I’m the co-host of a Doctor Who podcast called The Ood Cast.
We make up stupid sketches and parody songs about the the show — our mission statement is to try and “express the joy and chaotic glory of Doctor Who through laughter, rhyme and song”. That sounds a little corporate, it’s not like we had an AGM about it or anything — we’re fans, we’re writers and at least one of us has a beautiful singing voice, that’s about as far as planning the concept went.
What it means in practice, however, is that we’re less a review show and more a exuberant cheering squad for the myriad pleasures of watching our favourite Time Lord in action. It’s not like we’re blind to the programme’s faults and frequent inconsistencies, it’s just that we love it too much to care.
Of course, we are by no means the only podcast to take this tack but the Ood Cast has absolutely allied itself with the vast majority of DW fandom — the makers and the dreamers, the cos-players and the shippers — the people who draw unalloyed pleasure from this fantastical world of whimsy, intellect and compassion.
Recording the podcast means that we’ve become a sort of nexus point for the some of the progressive elements of Doctor Who fandom. I’m so proud of this connection — the feminists, the liberals, the LGBTQIA community — a diverse assortment of races, backgrounds and identities who all find something unique and comforting in the story of a pacifist alien genius who walks in eternity.
When Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th incarnation of the Doctor, our little fan community went wild. It was the news we’d all been waiting for — finally the series had delivered on a promise it had been hinting at for years — Time Lords could change their gender expression via regeneration, the Doctor was a woman. Break out the Gallifreyan wine and light the TARDIS blue touch paper.
(Before I go any further, I just want to say that I’m now going to try and talk about the way we treat women in popular culture. Now obviously diversity and representation are subjects that go far beyond this— race, sexuality, non-binary gender identity to name a few. I believe that the entire gamut of human experience has a right to be represented in our culture. More than that I think we have an obligation to make that happen. They are all super important issues and worthy of further discussion, they just lay outside of the scope of this particular article.)
Back to the announcement: I was over-joyed. I don’t think I realised just how much it would affect me — I felt giddy with excitement. I giggled out loud. And yet at the back of my mind lurked a dark shadow I couldn’t quite banish.
My guilty ignominy. My secret shame.
For years I had found the idea of a female Doctor laughable.
There’s evidence of this in the Ood Cast actually. During one early episode of our spoof quiz, The Regeneration Game, I ask my wife, Laura, the following question:
“Time Lords can regenerate into Time Ladies? True or False.”
And when she joyfully crows “It’s true, it’s true — I’ve seen it happen” I immediately verbally slap her down with a terse “No it’s false, minus one point”.
I even took points away from her, guys. I wasn’t messing around.
I honestly find it hard to listen to now.
So OBVIOUSLY I was making a stupid joke (and for long-term fans this was before mention of the Corsair made gender-swapped regenerations cannon), I wouldn’t normally be so rude to my favourite person in the whole world. I was playing the part of a gruff quiz-master for comedy effect. But the fact remains that I truly believed that a female Doctor was a bad idea.
For the record, I’m going to try and articulate why.
The Doctor is that rarest of male role models — a hero who relies on intellect and charm over physical prowess and the ability to punch things a lot. The patriarchy cuts both ways (although far from equally) and it’s hard growing up male-identifying when all the men you’re meant to look up to are emotionally-repressed, aggressive and physically-spectacular. Especially if you are inclined to burst into tears at a moment’s provocation, love to write bad poetry and are a little too fond of cake and not moving very much.
For me the Doctor was everything I aspired to be — funny, eccentric, brilliant and generous. He was my platonic ideal of the man I wanted to become. I used to walk around school with my hands clasped behind my back like Peter Davison’s Doctor. I made my own sonic screwdriver. As I grew up he was my totem, my yard stick. I didn’t want him taken away from me. I didn’t want to have to choose between James Bond (sad, broken, emotionally-unavailable) and Batman (sad, broken, emotionally-unavailable, lived in a cave).
But then something happened that changed my mind; changed my mind so completely that I am now the 13th Doctor’s most fervent and committed champion. I wanted to write this article because I feel like it’s worth explaining this revelation in detail. I don’t claim to have made these steps forward all on my own, some very kind and very patient women gave up their time to slowly walk me through the finer details. The most I can say about my own contribution is that I was willing to listen. Someone once said that to listen well you need to do so with the possibility of having your mind changed. I hope that’s a skill we’re all happy to try and cultivate?
Growing up, popular culture constantly told me that I could be anything I wanted to be — a leader, a scientist, a hero, a warrior, a lover, a champion, an artist — someone who could change the world. I was validated and encouraged at every turn. Someone of my gender was the star of every TV series, every book, every film. By contrast, I was constantly expected to view women as trophies and victims, there to get killed or kissed in order to provide some narrative impetus to the male lead. What I’ve come to understand, in some small measure, is the flip side of that equation — what must it be like to grow up seeing your gender reflected back at you from almost every screen and page as extraneous to the real action?
Our films, our television series, our comic books — these are the stories we tell ourselves to define who we are. What happens there tends to spill over into real life where it is picked up and folded back into fiction in a never-ending cycle of reinforcement. We can see the results of this at every level of society. Most people know the old riddle about the surgeon who refuses to operate on a young boy saying “I can’t. He’s my son.” and yet it’s medically proven that the surgeon is not the boy’s father.
What’s the simplest solution? Altogether now — SHE’S HIS MOTHER. The Doctor is a woman. How very apt. But the fact that so many of us — male, female or non-binary — take more than a few seconds to work that out is telling. Our innate gender bias is virtually invisible at this point. Other problems are less subtle, like the fact there is still a substantial wage gap between men and women working similar jobs or the fact that, to pick a creative profession at random, male film directors at the highest level outnumber female directors by a ratio of 19 to 1. There are many countries in the world where women still aren’t allowed to own property, let alone vote. From Gamergate to victim blaming to abortion rights — at some point you just have to accept that your outward gender expression will greatly affect your lived experience of the world around you.
Of course there are countless brilliant women that rally against all this bullshit and refuse to fit into anything resembling a societally-dictated box but the question is — why does mainstream culture require them to fight so hard in the first place?
As the 13th Doctor was announced, I was at my sister’s house with my niece who is 4. Before she started pre-school Emily’s favourite colour was green and she wanted to be a knight when she grew up. But all it took was a few weeks outside the carefully-curated bubble that my sister had built for her to start conforming to societal norms. Now she dresses as a princess and her room is festooned in pink. Granted, on the day I was there, she also had a police walkie talkie and was playing a game where she was a sort of a princess-turned-law-enforcement officer (she is awesome) but I think my point still stands. There’s nothing wrong with pink, or indeed being a princess, but it didn’t seem like it was wholly her decision, it was more like a switch had been flipped for her — time to be what we expect you to be.
That’s why a female Doctor is so important — to let our young women know that from the very earliest age, they have options, as many options as the boys do. Sure, they can be a princess and sit in a tower and get rescued, it might be exactly what they want. But it’s not their ONLY option. They can be the knight who does the rescuing, the crazy inventor who creates the fireball cross-bow that defeats the dragon, the gourmet chef who cooks food that no-one’s even thought of before. And they can be the Doctor — the smartest and funniest person in any room in the universe, an enigma, a protector — a creature of moment and stardust.
Yes, it’s just a TV show — but, and I know I’m repeating myself, popular culture doesn’t live in a vacuum, it has a symbiotic relationship with our dreams and our dreams in turn are the leverage that allow us to change reality.
Some people might argue that making the Doctor female is just another example of the problematic trope whereby female super heroes are, more often than not, just feminine versions of established male characters — Batgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman etc— but I think this misses the point. Doctor Thirteen isn’t a female version of the Doctor.
She is the Doctor.
Sure, she’ll be as different to Capaldi as Troughton was to Hartnell but that’s nothing new. That’s the lifeblood of the show. All these people claiming that this regeneration is going to kill off Doctor Who, that seems insane to me — it’s going to do the exact opposite, it’ll do what every regeneration does — it’ll create new stories to tell, new roads to travel, new perspectives and new adventures. It’ll save the show. As it always does. You don’t get to be a 54 year old TV series and still one of the most popular and talked about shows in the world without constantly renewing yourself to reflect what’s going on around you.
I’ve seen other people argue that it would be far better to create a new show with a kickass female lead then simply change the gender of an established intellectual property. My answer is we need to do both. Sure, write that series (perhaps it could be about a brilliant fairytale princess turned hard-nosed investigator who uses her animal friends as snitches and informants to clean up the mean streets of Sparkleville?) BUT also let’s do this — let’s take one of the BBC’s flagship shows and put a woman front and centre every week. It isn’t the same as starting a new female-led show, and don’t pretend that it is — new shows are two-a-penny, they’re everywhere and virtually none of them make a dent in the public consciousness. Taking a risk with a national institution is the ultimate act of bravery and should be applauded — when did being safe and repetitive become a better creative strategy than being bold and interesting?
I want to say at this point that if your objection to Whittaker being cast is that you don’t enjoy her work or that you think another white person at the controls of the TARDIS is disappointing then I understand completely. I’m not saying there aren’t extremely valid reasons for not being excited at the news — we still have a long way to go.
But to all the men and women who think this is a horrible idea purely because she doesn’t have a Y chromosome, I want to say that I don’t think you are, as some commentators have suggested, screaming babies whinging that things need to be done exactly as they’ve always been done.
I promise you, I really don’t.
I thought the same way for years. I’d be hypocritical to judge you. But I do think you need to consider why you’re so angry at the idea and be honest with yourself about the reasons. Are you upset that it’ll be harder to relate to the character for a while? Do you feel it’s a betrayal of your childhood? I don’t have a good answer to any of that but what gives me hope is the idea that my niece will grow up in a world where she knows she has every right to be the Doctor. There’s a good chance that ultimately that won’t mean anything to her personally… but to some young woman somewhere — the universe just opened up like a star map.
And knowing that means the world to me. To the fan I was and to the fan I’ve become.
This isn’t the end of the journey, but it’s another step — it’s the lightsaber flying into Rey’s hands, it’s Holtzmann being as smart as Spengler and as funny as Venkman, it’s Issa Rae on HBO and Melissa McCarthy on SNL and Tina Fey on every goddamn thing she touches being incredible comedians and performers and writers. Things are starting to change, there’s a momentum growing and that’s a good thing, I promise.
And if you really can’t get behind this, if, after properly considering the positive impact it might have, you still find yourself starting sentences with “I’m not being sexist but…” then perhaps the show just isn’t for you anymore? That’s fine. We’ll miss you but if you still long for big action-packed stories anchored by brilliant white dudes, you’ll have to make do with Superman, James Bond, Batman, Malcolm Reynolds, Deadpool, Spider-man, three quarters of the A-Team, James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Peter Venkman & Egon Spengler & Ray Stantz, Captain Jack Harkness, John McClane, Rambo, Peter Pan, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Kerr Avon, Rick Deckard, Emmet Brown & Marty McFly, Fox Mulder, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Neo, Judge Dredd, Harry Potter, Dream of the Endless, Willy Wonka, Gandalf, any of the Bagginses, Spider Jerusalem, The Terminator, Angel, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, John Carter, Conan the Barbarian, the Master Chief (presumably),Tony Stark, Link, Nathan Drake, Asterix, Mario, Riddick, MacGyver, Michael Knight, Alex Murphy, Klaatu, Seth Brundle, Mad Max Rockatansky, Tron, Zed (god help us), Roy Neary, Bernard Quatermass, Snake Plissken, The Man with No Name, Rocky, Shaun Riley, Steve Rogers, Buzz Lightyear & Woody, He-Man, Maximus Decimus Meridius, Peter Quill, The Dude, Indiana Jones and … I don’t know … 840 episodes of a male Doctor spread over 276 stories and 36 seasons.
I think this casting is an important and brilliant decision, but don’t take my word for it — there are a bunch of amazing and eloquent women who have written beautiful words on the subject. Check out Una McCormack over at The Conversation or Sarah Agnew or Nyssa1968 or this young fan direct to camera.
When characters from an underrepresented group start appearing in mainstream culture, there’s a well documented route those characters take — first they appear mysterious and untrustworthy, then they’re allowed to be pathetic victims, then the pendulum swings entirely the other way and they are depicted as angelic creatures, too good or too pure for the world. Only then, after they have jumped through all those hoops, are they allowed to be fully realised human beings, unique in all their flaws and wonders.
For me, the Doctor is the ultimate flawed wonder. She is an icon. She isn’t human and yet she’s the best of us.
She’s like fire and ice and rage. She’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. She’s ancient and forever. She burns at the centre of time and she can see the turn of the universe.
And … she’s wonderful.