When the Doctor was Me
I’ve been a long-time fan of Doctor Who since long before it was cool. I started watching the adventures of the 4th Doctor back when I was 9 or 10 years old in the late 1970s. I followed him through his 5th, 6th, and 7th incarnations and also at some point caught up on Doctors 1 through 3. When the show went off the air, I followed the Doctor’s adventures through books and audio adventures. I watched the 8th Doctor’s television movie in 1996, and have followed every episode of the show since it’s revival in 2005. Doctor Who and one other show, Knight Rider, were defining and pivotal shows of my youth that have forever had an impact on my life and values. Doctor Who fights injustice wherever he goes. He doesn’t use guns, but uses knowledge, intellect, and technology instead. Knight Rider was similar in its own way – fighting injustice with intellect and technology rather than guns.
When I saw Sunday’s announcement that the upcoming Doctor will be a woman, I’ll just be honest and say I have mixed feelings. I’m not in the camp that the Doctor shouldn’t be a woman at all, but I’m also not in the camp that the Doctor should be female solely in the interests of diversity and representation either. I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t feel that everyone against a female doctor is a misogynist bro-flake. In fact, some of my female friends also have mixed feelings about the Doctor being a woman. I don’t think everyone who wants a female Doctor is a left-wing, radical, hippie extremist either. I think some women want a Doctor who can be their own role model. As a male, I’ve experienced what it’s like for the Doctor to be like “me,” and I know many women want to have the same experience. The same could be said for folks of other ethnicities and backgrounds looking for regenerational representation.
The reasons for my mixed feelings are complex. Doctor Who has always been male and essentially British. In the classic series, the Timelords were portrayed as stuffy, traditional, and sexless, so the idea of them changing gender seems a bit of a stretch to me. It’s only been since Missy showed up a few seasons ago that we even got the idea that Timelords could regenerate into the other sex. I was actually rooting for her to be the Rani, a strong female villain Timelady who showed up a few times in the classic series. The Rani was a good character on her own, so why not take her character and run with it instead of taking a classically male character and turning him into her. In my own opinion, Missy would have worked much better as the Rani – everything from the life-after-death experiments from Season 8 to the fact that her character was more amoral than outright evil. The Doctor himself while being of the male gender, has mostly been portrayed as sexless, being above relationships and sexuality – whether by choice, temperament, or necessity. Sure there was once that fling with that Aztec woman in his first incarnation, the 8th Doctor’s kiss with Grace in the television movie, and many of the new companions such as Rose, Martha, and Amy have had crushes on the Doctor, but time and time again he’s deflected focus away from his own sexuality. There was also that dance between the 9th Doctor and Captain Jack. In the series, I’ve enjoyed a number of strong female companions – Romana (a Timelady of equal stature to the Doctor), Ace, Donna, Amy, Riversong, and others.
So why exactly do so many people want the Doctor to be female? I think essentially it comes down to the Doctor being like “me.” That’s also the reason so many folks want a female Doctor. Many of the female fans want a Doctor they can relate to and can internalize as a part of themselves (not to mention cosplay). The same applies to fans of color or other demographics. The Doctor’s regeneration has always been about change and about bringing in someone different (sometimes radically different) than the one before. We balance out old with young, reserved with brash, serious with fun, humble with self-important, and so on and so forth. In that tradition, it’s really not that big a stretch to replace male with female.
As much as I loved David Tennant and Matt Smith in the role, I’m actually glad they didn’t bring in yet another Tennant-Smith clone. Those two Doctors were more alike than different, especially in the way they looked. That said, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and even Christopher Eccleston drew in a larger female audience to the show, and many of those young women weren’t interested in being the Doctor per se. They wanted to date him. I won’t lie. As a gay man, I did my own swooning even though I never thought of the Doctor sexually or romantically in the classic series – Peter Davison maybe, but not so much the other Doctors. As a man, the Doctor could be me. As a gay man, the Doctor could also be that mysterious, handsome, heroic, and unavailable stranger I could crush on. The same reasons attracted many young straight women who joined the fandom, but they couldn’t claim a male Doctor was like them. Therein lies the problem.
When I saw the announcement for a female Doctor, my biggest fear is that I won’t be able to relate to her and also that many of the show’s straight male fans may have a harder time relating than I do. If male viewers start turning off the show, will there be enough viewers to keep it going. Also, will the many straight female viewers who called for a woman Doctor be disappointed that the Doctor is no longer crush worthy? I know I will be, but the Doctor remaining male doesn’t guarantee this. Look at the falling demographics under Peter Capaldi. He wasn’t as sexy as his recent predecessors. Many of the women who liked Tennant and Smith and the borderline romantic relationships they had with their female companions tuned out under an older Doctor. With a female Doctor, I hope we’ll at least have some cute male companions or go back to a larger TARDIS team that is both male and female.
The biggest problem to me isn’t whether the Doctor is male or female. It’s why there’s such a call for him to be female, a person of color, etc. For me on some level it just bothers me to start changing demographics on an iconic character. It bothered me in the 2008 Knight Rider remake when they allowed KITT to transform into a truck. I wasn’t bothered that the new KITT was a Ford Mustang and not a Pontiac Trans Am. With a car, it really isn’t about race or gender, though I do have to point out that KITT has always been black. Changing types of car was fine for me, but there was something about KITT being able to change into an F-150 pickup that just felt wrong somehow. I have the same feelings about making Doctor Who a woman, or when they made Starbuck a woman in the new Battlestar Galactica. To me, it was about taking an iconic character that I’d grown up with and making them into something they weren’t originally. At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised by the all-female Ghostbusters remake, and I was able to totally crush on Chris Hemsworth’s “Kevin” character in a way I really didn’t feel about anyone in the original Ghostbusters cast.
As I was saying, the problem isn’t the gender or color of the Doctor, but why there are so few iconic and successful shows featuring female characters (or characters of color). We had Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Charmed Sisters, Xena, Wonder Woman, Captain Janeway, and Agent Carter, but I really haven’t been able to think of that many sci-fi and fantasy shows that were carried by a central female character. The numbers are less when you start looking at spacefaring and time traveling heroines. Of course, the gender of these strong female characters was an important part of their charm. Buffy wouldn’t have been as strong or complex a character if she’d been male, Xena would have been just another sword and sandal warrior, the Halliwell sisters might not have cut it as brothers, and Wonder Woman wouldn’t be the same if she was a transgender male.
Instead of rewriting classic characters as someone of a different gender or color, why don’t we have more original female and ethnic characters leading their own shows? I thought Star Trek did this wonderfully with Star Trek Voyager. They didn’t remake Captain Kirk as a woman. They created a new show in the Star Trek universe with a strong, original female lead. I loved Voyager and Captain Janeway brought something to the franchise that wouldn’t be there if they’d simply recast Kirk as a woman. Deep Space Nine brought in a strong African American lead in the form of Commander Sisko. These characters added to the Star Trek universe and the unfolding Star Trek story in a way that recasting the original characters never could have done. The same could be done in the Whoniverse. I’d love to see the adventures of Romana in her own TARDIS, or what about Riversong, Clara and Me in their stolen TARDIS, or some of the other new series companions, or even classic series companions. I loved the Sarah Jane Adventures. Could something similar, but unique in its own right, be done with other female companions?
Regardless of the gender, race, age, or other characteristics of the Doctor, I will continue to watch the show and give each new actor / actress the chance to win me over. I’m looking forward to seeing what the new Doctor and the new producer bring to Doctor Who. Hopefully it will be something good.