Is it really timey-wimey for Dr Who to be a woman?

With Peter Capaldi announcing he will no longer play The Doctor, the question of whether the next actor should be a woman has again reared its head.

This article from The Conversation runs a cogent argument that the time has come to make the Doctor a woman. Almost equally, if not more, illuminating are the comments which canvas the entire range of thoughts and emotions that such a suggestion engenders.

The problem, it seems to me, is that there are parallel conversations going on. One group of people are trying to make a point about women in society. The other group is talking about a character in a story. (And, yes, there’s probably a third group of stirrers, trouble-makers, and trolls who use the words ‘politically correct’ as a dog-whistle. But I doubt many of them actually watch the show anyway.)

So, on the one hand making The Doctor a woman has a lot to be said for it. The Doctor (note the way I’m now avoiding the use of the pronoun ‘he’) is an iconic character that has traditionally appealed to kids – so role-modelling is good. The Doctor is one of the few characters that absolutely always uses brains over brawn. The Doctor wields a sonic screwdriver. And, most importantly, the core conceit of The Doctor being an alien that regenerates means there’s really no logical reason The Doctor couldn’t become black, female, or anything else (not seeing a groundswell for The Doctor being a female, Australian of Asian extraction though, just saying…)

On the other hand this is a story with a canon that has The Doctor as being male. That’s the way the character was conceived, and it has been played now as a male since 1963. In that context, the question should surely be not ‘should we change The Doctor to be female’, but ‘why would we’?

Could you have a fabulous female playing a character like The Doctor? Sure you could, in a flash. But should that be The Doctor? The same Doctor who fans have grown up with. The same Doctor who people view as a literary character in the same vein as Sherlock Holmes. The Doctor is, basically, a male character.  If you’re not changing The Doctor’s sex for a good reason in the context of the narrative, why would you do it at all?

And that’s the nub for me, after giving this some thought and canvassing the views of at least three other people. If you’re going to change it, it should be for a reason consistent with the narrative, not just because you’re using the series to make some other point.

I do however accept that Dr Who is such an iconic series that one strong argument for making the change is that you can’t preclude women from taking the lead in such an institution any more than you should preclude a woman from being prime minister or a high court judge. Dr Who is in that context an institution that is an integral part of our society and should be accessible to all. I get that, but I don’t actually accept it. The series is a beloved show; but it’s a story; and a story based around a character that is fundamentally male because that’s how it was originally conceived – just as Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet is male, and Elizabeth Bennet is female.

Each new Doctor comes with some controversy. We all have our favourites. Personally I think Capaldi is a great actor but, whether through casting or writing, he has not done well as The Doctor. Ratings would suggest I’m not alone in that thought. So if The Doctor was to become a woman backed up by fabulous casting and even more fabulous writing, I would certainly not be manning the barricades as a matter of principle. But just doing it just because they can or because it makes some wider point in society – well that doesn’t seem to be either sensible or a way to recover from waning ratings. I have a feeling that if you radically shift The Doctor from being the character that people know and love, you’ll simply kill the series off.  The series is about one single core character with all the rest as merely players; you change that character radically and it’s not the same show.

There are excellent reasons to have strong female characters as role-models and simply to reflect the reality of the society we live in. Make a whole new show with a fabulous, strong female character and I’ll watch it. Just, perhaps, leave Dr Who alone to be the thing of its time that we love.

(Oh, and bring back some straightforward story lines while you’re at it, but that’s another discussion.)

Leave a Reply