With Peter Capaldi set to leave Doctor Who at the end of its current season, speculation is rife over who will succeed him at the controls of the TARDIS – but don’t expect the actor to be a woman. The possibility of a female lead for the BBC sci-fi series has been on fans lips for years (it was even joked about in a now-iconic Comic Relief special The Curse of Fatal Death where the parody character eventually regenerated into Joanna Lumley) and each new do-over increases hope. Current showrunner and former super-fan Steven Moffat (who is handing the reins over to Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall after the end of Series 10) in particular has really fanned the flames; he gender-swapped the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis The Master from John Simm to Michelle Gomez and later revealed gender as a fluid concept on homeworld Gallifrey.
As a result, several of the named contenders for Doctor #13 (14 if you count John Hurt’s War Doctor) are women: many initially locked in on Olivia Coleman, especially given her experience with Chibnall (who is in part responsible for the casting), but since the bookies favorites have varied from Tilda Swinton to Hayley Atwell, with Fleabag and Han Solo’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge the most recent front-runner. Unfortunately, while these four and the many others raised (well, perhaps not Miranda Hart) would be great in the role, that simply doesn’t seem likely.
That’s not to say the Doctor will never be female, nor that it would be a bad thing for the show, just that at this point in its history – both the fifty-four years since it was first created and the twelve years of Nu-Who – it isn’t feasible. Here’s why.
A Return to the Status Quo
A female Doctor is going to work with regeneration’s primary purpose of reinvigorating the show and offering a new entrance point for lapsed fans and newcomers – a shake-up like this is the exact sort of thing that will get a curiosity watch at the very least. It’s unlikely to alienate too many die-hards either, given how well Moffat’s efforts in introducing the concept to the mythology have landed; at the time Michelle Gomez was revealed as Missy, it actually felt like they may be prepping for such an eventuality. Besides all that, any inevitable complaints are to be expected. Whoever is cast as the next Doctor, there’s a backlash: Eccleston’s not going to be powerful enough; Tennant’s too boyish; Smith’s too young. In this regard, Capaldi was something of a rarity because he was actually widely praised. If the right person is cast regardless of gender, then they’ll be able to win most people around with their opening episode.
However, the new lead isn’t the only fresh face on the Doctor Who set for Series 11. We’re of course already dealing with an incumbent showrunner who needs to define how he’ll be approaching the series for the next five-or-so years. Chibnall is coming in with the weight of finishing up Broadchurch, and dealing with the fan question of whether any of his previous episodes are actually any good (Moffat entered as one of the most-praised writers of Nu-Who after the likes of “Blink” and “The Doctor Dances”, whereas Chibnall’s have been more generically serviceable). There are bigger concerns than a character’s gender within all that, yet it would be easy for a female Doctor to overshadow them and become the only talking point.
The big issue with a female Doctor is that this regeneration is coming at a questionable time in the show’s history. When Capaldi was hired the show was at a massive peak in popularity. Unknown, youthful Matt Smith had built on the work of zany David Tennant and made the show a cultural phenomenon, culminating in a beloved 50th Anniversary special and fitting regeneration episode that addressed many of the overarching storytelling issues. Capaldi was a big swerve from this: an Old-Who fan and almost twice the age of his predecessor when taking over, he was read by many as a return to the classic era of character and story. This was an older, kookier Doctor who would completely avoid the occasionally controversial romantic links with his companions.
Due to some major writer mistakes – overhangs from Smith’s tenure, an ill-defined personality for the twelfth Doctor, a companion even less interesting, story arcs that belied all in-universe logic – this didn’t land. Capaldi tried his best but couldn’t elevate the material enough, leading to a drop in viewership. As a result, while the impending Series 10 is itself trying to serve as a fresh start, this next regeneration is going to be a major rejig to try and get the show back where it was.
There are, of course, many ways to rekindle the brand – a female lead would in many ways be perfect – but the safest and most likely is that the BBC goes back to the Nu-Who status quo. Different as their nuances may be, Tennant and Smith fit the same mold both in character terms and how they allowed the show to be marketed; their age and style allowed them to appeal to both genders and wide range of fans. The best way to guarantee that and allay fears of multiple seasons with a milder lead is to aim for the multi-quadrant actor with proven qualities.
This line of thinking is evident in the scant official word we have got on the topic from the BBC. Even before Capaldi’s departure it was reported the BBC wanted to revert to how things were, and just recently it was said that they’re looking for “a dashing male actor in his thirties“. That doesn’t just refute a female casting, it says that (coupled with the fact that new companion Pearl Mackie is getting the boot after one season) they’re heading towards a Ten-Rose or Eleven-Amy style dynamic once more.
It’s a corporate decision for sure, which will be a hard pill for some fans to swallow, but there could be a fair creative justification too. Forgoing a knee-jerk sexist response, any female Doctor would face the hurdle of being the first of her kind. When you consider that the writers struggled with reintroducing an older Doctor, how will they cope with defining something that has never been done before?
Addressing Those Betting Odds Issues
Of course, while this argument is logical, it does sidestep a major case for a female doctor: the bookies’ odds. Since Capaldi’s departure has been confirmed, a whole plethora of names have been favorites on betting sites, many of them women. Surely that’s some indication that a female Doctor is a possibility? Not quite.
Bookies’ odds aren’t influenced by insider info – at least, not directly. They’re what the companies believe the chances are, which is a product of all the various reports and how ferocious the current betting is. A leak is one way to tip the scales in someone’s favor, but if a random Joe Public drops a $10,000 bet on an actor to play the part, those odds are going to flatten to avoid an influx of other votes and begrudgingly high payouts. Sometimes these can come from those with some knowledge, but not always – they’re just people trying to game the market.
It’s similar with Bond recasting – just because Idris Elba or Tom Hiddleston or Tom Hardy or anyone else may be at the top of one bookie’s list, EON are still 100% locked in getting Daniel Craig back, so aside from stray comments (see: Sony email hack) and lunch meetings there’s actually nothing to go on. And even if there is insider info, that doesn’t mean it’s going to come to pass; in 2015, some places stopped accepting bets on Radiohead doing Spectre’s theme, even though it later turned out they’d missed the bid.
Betting odds close to an announcement are normally right – Craig and Capaldi were both the favorites going into their reveal – but that’s because by the time it’s made official there’s a pile up of information that the only way for it not to be true is intentional misdirection. We haven’t had that with the Thirteenth Doctor – Chibnall hadn’t even started deliberating when Coleman’s odds soared – so any bookies favorites should be taken with a pinch of salt, including gender insistence.
For all his faults, Stephen Moffat has done a strong job of making the possibility of a female Doctor feel genuine. However, exactly because of where his recent writing has led the series (which is an issue regardless of budget, no matter his excuses), he’s made it something the BBC are simply too wary of actually executing. Doctor Who’s popularity is on a downturn and it needs a shakeup. Some would argue a female lead is the perfect solution, but a return to the days of yore (well, 2013) would be equally as, if not moreso, effective.
This isn’t to say there won’t be a female Doctor down the line. Once the show is back riding high, then it’s fair to expect something like this to be seriously considered again, especially given the high level of discussion being had this time around. Given that showrunners tend to last through two leads, that even gives Chibnall the chance to be the one to shepherd it through. For now though, we’re getting the 2006-2013 vintage. So… Ben Whishaw then.