A Doctor Who die hard on why the future is female.
“Is the future all girl?” asked the Master, the most evil man in the universe, upon learning he was destined to turn into a psychotic Mary Poppins impersonator in the not-too-distant future. A slight hint of disgust was discernible in the voice of the being who had slaughtered entire planets, burnt solar systems and pretended to be a scarecrow for an entire afternoon, just so he could swivel menacingly at an appropriately dramatic moment.
“We can only hope”, Peter Capaldi’s fabulously weary, conflicted Doctor replied, as if he couldn’t quite believe that even his arch-nemesis could be so gauche.
Who, in the fabulously romantic, progressive scientific rationalist world of Doctor Who, could get so upset about a thing like gender?
Yes, the new Doctor is “all girl”. A mere 31 years after the show’s nominal creator Sydney Newman proposed the idea as part of a shake-up for the then-struggling sci-fi series, actor Jodie Whittaker (perhaps most memorable for doing lots of very upset jogging in Broadchurch) will become the 13th Doctor when Capaldi hangs up his sonic shades and attack eyebrows for good this Christmas. And you shouldn’t really be remotely surprised.
Star Trek may have nabbed television’s first interracial kiss, but it’s Who that’s always been the subversive, boundary pushing voice in sci-fi.
While any programme that’s existed since 1963 will tend to rack up a few cringey problematic moments in its history (“Now go and make some tea while I think of something” the second Doctor once advised companion Polly in the middle of a Cyberman attack) at its core the show has always had an element of anti-establishment, liberal snark. Jon Pertwee, after all, spent five whole years in the part being witheringly sarcastic to Blimp-ish political and military figures who often turned out to have been the villain the whole time (or a computer that was the villain the whole time possibly).
Just look at Who’s long running habit of symbolically blowing up churches. In 1971’s ‘The Daemons’ this is followed by a big party and loveable soldier type Benton running off to snog a local witch. It was a different time.
Perhaps more pertinently, despite the occasional beverage fetching incident, Doctor Who has done well with it presentation of gender. Until the short-lived American attempt to revive the series in 1996, the relationship between the Doctor and his (generally female) human friend was always presented as a platonic one: two adventurers with a mutual respect for one another saving the universe with intellect and charm.
There is a generation of little boys and girls out there who looked up to Sarah-Jane Smith, Dorothy “Ace” McShane and Rose Tyler. In a show that technically skewed male, it was often they who were shifted into the lead role, their humanity and ordinariness presented as more vital and important than the Doctor’s all-knowing alienness. Those of us watching may have wanted to be like the Doctor on some level - but we were his companion.
The fact that the title character is now a woman, not to mention canonically gender fluid, feels like a natural extension of this. It's the final rejection of her patriarchal origins embodied by William Hartnell’s lapel-clutching Victorian grandfather figure. Symbolically, it feels like that concept is done, and the Doctor has now taken the form of the kind of character she relied upon for so many years, a natural and welcome evolution for a show that has always made a benefit of its periodic rebirths.
Which makes the reaction of certain fans all the more puzzling. Did they not get the central message of the series at all? Do people who can name every actor to have played the Master without forgetting Gordon Tipple or croon the entire Venusian Lullaby sung by the Doctor to Aggedor (Naroooon naroooon narooon… Sing it with me!) really not see that the show has been building up to this the entire time? It’s not some revision to its history, some reboot. If James Bond did this (and God willing someday someone will bite the bullet and reinvent that misogynist imperialist git from the ground up) it would feel like an entirely new series.
Doctor Who has always had the capability to reinvent itself, courtesy of the Doctor’s ability to regenerate at the point of death, traumatically turning him (or her!) into an entirely different person and allowing the show go on (or quickly replace actors abruptly deemed detrimental to the show’s popularity or who were being too loudly racist on set).
It’s never needed the kind of rejig that allowed Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck to become a woman or the wickedly subversive lateral thinking that resulted in all Transformers becoming homo-romantic. The Doctor changes and so does the show around her. The resistance of some to this is therefore perplexing. Forget the Hand of Omega, ‘The Shadow Proclamation, the Moxx of Balhoon. This is what Doctor Who has always been about. Change - and not a moment too soon.