Editorial - The TARDIS Materializes Above The Glass Ceiling: Jodie Whittaker As The 13th Doctor

It has finally happened: after 54 years, 36 seasons, and 13 Doctors, a woman will at last step behind the TARDIS console not as a companion, but as The Doctor herself. It was announced earlier today that the 13th Doctor, who will take over from Peter Capaldi during the upcoming Christmas special, will be Broadchurch and Attack the Block co-star Jodie Whittaker. The announcement was greeted with celebrations by large parts (I would like to think the majority) of the Doctor Who fandom, who have been quite vocally wanting a female Doctor for years. But it was also predictably greeted with anger from a certain other, very vocal minority of the fandom; the same type of people who tend to get angry whenever a woman or a person of color is cast in an established role that has traditionally belonged to a white man. Some of these people cite narrative and continuity reasons why they think that The Doctor should always be a man, but as typically happens in cases like this, most of these arguments are basically just fronts for the fact that they just don't want a woman starring on “their” show, and at some point their argument is likely to employ the term “social justice warrior” as an insult. Well, if those people want to stop watching, and miss out on what will surely be a fascinating and exciting new era for the long-running series, that's their choice, and their loss; judging from all the excitement and enthusiasm that has been very visible throughout the fandom today, Doctor Who is going to be just fine without them. As a lifelong Whovian ever since I was a little kid renting tapes of the Tom Baker era at Blockbuster in the early-90s, I am 100% percent convinced that going with a female Doctor for number 13 was the right decision. It is time; and no matter what lazy arguments the no-female-Doctor camp gives, this decision is totally in line with the show's mythology, and where the series has been going for years.

For starters, The Doctor is a very different sort of role from, say, James Bond, because it is not a case of multiple actors playing the same exact character; the entire point is that The Doctor regenerates, and changes into a fundamentally different person who just shares the same set of memories and core values. Every regeneration has made a point of choosing a new Doctor with a very different personality and physical type. This goes all the way back to the first regeneration when it was decided that it would be a mistake to simply re-cast William Hartnell's Doctor, because no one else could match him in that role, and a much better approach would be to cast someone as unlike Hartnell as possible. With that thought in mind, the prickly, no-nonsense, elderly professor was replaced by the silly, whimsical, Chaplinesque adventurer played by Patrick Troughton, and the precedent was set. Yes, The Doctor retains his/her memories, and at a basic core level of philosophy and principles they remain the same, but the whole point of regeneration is that The Doctor can end up being literally anyone. This wonderfully inspired narrative device not only creates the fascinating story possibilities of each new Doctor having to re-learn who they are, but it also provides a built-in mechanism for the show to be able to reinvent itself. Long before the concept of rebooting a series existed, Doctor Who rebooted itself every few years, as new showrunners and very different Doctors constantly reinvented the show. This is, above all else, what has allowed the series to stay fresh for so long, and to continue off and on for 36 seasons without ever getting stale (well, except for that one point in the '80s when it jumped the shark for a couple years – but even then, the concept of regeneration and the leeway that it gave new writers to reinvent the series allowed it to get back on track). So if reinvention is the whole point, and if The Doctor turning into a substantially new character with each regeneration is the whole point, then why on Gallifrey should a female Doctor be off-limits?

Sure, this is the part where someone will point out that never in the original series did we see a Time Lord regenerate across gender lines. But here's the thing: right up until the original series went off the air, new writers were constantly tinkering with the show's mythology and rules, adding new elements and bits of lore to expand the series and keep it fresh and interesting. The Doctor's people weren't even referred to as the Time Lords until season 6, and the basic rules of regeneration weren't established until seasons 11 and 14. The canon of this series has never been set in stone, and has always been something that evolves, especially in areas that the show hasn't really explored yet. And the original series absolutely never said that Time Lords can't regenerate as a different gender; it just isn't anything the show had explored at that time. Today Time Lords regenerating across gender and ethnicity is a well-established concept in the new series' canon. It is something that has been referenced by The Doctor at least as far back as the beginning of the Matt Smith era, and is something that we have actually witnessed a couple times by now. The show has obviously been laying the groundwork for this for years: it seems clear that they've wanted to cast a female Doctor for some time, but wanted to set up the narrative framework of how regeneration works with regards to gender first. This isn't something that new showrunner Chris Chibnall is doing out of nowhere; Steven Moffat has obviously tried to do it right, and fit it into the larger mythology. With all of that groundwork having been done, any narrative argument against a female Doctor truly doesn't have a leg to stand on, and thus boils right back down to plain old sexism.

But here's the bigger point: while it's nice that Moffat's era of Doctor Who laid the groundwork for a female Doctor within the canon, that isn't really what matters. What matters is that it is the right thing to do, for the show's message and ethos. Doctor Who has long been a very liberal, forward-thinking, progressive show. While the classic series had an admittedly uneven track record with its writing of female characters, and certain eras in the 1960s and '70s had a tendency to reduce them to damsels in distress, there were a lot of classic-series writers who were very much on the cutting edge with feminist themes, and who really tried to bring the show forward in its portrayals of women in a way that other shows of the era did not. Companions like Dr. Liz Shaw (who I'm pretty positive was the namesake for the Prometheus character), Sarah-Jane Smith, and Ace were all totally badass, self-reliant feminist leads for their eras. Watching Liz and Sarah-Jane shut down chauvinistic men was a constant pleasure for the writers, actresses, and audience, and having the anarchist punk Ace blast holes in Thatcher's England with her homemade bombs was genuinely subversive. If the original series was progressive at its best, but unevenly so, the new series has made a point of being extremely progressive and inclusive from day one. The show has featured a long line of strong, complex, well-developed female leads who aren't content merely being supporting characters, and instead stand right alongside The Doctor as powerful co-stars. New Doctor Who has always had a pretty strong LGBT presence as well, with a good handful of queer side-characters throughout, and two major queer leads: the pansexual Captain Jack Harkness and the lesbian Bill Potts. The introduction of Captain Jack in the middle of the show's very first season was a particularly bold move: at a time when gay/bi/queer male characters weren't commonly found outside of niche shows like Russell T. Davies' own Queer as Folk, Jack challenged the heteronormative stereotypes of what it meant to be an action hero. While the cast of Doctor Who has undeniably been mostly white, the show has also had some very strong characters of color, with the standouts being the excellent Martha Jones and Bill. However, despite working hard to have a diverse and inclusive cast, and despite taking stands for feminism and LGBT equality, there has remained one obvious glass ceiling on the show: The Doctor himself has remained a white guy. For the show to truly send the message of inclusion and equality that it really wants to send, breaking that mold is a powerful thing, and the next logical step. Again, this is something that the show has clearly been working towards.

But again, it is more than just that The Doctor should be female or be a person of color to send a powerful message; The Doctor should be able to be female or a person of color because of what The Doctor symbolizes. The Doctor symbolizes the ideal of what is good and full of wonder in the universe: the love of exploration and curiosity, and the unselfish desire to help others and make a positive difference simply because it is the right thing to do. The type of unconventional hero who doesn't (generally) use weapons, but intellect and creativity and the determination that there has to be a way. And increasingly in our modern world, it is neither right nor accurate for this ideal to be symbolized solely by white guys all the time. For The Doctor to mean what The Doctor has always meant, the character should be able to move beyond that, and be able to reflect the population the show speaks to. If The Doctor is supposed to be able to regenerate into any sort of new character, it should mean just that – anyone. That is why Steven Moffat laid out the narrative devices for the character to be something other than a white man, and that is why it is so important that it is happening now. I'm sure this will not mark the last time that The Doctor is a man; I think it will just mark a point where from now on, anyone can be a contender to play the character.

Even beyond being excited about the first female Doctor, I am very intrigued by the casting all around. With Moffat stepping down as well as Capaldi, Chibnall will have the opportunity to reinvent the show in much the same way that Moffat did with the excellent series 5, and casting his Thirteenth Doctor is the first step in that. That his casting choice is an actress he knows and has worked with on Broadchurch is a very good sign. For the first time that I know of, we have a showrunner bringing in a Doctor with whom they have worked previously on another project for three seasons: they already have a feel for working with one another, she is familiar with the artistic process of working on one of his shows, and he is familiar with her skill set and how to write for her. They are a team that clearly should be able to hit the ground running, rather than having an awkward adjustment period where she grows into the role and he grows into the position as showrunner. Having not watched Broadchurch I am admittedly not too familiar with her work, but all signs point to her being a very good Doctor in the making, especially in conjunction with this showrunner.

Doctor Who has always been about evolving and changing, and while this is one of the bigger changes on the show that we have seen in recent times, it is absolutely the right one. The series and its main character are known for reinventing themselves, and that has been the key to its longevity and ongoing relevance. In this tumultuous cultural moment, the first female Doctor is definitely what the show needs to maintain this relevance, and keep the show moving in a way that embraces and expands upon its philosophy. While the show's detractors will surely complain louder than ever, there simply isn't any reason why we shouldn't have a female Doctor: the narrative groundwork is there, and thematically and socially it is a decision with weight and importance behind it. For every viewer who stops watching because they can't deal with the idea of a female Doctor, I have no doubt that more viewers will be brought back to see what exciting things the show will do in this new era. And I have no doubt that it will do some very exciting things indeed. This show has always been bigger on the inside, and now more than ever I can't wait to see what new layers will be revealed as the show regenerates again, along with The Doctor.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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