When Tom Baker announced he was to leave Doctor Who in 1980, he caused a sensation by suggesting his successor in the lead role could be a woman. Almost forty years later, I would venture more sensation would be caused if the BBC were to say that Peter Capaldi’s replacement, the Thirteenth Doctor, would definitely not be a woman. Baker’s tongue-in-cheek mischievous suggestion is now very much on the cards – and I would say is a matter of when; not if.
I must confess to being a complete philistine on this; I have never thought that ‘regenderation’ would be a good idea. The main reason is basically character continuity; that it is much harder to imagine someone being fundamentally the same character when they have also changed genders, given that gender (a topic so deep that it deserves a blog of its own!) is so integral to a person’s identity and character.
Nevertheless, outgoing show runner Steven Moffat has put gender change for Time Lords squarely on the agenda. Knowing that Doctor Who possesses the most temperamental fanbase in the world, (a fan stranded on a desert island would disagree with himself over which Dalek story was the best), it required an incremental approach – summarised in four broad jumps:
- David Tennant regenerates into Matt Smith at the end of the Series 4 Specials. Upon discovering his long hair, Smith’s Doctor exclaims “I’m a girl!” The seed of the idea is planted.
- In Series 6 story “The Doctor’s Wife”, the Doctor refers to a Time Lord called the Corsair, who was “once or twice a woman.” The idea now germinates into a premise: Time Lords can switch between genders.
- Series 8 introduces us to a mysterious villain styling herself as “Missy” portrayed by Michelle Gomez. In the season double-header finale we discover that Missy is short for “Mistress”, and that she is none other than the Doctor’s old enemy the Master, regenerated into a female form. The premise is now a fact – a Time Lord who was once a man could become a woman.
- In the Series 9 finale “Hell Bent” it is confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that this applies to all Time Lords (the Master has past form for pinching the bodies of other people…long story). A Gallifreyian general regenerates from an old white male, into a younger black woman. Fact established – a Time Lord’s gender and race are not fixed from birth.
With this groundwork established, it matters little what I (or indeed any other Doctor Who fan) think about regenderation. By the clear rules established by the official series writers any Time Lord can regenerate into a woman, (or conversely, any Time Lady can regenerate into a man). The Doctor is able to become a woman, and that means that sooner or later we must have a female Doctor.
The reasoning behind this is straightforward enough. Marvellous strides have been taken to promote gender equality and to break down unfair barriers to women achieving their full potential, not least initiatives like ‘This Girl Can.’ So long as the writers could plausibly say “Ah, but Time Lords must stay their own gender” they didn’t need to heed the pressure to cast a female actor in the leading role. Now that it has been established that the Doctor could be female, the BBC face a massive image problem. Fail to appoint a female Doctor, and the accusation will be that the sexist BBC don’t think women are good enough for the role. That is what’s called “a P.R. Nightmare.”
Changing the lead actor is not a new problem. Even when the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, was replaced in 1966 by Patrick Troughton, fans protested that they had ruined the show. Troughton deserves eternal credit for demonstrating that the role could be played not just by a different actor, but in a different way, while also preserving the core personality of the Doctor. Gender regeneration would be a challenge just as great, and I do not envy the actor who would take on that challenge, knowing they would face far more scrutiny in the role than any equivalent male actor.
While I am prepared for this change, I don’t think it’s likely to go well. Michelle Gomez is fantastic as “Missy” but she’s disastrous as “The Master.” It’s nothing to do with her characterisation, lines, or acting ability (all very good) – and everything to do with being unable to see the original Master in her presentation. I also think they have left too many loose ends unexplained. If Time Lords can change gender, why are they predominantly men? Why has the Doctor never been a woman before now? Yes, all of these can be explained in terms of chauvinistic production values, but in terms of the in-universe narrative there is no pleasing explanation yet. Which creates another PR problem if the first female Doctor becomes written off as ‘the token female’ when she’s replaced by a man.
Lots of questions remain, but the one thing that is for certain is that Doctor Who fans need to prepare for a female Doctor in the near future – possibly even as soon as Series 11 in 2018…