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.
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."
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.)
It turns out that the "already appeared on Doctor Who" thing was the real tell, hinting at Capaldi, who's perhaps best known for his role in the British TV comedy series The Thick of It and its follow-up movie, In the Loop. While I haven't seen those, I can say that Capaldi's work in the Doctor Who episode "The Fires of Pompeii" was solid. His guest-starring role in "Children of Earth," the miniseries of Doctor Who's more grown-up spin-off, Torchwood, was absolutely devastating. The sense of guilt, shame, doom, and desperation he conveyed in that part, combined with the goofy faces he pulled when considering taking a bite of Hugh Grant way back in the camp horror flick The Lair of the White Worm, convince me that he's got both the comic and dramatic chops necessary to pull off a convincing Doctor. He's also a lifelong fan of the show, and Scottish, two traits he shares with my favorite doctor, Tennant.
And yet, not taking a bolder leap in the casting and switching up the gender and/or race of the Doctor feels like a missed opportunity. The Feminism of Doctor Who Tumblr, in anticipation of the announcement, ran a feature called The Time Lady Project, which suggested dozens of potential actresses who could play the part. Some of these were pie-in-the-sky because they were such big stars (Tilda Swinton, Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson), but many of them were in that really-good-but-not-too-big-to-commit-to Who's-grueling-schedule range. And 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?
But instead, another white guy. The structural sexism of the show remains intact. As this will be the first-ever real-time regeneration since I've become a fan, it's a bit of a letdown. Like many American sci-fi devotees of a certain age, I knew the rudiments of Doctor Who from childhood, but I really only had clear memories of one Doctor from that era: Tom Baker, the one with the supersized scarf, crazy hair, goggle eyes, and big teeth. I remember enough creepy monsters that actually killed people--like the shambling robot mummies from "Pyramids of Mars"--that the original theme song still gives me goosebumps.
I started DVRing the rebooted version of Doctor Who in 2012; I got tired of skipping over the Who-related posts on my favorite geek-culture blogs and decided to see what the fuss was all about. "Asylum of the Daleks," the premiere episode of season 7 (or as the BBC calls it, "series 7"), was the first NuWho I ever saw. What followed was my own journey through the peculiar spatio-temporal anomaly known as Amazon Prime to get caught up on everything from the 2005 restart of the show to the present--while watching the first half of the seventh season as it aired. I've also filled in some (but not all) of the blanks in my Classic Who knowledge, including such amazing stories as the Second Doctor's "The Tomb of the Cybermen," the Fourth's "City of Death," and the Seventh's "The Curse of Fenric."
It's been a lot to digest in such a short span of time. I remain impressed with the show's ability to continually reinvent itself, and to explore grown-up themes like loss, sacrifice, and responsibility, while also making fart jokes. But the plot-driven contortions, telling vs. showing, and dispiriting misogyny of the Moffat era have been wearying. Flipping the power-imbalanced relationship between a male Doctor and a female companion could have given the show a jolt of new energy and perhaps taken the storytelling in unexpected directions.
Of course, maybe it's for the best that the first female Doctor isn't in the hands of the current showrunner. During the regeneration of Mels into River Song, after all, we were treated to such Moffaty gems as her "focusing on a dress size," weighing herself, and going shopping.