The BBC announced yesterday that next year, the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor (not including the War Doctor) of Doctor Who after Peter Capaldi leaves the show will be Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to headline the iconic series. I don’t know anything about Jodie Whittaker. I haven’t seen or even really heard of any of her previous film credits, the same as all the previous Doctors before I saw them in action. I do wish her luck in her new role.
However, I wanted to address what I saw as a strange reaction, namely, that “some fans of the show” are unhappy that the new Doctor is a woman. There are several pieces of this I want to unpack to explain why this should not be controversial, and also, in my opinion, why it may be partially manufactured.
I’ll take the last point first. These kinds of stories crop up every few months when some new movie or television show causes controversy with its perceived diversity casting. The thing is, I’m not convinced I see it. In most cases (the exception being when historical accuracy is a factor), I strongly suspect that this response comes from a small minority of the fan base.
Consider: “a minority of fans” objected to casting black actor Michael B. Jordan as the traditionally white character Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four. But most fans merely shrugged and judged that the film was awful on its merits, and it now sits at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. It takes more than one bad casting call to do that. In contrast, “a flurry of racist tweets” decried Star Wars Episode VII for casting black actor John Boyega as the Stormtrooper Finn. Most fans shrugged and judged that it was pretty good, and it was wildly successful. Beauty and the Beast (which I did not see) caused “international controversy” for including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a gay character. It was also wildly successful. And on and on. It always seems to be a small, but vocal group of people speaking out, and the bottom line is, most fans don’t care.
Now, on the subject of the Doctor in particular being a woman, this shouldn’t be a big deal for the simple reason that Doctor Who has been teasing this since New Year’s Day of 2010 when the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) mistakenly proclaimed “I’m a girl!” upon noticing his “long” hair in “The End of Time”. Later, in “The Doctor’s Wife” in 2011, we heard mention of a Time Lord regenerating into the opposite gender offscreen. And long-time villain the Master reappeared as the female Missy (and spectacularly, at that) in 2014, and I didn’t hear much complaining then. This should not be a surprise.
Finally, and most importantly, the whole point of the Doctor is that you can replace the actor every few years, and the show stays the same. The Doctor is a space alien who regenerates when he dies into a new person with a different personality, but with the same basic drive: “Planets to save, civilisations to rescue, creatures to defeat and an awful lot of running to do.”
That’s what has kept the show running and beloved by fans for over fifty years. Doctor Who isn’t about a man. It’s about an immensely powerful alien being who condescends to spend his time with us humans, take us with him to explore the universe, and saves anyone who needs help, and that’s something much bigger than an individual actor’s or actress’s portrayal. And if it sounds like I’m spinning in a few religious overtones, that’s no accident. See my previous post on that subject.
At the end of the day, even if this is a case of jumping on the feminist bandwagon, it works in Doctor Who. I would even go so far as to say the show is uniquely suited to it because it doesn’t matter if the Doctor is a man or a woman as long as they are the Doctor. So again, I say to Ms. Whittaker: Good luck.
And don’t blink.