The internet rejoiced when it was announced that the lead character of Britain’s most popular science-fiction TV show, Doctor Who, would be played by a woman for the first time since its creation more than 50 years ago. There were also classic criticisms – (why couldn’t the Doctor be played by a person of colour?) and for some there was a sense of trepidation.
Though once a lauded family friendly show, under the reigns of head writer Steven Moffat certain cracks began to show when it came to gender constructs and the treatment of women. These treatments were apparent when it came to the publicity framing of the female companions under Moffat’s writing as compared to the framing of the Doctor’s companions under the leadership of former head writer Russell Davies. The women of the Davies era – Rose, Martha, and Donna – if they were defined by their gender, were defined by the word ‘woman’. The woman of Moffat’s era, however, were all defined by the word ‘girl’.
Clara… the impossible girl.
Amy… the girl who waited.
The final companion of the Moffat era – Bill Potts – though serving without the ‘girl’ moniker, was subject to her own problems. Her character (only the second woman of colour to serve as the Doctor’s companion in the show’s fifty+ year history and the first full-time companion with a queer identity) was cruelly disposed of by the end of the series. Though Moffat gave viewers the delightful character of River Song, he also gave viewers Missy – the gender bent iteration of long-running villain, the Master.
While arguably a step forward for female representation within the show, Missy served as a kind of ‘soft run’ for the potential of a female incarnation of the Doctor. This is without the risk of having to frame her as a ‘good woman’. In giving the role of female Time Lord to a character of indisputable evil, Moffat allowed himself to meet the demands of the audience without sacrificing his own distinctly masculine view of what the Doctor should be. In turning the Master into a woman – complete with a name change to remind us that women cannot be ‘Masters’ – the behaviour of ‘woman’ could be freely condemned.
So what will that mean for the 13th Doctor?
Moffat is no longer at the helm of the show, but in her two minutes of screen time, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has already been subject to a level of scrutiny far beyond that of her male peers. New showrunner Chris Chibnall has achieved acclaim with crime drama Broadchurch (also featuring Whittaker) and has already written for both Doctor Who (under both Davies and Moffat) and headed spin-off series Torchwood. There is good reason to believe that Chibnall will manage to give the show the balance of emotional weight and family-friendly humour that have long characterised the popular tone of the series.
What we cannot predict is how Chibnall will handle the topic of female protagonist, and whether he will manage to do so without deconstructing the qualities that have always been attributed to the Doctor; such as the desire to help those who cannot help themselves, and a heroic nature which ensures it is the Doctor who saves the day most of the time. If Whittaker doesn’t exhibit the same qualities as the many men who came before her, she will have been denied the essence of the Doctor. If Whittaker does exhibit the same qualities then she will be placed under deeper scrutiny as an actor, and the apparent failures of a female Doctor will provide fodder for those who wish to argue that a woman has no right to play such an iconic role – despite the many men who have been given the chance to fail as this, and other, popular characters.
The ultimate risk of casting a woman in the role of Doctor is that the existing narrative structures that glorify the male hero will not be applied to the female. This is the case even though she will be serving the audience as the exact same person that the Doctor has always been. The opportunity for changes in the narrative structure have already begun with the casting of the Doctor’s companions for the new season. Whittaker’s Doctor will be the first to begin her term with multiple companions, but whether or not this will herald a move to shift the role of the Doctor from one performed gender binary to the other . . . only time will tell.