July 16th, 2017 proved a momentous day for Whovians the world over. Not only were we introduced to the thirteenth Doctor, but it was the day we learned that everyone’s favorite Time Lord had, indeed, become a Time Lady. However, amidst the shock and excitement, Jodie Whittaker’s reveal prompted the posting of countless comments and videos with content ranging from rude to outright sexist. This post is for those fans as well as any fans who find themselves concerned with what a female lead could do to the show.
It pays to remember that sci-fi has a long and proud history of challenging social norms in ways that, plainly, would not work in other genres. Be it with diversity in the casting of lead roles, (Uhura and Sulu, Star Trek) or broader commentary on society in general as explored in Orwell’s 1984. As one of the BBC’s longest-running shows Dr. Who is no different.
Although, even some hardcore Whovians may be surprised to learn that Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, and others, dreamt up the BBC classic as a purely educational program. The Doctor would use his phone box time machine to travel through the past and teach young viewers about history. This idea got scrapped after the show aired in 1963 in favor of a science fiction adventure. However, Dr. Who has never abandoned its educational mission.
Classic Who, (1963-1989), is beloved by many for its campy nature. But, hidden beneath the comically simple props and delightfully over the top characters, are some rather weighty truths concerning human nature, equality and the importance of not taking oneself so seriously. It is within Classic Who that we also meet the show’s first Time Lady. Susan. The Doctor’s granddaughter. She traveled with him regularly from episode one (An Unearthly Child) until she was left in the 22nd century at the denouement of The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964). Susan paved the way for many more Time Ladies within the original series and set a precedent for their roles in the reboot.
The 2005 reboot introduced legions of would-be fans to the Whoverse turning the beloved British institution into a worldwide phenomenon. With this new audience came, better graphics, more laughably absurd villains, and a renewed willingness to confront the issues of today. Doctor’s nine through twelve carried on a long tradition of boldness, when they championed the sanctity of all life, regardless of race, creed or culture. Why? Because that is what doctors do, they educate, and they heal.
Anyone who chooses to regard Ms. Whittaker’s casting as little more than ‘bending the knee’ to feminism betrays their ignorance regarding the show. Setting aside the fact that The Doctor is a fictional character and that the transition to a female Doctor has been in the works since Tennant, I assert that Thirteen is a woman because she needs to be. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past several decades, or more recently 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, you will have noticed the rising tide of people who refuse to remain marginalized. A show as beloved as Dr. Who has the responsibility to take a stand on the issues and let the world know: ‘We hear you; you are not alone.’ Don’t like that? Well, don’t let the T.A.R.D.I.S. door hit you on the way out.
To the fans who worry Thirteen will become a license for clique and misandry, I encourage you to be like the Doctor and choose hope. Give the new kids a chance. Adjusting to both a new lead and a new producer, (Chris Chibnall), is undoubtedly a tall order. However, if we can withstand the mistreated characters, convoluted plot lines, and abandoned story arcs hurled at us during Moffet’s reign of terror, we can survive anything.
Moreover, Chibnall and the BBC announced plans, back in November of 2016, to bring in all new writers. The goal is clear, a new show with a strong revival of the Tennant era format.[i] Season eleven is a fresh start, not abandonment. If you are someone who prefers more concrete evidence, take a stroll through the plethora of praise and well wishes offered to Chibnall and Whittaker by Dr. Who alums. Or better yet, rewatch reaction videos from reveal day. The sheer joy is contagious.
And while she will likely never see it, I would like to decorate the closing of this piece to Ms. Whittaker herself. Thank you for choosing to take up the mantle and guide the show into a new era. Whether you realize it or not, you are already fulfilling your role by offering us something we desperately need. Hope. Hope that our show can return to its roots; but most of all, hope that one day the adage ‘you can be anything you want to be’ will ring true for us all.