The female ghosts of Doctor Who's past and what they say about Jodie Whittaker's future

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Mar 21, 2019, 12:56 PM EDT (Updated)

There has never canonically been a woman in the role of the Doctor on Doctor Who. But there have been A LOT of women playing the Doctor's companions since the show began in 1963. So, if you're trying to figure out how a woman Doctor might be portrayed, what she might mean for the show, and how long she's likely to last, looking at how these women companions have been written and treated over the last five decades is probably your best option.

Here's the very short version, in case you don't have a lot of time: Doctor Who, a show run mostly by men, has repeatedly executed sexist portrayals of women; new showrunner Chris Chibnall is also a man (surrounded by other men within the BBC) and will probably also do that some of the time. Still reading? Okay, great. Here's the paper trail. Here's the relevant history of Doctor Who so far and some more detailed predictions for the Doctor Who that's yet to come.

Doctor Who isn't just that it's a show about traveling through time and space, it's that it's a show about traveling through time and space for the whole family. And, while there is some evolution as to what that means, there does become a shorthand pretty early on.

Look at how the show started: In 1963, the Doctor is an old man who has a young granddaughter, Susan, and the two of them travel with Susan's teachers, Ian and Barbara. At this point, the show is primarily focused on the child sector of the viewing audience.


Susan, who is supposed to be a teenager, is someone a child can identify with. Meanwhile, for the parents, there are the teachers who serve as a means to ensure the adventure remains educational. So the goal isn't necessarily to get the parents to watch Doctor Who, but to convince them that it's a good for their children to watch it.

But there's a transition that starts happening very quickly and not-so-coincidentally when its female showrunner (also known as "showrunner"), Verity Lambert, left the program. By 1965 the "teenager and her teachers" version of "family programming" is replaced with a tendency to have two 20-somethings, one man and one woman, traveling with the Doctor.

And very notably, once the Doctor regenerates into Patrick Troughton, we start to see a tendency for the main male companion, in this case Jamie McCrimmon, to be noticeably attracted to his woman counterpart. It starts with Victoria. And then, in 1968, Zoe Heriot shows up.

Now, Zoe is notable for two reasons:

1. She's the first companion to be canonically smarter than the Doctor.
2. She wears a very form-fitting silver jumpsuit.

And if you don't think the jumpsuit is relevant, please note how Google auto-completes "Zoe Heriot" because ... damn, that is not great.


This is where we see the BBC and Doctor Who's version of family programming cemented for decades to come. There's still the scary monster element with Daleks and Cybermen and Ice Warriors for the kids, but now we've replaced the educational student/teacher dynamic with a smart, somewhat feminist heroine figure, "for the moms," who is also dressed in something "sexy" that's "for the dads." Also, in the case of Zoe and many other women companions, even they are often smart, they will often still be the ones screaming in peril and in need of saving.

That kind of "something in the middle between women's lib but also sexy" was clearly the BBC's intention in the late 1960s, and it was pretty effective, because most of Great Britain watched Doctor Who.


And something that proves this trend is the exceptions and how poorly they fare. In 1970, for example, when Jon Pertwee became the Doctor, his first companion, Liz Shaw, did not quite fit this mold. Her wardrobe consisted of shorter skirts, but she was an entirely self-reliant scientist. Liz didn't do a lot of screaming or asking the Doctor, "Oh, what's that," because she was a scientist and already knew the answer.

Liz Shaw was the companion for just one year. Partly that is because the actor, Caroline John, was pregnant, but it was rumored that her exit was attributable to other factors, as well.


Liz's replacement was Jo Grant, who was played by a noticeably tinier Katy Manning. Jo was only a part of the Doctor's army team, UNIT, through nepotism. She wasn't as bright as Liz, but she had a lot of pluck and wanted to ask about everything. And Jo wore some pretty wild outfits. There's even a photo shoot of Katy Manning wearing basically nothing while getting up close and personal with a Dalek.

The producers clearly thought this was a winning formula, but there is also the matter of the Doctor, Jon Pertwee. His final companion, Sarah Jane Smith, was originally cast with April Walker in the role. She was replaced with Elisabeth Sladen because, allegedly, Pertwee thought Walker was too old and too tall to fit with the paternal, protective image he felt was core to the Doctor. Sladen herself accused Pertwee of being the kind of man who "likes to impose themselves physically on smaller women."

Fortunately, Tom Baker, who took the mantle of the Doctor next, wanted a woman who spoke up for herself, and so the companion's role became more complementary to the Doctor's. And it's noteworthy that First Doctor William Hartnell also demanded that his companion, Polly, be written as more self-reliant. But, as nice as that is, the trouble lies with the fact that some of the actors had to demand something that obvious in the first place.

But '70s Doctor Who, despite Tom Baker, still only took the tiniest steps forward, while sometimes taking leaps backward.


Leela was stronger and better at fighting than the Doctor, but she also wore a skimpy loincloth. And both versions of Romana, while smarter and better at dealing with people than the Doctor, still were his assistants. And also were played by very young, thin, traditionally beautiful women.

Were the '80s any different, with Peter Davison? You'd think so for a moment, since both women companions, Nyssa and Tegan, were pretty self-reliant and relatively ... clothed.

But then by Davison's second year, there was an enormous change in the costumes, so suggestive that there were accusations in the press of "hanky panky in the TARDIS."

And while Nyssa was very bright and Tegan was incredibly brash and forthright, Davison's final companion, Peri, was primarily notable for actress Nicola Bryant's atrocious fake American accent, and the costumes that constantly showed off her cleavage, even during the Fifth Doctor's regeneration scene.


And while things changed slightly right before Who's initial cancellation, the overall truth had seemed relatively apparent: If you are a woman traveling with the Doctor, you can be plucky and smart, but you should probably be in subservience to the Doctor and also wear something skimpy at least half the time.

You might be thinking, "That's just a sign of the times" and that a lot of TV in those days operated with this centrist "feminism but sexy" approach toward women's roles.

Okay. That's fair. But let's look at when Doctor Who returned, from 2005 to the present day. Is there an appreciable difference in how the women companions were treated on Doctor Who then?

Well, the first new companion, Rose Tyler, was certainly the beating heart of the entire show, but she was also played by Billie Piper, who, prior to Doctor Who, was best known as being a British Britney Spears.


And Billie Piper is a great actor. I'm not trying to take that away from her. Doctor Who's revival wouldn't have succeeded without her. I believe that.

But she's also a pretty, young, blonde, white (that'll be specifically relevant in a moment) woman who satisfies the "feminist, but still traditionally sexy." There's literally an episode where someone possesses Rose's body and, looking at her body, remarks, "It's like living inside a bouncy castle." I mean ... folks, please understand I'm not just complaining about costumes here. The show is frequently explicit in its hyper-sexualized portrayals of its women companions.

And the thing is, other than Peter Davison, who had been the youngest actor to play the Doctor at that point, no incarnation of the Doctor was cast to be sexually pleasing to anyone. And Christopher Eccleston, while I'm sure he is attractive to some people, was pretty much in the same boat.

It's only with David Tennant that things start to change. Tennant's 10th Doctor is the first intentionally sexy Doctor. And, fair play to Russell T Davies and producer Julie Gardner, they did utilize Tennant's sex appeal A LOT. But there's still a difference between people fawning all over a man (which is what we got) and a man's body being sexualized (which we got ... less).

Meanwhile, remember Liz Shaw, who only lasted one season because she was too reliant and not diminutive enough? Well hang on to your hats for some kind of deja vu.

After Rose Tyler is out, Doctor Who welcomed its first-ever black woman companion, Martha Jones.


She lasted one year.

And then Doctor Who welcomed the oldest-ever companion the show had since Ian and Barbara, Donna Noble.

She also lasted one year.

Okay. Listen. Doctor Who is a smart show. It talks a lot about being good to the environment and kind to each other. When the show came back, then-showrunner Russell T Davies introduced a number of LGBTQIA characters. That was very progressive. But ... and I don't like this, but the BBC didn't seem fully committed to either an older woman on the show long-term (and yes, I'm aware, that woman, Catherine Tate, is very famous and didn't have a lot of free time), and they weren't quite sure about a black woman romantically linked with the Doctor for very long either.


But they, along with new showrunner Steven Moffatt were fine with having Karen Gillen's companion, Amy Pond, get introduced as a kiss-o-gram in a tight skirt and faux policewoman uniform. She lasted for two and a half seasons. And, likewise, the next major companion, Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman, was introduced in a tight red dress and lasted three and a half years.

Both those women are enormously talented but often received storylines where their characters were defined solely in terms of their relationship to the Doctor and nothing else. And, still, it's hard to look at them and then at the most recent companion, Bill Potts (who is both black and gay) and not notice that she, also very talented, only lasted one season.

Rose's boyfriend, Mickey, who is a person of color, lasted far less time than Amy's white husband, Rory. And Clara's boyfriend, Danny Pink, also a person of color, only lasted one year AND was turned into a Cyberman and killed. Also having their body brutalized by the Cybermen? Bill Potts. Which doesn't even touch on Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood and the infamous Cyberwoman ... ALSO A WOMAN OF COLOR!

Here's what I'm saying: Doctor Who can be progressive; it casts many women who, at times, go toe to toe with the Doctor; and they did cast two black men to play romantic counterparts (Mickey Smith and Danny Pink) to two white women (Rose Tyler and Clara Oswald) despite a lot of backlash. And they wrote in a queer woman of color who faced backlash too. And even though that was only for one season, it isn't a meaningless gesture.

But Doctor Who is still nowhere near as progressive as it thinks it is. It's not just the visuals and the costumes. There's nothing wrong with a tight skirt, it's when almost all of them wear tight skirts. And, perhaps even more so, it's that, repeatedly, especially during the Moffat era, women companions have had precious little to their lives other than the Doctor. Amy's entire life gets sidelined by a timey-wimey pregnancy that winds up being River Song aka the Doctor's wife (who also often exists to either love or kill the Doctor). And that's just scratching the surface of questionable storylines.

Ultimately, Doctor Who can be as queer and as girl power-y as it wants, but if all its longest-lasting women companions are young, white, largely subservient to a male paternal figure, and frequently sexualized -- it ain't that woke. Sorry, Doctor. You're just playing it slightly left of center.

Which brings us to Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever officially play the Doctor, aka #OhBrilliant. What can we glean from what we've learned about her so far, while also taking into account everything that's come before?

Well, Jodie is white, she is on the younger average for the age of actors playing the Doctor, and, yes, she is thin and blonde, all of which is in keeping with a lot of the longest-lasting Doctor Who companions.


Speaking of, there are going to be THREE companions, which is very rare for Doctor Who. One of them, Bradley Walsh, is 57, making him the oldest actor to be a companion since Bernard Cribbins, who was never a series regular.

There will also be Tosin Cole, another male companion, making this the first time ever the show has had two men companions for a whole season (in theory). So I would say prepare for those men to at least try to bring some kind of authority either through wisdom or strength over Whittaker's Doctor, and don't be surprised if they do succeed here or there.

Whittaker's companions aren't even being referred to as companions so far, but as "friends," which sets them on a more level playing field with her. That is probably intentional.

The third companion, Mandip Gill, is a woman of color, making this the first time there have been multiple people of color as companions on the show at the same time. That's a relatively progressive decision on average for Doctor Who. And Whittaker's costume, with the earrings on the one ear and the general LGBT fashion sensibility, also portrays a potentially more progressive than average portrayal. So, while I have no idea how she'll respond to it, don't be surprised if Whittaker's Doctor is kissed by a woman. Or a man. Or both. Because at least one of those will probably happen.

And, you know, the Doctor is a woman. For the first time. And that is great and will absolutely translate into fans seeing a woman take on a leadership role on Doctor Who in a way that no woman ever has before in the show's 50-plus-year history.

But, looking at how far out of the BBC's comfort zone Jodie and producer Chris Chibnall are ultimately taking Doctor Who, I would prepare yourself for the possibility that, despite the ways the show has tried to measure and pragmatize this progressive update, Whittaker might only be the Doctor for one season. For every leap forward Doctor Who tends to take, the BBC and Who's producers have a storied tendency for following those with a step back. I don't like it, but the pattern is there and worth noting.

As with all things, though, only time will tell. For now what we know for sure is that, as of Christmas 2017, Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, whether you like it or not.