’ values of intellect and compassion and non-violence don’t strike me as inherently male traits. Surely, they’re things that girls should aspire to as well? Or rather, already do, because you only have to look at internet superfans like Lindalee Rose and Christel Dee to see that the show has inspired girls for years. What’s more, they’ve gained this inspiration without the ‘obstacle’ of having to identify with the main character in terms of sharing his gender. Surely, it’s not too much to expect boys to be able to exercise a similar level of imagination in future.
A secondary argument seems to go something like, ‘OK, fine, you want a Doctor-like female character, that’s fair enough. How about a spin-off show with someone like Romana or River Song? That way the Doctor can stay as he is’. But this to me seems to miss the point. Surely, it’s failing to take advantage of one of Who’s great strengths – the sheer plasticity of the concept. It’s possibly the only show that can accommodate a sudden gender change without having to dramatically re-engineer the show’s key concept and it seems foolish not to take advantage of that. Besides which, isn’t creating a spin-off merely ‘ring-fencing’ the character? No matter how well written, no matter how daring, any spin-off character will always be a subsidiary character compared to the Doctor. Is Supergirl equal to Superman, is Batgirl equal to Batman? It strikes me that the spin-off argument is the one that is the one most built on sexism and an assumption of male exceptionalism.
Plus, it’s not the fact that the Doctor is now a woman that is the truly interesting part – it’s surely the fact that from here on in s/he is a character who is both man and woman. In terms of character, it’s not so much a change, as an evolution.
However, there is, I think, one overriding and compelling reason why it’s difficult to argue against the casting of a female Doctor, or at least why the arguments against it should never be couched in some of the terms I’ve seen in certain quarters of the internet. The comments bemoaning ‘political correctness’ or ‘diversity’ or ‘victory by the social justice warriors’ suggest to me people who’ve utterly failed to understand the core philosophy of the show since its inception.
The essence of Doctor Who is kindness, that is what really is underneath all of this. This is a person who moves through time and space and history, and all kinds of situations, and reacts to them, ultimately – despite the way the different versions of him may appear – he reacts with kindness. And that is how everyone involved with Doctor Who should be and how everyone who is a fan of it should be. If they’re not kind, they’re not receiving the show in the proper way and they’re not really a fan of it
Doctor Who’s first producer was the first female producer on British television. Its first director was an Asian, gay man. The values it espoused were of liberal humanism, of passionate reaction against totalitarianism, to oppression, to needless cruelty, to the absence of empathy or compassion. If anything, the character of the Doctor is an early example of a ‘social justice warrior’. If you can’t see that then you’ve been watching some whole other show.
No one has articulated this better of late than the outgoing Doctor himself Peter Capaldi in his reaction to hearing of a fan facing cyberbullying from another fan. Capaldi said: ‘The essence of Doctor Who is kindness, that is what really is underneath all of this. This is a person who moves through time and space and history, and all kinds of situations, and reacts to them, ultimately – despite the way the different versions of him may appear – he reacts with kindness. And that is how everyone involved with Doctor Who should be and how everyone who is a fan of it should be. If they’re not kind, they’re not receiving the show in the proper way and they’re not really a fan of it.’
This speech clearly made an impact on showrunner Steven Moffat because he essentially paraphrased it for Capaldi’s Doctor in the most recent episode: ‘I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind.’
To decry the casting of Jodie Whittaker because it’s some kind of concession to social justice betrays the fact that you haven’t understood the show. Social justice is what the Doctor is all about. It’s why he travels the universe in the first place. Diversity is – and always has been – at the heart of the show’s ethos. It’s no coincidence that the most persistent and memorable of the foes within the show – the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans – are sworn enemies of diversity, are driven by the creation and maintenance of monocultures and the brutal suppression of any difference.
So, don’t rail against what has the potential to be one of the most interesting casting decisions in any TV show in recent memory. If you really consider the Doctor to be any kind of role model then take a leaf out of his book and be kind.