The Depressing, Disappointing Maleness of Doctor Who's New Time Lord

The show's mythology allows its hero to change gender and race, but its showrunner passed on tackling its history of sexism—and on getting a much-needed new energy.
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Scottish actor Peter Capaldi will be the Twelfth Doctor in the long-running British sci-fi classic. (AP / Joel Ryan)

Brain-teaser time. If you've heard this one before, please bear with me.

A father and son are involved in a car crash. The father is killed; the son is critically injured and is rushed to a hospital. The doctor on duty in the emergency room takes one look at him and says, "I can't operate on him because he's my son."

How is this possible? The answer is simple: The doctor is the kid's mother.

The degree to which one struggles with this riddle is a pretty fair indicator of how far the insidious cultural marinade known as The Patriarchy has penetrated your brain. How conditioned are you to assume that anyone with the title "doctor" is male, even in the absence of gender-specific pronouns?

When it comes to casting the iconic role of the Doctor in the long-running British sci-fi classic Doctor Who, it seems the BBC is still operating under a similar assumption. On Sunday, in a 30-minute special that also aired on BBC America, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi was announced as the Twelfth Doctor. Yep, yet another white British dude--when, within the rules set out during the tenure of current showrunner Steven Moffat, both race and gender are a toss-up when members of the Doctor's species "regenerate." (Only the British part should never change. An American or Australian Doctor would just be weird.)

The anticipation for this announcement had been building for weeks. Shortly after the conclusion of the revived Doctor Who's seventh season (which I and others found to be a major disappointment), Matt Smith announced that he would be leaving the role of the Doctor. He'll be in two more episodes as the Eleventh Doctor: November's 50th Anniversary special, in which he'll share top billing with his predecessor, David Tennant's Tenth Doctor; and the Christmas special, during which, at some point, he'll die and "regenerate" into Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor.

That declaration set off feverish speculation on the Internet. Capaldi's name had been kicked about (Moffat says he had been considered for the Eleventh Doctor), even though he's sort of on the famous side compared to what the other 11 actors had accomplished before taking the role. This flurry of rumor-mongering and wishful thinking is something of a tradition in Britain, where Doctor Who is mainstream pop culture, not niche geek culture as it is in the U.S.

But this time around, there was a difference: A good deal of the discussion about who the next Doctor would be has included the possibility of a woman taking on the role.

Moffat has come in for plenty of justified criticism for his portrayal of women on the show. As The Idiot Box blog observed, even in a program that was already "structurally sexist" (i.e., the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between the male Doctor and his usually female companion), Moffat's handling of his female leads made matters much worse. River Song, Amy Pond, Clara Oswald--all of them were mysteries for the Doctor to solve, instead of simply people. As The Idiot Box succinctly puts it: "When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who, women became a problem."

But he, along with writer Neil Gaiman, is responsible for the episode "The Doctor's Wife," which established as an in-universe fact that the Doctor's species, the Time Lords, can change gender when they regenerate. Moffat has been quoted as saying that a woman could play the role. Indeed, in the 1999 parody special he penned, "Curse of the Fatal Death" (about 95 percent of which is thuddingly unfunny, despite an all-star cast), the Doctor's last regeneration is female: the absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley.

So, to use the term that pithily establishes geekdom as a religion, the potential for the Doctor to be a woman is now "canon."

Having a woman as the smartest, bravest person in the universe, being able to fix any problem, save the world with her wits, a magical vehicle, and boundless courage--who wouldn't want to watch that show?

The official announcement of the program also quite obviously--and ungrammatically--tiptoed around the gender of the new Doctor. "[T]he special's host Zoe Ball will unveil the Twelfth Doctor in their first ever interview in front of a live studio audience." Note "their" first-ever interview. Curse the English language and its lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun! Meanwhile, BBC.com was running an oddly worded poll. "Who do you think will become the famous Time Lord?" it asked, and then gave four choices, with only two variables: A male or a female actor, and whether or not that actor had already appeared on Doctor Who. (If that second part seems weird, you should know that Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, had actually guest starred on the show before assuming the lead.)

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Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor based in Southern California. He is the former editor of OC Weekly and has written for The Los Angeles TimesOutside Traveler, and American Way.

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