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SYFY WIRE Doctor Who

Why 'Doctor Who' still struggles with Jodie Whittaker's character

The Thirteenth Doctor deserves better than what the show has given her. 

By Lauren Coates
Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker Season 12

It's an unspoken hallmark of Doctor Who that the Doctor is a virtually androgynous character — they can be played by anyone, and part of what makes being a fan of the show so invigorating is waiting with bated breath to see who will be playing the next Doctor, and how their take on the role will differ from their predecessor.

So, when handed the show's first female Doctor, one would expect that Doctor Who would jump at the chance to once again do what Who does best: reinvent its central character. But when given such an opportunity, the series shies away — unsure of how (or unwilling) to write a female regeneration, and attempts to brand itself as "progressive" for treating the Thirteenth Doctor exactly the same as her male predecessors.

What's frustrating, though, is that the series doesn't treat her like the men who have come before — Doctor Who refuses to engage with her gender, seemingly terrified of mischaracterizing their first female Doctor. In their hand-wringing over how to approach this new incarnation, the series also neglects to give Thirteen a love interest — marking her as the only post-reboot Doctor to be devoid of any romantic relationships. It's a glaring indicator that, even with nearly three seasons under its belt, Doctor Who still isn't sure how to approach writing a female Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker in 'Doctor Who'

Theoretically, there's something commendable about the show's approach to characterizing the Thirteenth Doctor. Doctor Who wants to prove its progressive bona fides and ensure that a female Doctor is treated no differently from a male Doctor. But that viewpoint is innately misguided: Like it or not, being a woman does fundamentally make the Thirteenth Doctor different from her predecessors. This doesn't mean that the Doctor herself needs to drastically change, but being perceived as a woman changes how others interact with the doctor, and instead of taking advantage of this change and embracing the opportunity to explore new interpersonal dynamics between a female doctor and the rest of the universe, Doctor Who skirts around it.

Previously, whenever Doctor Who took trips to the past, most historical figures bowed to the Doctor's authority. He was a white man with seemingly proper credentials (thanks to the psychic paper), and that was enough to get most people to go along with his antics. It's rather quickly and unremarkably accepted that the Doctor is in charge when he's a man — an innate, subtle, gender-based trait that isn't afforded to the Thirteenth Doctor by virtue of being a woman.

The eighth episode of Season 12, "The Witchfinders," is perhaps the closest the show comes to acknowledging Thirteen's womanhood. The episode sees the Doctor and her companions traveling to the Middle Ages, where they cross paths with Alan Cumming's misogynistic, paranoid King James, who's obsessed with finding and destroying witches. When the Doctor introduces herself, he immediately assumes Bradley Walsh's (white, male) companion Graham is the leader of their group, and talks down the Doctor when she corrects him — telling her that a woman could never be in a position of authority over a man.

It's an exchange with a historical figure that previous versions of the Doctor never had to deal with. But it also seems to set up a fairly obvious payoff for the end of the episode — the perfect opportunity for the Doctor to swoop in and save the day (as she always does) with her advanced scientific knowledge thus proving King James wrong about the inferiority of women and asserting her capability as a leader. Instead, the episode merely presents King James' misogyny towards the Doctor and moves on — instead of using his disdain towards women as an opportunity for Thirteen to embrace her femininity as a strength. The thread merely goes unacknowledged, and both the episode and Thirteen's characterization are weaker for it.

This half-baked approach to the Thirteenth Doctor's identity as a woman — the acknowledgment that she is a woman but refusal to explore any further into what that might mean for her or how she interacts with others — consistently plagues Seasons 11-13, missing dozens of opportunities to explore this new, exciting facet of the character.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Doctor Who's attitude towards Thirteen's gender identity, though, is in her romantic interests (or lack thereof). As of right now, Thirteen stands as the only NuWho Doctor to have no romantic interests whatsoever across her entire run on the show. The Ninth and Tenth Doctors had Rose, Eleven had Clara, Twelve had Missy and River. Though not always the most crucial element of their respective seasons, the Doctor's romantic life and love interests are a mainstay of the franchise and often the source of the most fulfilling emotional arcs and epic moments.

But yet again, when it comes to the Thirteenth Doctor, she's robbed of the opportunity to get a romantic interest of her own because the show is so afraid of making a misstep with their first female Doctor, and is unwilling to embrace her femininity. Though historically the Doctor has hardly been a sex symbol, they aren't an entirely sexless character either — part of the reinvention of the series in 2001 included transforming The Doctor into a pseudo-romantic lead, but Doctor Who Seasons 11-13 treat the Thirteenth Doctor as if any kind of romantic relationship is entirely out of the question.

It's not as if the potential isn't there, either — Yaz has a very clear emotional attachment to the Doctor that isn't entirely dissimilar from Martha's feelings towards the Tenth Doctor in early Season 3, and it's easy to envision the show taking a similar route for Yaz and Thirteen. A romantic arc would certainly help bring depth to the criminally underwritten Yaz, as well as give Thirteen a chance to establish her own identity beyond being a mish-mash of quirky traits and sci-fi technobabble. But with only four episodes left in Whittaker's run, if the series is interested in going in that direction, there's only so much time left to do so.

To the show's credit, there is one episode where Doctor Who does flirt with embracing Thirteen's femininity, "Demons of the Punjab."

The episode follows the Doctor and her companions as they visit 1940s Pakistan on the eve of the Partition of India, as Yaz's Muslim grandmother prepares to marry a Hindu boy as a Muslim woman — part of the episode's central conflict. In preparation for the wedding, the women of the family invite the Doctor to help get ready with the women of the family, and she gets henna on her hands as she talks with Yaz and the other women about the impending ceremony. It's a small moment, but one of the rare times we see the Thirteenth Doctor in a strictly feminine setting — she's basically a bridesmaid, getting henna done and engaging in girl talk with Yaz as they prepare for the wedding.

In the past, we've seen male versions of the Doctor get ready for weddings — the Eleventh Doctor rather infamously crashed Rory Pond's stag night — but in "Demons of the Punjab" seeing he Thirteenth Doctor with the women of Yaz's family allows her the rare opportunity to explore and embrace her femininity — a trait that both the Doctor and the audience are accustomed to her having. It's a scene that could only have happened with a female Doctor — a fundamentally female experience — and the kind of exchange that her tenure desperately needs.

The Doctor herself acknowledges that getting henna was the kind of thing she never would've done as a man — and for a character driven by a constant thirst for knowledge and discovery, it's frustrating that Doctor Who scarcely seems interested in allowing the Doctor to explore and savor these new experiences she's afforded as a woman that her previous male regenerations never experienced. For fans who hoped that Jodie Whittaker's Thirteen would lead to an exciting reimagining of what a female Doctor could look like, "Demons of the Punjab" remains a rare exception.

Three seasons later, as Whittaker nears her final outing at the iconic character, it seems clear that all the initial excitement over the implications of her casting were overblown. Whether intentional or not, executive producer Chris Chibnall and the writers' refusal to engage with The Doctor's new gender identity in his era limits the development of what could've been one of the show's most exciting regenerations yet — and Whittaker's incarnation of the Doctor suffers for it.

But even as the end grows nearer, all isn't entirely lost for the Thirteenth Doctor. The most recent episode of Flux inches closer to a romantic connection between Yaz and the Doctor than ever before. If the show were to finally embrace the Doctor's gender and allow her to explore a romantic relationship like her predecessors, they could not only break new ground as Doctor Who's first same-sex romantic relationship between a Doctor and a companion but also (finally) build an identity for Whittaker's Doctor that embraces her newfound femininity instead of shying away from it.