Doctor Who revealed their casting of a female Doctor in July last year. I’m sure, Whovian or not, you’ll join me in my reaction: “about time”. Finally, the BBC show has broken the metaphorical glass TARDIS. Jodie Whittaker stepped into the time-traveller’s shoes after Peter Capaldi bowed out of the role in this year’s Christmas Special.
Not only did the twelfth Doctor (Capaldi) regenerate, but his companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), as well as the latest incarnation of his arch-nemesis The Master, Missy (Michelle Gomez), have also waved goodbye to the show. The Christmas Special marked the end of an era for Doctor Who, with show-runner Steven Moffat handing the reins to Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall.
“the audience have been carefully prepped for a female Doctor…”
Regeneration – a shake-up of the show’s cast and crew every now and then – is the key to the show’s 54-year run. It keeps Doctor Who fresh and bold and exciting. A female Doctor is certainly all these things, but this good news hasn’t popped up out of nowhere. For the past seven years, the audience have been carefully prepped for a female Doctor through the creation of other female characters similar in power and authority to the Doctor.
The enigmatic time-traveller River Song (Alex Kingston) was quickly established as an equal to the Doctor. Not only is she part-human, part-Timelady, she also leads a similar life to the Doctor’s, frequently breaking out of jail and flying off on adventures across space and time.
River, like the Doctor, runs a lot. She runs away from those who would entrap her, whether it be her childhood demons, her jailors or anything in the entire cosmos. Her narrative is one of free-will. She continually escapes from monsters and life-threatening situations due to her fierce intelligence, her insatiable appetite for mischief and her absolute refusal to be boxed in by anyone’s wishes but her own.
In terms of television representation, her character defies the misogynistic idea that the lives of women over 40 are unworthy of interest. Whilst River is a couple of hundred years old, Alex Kingston was in her forties when cast. Mass media would also have you believe that women of a certain age are sexless, but River embraces her sexuality with confidence: she flirts voraciously and enjoys multiple romances on- and off-screen with men and women (and potentially androids).
Another two actresses over 40, Jemma Redgrave and Michelle Gomez, were cast in roles that weren’t just ‘mother of so and so’. In a brilliant change of status quo, when the alien-battling military organisation UNIT made a reappearance in series 7 and 8, it was populated by female scientists and soldiers and led by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). Prior to this, UNIT had been a patriarchal institution throughout Doctor Who’s history.
Similarly, the role of the Master, the Doctor’s childhood friend turned evil genius, was historically male. The greatest gamble in Doctor Who’s lifetime – before Jodie Whittaker – came in series 8 when Michelle Gomez’s mysterious character was revealed as the Master, now renamed Missy. Would the audience accept a woman in such an iconic role? It sounds like a silly question, but it was a real one. Gomez’s casting was the ground-breaking confirmation that Timelords – that the Doctor – could change gender.
For the writers, Missy was the test-case for a female doctor. It was a success. Michelle Gomez was lauded for her magnificent performances, earning comparisons to the Master’s first incarnation, played by fan-favourite Roger Delgado. A female Master proved no less menacing, and no less complex a foil for the Doctor, with series 9 exploring Missy’s guilt for her past evil deeds and her choice to stand with the Doctor before her death.
Moreover, Steven Moffat’s run as head-writer saw the Doctor’s female companions gain new levels of agency than their predecessors. The character of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) in particular eschewed any notion of ‘the damsel in distress’ trope. Not only did she save the Doctor’s life multiple times, she frequently assumed his role, notably impersonating him in the episode ‘Flatline’, and her face replaced the twelfth Doctor’s in the opening credit sequence of series finale ‘Death in Heaven’.
In her final episode, she practically became the Doctor. She was given an immortal lifespan, her own TARDIS and companion, Me (Maisie Williams), another immortal, and flew off to explore the universe. In a reversal of Donna Noble’s storyline, Clara retained her agency, insisting that her adventures were hers to remember, while in a tragic twist of events, the Doctor forgot who she was instead.
“Feminism is not feminism if it does not include women of all ages, sexualities and ethnicities”
Another example of female agency in Doctor Who is Bill Potts, the Doctor’s companion for series 10. In the finale, after years of entrapment in a cyberman factory where she was converted to one of the machines, she regained her identity and independence, and chose to leave the Doctor to journey the stars with Heather (Stephanie Hyam), her crush from the opening of the series.
Pearl Mackie’s casting was a huge leap forward in terms of progressiveness. She is the second female companion of colour and the first openly gay full-time companion. Her sexuality was never her defining trait, but it also was never skated over. Bill’s attraction to women was frequently mentioned and she shared with Heather the first solely romantic lesbian kiss on the show.
“The increase in diversity … is simply a reflection of real life”
Feminism is not feminism if it does not include women of all ages, sexualities and ethnicities. Doctor Who has greatly improved in representing older women and non-straight women. It has made slower steps with representing women of colour and has a lot more to take, but it is on the right track – a woman of colour, Mandip Gill, is set to play one of the thirteenth Doctor’s companions.
The increase in the diversity of Doctor Who’s casting is not the show trying to pander to ideas of ‘political correctness’. It is simply a reflection of real life. The succession of thirteen white men as a character with limitless power and knowledge is not a natural occurrence. It reflects sexist societal ideas of who should power in the world, and who still do.
The Doctor is a character who again and again surpasses the boundaries of time and space. Doctor Who is a show which has, in recent years, surpassed sexist norms in television. Jodie Whittaker’s casting signals another feminist leap forward in the Whoniverse. In the future, I would love to see an older woman or a woman of colour as the Doctor.
Whittaker’s casting gives me great hope that the future is, at least for Doctor Who, female.