Probably not … but it makes for a possibly Google-friendly article title …
The idea that the Doctor, lead character in the world’s longest-running SF TV series Doctor Who, might become female is sure to spark controversy among the show’s most hardcore fans. The UK mainstream audience, on the other hand (in the UK Doctor Who is regularly the biggest non-soap drama in the ratings) only occasionally gets a whiff of this controversy.
Fans tend to resist the idea instinctively, influenced of course by the character now having a television history stretching back nearly 50 years (47 years today, in fact) beginning in one of the BBC’s lowest-tech sixties studios in Lime Grove, West London, and currently residing in purpose-designed facilities in Cardiff, shot in high definition and supported by cutting-edge CGI.
I number myself as a hardcore fan, with a long-term relationship to this wonderful character stretching back to my early childhood. So I have a vested interest. For those unfamiliar with Doctor Who (familiarity varies outside the UK), it concerns an extra-terrestrial hero who travels throughout space and time in a remarkable vehicle (the Tardis) which was disguised, during a visit to the UK in 1963, as a Police telephone box (very common on UK streets at the time), only for the technology to break down and the Tardis to become stuck in that form. Although in fact the reason for that is budgetary – it was cheaper to stick with one prop rather than devise a new one for each story, so the Tardis’ ability to disguise itself became broken. By such happy accidents are cuiltural icons made.
When the actor playing the Doctor, William Hartnell, had to leave due to ill health the BBC wanted to carry on making the programme and hit upon another pragmatic, though potent idea – regeneration. The idea that, when the Doctor faces death, his body renews itself, and he gains a new appearance, thus allowing a new actor to step into the role. When second Doctor Patrick Troughton wanted to leave it was obvious that the process could be repeated, and another actor found (Troughton was my absolute favourite until the 2005 revival delivered a succession of fine actors in the role). And so a tradition was born, with the ability to reinvent the role and the programme. And in due course, everytime regeneration looms, speculation as to who will be the new Doctor is now national UK news.
Each actor playing the Doctor has playeed him differently – the character might be described as having the same essential characteristics but a body and personality that allows him to express those in different ways. I often wondered, while watching these adventures, what it would be like if you really changed your appearance, and outward behaviour, and had to relate to the world in a different way as a result. Now I know what it feels like to regenerate, because in a way I’ve done just that.
The first time the idea of the Doctor regenerating as a woman leaked out significantly into the public consciousness was during the tenure of John Nathan-Turner as Producer. JNT, as he was known, was happy to say almost anything that might yield publicity for the show. He teased the audience about dispensing with the Police Box version of the Tardis (note to all producers in perpetuity – never do this). And among other things, he did periodically speculate about such a radical piece of recasting. The only time it has fleetingly ‘kind of’ happened, is in the spoof Doctor Who story The Curse of the Fatal Death, penned by Steven Moffat a few years back for Comic Relief. The luminous Joanna Lumley briefly became the Doctor – you can find it on YouTube.
Whenever this idea came up, as a fan I totally pooh-poohed it. Shortly before transitioning, I attended a talk by then show-runner Russell T Davies (look, I am a hardcore fan, OK?) at which someone asked the question. RTD also kind of pooh-poohed it, but also noted that “the more you all talk about it, the more likely it is it will happen one day”. Scant months from regeneration myself, I still firmly resisted the idea. After transitioning indeed, I have continued, until recently, to firmly resist the idea. And yet …
The Doctor has had a variety of (mostly) human travelling companions, sometimes one, sometimes more than one, and both male and female. However since 1970 the most typical configuration has been male Time Lord travelling with one female companion. This was almost always depicted as a paternal-style relationship until RTD’s revival faced up to some of the implications. One consequence of the predominance of female companions is that the programme has provided something of a running commentary on women’s roles in British society and how they are depicted on UK television. Until the 2005 reboot one other consequence is a tendency for most companions to find themselves in the role of subservient female asking questions of the “wiser” male (for the benefit of the audience and plot advancement).
Casting a woman would not only challenge any sub-textual elements of sexual politics, it would clearly change the character of the Doctor more radically, not least because in the modern era of television the pressure is on to cast the role with young and more conventionally charismatic (if occasionally quirky) lead actor. Hartnell was certainly quirky but had neither of the other two characteristics.
While the current makers of the show are certainly conscious of how they need to cast the role in a way that meets the expectations of contemporary audiences, I don’t mean to suggest that both RTD and his successor Steven Moffat haven’t trusted their own judgement to take bold, and often hugely successful decisions in respect of the show – they haven’t just “done the demographics”. Christopher Eccleston, cast by the RTD team, was to begin with a tortured soul, and in many of the early episodes Billie Piper‘s feisty character Rose Tyler often initiated the action, solved problems and saved the day. The Doctor/Rose pairing put the companion relationship on an almost unheard-of equal footing, something that the programme makers have run with since.
So if the current creative team took the decision to cast a woman, I’m sure they’d pull off the challenge magnificently (Teletubby Daleks notwithstanding). But could the casting of the Doctor as female also play a part in increasing public awareness of, and acceptance of, trans issues? I think it could, if handled correctly.
The one thing that has changed since the programme came back is the attitude towards continuity and backstory. When RTD first revived the show in 2005 he was anxious to minimize continuity as the show had been off the air (apart from a one-off revival) for 16 years. He brilliantly trod the line of making it recognisably the show it had always been while making it totally accessible to anyone who had never seen Doctor Who before. My kids lapped it up from day one, to my enormous pleasure.
The first “revived” year was a phenomenal success, giving RTD the confidence to include more elements of the Doctor’s past, including a former companion, Sarah-Jane Smith. Since then, like icebergs with a homing instinct, large chunks of continuity have been re-integrated, now that everyone knows about tardises and Gallifrey.
And that’s why having a female Doctor could send a powerful, positive message. Admittedly, the Doctor’s transition, though painful (almost always involving literal death, folowed by rebirth) would be almost instant – not something many trans people could claim as their own experience. But it might send a subliminal, and possibly not so subliminal message.
As the tradition of the Doctor re-encountering old friends, as well as foes, has become a tradition of the revived version (the periodic return of Captain Jack and Rose, and even stretching back, via the Sarah-Jane spin-off to Jo Grant), characters would find themselves having to respond to the news, and reality, that the man they once knew was now a woman. Just as trans people’s friends, families and colleagues have to do. And as RTD always managed to include, often subtly, messages about accepting and celebrating difference, maybe the crossing of this particular boundary could get viewers, especially younger viewers thinking.
So, finally, I’m coming round to the idea, at least tentatively. The show has already had at one character who, it’s hinted, may have a trans history (the [ultimately redeemed-ish] villain Cassandra). Maybe it’s the lead character’s turn …