Uncomfortable with a female Doctor Who? It's time to admit your real motives

The series' creator called for a woman thirty years ago. So why are some viewers still opposed to the idea?

July 17, 2017
The new doctor, Jodie Whittaker. Photo: BBC America
The new doctor, Jodie Whittaker. Photo: BBC America

The idea of a female Doctor Who started off as a joke. Literally. In 1980, Tom Baker’s departure from the series was due to be announced and the actor—by his own account, after a few drinks in the BBC club—suggested to the series’ producer John Nathan-Turner that they could drop a hint to the press that the Fifth Doctor would be a woman. Nathan-Turner, who had a nose for publicity, agreed. “I certainly wish my successor luck whoever he—OR SHE—might be,” boomed Baker to assembled hacks, seemingly off the cuff. Cue headlines.

At the time, Doctor Who had only been cast four times, three of them during the nineteen sixties. The idea, even as a gag, was revolutionary. It wasn’t that there weren’t television series with female leads at the end of the seventies—in fact, there were probably more than there are now. It was the dazzling idea that an established character could change sex, onscreen, as part of the story, during an already-seen biological process. That idea, free to roam, would rear its head, briefly, whenever the part was recast in the twentieth century—each time prompting worried letters in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine and even in daily newspapers.

Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s Executive Producer from 2010 to 2017, used to make a habit, when asked if there was ever going to be a female Doctor, of throwing the question back to the audience. He’d ask for a show of hands as to who did and didn’t like the idea. Even half a decade ago, those audiences would be roughly balanced into pros and antis—although, as he noted, the proportion of “likes” was exponentially increasing every time he passed the question back.

In the last few years, the idea has gone from almost universally disliked to “Why hasn’t this happened already?”

Laying the canonical foundations

Moffat has played no small part in that himself. The first lines of dialogue given to Matt Smith’s Doctor, the first lines of Moffat’s era, see the newly regenerated Doctor, who cannot see his own face, wondering if he’s now female. A year later in “The Doctor’s Wife,” produced by Moffat and written by Neil Gaiman, the Doctor comments of a dead Time Lord friend The Corsair, “He didn’t feel himself unless he had a tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times”.

Three years after that, Moffat cast Michelle Gomez as ‘Missy’, the Doctor’s oldest friend and arch enemy, a character previously only played by male actors and usually referred to as the Master. A year after that—just to make sure that no one regarded Missy as an exception that proves the rule—Moffat had Ken Bones’ recurring Time Lord character The General regenerate into T’Nia Miller, changing sex and ethnicity simultaneously. Other Time Lords in the series treated this as momentarily distracting but thoroughly routine.

It now seems daft to say that such groundwork needed to be done: after all, the character of the doctor is an alien who merely looks human. But the series itself had never hinted that the idea was possible before 2010. Now, any viewer who has seen an episode with Missy in knows the Doctor’s own people can, and do, change sex. No one can pretend the idea isn’t part of the series, no matter how much they may want to. Moffat’s careful layering over years shows up any objections to the series having a female lead for what they are.

The new zeitgeist

Moffat’s successor Chris Chibnall casting Jodie Whittaker, with whom he’d worked on Broadchurch, as ‘his’ Doctor is the first publicly visible decision of his time on the series. It engenders a great deal of goodwill, demonstrating a willingness to challenge audiences and the status quo.


It also feels of the zeitgeist. While the kind of adventure fiction that Doctor Who is has always had an engaged female audience, that has often seemed to be in spite of the absence of complex and engaging female characters, let alone female leads.

Since 2015, Kathleen Kennedy has produced three Star Wars films with a female protagonist in a row. Disney’s Moana (2016) is far from the first Disney film with a female lead, but it is the first in which the female lead goes on her own Campbellian ‘Hero’s Journey’—without getting involved, even vaguely, in romance. This year we’ve seen, with the extraordinary box office of Wonder Woman, the commercial and, yes, creative rewards of just considering the idea that this kind of fiction should be representing and engaging with an audience that, in the west, comprises more than half the human race.

No one who has seen little girls reacting to young Diana in the early scenes of Wonder Woman, or recreating moments from Moana, could ever doubt that representation of this kind is deeply important. How could it not be? It is saying that girls and women can be the main character in their own stories, the protagonists of their own lives. How could that ever not be true? (Except, of course, for those who want it not to be true.)

A long time coming

Some people have long advocated a female Doctor, and publicly so. Colin Baker (Doctor Who 1984-86) would, when the series was off air in the nineties, often advocate that when it returned the lead should be played by Joanna Lumley. Baker would, when pressed, respond that he was the father of a family who were part of the first generation of British children in decades to grow up without their own Doctor, and that he thought they not only deserved one, but that his four daughters would benefit even more from a heroine, rather than a hero, in the role to look up to. The idea gained such currency that by the end of the nineties, Lumley had briefly played the part—in a 1998 Comic Relief sketch written by, well, Steven Moffat, actually.

Baker has, in the last few days, delightedly hit Twitter to praise Whittaker’s casting, and express his sadness at “viewers (I hesitate to call them fans)” unhappy at a woman in his own old part. Some of those “viewers” have attempted, given Moffat’s comprehensive dismantling of an in-fiction case against the Doctor being played by a woman, a different sort of argument: one couched in a sort of plea to the past. They like woman protagonists, woman heroes, they insist, but why not create new ones, rather than casting a woman as a character who has hitherto always been played by a man? “Is that not,” they assert, “a distortion of Doctor Who?”—sounding like constitutional originalists, wondering what the founding fathers would have thought of X, Y or Z.

Some find this pose superficially plausible, even if they disagree. Back in 1986, BBC One Controller Michael Grade hit upon the wheeze of contacting Doctor Who’s then retired creator Sydney Newman (1917-97) and asking him for a proposal for one of Doctor Who’s periodic revamps. Newman delivered his ideas on 6 October 1986, and met with BBC Head of Drama Jonathan Powell to discuss them shortly afterwards. Central to his pitch—on which Grade and Powell, for a variety of complex reasons, chose to pass—was that a woman should be cast in the lead role within two years.

Sydney Newman was born almost exactly a hundred years ago. King George V was on the throne, The Great War was raging, and women couldn’t vote in most of his native Canada. His upbringing and culture are unimaginably different to, and hugely more conservative than, than the world we live in now. Yet Newman wasn’t just okay with the idea of a woman playing the character which he himself created—he was actively lobbying for it more than thirty years ago.

The founding father would be very proud of his new daughter. In fact, he’d probably say it’s about time.