During a Doctor Who Hall H panel at San Diego Comic Con earlier this month, outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat said that there had been zero backlash to the recent groundbreaking announcement that a woman will play the Doctor on the beloved BBC sci-fi show.
Moffat's statement, based supposedly on BBC research data that showed 80% social media favorability of the casting, may have been intended in support of the new Doctor, who will be played Jodie Whittaker. But instead, it seemed like Moffat was trying to sweep the ugly reactions to the casting under the rug.
To an extent I understand where Moffat was coming from here; in many ways it's tempting to ignore the darker sides of the things we love. But pretending not to see misogynistic responses to news like the identity of the 13th Doctor ultimately glosses over the experiences of anyone who's faced similar discrimination.
The more measured approach is to acknowledge that while the reception to the new Doctor has been overwhelmingly positive, loud dissent is still there. However, fans angry that the Doctor is now a woman don't have any logical basis for their argument. After all, the new casting decision is in-line with previously established rules about the Doctor and the universe the Doctor inhabits.
It's not as if, for example, the casting of Jodie Whittaker suddenly changes the series' canon. A female doctor doesn't violate established rules or defy in-universe logic — gender fluidity in Gallifreyans was already seen during the 12th Doctor era, both with Michelle Gomez's Master and the Gallifreyan general in the episode Hell Bent.
The potential for a female doctor was also referenced during the 11th Doctor era, and suggested by both 4th Doctor Tom Baker and original co-creator Sydney Newman, who believed the 7th Doctor should be a woman (Sylvester McCoy was eventually cast). Given that the Doctor historically has little conscious control over the outcome of regeneration (although Romana controlled her regeneration in the classic series), it makes sense to see some variety in the forms the Doctor takes. Simple mathematical odds make the probability of 14 straight male incarnations incredibly low—though it should be noted that the rules for a regeneration’s outcome have only been hinted at and somewhat contradict each other.
Not only is the casting of a female lead a natural choice given the the rules of the show, it also won’t fundamentally change who the Doctor is. Of course, on the surface, the Doctor is a new person—and new actor—with each regeneration. But beneath that, the universe’s favorite Time Lord has been the same character for more than 50 years. The Doctor's face, and indeed the TARDIS and all of time and space changes, but we know who the Doctor is.
Moffat has noted that writing for each Doctor is essentially the same, with the actor putting on individual flourishes in cadence and rhythm; even the audition for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor had what Moffat called “generic Doctor stuff” rather than a specific direction for the character. This idea has even worked its way into fandom. For example, at convention panels, previous Doctors will often be asked to perform speeches from other Doctors. The result is almost always the same: the lines and Time Lord we know dressed up in a way that’s equally different and familiar, but still right.
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Given that Doctor Who isn’t necessarily changing anything with the 13th Doctor other than, once again, the character’s face and body, why are some people so upset? Good, old-fashioned prejudice—the very thing the Doctor so often rails against throughout time and space.
While some will claim that their protests are in support of 'tradition' on the show, that argument, as shown by the examples above, is preposterous—there's clear in-world precedent for the doctor being a woman. Underneath that flimsy argument, all that's left is misogyny.
One of the most powerful things the Doctor does is teach people about our own humanity. Like all good sci-fi, Doctor Who may look and sound fantastical, but in fact the show closely mirrors our own culture and society. From the 12th Doctor's passionate anti-war plea to the 3rd Doctor’s allegory on pollution to the 4th Doctor contemplating one terrible act for the greater good, these stories reflect the beauty and horror of humanity even more than the wonder and strangeness of traveling throughout space.
Sometimes, such as with the casting of the 13th Doctor, an episode doesn't even need to be completed for the show to reveal obvious truths about our species.
What’s really unfortunate is that the people complaining about Jodie Whittaker’s casting don’t seem to understand how sci-fi has evolved over the past few decades. Female leads aren’t new in genre entertainment—just ask Kate Mulgrew and Sigourney Weaver. And the idea of gender limitations among children’s role models is constantly getting overturned; the latest example can easily be found on playgrounds in the past month, where you’ll find both boys and girls inspired by Wonder Woman. Former Doctor Colin Baker summed it up succinctly when he said, “Well you don’t have to be of a gender of someone to be a role model. Can’t you be a role model as people?”
Thus, if people are upset, even angry, that the Doctor is played by a woman, then they’re stuck in their own box. But that box is the opposite of the TARDIS—it’s smaller, not bigger, on the inside. For fans who can't accept a change that is written into the rules of the show, doesn’t alter the character’s core, and meets (heck, is actually behind!) the current curve of the genre, it might be a good idea to examine what drew them to Doctor Who in the first place. A constant in Doctor Who, aside from time travel and Daleks and not-the-best-effects, is the theme of accepting change and progress for everyone: “Life depends on change, and renewal” (2nd Doctor). “Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon” (6th Doctor). “900 years of time and space and I've never met anyone who wasn’t important” (11th Doctor).
These ideas have been in the bones of the show for decades, underneath all of the technobabble, quips, and catchphrases. If some people don’t get that, perhaps they’ve missed the point for the last 54 years.
And if that’s the case, there’s one more idea from the 12th Doctor that they should consider: they should listen.