The announcement of Peter Capaldi as the 12th actor to play the title character of Doctor Who prompted an onslaught of debate among the program’s millions of viewers. Many fans and critics of the BBC’s beloved sci-fi television series are upset that the protagonist has always been a white, British male, despite the Doctor’s ability to change sex and ethnicity being canon (internally consistent with the mythology of the show). Though they did not disclose his name, Doctor Who’s showrunners actually offered the role to a black actor, who declined it. Some have asked: Why not a woman? These discussions have illuminated not only the roles of women in Doctor Who, but also the lack of female leads in the time travel subgenre of science fiction. Now that times are a-changin’, shouldn’t the lead role change as well?
It’s embarrassingly obvious that a majority of the Doctor’s companions have been female, making the gender divide follow the power gap between the Doctor and companion. School of Engineering and Applied Science junior Aaron Burger explains, “Time travel, or perhaps adventuring in general, has been considered a man’s game,” which is why there are only a handful of female time travelers in mainstream media—and why the Doctor started out as, and continues to be, male.
Anna Smith, a writer for The Guardian, points out in the July article “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?” that “time travel seems to offer men an extraordinary level of control,” enabling them to manipulate situations and alter their social lives. Women are commonly the unsuspecting subjects of alteration, as in films like Groundhog Day, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and About Time. Time-traveling men in film and television revel in the power their ability brings, while their female counterparts maintain continuity and act as audience surrogates, there to observe the adventure.
This adventure entices the Doctor’s companions to travel with him, as he offers them the chance to chase aliens, see the world, and otherwise escape the monotony of everyday modern life. This facet of companionship is emphasized by their low-status jobs as temps, retail salespersons, kissograms, and nannies. (Martha, the only companion with a university education, also happens to be the lowest on Sparknotes’ top 10 most-loved companions list.) These low-power women are not merely dependent on the Doctor to see the glories of this world and beyond —they are dependent on him to leave town for their first time ever. Quite a few companions struggle with returning to mundane life without the Doctor, faithfully looking for the Doctor or awaiting his return.
Even though the Doctor has never been female, most other characters he interacts with are. Female characters are so essential to the show that in 2012 Doctor Who aired a special episode, “The Women of Doctor Who,” in which various companions are praised for being “strong” female characters. But are smarts, spunk, and an itch for adventure really all it takes to be a “strong” female character?
Some viewers dislike the constant pluck the recent companions are bringing to the table. J.D. Westfall, writer for WhatCulture.com, complains in the provocatively titled “How Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who” that too many of head writer Steven Moffat’s female characters share a two-dimensional persona that is “flirtatious, overconfident, and a little bit arrogant.”
Whovian and Barnard College junior Sheila Krishnan shares Westfall’s critique of Moffat. She points out that Clara, the newest companion, is “a nanny who has trouble with Wi-Fi.” Krishnan believes that, in addition to their personalities, the companions’ influence on the plot has changed in nature. Each companion inevitably receives an informal “title” from the Doctor. According to Krishnan, “We’ve gone from ‘Defender of the Earth,’ ‘Woman Who Walked the Earth,’ and ‘Most Important Woman in Creation,’ to ‘Girl Who Waited’ and ‘Impossible Girl.’ The companions are no longer everyday young women who accomplish incredible feats, but rather magically unique girls in need of saving.
Even if their personalities are bold, the companions lack power and agency by virtue of their position. The Doctor-companion relationship has always rested on its audience’s cultural comfort zone, where men have power and women don’t. Tellingly, “companions” were formerly known as “assistants.” This title clearly draws a connection between the stereotype of a male doctor and his female nurse, a male scientist and his female technician, or even a businessman and his secretary.
The idea that these women’s lives are unsatisfactory or helpless without this man is driven home by aborted plans for Rose Tyler spin-off series, Rose Tyler: Defender of the Earth. Former head writer Russell T. Davies says, “It spoils Doctor Who ... if we see as a concrete fact that her life continues to be as exciting without the Doctor.”
Women as companions have many built-in flaws, and a companion growing into a lead role hasn’t worked out. But what if a woman were indeed cast as the last of the Time Lords, the manipulator of fates? How would that change Doctor Who?
Doctor Who fan and Barnard College junior Caroline Moore says, “I completely believe it could work, but that would require dedication on the writers’ parts (and probably not Steven Moffat).” Indeed, there is some hope among Whovians that the Doctor, if ever female, won’t be female under the pen of Moffat. J.D. Westfall cites the stereotyping of women as one of the Moffat era’s major downfalls.
Neil Gaiman, writer of the episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” recently wrote on his Tumblr that he purposefully “made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate.” However, Gaiman said he wanted the 12th Doctor to be “someone harder and much older and more dangerous and, yes, male feels right to [him], as a storyteller.” But will it ever “feel right” to have a female Doctor?
Some Whovians argue that regardless of the writer, a female Doctor simply would not work. If the Doctor has identified as male for the entire show’s duration, a female Doctor would break the continuity of his personal identity. Not only would it change the character dramatically, but the story too, so much so that some fans fear gender and sexuality may become an unwelcome focus of the show (although to many, it is a topic that needs to be addressed).
Burger observes, “Traits that leaders usually have are ones that we still continue to associate with men.” This makes it tricky to have a female Doctor, since gender roles have been integral to the Doctor-companion dynamic for its 50-year run, and thus, the show’s long-lived popularity. If we want to see strong, likeable female characters in Doctor Who, as companions or as the Doctor, we must rethink our norms and expectations. If the gender and power paradigm is to shift, we must gear up for a different Doctor Who altogether.
Despite all this controversy, the show retains a huge fan base. We “Whovians” love Doctor Who, warts and all. At the very least, these issues fuel conversations and fan fiction. Maybe a female time traveler would finally stop to ask for directions; but maybe, for now, being stubbornly lost is part of the fun