A few years ago, I wrote a passionate screed for a now defunct website* in which I projectile spat indignant globs of fury at the very idea the Doctor — the Doctor Who Doctor, not Star Trek: Voyager’s hologram medic — should regenerate into a woman. I had very good, very feminist reasons for this. I was quite certain.
At the time, Matt Smith’s Doctor was the one for the chop, and speculation, be it giddy or furious-flavored, consumed all things Whovian months and months before Smith would regenerate onscreen. I hate this part of the Doctor Who fandom. It makes for nothing but stressful clickbait. But maybe that’s the price of being the longest-running sci-fi show in history. Reboots are built into the lifecycle, with all the angst and flame wars that come with. If you want to know everything wrong with a show, everything that would absolutely ruin it, you never need go any further than its most ardent admirers. We have lists.
At that time, many advocated for a female Doctor, saying it was an idea whose time had come. Some went so far as to declare showrunner Steven Moffat sexist and/or misogynist if the Doctor didn’t change genders. Both of these ideas struck me as ludicrous. And so: screed.
If I’m honest, I was already eager to police the trajectory of Doctor Who after Russell T. Davies revived the series in 2005. I accepted Smith’s Eleventh Doctor with the unfair grudge and irrational bitterness of a true fan, piqued that he was young, handsome, and superficially similar to his young, handsome predecessor, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. So not enough like Doctors of the past I grew up watching and loved, who were sexless (to me, anyway), generally older, and avuncular, and too much like the most recent Doctor I loved, a dynamic leading man.
Not that I could blame anyone for trying to clone Tennant. I would have been delighted if he had played the Doctor until he couldn’t play anything else. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor got the series started off right, but the popularity of New Who simply skyrocketed during Ten’s time in the TARDIS, as his mad ebullience and good looks defined the show for a whole new generation. Tennant left the show all the way back in 2010, but merchandise based on the Tenth Doctor is still the most popular of the new series, and take a tour of Pinterest or Tumblr to see the extent to which his romance with first New Who companion Rose Tyler is still actively mourned. (Although, to be fair, the people who do not love him are also really committed.) Once Gen Xers start dying off, the image of the Doctor in the popular imagination will fully convert from a Cheshire cat grin and comically long scarf to the geek chic of Ten’s spiky hair, trenchcoat, and chucks.
I say I had issues with Smith’s Doctor, but like many a grumpy fan of Classic Who, I really hated that the Doctor became a romantic lead during Ten’s series…though I couldn’t quit him either. Ten was wonderful, damn it, absolutely inspired, and his whole lonely angel schtick worked. There was more to him, particularly in the last series of specials where the guilt-ridden Doctor flirts with going power mad, but it’s the early days of his freewheeling gambol around the universe and tacit romance with Rose that is best remembered. Enjoyable as it was though, the new series was not quite the same show that left the airwaves in 1989, and there was tension there. When John Hurt’s crusty War Doctor meets his future Tenth and Eleventh incarnations in the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, he gapes at them, “Am I having a midlife crisis?” That was Steven Moffat, showrunner, clever writer, and ancient Whovian making his own meta joke, one of his favorite things to do, and both Eleven and the War Doctor later grimace at Ten snogging Queen Elizabeth I. Of course, Moffat started working on Doctor Who with a meta joke, 1999’s Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death, a parody commissioned by the BBC for Red Nose Day. With its Doctor falling in love, becoming “lick the mirror handsome,” maxing out his regenerations, and finally regenerating into a woman, his poo humor-heavy skit might well have predicted the future of the show. (Also, the way the Master spends hundreds and hundreds of years climbing out of sewers really reminds me of the device behind his Twelfth Doctor episode “Heaven Sent.”)
After writing classic New Who episodes like “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink,” Moffat took over as showrunner with Russell T. Davies’ and Tennant’s joint departure in 2010. Now he frequently turns up on lists of things ruining Doctor Who, Whovians muttering his name like Arya Stark. Honestly, I think he’s great. He oversees far-sighted, involved (some would say convoluted) plotlines that rarely miss the opportunity to use time travel as a plot point, and he’s written some of the scariest and most satisfying episodes of modern Who. He brilliantly eschewed romance for the Doctor largely by embracing it, creating Professor River Song, a time-traveling archeologist, not to mention the Doctor’s would-be assassin and eventual wife, that habitually meets the Doctor “in the wrong order,” so that most of the snuggly stuff is implied.
Sometimes accused of writing sexist material or being straight up misogynist, Moffat has nevertheless written nothing but multifaceted and formidable female characters during his era, notably companions Amy Pond and Clara Oswald. Clara’s significance in the show waxed enough that some grumbled the show was becoming Clara Who, and to be fair, she does end up with her own TARDIS and companion. He also created Silurian consulting detective Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny, a brilliant play on Sherlock Holmes and Watson. (While showrunning Sherlock contemporaneously with Doctor Who. He really loves the meta references, kids.) Again with the meta, there’s Osgood, a member of UNIT who is something of a proxy for Doctor Who fans, as she’s a fan of the Doctor within the show, even dressing like different incarnations just like I do every day. And then there’s the Doctor’s immortal frenemy Ashildr, whose journey from a wide-eyed Viking storyteller into a jaded, undying mastermind is one of the highlights of the excellent series 9. Even his non-recurring characters like Madame de Pompadour and Sally Sparrow are memorable. We’ll have to see how the Twelfth Doctor’s new companion Bill works out, but she will be the first gay full-time, onscreen companion on the Doctor’s adventures, which is an auspicious start.
More to the point, Moffat has very obviously and deliberately laid the foundation for a female Doctor – first by establishing a gender switch during regeneration is possible in dialogue (2013’s Night of the Doctor mini-episode), then making it happen. The first time, it was offscreen, as a surprise with the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master, and then in front of us, with the Time Lord military commander the General. When the General regenerated for the tenth time in “Hell Bent,” he went from an older white man into a younger black woman. As a nice touch, afterwards, she remarked, “Oh, back to normal, am I? The only time I’ve been a man, that last body. Dear Lord, how do you cope with all that ego?” – somewhat addressing the likelihood of the Doctor, who has had 13 regenerations into a white male body, ever fitting into a different demographic. It’s simply a coin toss, and the Doctor’s just had an unusual run of white male sides up.
The General was a surprise, but it was really just explicitly confirming what Moffat established by reintroducing the Doctor’s one true archenemy as a Time Lady. Once the deliriously wicked villain Missy revealed herself as the Master after months of furious fandom speculation, even though there was (and continues to be) a great froth of controversy about the Doctor making such a transformation, it really went over very well. That’s largely down to Michelle Gomez’s Missy being simply sublime. As I finished the episode where we find out though, I realized how sad I was. I know, that’s pathetic for a variety of reasons. I could intellectualize it, but there’s no point. A TV show had broken my heart. And as I sat with those feelings, I began to realize why.
I was hurt because:
What I thought I knew about the show, about my beloved characters didn’t matter.
My beloved characters didn’t need my permission to exist, evolve, and change. The artists and writers in charge of them certainly didn’t.
What mattered to me was not more important than what mattered to other fans, whether they were fans for 50 years or 5 minutes or 5 years from now.
What I thought didn’t matter because what was on the screen worked anyway.
And then I got over it.
When I think about what I wrote in my wrong-headed diatribe about the Doctor necessarily being a dude, I pale at how much I set my feelings ahead of any other possible consideration. Like the possibility that while the Doctor had always been a father figure to me, he could be just as special for someone else if he regenerated as a woman. Like the potential of such a high profile, beloved character – for an institutional show geared towards children, no less — who transcended gender binaries.** I had rationalized that a female Doctor was just hedging against creating more interesting female characters in the show, but that willfully ignored that the Doctor might well become more interesting, important, and relevant in a world where authority no longer defaults to a white male body, at a time when the fight for and consciousness of civil rights for LGBTQ people is at a turning point all over the world. It’s also an opportunity to look at how our understanding about gender is still evolving, not delivered to us etched into stone tablets, and there’s nothing like a fictional alien to show you what humanity’s really all about.
Plus, not to put to fine a point on it, but the Doctor isn’t for me anymore, and he hasn’t been for a long time. I’m almost forty. And whatever the future of the series, I always have my favorite versions.*** It won’t hurt my childhood if the Doctor changes into something I don’t recognize. That’s something we always hear in the wake of directional changes for beloved franchises, or even just reboots, the idea that doing something more or different will ruin what came before. When MST3K mounted its record-setting Kickstarter to fund a reboot season in late 2015, many MSTies excitedly opened their hearts and wallets, but I also had a friend wish doom upon it, saying that if they brought it back, they’d just ruin it. How can they ruin it? Even if the new episodes were terrible, you’ll always have The Final Sacrifice and Manos. How could they make Red Zone Cuba worse? (And if they had that power, could we find a way to weaponize it?) Seriously, what sort of selfish, hostage-taking passion is this?
The truth is that characters and stories that are going to last must be reinterpreted to survive, especially in the evanescent world of visual media. We all have ideas of perfect books, video games, movies, TV series that couldn’t possibly need reinterpretation or reinvention. I can’t imagine someone other than Peter Falk playing Columbo. But I also know that one day, someone will. It’s not a sad thing. I can still watch the detective spar with Robert Culp in my memory if it ever comes to that. But sometimes the best way to get eyes on and resources to a beloved production of the past is to recapitulate it with new blood. Remakes and reboots don’t happen just because Hollywood is out of ideas. It’s also how we carry forward to a new generation. I’m a Gen Xer with a baby. In her room, you’ll find books and toys based on Star Wars, Doctor Who, and My Little Pony, but they’re not the same Star Wars, Doctor Who, and My Little Pony you would have found in my room as a child. Actually, they’re better.
It’s worth remembering, too, that stories with staying power are bigger on the inside. Reinterpretations are inevitable, and some just as inevitably won’t work, but a good story is stronger than any one depiction. How many productions of Hamlet have there been? Christopher Nolan wants to make a realistic Batman? Fine. There’s room. Batman will also be Ben Affleck and Lego. So many Batmen. Your essential idea of Batman will probably still be valid in 25 or 50 years, and you can look at any of these versions of Batman and see them for what they are: versions. To riff on a popular meme about civil rights: a Batman for others doesn’t mean less Batman for you. He’s not pie. And as Steven Moffat observed, discussing the Doctor Who fandom rejecting the reveal of the Doctor’s name in a Tom Baker episode:
There’s a Tom Baker story called The Armageddon Factor, and sometime during it, the Doctor runs into an old friend from Gallifrey called Drax. And shockingly, right in the middle of a story, with no fanfare or fuss, we found out the Doctor’s real name. No really, that was a thing that happened.
Ready for it? The name of the Doctor? Okay.
Yeah, rubbish, isn’t it?
But here’s what happened – the audience turned politely away, and ignored it. If Head Canons had doors you’d have heard every one in the world slam shut in that moment. Just a great big, “Nope, you’re not allowed to do that!”
In later years, the show got in line with its audience, and ‘Theta Sigma’ was retconned away as a nickname in The Happiness Patrol, but the lesson remains: showrunners beware, your powers are weak. If you ever doubt that Doctor Who belongs to its audience before anyone else, remember the case of Theta Sigma.
He’s right. Showrunners have limited power to affect lasting change without the consent of the audience, particularly talking about very established franchises like Doctor Who. When Moffat leaves Doctor Who at the end of series 10, future showrunners might, for example, forget River Song ever existed, especially if the audience doesn’t care to see her again. But I would make the distinction that while Doctor Who belongs to its audience, it belongs equally to every audience it ever has had or ever will have. That is how stories survive. We’re all stories in the end.
In the fandom, there is the idea that “your” Doctor is your first Doctor. For me and much of the planet, that would be Tom Baker, who played the role the longest to date and for decades enjoyed incontestable popularity in the role. I do love him very much. But the Capaldi Doctor is my Doctor because he’s everything I’ve ever loved about the Doctor now, while reflecting a better world than the one I grew up in. Capaldi is an actor worth putting your phone down for, effortlessly filtering aspects of the Doctor’s jostling personas like a prism. His Doctor is a New Who version of Classic Who, clearly informed by the lifelong love of the Doctor by geeks done good (notably Capaldi himself, a Whovian of legendary dorkiness, and Moffat), who grew up to hold the keys to TARDIS. He is alien, prickly, ancient, scary, brilliant, and very funny. Also kind of an old guy, good for the whole father figure thing. I still don’t really want the Doctor to ever be anything else. But if you really love something, you have to let it reboot.
*The website was gaming website Angry Cuddles, which has regenerated into Gutter Nerds (no relation). The article was on the old site and is no longer linkable. I’m not exactly sorry about that.
** I do not mean to slight Deep Space Nine’s Dax. Everybody loves Dax.
*** This is especially true of Doctors Who, many of whom have continued in the role in full cast Big Finish audio productions, to say nothing of comics, novels, and the occasional multi-Doctor story on the telly.
Peter Capaldi has announced that the upcoming series of Doctor Who will be his last, and Angela appreciates your thoughts during this difficult time.