Joanna Lumley (briefly) played the Doctor in 1999 Comedy Relief special The Curse of Fatal Death. Attribute:Youtube
Enough with the Doctor Who gender debate – it's time
In a universe of infinite possibility, why is Doctor Who always a man? Peter Capaldi's forthcoming retirement from the role means it's surely time to hand the sonic screwdriver over to a woman, writes Liz Giuffre.
The Doctor is a 900(ish) year old alien with two hearts, at least 12 different faces and the ability to travel through all of time and space. So why is it so hard to imagine the Doctor as a woman?
Peter Capaldi’s decision to leave Doctor Who at the end of the upcoming season has started speculation about options for his replacement. This is a sport of high stakes for fans – the grief of losing the current lead mixed with the excitement of a new face and new identity.
Doctor Who is now over 50 years old, and over that time television conventions have certainly changed. When the first Time Lord was cast in 1963, the audience and BBC felt an elder statesman and “mad scientist”-type was best to lead the franchise. The Doctor was played by William Hartnell, a proper, older, white Englishman – a grandfather, even – and audiences and the Beeb happily relied on this casting to draw in their desired audience.
Hartnell feel ill soon after he had established the character and the role of “The Doctor” for Doctor Who. Rather than cancel or merely replace him, the show’s creators worked with the science fiction narrative to write in the character’s “renewal,” later to be known as the Time Lord’s process of “regeneration”.
The Doctor regenerates.
Since Hartnell, Doctor Who has covered 12 regenerations and featured 13 (male) Doctors – not counting the other “Doctor” castings in audiobooks, comics, offshoots and parodies. Favourites include the incomparable Tom Baker, the undeniable David Tennant, the hipster cool of Matt Smith and the recently deceased, but eternally wonderful John Hurt as “The War Doctor” for the program’s fiftieth anniversary special in 2013.
During at least the last couple of “regeneration” rounds, questions of casting and diversity have been asked. Why has the lead still be taken by a white man? What about actors of colour? What about, shock, a woman? They got away with it once – Joanna Lumley appeared as part of a joke sequence of swift regenerations for a Comic Relief special – but never as part of the show proper. As British television scholar Lorna Jowett beautifully put it;
Doctor Who should push the boundaries of representation in the casting of its title character because it can. It’s a major science fiction series with a protagonist who is an alien. The Doctor need not be bound by social conventions.
The Curse of the Fatal Death - Comic Relief does Doctor Who.
Jowett’s point gets to the heart, beauty, and genius of Doctor Who as a television story. It’s repeatable in almost any way the producers of the day choose. Adaptable and barely bound by timey whimey wibbly wobbly rules – except when it comes to the last (gendered) frontier.
Sorry fellow nerds – I’m straying from one sci fi galaxy here into another – but you know what I’m saying.
Vanity Fair has been one of the first major outlets to raise the issue again, while reports in the iconic British masthead Radio Times have so far tended to avoid recasting talk, instead focusing on the more pressing business of promoting Capaldi’s upcoming (final) series which is still yet to air. The Guardian has also launched a pro-woman Doctor campaign, suggesting actors like the Olivier Award winner Noma Dumezweni as exciting possibilities.
Strong female leads are now on the rise across television (thankfully), and reports like Screen Australia’s “Gender Matters” and subsequent initiatives to help address gender in balance are positive steps. Research from The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media also suggests that “Gender balance in casting produces sound financial returns”, and at times, even increased earnings for films that are gender diverse when compared to those that aren’t. So there is some hope that a Doctor Who-like television program lead by an excellent woman could work, and work well. However – are we able to accept the direct replacement of a male actor with a female one?
If reactions to the 2015 Ghostbusters reboot are anything to go by, it seems that any incumbent actor will be in for an uphill battle regardless of how talented she is. Suggestions that the recasting “killed the childhoods” of many angry viewers or was “reverse sexism” were loud, and sadly, got pretty ugly at times.
While all of the cast members received criticism (much of it even before the film was released), the abuse directed at Leslie Jones was downright shameful. It was disappointing that she moved away from the spotlight for a while, but also completely understandable. No one should be subjected to that.
So – a message to (Queen) Helen Mirren, (Should Be President) Meryl Streep, (Dame) Sarah Millican, (Lady) Miranda Hart, (Glorious) Meera Syal… and any others who might get a knock on the door or have an agent make a call – don’t let the trolls scare you. Same goes for you, incoming Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall. Take a chance, explore all of time and space – and hand the sonic screwdriver over to a woman, hey?
Liz Giuffre does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Licensed as Creative Commons – attribution, no derivatives.