The Lady of Time: Doctor Who's first woman Doctor is important, but not a full representation win

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Jul 20, 2017

British TV series Doctor Who has been a force in the science fiction world for almost 54 years. The show was launched back in November 1963 and featured a time-traveling humanoid alien called The Doctor. Doctor Who took over the UK’s pop culture scene and enjoyed successful ratings, therefore beating the odds stacked against it from its inception. At the time, the series was produced by Verity Lambert – one of few women in her position – and had several episodes directed by Waris Hussein, a gay Asian man. They were an unorthodox pair at the time, yet they beat racism, sexism, and gay phobia and made Doctor Who a hit.

Their progress was soon threatened when actor William Hartnell, who portrayed the titular role, became seriously ill and would have to leave the show. The concept of regeneration was born, and Hartnell himself selected the man who would take his place – Patrick Troughton. The Doctor’s ability to regenerate, or rearrange his body’s cells in a new form to circumvent death, was the first of many ways that Doctor Who relied on change to continue the adventures through space and time. Over the years, fans have seen lots of companions, producers, showrunners, and writers come and go, along with 13 different men (including the War Doctor) as The Doctor. The other roles in the series have been occupied by different genders, but The Doctor has remained a White male.

The Eleventh, Tenth, and War Doctor in the 50th anniversary special

Photo Credit: Doctor Who/BBC


Each time an actor leaves the role, speculation about the next Doctor always includes a wide variety of actors, including people of color (POC) and/or women. Due to the show’s history, these choices were often written off as dream casting until Twelfth Doctor actor Peter Capaldi announced that he would part ways with the show in 2017. After Capaldi was cast in the role, current showrunner Steven Moffat revealed his intention to cast a POC as The Doctor, saying the show offered the part to a Black actor but it “didn’t work out” for an undisclosed reason. He also said it would be refreshing to have a non-White Doctor. So fans who wanted to see diversity in the role had concrete yet cautious hope for a POC, woman, or even a woman of color (WOC) to be the next Gallifreyan time traveler.

The BBC made the world stop when they announced Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor in a mini-trailer. The actress is known for her stage work and roles in Attack the Block and Broadchurch. As a Whovian, I was thrilled to see a woman step into the role. I have seen Jodie in Broadchurch and Attack the Block, but I never pictured her as being The Doctor. Still, I know the show has a proven history of selecting great people in this role, and I feel confident about her ability to be a fantastic Doctor. I applaud her for stepping into such an iconic role after the great Peter Capaldi, and I want her to get the writers and producers she deserves so her material will be excellent. I desperately want recent companion Bill Potts to travel with this Doctor, but all signs point to Bill’s time being completed as a regular companion. So I hope she has a companion who is endearing, dynamic, and unique. I’m throwing my full support behind Jodie Whittaker as the first woman Doctor because I can already see that she’ll need it against all the sexist jerks and women who subscribe to misogynistic ideals. The vitriol toward Whittaker, who hasn’t spoken a single line on screen as Thirteen, is sickening and a reminder why fans diligently champion for women protagonists to have a space in the sci-fi/nerd arena.

I think this choice is long overdue and a progressive move for Doctor Who, but I do not see it as a representation nor gender equality win. Is it a move in a positive direction? Absolutely. But, in the sci-fi/nerd/comic space, there are too many times where the first step toward change never leads to another step. It’s quite possible for the subsequent Doctors to go back to being White males, especially if the ratings drop. Whittaker’s opposition will inevitably place the blame on her and the show’s decision to go “PC” by having a woman Doctor.

If the first gender equality move for franchises always goes to a White woman, then what happens to the WOC, other POC, and people who fall in various areas on the gender spectrum if no more progress is made? The same thing that has been happening for years – we get told to wait our turn, be thankful for what we have now, make our own (insert eye roll here), and not complain after we are pushed aside once again. When there are “wins” for women in science fiction and other “nerd” spaces, it is usually in the form of a woman who looks similar to Whittaker – a White woman.

After the Doctor announcement, lots of women took to Twitter to write celebratory tweets about how representation was booming, yet all the examples showed White women who fit a similar standard. The new Doctor, who is blond, was put alongside women like Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blond and Wonder Woman. These women are all excellent, but they are not representative of most women. In many cases, choosing a White woman to lead the way toward gender equality/representation is a “fail-safe” method, a way to push the envelope without being too risky because a woman (or any) person of color is seen as taking a risk because we are not seen as a universal standard.

If a show like Doctor Who or the world of comics wants to push the envelope, then do it to the fullest extent and place marginalized people in those roles. Putting an Asian, Black, or Indian actress in the role would be a representation win because they are not women who are given first dibs at those opportunities. After all, this is what Steven Moffat admitted to doing when he cast Bill Potts – a Black gay woman – as a companion. Why aren’t women of color seen as a relatable protagonist? Why aren’t we the first ones to lead a gender revolution? Whovians generally have mixed emotions about a new person taking over a role, so it is perfectly fine for a woman of color like me to be excited for and support Jodie Whittaker yet lament the fact that another White person has garnered the role.

Will a POC Doctor happen? I believe it will, depending on the commercial and critical success of the Thirteenth Doctor’s run, although I don’t think this is fair. And, if it does, I’ll want to see the right mix of writers who understand how to effectively and accurately approach a POC Doctor and the challenges this person will face as they travel through time. Right now, the show still has struggles with giving Black companions and supporting characters successful arcs without making their worth (or supposed lack thereof, in Martha’s case) tied to a White person -- or turning them into Cybermen. And there have been no other POC represented in the companion role at all. It’s clear that Doctor Who could use a shakeup in front of the camera and behind the scenes if it wants to truly be diverse and have successful Doctors who break the mold.

The introduction of the show’s first woman lead is a giant step for the series, but it is not a leap for all of womankind.