Doctor Who has finally cast a female lead, and it’s proven to be as controversial as you’d expect. Or has it? There’s no denying the BBC made history with the announcement that Jodie Whittaker would be taking over the controls of the TARDIS as the new Doctor; the 13th official iteration of the Time Lord, she’ll regenerate from Peter Capaldi in this year’s Christmas special, marking the first time the character’s been played by a woman.
As you can imagine, such a major change up has stirred up plenty of animated discussion online. Doctor Who is a show with over fifty years of lore and incredibly dedicated fans of all descriptions who object to pretty much every recasting of their favorite Time Lord, so something this seismic would surely only create more upset than normal. And you can feel it – whenever people discuss Whittaker’s casting, it seems to center on not just her gender, but her gender in relation to a negative reaction.
But is there actually a substantial backlash from any mobilized corner of the fanbase? Shortly after the announcement, many started pointing out the number of comments criticizing those bemoaning the change appeared to actually outnumber the “Doctor Who, not Doctor Womb” tirades. Let’s take a rational look at the “controversy” and see how much of it really holds up.
All The Ways Doctor Who Set This Up
What makes the idea of any fan backlash so strange is how Doctor Who‘s been explicitly positioning itself for this for a good few years.
The notion of a female Doctor dates back decades, with members of the fan community expecting it all the way back when Tom Baker regenerated. Since then it’s been a major topic of discussion, even getting parodied in Red Nose Day skit “The Curse of Fatal Death” where the Doctor’s final (and, ironically enough, 13th) form was Joanna Lumley. The 21st Century reboot actually made consolations for it quite early on too, with Tennant at one point claiming it was “distantly possible” and Smith’s immediate reaction to longer hair being him exclaiming “I’m a girl” before clutching his Adam’s apple.
It was finally confirmed that Time Lords could change gender upon regeneration in 2011’s Season 6 episode “The Doctor’s Wife”; at the start of the adventure, the Doctor discussed friend The Corsair, saying “The mark of the Corsair. Fantastic bloke. He had that snake as a tattoo in every regeneration. Didn’t feel like himself unless he had the tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times. Ooo, she was a bad girl.” The TARDIS got in trouble before he could elaborate, but over six years before Whittaker’s casting the seeds had been sown.
That this wasn’t just a flippant outside joke was made clear in Season 8 (2014), when Capaldi’s debut year ended with the reveal mysterious Missy was actually the new form of long-standing Time Lord adversary The Master. It was now established the show wasn’t above using it as a major narrative device. Gender permutability was further highlighted in Season 9, which not only increased Missy’s role but also had Time Lord The General regenerate from old man into young woman (and afterward celebrate the return to her original gender).
The teasing got extreme in the latest season. In the finale two-parter, The Master and Missy met, leading to several discussions on gender and its role in Gallifreyan culture. The Doctor remarked to Bill that “We’re the most civilized civilization in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.“, and later when asked by The Master if the future was “all girl” replied, “We can only hope.” These final points are important as they take what could be read as opportunistic and tie it back into the character as originally conceived.
With all that context, it’s amazing a female Doctor was remotely surprising to anybody who’s actually been paying attention. And, if the prospect is objectionable to viewers, then where was the upset at, well, all of this? The Master change was criticized more for how it altered the personality totally independent of gender. It’s almost like the show exists apart from the argument.
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