Saturday night’s special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ marks the official 50th anniversary of the world’s longest-running television science fiction/fantasy series, Doctor Who, which was first broadcast on 23 November 1963. Any tv series that reaches its Golden Jubilee has become more than just a tv series: Doctor Who is nothing less than a cultural institution. And today the series is as popular and successful as it has ever been, exported worldwide and the BBC’s leading ‘global brand’.
One of the reasons for Doctor Who’s longevity has been its ability to renew and refresh itself, and a cornerstone of this strategy has been the device of ‘regeneration’ that allows the Doctor to change his physical appearance – and thus facilitate the casting of a new star. This was not planned from the start: in 1963 the whole mythology of the Time Lords had yet to be invented and the Doctor – memorably played in those early years by the marvellous William Hartnell – was a more mysterious character than he is today. It was Hartnell’s deteriorating health that in 1966 forced the production team to recast the lead role. At the end of ‘The Tenth Planet’ the old Doctor announced that ‘this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin’ and changed into Patrick Troughton.
Since then there have been another nine Doctors and the concept of regeneration – including the lore that a Time Lord has thirteen lives – has become part of the mythos of Doctor Who. One of the many ways in which this year marks a ‘first’ will be that we will have two regenerations. Already, in the online mini-episode ‘The Night of the Doctor’, we’ve seen the regeneration of the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) into John Hurt, while the Christmas special will see the end of Matt Smith’s reign as the Eleventh Doctor and his regeneration into Peter Capaldi.
A question that has often been raised is whether or not the Doctor might regenerate into a woman. This first arose when Tom Baker was leaving the series and mischievously suggested that the next Doctor might be female. It’s been mooted often enough since. In fact there was once a female Doctor, Joanna Lumley, in ‘Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death’, but this Comic Relief special from 1999 is generally deemed non-canonical, despite having been written by current Who showrunner Steven Moffat.
I think one of the reasons why the question of a female Doctor has become such a talking point is due in some measure to the alleged sexism of Doctor Who. Although a site of progressive social politics in many other respects, it would be fair to say that the series cannot entirely escape this charge.
My own view is that it’s highly unlikely that there ever will be a female ‘Doctor Who’. There are two reasons for this. First there is no textual evidence in the series’ past to suggest that Time Lords can change sex when they regenerate. (There is some evidence, though, that they can change race, which raises the possibility of a Black or Asian Doctor …) Of course the series’ mythology is always being reinvented and there’s no reason why this might not change.
More fundamentally, though, a female Doctor would fundamentally alter the outlook of the series. When the series was commissioned in 1963, the writers worked on the assumption that girl viewers would identify with either a male or a female hero but that boys would only identify with a male. This tended to enforce the characterisation of the Who ‘girls’ as screamers and (if I can use the term) eye-candy. When the character of scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John) was introduced opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in 1970 as a deliberate counterweight to this stereotype, the result was less than entirely successful because the traditional role of the companion – to ask questions and make the Doctor look clever – was undermined.
Doctor Who has generally been at its best when we’ve had the Doctor accompanied by one companion. The role of the companion has been to act as a surrogate for the audience. They might be intelligent in their own right, such as Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith, or spunky, such as Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, but their role is fundamentally to act as an ‘ordinary’ counterweight to the extraordinary (and alien) Doctor. If the best companions have been female, this is largely because the companion is expected to show empathy, such as Rose feeling sorry for the last Dalek in ‘Dalek’ (2005). And this is a role that sits more easily with women than with men. When there has been a male companion, such as Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) in the 1960s, theirs has been an action role – which rather undermines the authority of the Doctor himself.
This might also reflect a wider issue about the representation of ‘strong’ women in popular culture. It’s always seemed curious to me that action heroines in science fiction such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien films and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 have only been able to display their strength by adopting masculine characteristics and in a sense denying their femininity. And the last thing I (and I suspect many fans) would want to see is a gun-toting, shaven-headed, female ‘Doctor Who’!
If there ever is to be a female Doctor, then someone like Emma Peel of The Avengers or Buffy Summers would probably be the way to go, women who are able to project strength and intelligence without losing their essential femininity.
Ultimately, though, Doctor Who is a series with broad-based popular appeal, including to both adults and children, and while many adult viewers might be willing to accept a female Doctor, I’m not sure the eight-year-old boy in me would!
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History (I. B. Tauris, 2nd edn 2013).