A Woman as “Doctor Who”: Why Not?

Posted on August 12, 2013


Lila is not a Doctor Who fan, having never watched a full episode of the science fiction show, but Diana Reese’s article in the Washington Post caught my attention:  “The Tardis: No Girls Allowed as the Doctor.”   Apparently, in the long history of the show (it began in 1966), there have been eleven male actors who have played the lead role of the Doctor.  The twelfth has just been announced, and is – not really a surprise – another white guy.

I was at first mystified at the reaction from fans who had been rooting for a female to take over the role.  Ugh, I thought, more misplaced feminism.  Why this big push to take over roles written for male characters?  Where does it end?  Is there really a need to re-write, say, Hamlet or Romeo as a female?  I was more in the same mind as Doctor Who producer  Steven Moffat’s sarcastic response:  “I would like to go on record and say that the queen should be played by a man.”

But wait.  Lila, in her ignorance, missed a key fact about the Doctor:  he is not human, but an alien “Time Lord” able to generate a completely new body when needed.  The show has dropped some hints over the years that there are no limitations on what that body will be.  Reese cites some examples:

When the 11th doctor — played by Matt Smith — made his first appearance in “The End of Time, Part Two,” he actually says, “Hair … I’m a girl!” as his hands discover his long hair. Then he checks for his Adam’s apple. “No! No! I’m not a girl!”

That, wrote novelist Neil Gaiman, convinced him that a time lord could change gender when regenerating.  In “The Doctor’s Wife,” an episode Gaiman penned for the series, there’s the teasing comment when the Doctor talks about another time lord, the Corsair, having been a woman “herself a couple of times, oh she was a bad girl.”

All right, then.  In the Doctor’s universe, it is entirely possible that he might regenerate and find himself in a female body.  The possibility is intriguing.  What if the Doctor was a woman?  Would she find her adventures more difficult?  Would she be treated differently by others?  Would she have to change how she does business?

In our world, the answer would be yes.  Those who have switched between genders in real life have had their eyes opened to just how different the life experience can be, based solely on gender.  Take the case of Stanford scientist Ben Barres as an example; he finds himself much more respected and credible now that he is a man, than she was as an equally qualified and accomplished woman.  Such stories are commonplace.   So what would happen if Doctor Who suddenly found herself a woman in a man’s world?

There would be opportunity here, probably with little change to the show overall, to write in some good one-liners referring to the Doctor’s new situation.  So why not?  Producer’s casting preference, of course (after all, it is just an entertainment).  I suspect that Moffat finds the Doctor’s personality more suited to a male persona, and that he intends to continue producing a science fiction fantasy adventure show with little in the way of social commentary.   That has been the show’s successful formula all along; why change now?