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Doctor Who?

The news that the next ‘Dr Who’ will be played by a woman (specifically by British Actress Jodie Whittaker) has been met with a generally positive reception. But as a fan since I was about seven years old I have to reluctantly confess to feeling somewhat more ambivalent. It’s not that I have any problem with strong female leads. Female Sci Fi leads in the Star Wars movies ‘Rogue One’ and ‘The Force Awakens’ provided new stories and new backgrounds and were in keeping with modern expectations of strong female characters. This was entirely appropriate exactly because we were dealing with new characters and new stories.  (It was not as if Anakin Skywalker – aka Darth Vader – suddenly switched gender; and even though today’s society is more ‘open’ to themes of ‘gender fluidity’, such a change would still be seen as ‘over-reaching’ by most fans).

But ‘Doctor Who’ is different from Star Wars – ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Rogue One’. While both franchises have a lineages going back decades, ‘Doctor Who’ stretches back more than fifty years and involves ongoing themes of both continuity and change. And since the 1960s a ‘male doctor’ has been a constant.

In an enlightened society popular culture should feature strong female and strong male characters in equal measure almost spontaneously. As well as ‘sympathetic’ female and male characters of significant depth. Though in reality: yes at first the barriers to strong women leads have had to be broken down consciously and deliberately. And this has met with sometimes unwarranted cultural resistance.

Even relatively recently we lived with the legacy of women’s treatment by some as what Simone de Beauvoir famously called ‘the second sex’. But we also have to ask ourselves: is every instance of male prominence also an instance of male privilege that must be uprooted and overturned? Can we now ‘leave any stone unturned’ when it comes to strong and traditional male leads in popular culture?; (for instance in science fiction generally and Doctor Who specifically).  Is this a sign of ‘progress’? Or perhaps are we sometimes overcompensating for centuries of past male cultural dominance?

Again ‘the Doctor’ has always been played by a male actor since the 1960s. And while the writers of Doctor Who have tried to prepare the way for a female Doctor: for instance with the change of gender by traditional adversary ‘The Master’ (or ‘Missy’ in her most recent incarnation) – it still feels like ‘a bridge too far’. People like a mix of continuity and change. But a woman Doctor is perhaps too great a change. Perhaps it goes against peoples’ expectations to the point where they feel they are no longer dealing with the same character.  Which could turn out to be something of a weakness for the new series.

Not everything that is ‘male’ is at the same time representative of ‘male privilege’ and hence must ‘be torn down’. Though yes, ‘Doctor Who’ originated in an era where the strong female leads of today were unthinkable by most. So indeed even Doctor Who has not escaped the history and influence of gendered power relations. But the cultural milieu which produced ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Rogue One’ does not need to tear down every strong and traditional male lead character in order to promote women’s cultural liberation. The battle over strong women leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy popular culture has been fought and it has been won. If anything it is the strong male leads who are becoming more the exception and less the rule.

So ideally we need to arrive at that point where strong female and male leads are produced in roughly equal measure in popular culture ‘spontaneously’ – or even ‘organically’. Where one is not seen as being a threat to the other. And where we can enjoy ‘traditionally male’ lead characters at the same time as enjoying the path-breaking, strong female leads in productions such as the more-recent Star Wars movies, and in ‘Game of Thrones’.

‘Doctor Who’ is a production where the masculinity of the lead character has been a key element for over fifty years. I enjoy and support modern productions with strong female leads. But after enjoying ‘Doctor Who’ for several decades of my life I like to feel I am still dealing with the same lead character. That has me a little uncertain about the recent announcement.


58 comments

  1. diannaart

    I confess to feeling ambivalent about change of sex for the good Doctor.

    Now it has happened and I am relieved – Time Lords are fluid; they can regenerate as anything – keeping the character male, is just anachronistic.

    Also I believe Jodie Whittaker will be excellent – she is a superb actor.

  2. havanaliedown

    The decision must have been a Political Correctness minefield – stand by for the backlash that the Doctor is not a Muslim Woman, and the Tardis hasn’t been declared a Mosque. Heads will roll (pun not intended). Jasmin Abdel-whatsername must sort the BBC out as her first order of business. Do you think we should warn them?

  3. LOVO

    It sure is gunna confuse the f### out of the Daleks and the Cybermen…..and what if the Master takes a shine to the new Dr??? 😯 … ?
    My head hurts….. ?

  4. Zoltan Balint

    Dr Who … ??? … Masculine … what have you been watching. I think she is a perfect replacement and looks like she has the ba&^ for it.

  5. Kim Kucera

    Think this sad backward looking article was totally unnecessary frankly. It’s time for a change. Nothing remains the same and frankly, it will give the show a real boost and open up many different nuances of story line. Jodie Whitakker is a terrific actor and will make a great Doctor. Havanaliedown – shame on you for your hurtful and thoughtless jibe.

  6. Tristan Ewins

    I’m sure Jodie Whitakker is a terrific actor, Kim ; I suppose what I mean to say is that Doctor Who is an iconic series and the character is an iconic character ; and when you change such formulas radically there then something is lost. I love Sci Fi and Fantasy series with strong female leads ; The most recent Star Wars movies featured new characters there hence not the same controversy ; but the ‘maleness’ of The Doctor has been part of that character’s identity for over 50 years. It just seems a bit hard to believe that the Doctor’s gender could change for the first time after over 50 years since the show began. Its nothing against strong female Sci-Fi leads at all ; Just something specific to Doctor Who. But I hope Whittaker makes it work.

  7. wam

    I thought that I was au fait with racism/sexism. In my arrogance I thought when Aboriginal actor didn’t play an Aborigine that would mean Australian entertainment would be of age.
    When my grandson came up from vic for the holidays we watched merlin. Angel coulby plays gwenivere. I was shocked to think ‘I didn’t know gwenivere was black, I saw colour not character. Will we see a woman not the doctor???

  8. Jan

    Anyone who is upset because of the gender change needs to rewatch ‘Deep Breath’ and learn Claras lesson.

  9. Matt

    Tristan,

    I confess, I feel the same way. Not saying that Jodie will not not do a good job, but it is not about this. Will King Arthur be reinvented as Queen Artus? Where does this reinventing of our stories and fables end? Not only must we deal with our city and suburbs being reshaped and turned in something unrecognisable from our youth, also our popular stories and the shared history of two generations is to be changed into something quite different. I am not against change, and I think there is a lot of good change that could still happen, but is there no stone to be left unturned in the rescripting of humanity?

    And what does it say for boys if their role models suddenly switch gender? Who should they look to? How would women and girls react if one of their more popular role models suddenly switched gender?

    Sorry for those whom I know will attack me as backward, sexist, whatever, but unless you want to exist in an echo chamber, then I am afraid you will have to allow voices and opinions like mine.

    Matt

  10. helvityni

    Oh dear, Matt, what about progress, doing things better, improving the place we live in…?

    I don’t watch Dr Who, I assumed it was a children’s show…?

    Would it not be fantastic, if a black/ brown woman became Dr Who.. I’m sure that kids of colour would be delighted, and feel included, to be part of a truly multi-cultural society.

  11. paulwalter

    I kinda get Tristan on this. It could have been tried ten, fifteen years ago, when I thought they were flirting with the idea of Billie Piper going Doctor, which would have been imaginative.

    Perhaps even earlier with the original, after Tom Baker or Peter Davidson, with a more orthodox “strong” actor, a Maggie smith type. As it is you suspect JK Rawlings maybe got the idea and transplanted it to Harry Potter, perhaps beating Dr Who to the punch.

    But we shall see. Some of the recent Doctors have explored youth, so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

  12. Matt

    helvityni

    “what about progress, doing things better, improving the place we live in…?”

    All for progress, if it is actual progress – but in what some call “progress” I can see also much destruction. (as per: https://vimeo.com/128428182)

    I can think of many ways we could improve the way we live – eg: more permaculture for starters, less cars and trucks and dangerous fumes – but I am sorry I cannot see a female doctor as evidence for, or movement towards, improvement. However, it is what it is, and those running the series can do what they want, I may even like what they do, but all the same I cannot help feeling that something has been lost in the transformation.

    Matt

  13. stephengb2014

    Neve mind the bollocks – ots a tv sci fi show originally meant for kids, and actually it still is.

  14. helvityni

    Matt, I see it as progress when a woman can be anything that a man can; women are people too and ought to be treated as equals to men…

    They should be accepted as country’s leaders, in any profession/job: car mechanics, doctors, even as a Dr Who… 🙂 if they so wish.

    We chased a smart engineer girl ,like Yassmin, out of the country because of her colour and religion, Gillard was called Bob Brown’s Bitch, we have a long way to go…

  15. Matt

    helvityni

    I am not denying the end, only the means.

    Matt

  16. Matt

    helvityni

    I should add that your concept of progress seems rather narrow – there are many other areas of improvement needed of equal – or dare I say – of perhaps more – importance. Refugees in detention, wars in Syria and other places, destruction of our natural environment, homelessness in Australia – all these are areas where ‘progress’ could be, and desperately needs to be made.

    Matt

  17. helvityni

    You obviously do not read my posts; I advocate improving our educational systems, I drive people nuts by my concern for badly treated asylum seekers, I’m angry that our government does not seem to get that CC is real, I recycle ,re-use, I plant trees, I want affordable housing for our young people, I’d love better transport systems, better, fairer treatment for our backpackers, I expect Oz to finally approve of SSM… I want progress in many areas…I don’t like the Coalition idea of taking us back to Howard’s good old days…

    I could add plenty, but Jack Russel is telling me: time for walk…

  18. jimhaz

    I personally did not think much of the last series. Peter Capaldi was simply not likable enough, and I didn’t like some of the directors.

    I’m expecting the female Dr Who series to be a similar dud. Now they are running out of good story lines, it is convenience to make the Dr female. Kind of to be expected in this overdone PCist world.

  19. paulwalter

    Why does the Doctor have to be “likeable”.

    Old Bill Hartnell was as unlikable as you could meet, yet here we are fifty years on and he is still the most remembered of the Doctors

  20. diannaart

    PW

    Depends upon when one enters the Dr Who universe. For younger fans the most remembered could range from Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, David Tennant…

    The point that soars over the heads of the traditionalists (I could use other terms, but am feeling kind) Gallifreyans, the race of Time Lords from planet Gallifrey, can regenerate as either sex. For example, the Master regenerated as the Mistress or Missy. There is nothing in the story line which states that Dr Who must always regenerate as male.

    As Paul Walter noted, there have been experiments with youthful Dr Who’s, so why not female, Asian, African maybe there could be a bogan Dr Who?
    😛

    The universe offers infinite possibilities for those with enough imagination and altruism.

  21. Zoltan Balint

    Have you ever noticed that Dr Who never had a girlfriend. At his/her age he/she might want to finally have a partner and thus had to reveal true nature so it is not a shock.

  22. jimhaz

    [Old Bill Hartnell was as unlikable as you could meet, yet here we are fifty years on and he is still the most remembered of the Doctor]

    Not for me. David Tennant, Matt Smith, Christopher Eccleston were the best, with Tom Baker from the older days. Yes, and I like attractive companions like Billy Piper and Jenna Coleman.

    Lol…nowadays I suppose a remake of I Dream of Jeannie, would have her as a trannie.

  23. paulwalter

    Diannart’s point concerning reproductiive processes involving the folk from Gallifrey clinches it.

    Jimhaz, no. I didn’t say he was the best, but the most remembered. Personally he and Patrick Troughton remain in my memory, although Jon Pertwee also figures for his painstaking earnestness.

    Most of the rest have been pretty fair also although I think it got a bit stale from about the mid eighties.

  24. havanaliedown

    Perhaps in this series, Davros could design a stair-climbing Dalek. That would be inescapable. No dual citizenship issues to worry about either!

  25. diannaart

    Zoltan

    Yes, I have noticed… given the series commenced just after mid last century, as a children’s program…

    Besides, wouldn’t a being who can regenerate into either sex, be:

    a) Asexual

    b) Homosexual

    c) Bi-sexual

    d) Heterosexual

    Or a mix of all the above?

    In conclusion, I don’t see what the problem is, I started out as a sceptic, however, seeing the comments so outraged at the idea of Dr Who being a woman, I am now firmly in support of the change, may we have more changes reflective of the diverse world we live in.

    One day the bits between your legs won’t be the measure of the person you are.

  26. diannaart

    @ havana

    Daleks can levitate, do try to keep up.

  27. Zoltan Balint

    Think about it Dr Who started dealing with humans when females either made tea or babies and she was saving the universe but had to deal with … men. It is only these days she might be taken seriously.

  28. diannaart

    Zoltan

    Thank you for making my point.

    😉

  29. havanaliedown

    Be fair, I stopped watching it after the John Pertwee Doctor was “recycled” or whatever they call it on Gallifrey: “Written Out Due To Asking For Too-High A Pay Rise During Contract Re-Negotiations”… sometime in the 70s.

    I recall being genuinely terrified by some episodes as a young-un. The mutant monster-men from the sea, and the humanoids that would break down into chaotic stringy masses. Even some episodes of Lost In Space were quite scary before they really camped up the villainous Communist Spy Dr. Smith (see the Pilot episode) into a purely comedic figure.

  30. Zoltan Balint

    Diannaart the bits between … will always matter but the significance depends on your prospective.

  31. Zoltan Balint

    Fancy remembering that Smith was a spy put in to sabotage the ship havanaliedown, either you are regressing or you have a very very good memory. DANGER danger …

  32. Matt

    Diannart,

    “Besides, wouldn’t a being who can regenerate into either sex, be:

    a) Asexual

    b) Homosexual

    c) Bi-sexual

    d) Heterosexual

    Or a mix of all the above?

    One day the bits between your legs won’t be the measure of the person you are.”

    Yes, quite right. So why don’t they make a series of “Zena Warrior Prince” – whereby the Princess gender-transitions into a man – it is just just fiction after all – anything can happen? Or why not Wonder-woman as a transgender man? Really if gender doesn’t matter/shouldn’t matter at all ….

  33. diannaart

    Zoltan… depends upon my prospective???

    Well my perspective is that genitals should not matter any more than skin colour.

    @ Matt

    So why don’t they make a series of “Zena Warrior Prince”

    Why don’t you get active, Matt? We don’t have nearly enough males on TV, film, politics, business… All those female sporting heroes taking up all the time in the spotlight, it just isn’t good enough. Or, perhaps you could campaign for Turnbull to get a sex-change. It is all up to you Matt.

  34. diannaart

    havana

    I stopped watching it after the John Pertwee Doctor was “recycled” or whatever they call it on Gallifrey…

    Perhaps if you do not know much about topic you should refrain from commenting?

  35. Zoltan Balint

    If you go to the libraary you don’t have to read the book to determine if you will borrow it if you go the cake shop you do not eat the cake before you decide to purchase it.

  36. Zoltan Balint

    Diannaart the bits are relevant and necessary depending on the story you want to tell.

  37. Kronomex

    If the Master can become Missy then why can’t the Doctor become the Doctorette, figuratively speaking?

  38. Zathras

    For all you completeists out there, the first female Doctor Who was in fact Joanna Lumley, from a 1999 comedy special called “Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who:_The_Curse_of_Fatal_Death

    The Doctor started as Rowan Atkinson and then changed to Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent and then Hugh Grant before “he” became Joanna.

    It was quite amusing – but not as funny as how serious some reactions have been about Jodie’s appointment.

  39. Matt

    Diannart,

    re ” It is all up to you Matt.”

    Well there are plenty of opportunities to create new female characters, surely reinventing – what many see as somewhat tired – old themes does the women’s movement less credit than creating new ones. i.e just making their mark by co-opting/imitating existing male roles.

    It certainly is not up to me, as I am not the one pushing for these changes – indeed I am not even sure what is being pushed for – surely the onus is on those who want change to be creative about it? What I see with a female Doctor Who is not change so much as imitation. I would however, be very happy to see more variations of male role models of a desirable sort – i.e not the psychopathic, ‘die-hard’ bloodly minded men we often see. I certainly am sick of the “John Wayne’ and ‘Bruce Willis’ male role model, that is one reason why I think so many boys and men liked Doctor Who, he was a bit wossey compared to many other models of the 80’s etc. Thus I believe it would also be good to have more positive role models, but I would hope that there is some thought about what is a good role model for a women, and not just attempts to replicate male role models. In that sense, I think Doctor Who is probably a better choice than most, but I would prefer even more a new creative character. I have seen some very good one’s in recent series like the 100, and this is a better path I feel.

    Matt

  40. diannaart

    Matt

    Some roles are sacrosanct, for example, James Bond. Others, such as in an evolving story line such as Doctor Who can have all kinds of different main leads.

    I am disappointed, but not surprised, that so many men are against changes to characters. Although it is heartening to read those who understand that particular stories can include change.

    You may well get your “more creative character” in the next Doctor Who series, assuming Jodie Whittaker is not inspiring enough. I haven’t liked all the DR Who characters either; in fact after Tom Baker left (whom I adored) I did not return until Christopher Eccleston began the reinvented Dr Who series.

    Although, as a rusted on fan, I have kept up to date with the many incarnations of Who.

    😀

  41. Matt

    Diannart,

    Yes, well lets see what they do with it – there certainly are some very talented script writers out there (amongst all the average ones) and the Brits in general tend to have more subtley than the yanks. I just hope for poor Jodie’s sake that they are not reyling simply on the female Doctor as a gimmick to make up for a good character and a good story line.

    Matt

  42. diannaart

    Women are not gimmicks to substitute for good story line or character.

    News flash, women make up 50% of the human species – here’s a suggestion, next time you comment on women, substitute the word ‘black’, for example:

    I just hope for poor Jodie’s sake that they are not reyling (sic) simply on the black Doctor as a gimmick to make up for a good character and a good story line.

  43. jimhaz

    I have no desire to see women become like men – but a female Dr Who is better than many of the ultra macho female leads we are seeing of late.

    There is probably room on TV for a Dr Womb 🙂 (if you say it fast enough it sounds like Dr Whom).

  44. helvityni

    There are many strong women in powerful positions, who have kept their femineity; just because women ares powerful, it does not mean they turn into men…Many French women have this skill/talent, and I don’t see Angela Merkel as blokey..

    As for Dr Who being male or female, who bloody cares… 🙂

  45. diannaart

    helvityni

    Many men equate strength with masculinity – and that remains their problem.

    As for Who cares about Dr Who, why fans of course… 🙂

  46. Matt

    Diannart,

    If you read what I said was that I hoped they were NOT using it as gimmick. A little charity in your interpretation of things would be appreciated!

    Matt

  47. diannaart

    I am sure you hope non-white people are NOT used for gimmicks either.

    As for me giving you some “charity” – why should I? You clearly are dismayed by the appointment of a female Dr Who, so state it and give good reasons, not just that a female actor would be some sort of gimmick.

    If you wish to bang on about Dr Who lacking character or story lines because of the introduction of a lead female, you are free to do so.

    I have presented my case clearly, unambiguously and justifiably and am finished with this argument.

  48. Roswell

    It’s quite possible that I’m the only person on the planet who has never watched an episode of Dr Who. I thus rule myself out as a person who can offer any value to the discussion.

    However …

    I’m all for the best person being given the job. Any job. No matter if that person is male, female, or extraterrestrial. ?

    So if the best person to play the new Dr Who is a woman, then I applaud it.

  49. Zoltan Balint

    Roswell – that’s what started all this, WHO is best for IT !!!!!! It’s like suggesting to some men that their dog should be castrated because it’s too agresiv.

  50. helvityni

    Rosswell, no, you are not the only one, I saw a part of one episode many years ago, younger family members were watching it…

  51. Christian Marx

    I have to agree. But those obsessed with identity politics have called me a sexist pig. This is what disgusts me about some sections of the left.
    More concerned with identity politics than economic inequality. Overly politically correct lunatics, imo.

  52. Zoltan Balint

    Dear dear … Marx – pull up your trousers you under garments are showing. I do have to question your sense of direction as I do not believe that I would call Tonny Abbott from the left after all the names and things he called Gillard and after the very clear and gracious way Malcolm accepted his victory last election calling Bill things. I had the idea that those individuals are from the right and the right employ derogatory arguments (attacking the individual) rather that explaining their point of view, thus exposing their stupidity. You would not be one of those f $#@ wits would you ??? And as such why use the Cuban symbal. So many question so much I do not give a bloody f$#@ what your problem is.

  53. silkworm

    Matt: “… all the same I cannot help feeling that something has been lost in the transformation.”

    A penis?

  54. Matt

    Diannart,

    The later post was not about Dr Who but your attack on me, which is a common feature of your argumentative style – it is called ‘ad hominem’ – attacking the man rather than the argument. And your intolerance is now showing again. You earlier gave some examples of how you interpreted my comment, allow me to give this one:

    “I really hope Apple is not luring people to its factories simply to exploit them” – Using your interpretive logic, this would mean I regard people as things to be exploited. You can read whatever you want into what people say, but it does make you right.

    Furthermore, I should point out that throughout the rise of capitalism women HAVE been used as gimmick – or at least womens’ bodies have – again and again to manipulate to exploit men – or men’s weaknesses. Look at the sensual imagery everyone. This also is not charitable, and to say the participants selling out in this way share no blame I think is a distortion.

    Silkworm,

    That is your take on my comment, not mine. If you think being a man is just about having a penis, then I am sorry for you and your narrowness. The truth is that men and women are different, that cannot be ignored. Boys are not going to connect to a female role model as they do to a male one.

  55. corvus boreus

    I believe that this is the 13th (canonical) regeneration of the good Doctor, a number which has been cited in early seasons as the number of ‘morphs’ allotted in the lifespan of a Time-Lord/Lady.
    Purely speculative hypothesis, but, given that the Master also recently sex-changed into the Mistress, it is possible that Gallifreyans alter their gender when assuming their final bodily form.

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