The Doctor’s a Woman and the Master is Dead: Thoughts on the Future of Doctor Who

Warning: don’t read past this sentence if you don’t want spoilers for series ten (that’s the one that just ended) of “Doctor Who”. That being said, let’s talk about a few things…

“Doctor Who” is a unique television program in that it has fifty-four years and thirty-five seasons’ worth of canon. And over the past two weeks, two of the biggest changes in the history of the show have been made to that canon. The first is that in the series ten finale, “The Doctor Falls”, the Master’s entire canon (which started in 1971) was closed when the Master and Missy killed each other, leaving Missy unable to regenerate from the intensity of the blast that killed her. So even though it’s possible to revisit just about any character in “Doctor Who” (the Master was seanced back to life during Tennant’s era, remember), it seems that the arc is intended to be closed permanently. And Steven Moffat, the showrunner until Christmas 2017 and writer of “The Doctor Falls”, hasn’t really said anything to the contrary.

The second and slightly larger change that just happened was that it was announced that the next Doctor after Peter Capaldi’s will be played by Jodie Whittaker (who most recently played Danny’s mother on “Broadchurch”), which means that the Doctor will be a woman for the first time ever. This has excited many fans while horrifying several classic Who actors, most notably Peter Purves, who played Steven, the first non-original companion, alongside William Hartnell, the first Doctor. And I have to say, I tend to agree with him. But not because I’m a dude and I want to be down with women in lead roles. Let me explain.

The entire half-century that “Doctor Who” has been on the air, the Doctor has been played by a man. The possibility of a Time Lord changing genders is not new to the show, and it’s not something Moffat or Russell T. Davies, the showrunner before Moffat, made up for new Who. It’s something that was introduced in 1969, when the Time Lords first caught the Doctor after he had stolen the TARDIS. After sending the second Doctor’s companions back home, they forced him to regenerate in preparation for an exile on earth, but they allowed him the opportunity to choose his next appearance, specifying that he could be old or young, man or woman. After the Doctor refused to regenerate and obey the Time Lords, they forced him to and sent him to earth, starting the third Doctor’s era. But the point is that even back then, and since then, the various showrunners of “Doctor Who” knew that it was an option. And yet in fourteen incarnations, he never changed gender. And why not? It’s because for the setup the show had, the main character was better off being a man for the good of a show. There are shows in which a woman is better off being the lead. But “Doctor Who” is not one of them.

Now, my opinion here doesn’t really matter, since the decision’s already been made. But think about how the fanbase will react. There was a near-riot when it was revealed that the Master had become a woman back in series eight, but it was only Michelle Gomez’s fantastic performance as Missy that was able to pull it off, added to the fact that the Master is important to Who canon, but he/she is not the Doctor, so there was a little more flexibility there. The Master can leave the show at any point if something isn’t working. The character of the Doctor can’t afford that luxury.

After twelve years, even the new Who fanbase has become accustomed to the Doctor being a male. And while a large portion of that fanbase has pushed and now cheered for this gender change, most of them don’t realise yet that they’re going to judge the show the same way they always have, but changing the gender of the Doctor changes the entire way one has to look at the show, not because one sex is better than the other, but because now the Doctor has gone through such a major change that the entire dynamic of his (or now her) interactions with every other character in the show, whether villain or companion, will be entirely transformed. It works the same way if two main characters on a show get married, or if a main character has children: a major part of who that character is has been changed, and that means that the show will have to work differently as the character will have to be viewed in a different light. But because the Doctor has always been a man, there’s no precedent for looking at him/her in a different light because there’s never been a need to, so regardless of the actress playing the character, I think that the fanbase won’t know how to adjust to that kind of change and will begin to leave the show because they don’t know how to see a character as firmly unchanging as the Doctor from this entirely new perspective. And for anyone wanting to say “but remember all those references the Doctor and Missy made to the Doctor possibly being a girl at some point”, come on. The first Doctor acknowledged he was the first, the fifth Doctor spelled out how many regenerations he had left, making him the fifth, and the eleventh Doctor explained why he was the thirteenth incarnation. It’s been spelled out plainly that all of the Doctor’s incarnations have been displayed on-screen. Besides, Missy is insane. Everybody knows that.

Honestly, it makes sense from Moffat and Chibnall’s (the showrunner starting in 2018) point of view to do this now. Chibnall has just finished up “Broadchurch”, which Whittaker played a main character in, so they’ve already worked together for years just on that show. I imagine that series eleven of “Doctor Who” could very easily see a lot of guest appearances from “Broadchurch” actors (does that mean a possible David Tennant return? Probably not, but that’s another speculation for another day). Moffat,  a few years ago, loosely threw out the year 2020 as a practical year for “Doctor Who” to end, and he’s right, especially if the ratings go sour from fan dropoff due to the female Doctor. So whether Whittaker is successful or not, they might as well try it, right? Add that to the fact that with the exception of the ninth, every new Who Doctor has lasted for three seasons, and what year does three seasons from now put us at? Well, 2020. Chibnall has written for “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” (DW’s most notable spinoff) in the past, so he’s familiar with the Whoniverse, and it would make sense for him to pilot the show to its conclusion with an actress he’s familiar with while both of them look for their next big starring role, knowing that “Doctor Who” won’t last for either of them, at least not as long as a show like “Broadchurch” would. So while looking for the next “Broadchurch”, “Doctor Who” keeps them acting/showrunning while they look for the next big move in their respective careers.

Remember that new Who went two and a half series’ without the Master before reintroducing him, and occasionally in classic Who, the gaps between appearances from him were wider than that. Additionally, Michelle Gomez feels that Missy was so integral to Capaldi’s Doctor and vice versa that she is not returning as Missy. So it’s perfectly feasible to go three seasons without the Master before ending the show.

One more thing to mention that may drive fans away is how the companions will be handled. Male companions have always been in the background in new Who, but now that the Doctor’s a woman, will we have a main male companion? Either way, this breaks down the relationship that viewers always expect between the Doctor and his companions. In classic Who, it felt like the companions were the Doctor’s partners rather than sidekicks, with a mix of male and female, human and alien companions. The companions could look out for themselves but at the same time worked with the Doctor to get a job done (of course, Adric is an exception, and he died for his stupidity). In new Who, the Doctor is portrayed more as a guardian of the companions, looking for friendship in the absence of Time Lords, which still works, because even if most of the companion’s selling points fail, the showrunners can always fall back on the fact that the Doctor is a grandfather, and he can always revert back to that state to protect the companions and grow the relationship with them (this aspect carried most of Clara and Bill’s time in the TARDIS, since they were both lacking companions). But if the Doctor’s a woman, that aspect is gone. A grandfather/granddaughter relationship is not the same as grandmother/grandson or grandmother/granddaughter, and besides that, Whittaker is in her thirties, so we’ve not ever seen the Doctor as a motherly or grandmotherly figure.

In short, all of this can be summed up by saying that we as the audience have no context or background to draw from in order to appreciate this new incarnation, because everything about the Doctor’s personality, his relationships, the way he handles and processes things, and everything else has been from the eyes of a man, and that’s just not the same as it is from the eyes of a woman. If “Doctor Who” had always had a woman lead and now wanted to switch to a man, I’d say the same thing, just reversed. The proof will be in the pudding that will be series eleven, but my bet is on the show declining in popularity and ending in 2020, if it’s not unlucky enough to have to end in 2019. No show has a fanbase that will accept a change that huge after either twelve or fifty-four years of loyalty. Will Whittaker be bad at being the Doctor? Probably not. But the truth is that her acting skill is irrelevant in the scope of something this huge to the show.

Of course, these are all my opinions, and I like nothing better than to talk about different sides of a show and look at different angles and perspectives. That’s what this blog is all about after all. So, as always, what do you think?

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