Destroy All Monsters: There Will Never Be a Female DOCTOR WHO

Matt Brown, Columnist

Peter Capaldi is a splendid choice to play the Twelfth Doctor. He's even somewhat outside the box. Doctor actors have been inconspicuously reducing in age, almost without exception, from One to Eleven - and in casting 55-year-old Capaldi, I can see, beyond question, that there is new and interesting ground for showrunner Steven Moffat to cover. Moffat has completed three superlative seasons with "The Doctor As Boy," and can now tackle "The Doctor As Man," or even "Old Man." For the fiftieth anniversary of the show, that has a pleasant "everything old is new again" vibe to it.

(Another pleasure in all this, which can't help but delight the 7-year-old me who used to sprint behind the couch when Tom Baker's Doctor Who came up on the telly: Capaldi allows for the possibility of the Doctor being scary again. Not just the show and not just the monsters, but the Doctor himself. Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, and many of the others were goofy, charming, ebullient and all, but they were also scary-as-fuck older men who no child would feel entirely safe getting locked in a TARDIS with.)

While Twelve was being cast in the BBC's top secret Arctic bunker, there was the appropriate amount of online chatter/fantasy about whether, this time, the Doctor would be a woman. In this, I happily indulged. (Helen Mirren if casting on the elder end of the spectrum, sure, or Emma Watson on the young; but for an age straight down the middle, the conversation begins and ends with Olivia Williams.)

From a basic role-reversal/Affirmative-Action/let's-try-to-even-the-playing-field-a-bit standpoint, asking why the Doctor must always be a pale-faced male between the ages of 25 and 45 (at least recently, until Capaldi) makes a lot of sense. Further, speculating about whether the BBC might rewire the teatime triumph to allow for the possibility of young girls (and women, and boys, and men) to imagine a version of the adventure where the Time Lord is the woman and the companion is the boy (or girl, or man, or whatever) is entirely legitimate.

Ain't gonna happen, though.

There will be an atheist in the White House before there's a woman at the controls of the TARDIS. This isn't because the Beeb is sexist, or because Steven Moffat doesn't know how to write women, or whatever other complaints are being leveled at the status quo on Twitter this week. This is, without any judgment on my part on whether this is "fair" or not, simply because of the nature of the thing itself.

The thing itself, being this 50-year-old science fiction television serial Doctor Who, is inherently patriarchal in both design and philosophy. An inherently patriarchal construct cannot be rearranged through a simple game of gender Mad-Libs, as the knee-jerk cries for Time Lord gender equality would hold. It's vaguely insulting, in fact, to suggest that it could, falling somewhere between tokenism at the shallow end and outright condescension at the deep.

Before I get much further, I must reiterate that what I'm describing has nothing to do with my personal feelings on whether this is fair or not. It isn't fair, but then, "fairness" is a made-up numbers game we invented when we learned how to count. Fairness does not, in point of fact, exist.

I'd love a female Doctor for the same reasons as just about everyone else, but casting a woman as the Twelfth (or the Thirteenth) is not the same as creating a female captain for Star Trek or demanding a Wonder Woman movie from Warner Brothers. Captain Janeway and Wonder Woman are important parts of the SF lexicon because they are inherently female characters, not because their genders were assigned randomly in an effort to balance an equation.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is inherently male. His adventures are inherently patriarchal; Doctor Who is, in its way, a patriarchy propaganda delivery machine. We do not, as a matter of course, have a parallel conversation about whether or not they'll cast a woman as James Bond when Daniel Craig is ready to hang up the tuxedo. James Bond, and his myth, are patriarchal through and through; if you cast a woman as James Bond, you would have to rearrange the chairs to such a degree that James Bond movies would cease to be James Bond movies. They'd become something else, and that's fine; but a James Bond movie is a patriarchal construct, and so is Doctor Who.

There's nothing wrong with a patriarchal story, by the way, as long as everyone knows what they're watching and filters its messages through the appropriate series of lenses as a result. Doctor Who is wonderful fantasy and oftentimes quite brilliant science fiction, but it is designed and executed to reinforce a series of messages, the largest of which is one of the oldest in television history: Father Knows Best.

From William Hartnell's First Doctor traveling with his "granddaughter" on an adventure across time and space, the Doctor is always the learned mentor who snatches companions from relative naiveté and subordinates them to his wisdom like an archetypal schoolmaster. The Doctor is not designed like the typical (male) hero of much of science fiction; he may be the series' main character, but he's not its protagonist. The Doctor is a permanent shaman/wizard/Wise Elder, in the Joseph Campbell sense of the archetype, and he's here to teach his companions a lesson.

The companions are not so frequently female because the Doctor wants to get up to some TARDIS hanky-panky, although the modern Who era has not shied from the intimation on just about every conceivable occasion. The companions are frequently female because, in Doctor Who's analysis of the Way the World Works, women are emotionally available to the wonders that the Doctor is handing down from the Universe at large, and can therefore radiate that wonder out at the audience.

(Yes, they're sometimes male. They're also sometimes River Song or a robotic dog. The design of the companions is more flexible than the design of the Doctor, but the archetyping remains dogmatically male/female: one character has the power and is here to disseminate it; one character does not have the power, and is here to receive it.)

If it makes anyone feel any better, the female companions are meant, by design, to stand in for all of us. None of us really get to be the Doctor, whether we're male or female, just like none of us really get to be God or Gandalf; but we all get to be Sarah-Jane, whether we're a boy or a girl.

That's the bright side of all this, to which the obvious dark side is simpler and meaner: Doctor Who thereby relentlessly reinforces the "silly schoolgirl" trope in endless Mozart variations from Susan Foreman to Clara Oswin Oswald. It doesn't so much matter that the silly schoolgirl (or boy) in question is meant to stand in for all of us; she's still (usually) an onscreen female who attacks problems with inexperience that often leads to complications and sometimes disaster, so that the catharsis of most of the episodes is built around the Doctor/schoolmaster/"Daddy" swooping down and putting things right, sometimes even at the cost of his own life (cue the next regeneration scene here). In the emotional investment required for us, the audience, to get into and out of every episode of Doctor Who, is the subtle reminder each time: Father Knows Best.

All of which brings me back to Capaldi, and the underlying meaning in casting the Doctor as a man with grey hair and a potty mouth, rather than yet another Beatles-esque British pinup. Capaldi can make the Doctor scary again, because patriarchal overlords / Time Lords must be scary to really work, a quality the series has gotten away from, at least since Eccleston. This is because, to really serve as a reinforcement tool, not listening to Daddy has to have some frightening psychological freight to it. The schoolmaster would have a hard time maintaining the status quo if you're not at least partially afraid he's going to go after your pink buttocks with the ruler, and in the makeup of the Doctor, both within his universe and without, the status remains most definitely quo.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • randy_peppercorn

    The real question isn't "Why can't The Doctor become a woman?", it's "Why is it so important to some people that The Doctor becomes a woman?". Is it not sexist to demand a change based purely upon gender preference?

  • Rose

    I don't think the doctor should ever be a woman :/ and this is comming from a woman. Personally a female doctor would ruin the show. The Doctor is male. It's like making James Bond or Batman a female. No, just no. If people want a female timelord then just make a new show or something, don't change our doctor.

  • Duder NME

    "Father knows best?" Ever heard of "Go ask your mother"?
    The rest of the allusions you point to are mere shorthand excuses for lazy writers, which I would never accuse Moffet and crew of being.
    Now here's a grand question: will there ever be a worldwide Doctor Who movie?

  • SwissMiss

    If you think traveling through space-time, saving worlds, being scary, having a deeper understanding of the universe and being an overall genius is inherently male you are the reason there needs to be a female doctor. also this statement here "women are emotionally available to the wonders that the Doctor is
    handing down from the Universe at large, and can therefore radiate that
    wonder out at the audience." is ridiculous and is also the reason why we need a female doctor. You act like Patriarchy is a good thing and should be upheld in popular media.

  • jiahao_liao

    For those of you criticizing the author of the article, I don't think you really understand what he's trying to say, and you probably didn't read the article carefully at all. At no point in the article does he states or implies he supports patriarchy. Instead, he is pointing out the stubborn patriarchy in the show, and in a SUBTLE way, he's criticizing the show for it.

  • Lord Darque

    Excellent article. I disagree with your conclusions and much of your logic but still it was enjoyable to read. Mother knows best can work just as well. I can see how the BBC might be afraid to tamper with what works but after 13 male Doctors I can also see how a female set could extend the series for a few more decades. I think the world is ready for the change.

  • Cedric Chou Ya-Li

    "Destroy All Monsters" is the best column on the World Wide Web, and Matt Brown certainly is a DOCTOR in his own way. There: I said it!

  • Meanwhile, some also think that the Doctor will never be anything but white. Then, Neil Gaiman pointed out that he has known a black actor who sometime in the past had turned down chance to play the Doctor.

    While I do see a character like James Bond being inherently male, that if you make a female James Bond, you are making something entirely different character.

    I don't see that with the Doctor, as between so many incarnations the character is so incredibly flexible. There are constants, about the character but so much else can be changed. That's one of the things that manages to keep the character fresh is how pieces can be changed.

    While the Doctor is the wise elder from being around hundreds of years, he doesn't always know best. He often needs the companions to help keep in in check.

    Going back to Neil Gaiman, who has written some of the best episodes of Doctor Who and actually tried unsuccessfully to bring back the show himself around 2001 before Russel T. Davies pulled it off years later, he thinks there will eventually be a female Doctor. Gaiman doesn't think the 12th generation is the right time for a female Doctor, as sees new Doctors as a reaction to the previous ones. That someone like Peter Capaldi is a good reaction to go from Matt Smith's Doctor. However, while it's yet to be seen what kind of Doctor that Peter Capaldi makes, that Gaiman thinks he it would be the right time to replace with a female Doctor. Of course Neil Gaiman was responsible for making it canon for Time Lords to change gender on regeneration with his Corsair in the Doctor's Wife.

    He also posted this gender bending Doctor Who fan art:
    http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/...
    Point out: "Observe how right they are.

    Then tell me why you couldn’t have a female Doctor again…?"

  • Gaiman's awesome and all but he doesn't call the shots. The primary reason why this is EXTREMELY unlikely to ever happen is quite simply that the character is too valuable to the BBC under the brand as already established. Moving away from the basic formula they have used through the entire run of the series would mean moving off-brand and the risk is simply too high.

    Plus, if they ever wanted to do a female Time Lord story they've already provided themselves ample opportunity to do so without having the Doctor change genders with the Doctor's Daughter. Frankly, I'm surprised they haven't gone back to her already.

  • One of the constants with Doctor Who is change. The Doctor Who brand is all over the place and that's in part what makes it great. When Matt Smith was cast a large part of the Doctor Who fandom hated the choice, that he was really too young and goofy. Just as a good chunk of fandom is coming out against Peter Capaldi who thinks he is too old. The Doctor Who fandom is big enough and varied that no matter what BBC does someone is hating it and thinking they are going off brand and jumping the shark.

    Rich Johnston put together this great article of all the times fans were complaining about Doctor Who has jumped the shark:
    http://www.bleedingcool.com/20...
    Or since this list starts out predating the whole jumping the shark from Happy Days, it's the "Doctor Who has died for *me* today".

    That said, I'm also surprised that someone hasn't done something with the Doctor's Daughter. That was a dangling plot point that I had figured someone would have jumped onto before now. Perhaps that's how we could get a female Doctor, by creating a spin-off with her daughter. Especially since Doctor Who spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures aren't around anymore.

  • richjohnston

    Thanks for the link, but something to ear in mind. A Time Lord gets thirteen lives. Including John Hurt, Capaldi is Thirteen. Moffat used the "Hurt Insert" to make Capaldi the Last Doctor. That's the story he wants to tell. Now obviously Doctor Who won't stop with Capaldi. Somehow he'll continue, but that's the moment you make a major change in the show. That whe the Doctor regenerates into a woman. Moffat already prepared us in Curse Of The Fatal Death...

  • benu

    Well, if we're ever to get a female Doctor, it's easy to say we're closer than every before.

    Aside from that rather redundant statement, I think the psychology of the show is very much of the British culture, which, as most of the world in fact does, has a rather thorny end to deal with in regards to the patriarchy, as well as something matriarchal. The character is malleable as the show is called DOCTOR WHO, so I think dealing with a "Mother Knows Best" is just as legitimate within the basic constructs of the show and its universe, which is also very malleable. However, can we get beyond those patriarchal angles? Maybe not. Matt's article, is a compelling read and casts some interesting parallels with James Bond.

    Where it gets tricky is where Todd cites in that the BBC won't take any large risks with an established brand. The one thing I'd like to add to that is to ask: is that because they believe DW to be an inherently boy-thing? Because if so, that simply isn't true any longer. Now like many sci-fi things, there's still that male demo skew, but... There are two sides to this point I'm getting to rather gangly. I know more women than men who watch the show. Some of them watch the show because they enjoy the likes of Tennant or Smith as a geeky sex icon. This is true. But the other part of it is this: I know a lot of children, a lot of girls, who absolutely adore the show for its sense of adventure and imagination, for something generally outside of gender.

    So if the BBC wouldn't adjust the brand because they want to keep it male-centric for males, well then, I don't agree with that. But that's also perhaps the reality. Ho-hum.

  • Kurt

    I love the 'lady versions' image you linked to, OH MY!

  • Gospel X

    I don't buy it. The Doctor is a cipher and there is nothing inherent in the character except for being the Doctor, whatever that means to whatever showrunner. The Doctor becomes whatever is necessary to the plot and can do whatever is necessary to get the story moving forward. What I've learned from this new generation of Doctor Who is that everything is played fast and loose - such as a Time Lord he becomes a withered Gollum-like creature and then supercharged by belief (a la Goku's Spirit Bomb) or a Time Lord who can make a duplicate body he is inhabiting appear to regenerate when it dies.

    I don't see the inherent patriarchy, at least not in modern Who. I see a generally playful adventurer who drags the unsuspecting on a ride they will never forget (unless they magically forget due to Timey-Wimey Lordiness). Why can't a woman do that?

    And a TV series that seems to make things up as it goes only seems to have the inherent property of openness. Anything can happen. Having a female Doctor seems to fall in line with that.

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