In the British TV show Doctor Who, the new Doctor is now a woman. Doctor Who survives on adapting to the modern world and changing.
By Robbie Travers and Shireen Qudosi
Doctor Who has captured imaginations and developed an international fan base over five decades. The appeal is, in part, attributed to the dedication to renewal, to change and to regeneration. Doctor Who is a show in which the entire cast and production team regularly change, concepts change, and the wider mythology is lovingly added like an immense painting. It is change that has kept Doctor Who alive.
The character of the Doctor is inherently a nonsensical creation: an alien who looks exactly like us, has a an affinity with British culture, who can heal themselves miraculously and change their face by a process called regeneration. The Doctor purports to have lived for over 2,000 years, he’s been trapped in his own living last will and testament as a torture, and he’s from a planet in which the fashion sense is a devotion to ridiculously high collars.
So, aside from a possessing a robotic dog, aside from having a sonic screwdriver, aside from having a TARDIS (which is a time machine shaped like a police box, that is bigger on the inside that the outside), people are finding it too much that the Doctor is now a woman. The Doctor is a woman called Jodie Whittaker, and you might be surprised to learn that after the news, the internet imploded.
Whittaker rightly doesn’t want fans to be alarmed by the Doctor’s gender change. “This is a really exciting time, and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change,” she shares in an interview, adding “The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”
When it come to audience reception of the 13th Time Lord, fear is not fright; fear is traversing through an unknown space without the lulled and opiatic confidence of knowing what we’re seeing. That is how we are first introduced to the next incarnation of our beloved Doctor. The audience is privy to a shape making way through a wild space free of the footprint of modernism that organises and identifies. Our first journey with Time Lord #13 isn’t through time and space, it is through our encounter with her. She is the journey. Coming to the beautiful realisation that our Doctor is a woman, the character we have come to love in his many guises is still the same character, this time just with a female visage, is the point of said journey.
Just like the space around her, Whittaker’s carefully chosen wardrobe also doesn’t betray identity. There is no certainty in what we’re seeing and who we’re seeing. Gender binary identifiers are cast aside as the realm of male and female merge through the sartorial. This is helpful, the Doctor is more than just a gender. The Doctor is a component of the traits that make her personality, whether it is “never cruel or cowardly,” or being a good man, even in “extremis.” These virtues are shared by our new version of the protagonist. Her gender is irrelevant.
When the modern woman is often judged by her appearance, sartorial deconstruction of one of the most iconic figures in television history is a powerful act of rebellion. For Whittaker, there is no trace of colour, short hemlines, lipstick or flowing hair; that in itself, challenges gender binaries, but it also challenges women.
Often, individuals who promote non-gender binary present a very narrow and often caricatured version of what a woman is. Being a woman is often a stylistic choice as well. Here, with Whittaker, we are assured of exactly what she is: a woman. That’s all. There is no caricature, just a real woman who is confident in her own skin. There is no need for decoration.
Whittaker’s appearance is defiant.
The sacred art of self-decoration in ancient times, once seen as an empowering and elevating ritual, is now systematically infantilised in favour of behaviour and form that sexualises for audience consumption. Just think of the Instagram and vlogger tutorials on the 101 ways to waste precious time and energy on the inane journey of immortalised perfection, and you see, we’re not that far off from the social commentary made through Whovian villain Lady Cassandra O’Brien, a piece of stretched wrinkle-less skin.
Boxed into Jungian archetypes boiled down by popular culture to its most base element, women in the media are largely seen as either mothers, monsters, or whores — where a pairing of either qualifies as ‘multi-dimensional.’ Neither of those allows for women to be independent of transactional relationships or an individual in her own right without the burden of exchange or dependency on the people around her. And yet, the greater public backlash against women in media has been at the lack of minority representation on the screen. But women of colour are also cast as mothers, monsters, or whores, and the wheel of fundamentally one-dimensional characters continues with the masses satiated because the filter has changed.
We don’t need the colour to change. We needed the picture to change.
In a BBC-released Q&A, Whittaker writes,
“It feels completely overwhelming; as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be,” Whittaker said. “It feels incredible.”
Much like the wild space in which we are first introduced to Whittaker, the 13th Doctor is also a wild seed. In an act of epic feminism, a woman doctor utilises the most powerful vessel for change to create change: art. But also, the Doctor isn’t simply there because she is a woman. The objection that the Doctor is a woman and hence it was done to create shock and publicity is not to feel the narrative of the show, and is to fail to understand that much like the journey seen in the walk towards her TARDIS and slow unveil, Doctor Who was always going to this point. It really feels like a natural conclusion in the journey that the show has taken regarding gender.
The simplest, most accessible and most widely embraced method for change has always been art, from blood-stained cave paintings in the Paleolithic period to storytelling that shifts our understanding of what it means to be and belong, shaping totems of identity and meaning within human consciousness. And now, with Whittaker as the 13th Time Lord, we have a warp-speed evolution in how we understand gender and identity, thrust to millions of eyes scattered by time and space across a revolving globe.
It is a breaking of totems, of the fossilised gods determining who and what we are. Casting Whittaker raises the collective eyes of a world of people, not just to the stars, but to limitless imagination born through multiple worlds and far-flung galaxies.
And it asks a daring question: why not? Why should the Doctor not be a woman? Why should the Doctor only ever be a man? Why should the Doctor, who has had many faces, not be represented by a talented individual regardless of their sex or gender? State a good reason as to why the Doctor must remain female. We’re yet to hear one.
A female Doctor Who also creates a new world in the mind of millions of cross-generational, cross-cultural Whovians. It plants a seed of creative revolution, which is where lasting and meaningful change comes from; it comes from multiple fronts, coming from waves of people, and it is always creatively driven. In the modern world you will not see one fantastic demonstration against a system; you’re going to see resistance in carefully calculated doses through art, song, and storytelling.
In Whittaker, you have a female form taking up a space classically assigned to men. You have a Time Lord driven by curiosity, compassion and a profound sense of wonder; an eccentric force of nature, intense, mad and at times, necessarily and unapologetically dark. And notably, those mourning the loss of the first American woman president and secularists frustrated with a hyper-obsession of the religious, have something new and much more powerful to embrace.
A woman, a powerful woman, who will influence culture for years to come. And not simply because she is a woman, but because she is a gifted actress.
And through Whittaker, the world is gifted with a she-god who requires no sacrifice of us. There is no ritual demand; instead we are invited to fulfil our human potential. We have a lord of space and time who honours humanity as holier than any relic or religion. And despite the universe at her feet, we know that in the tradition of all the doctors before her, it is life that is underscored and treated as sacred.
Doctor Who survives on adapting to the modern world and changing. Doctor Who isn’t timeless, but it is rather fittingly a product of it’s time. And perhaps Doctor Who, it could also be argued, pushes beyond the time period it is in and tries to think about the future and its place there. The opening trailer carries that message, moving the audience through a space that also hints at movement through time and advancement with the carefully selected props: the rusting wheel, an early symbol of innovation and progress, to a broken brick wall symbolising trespassing boundaries in a lesser-appreciated Whovian character that been the silent female character in one of the longest running shows on television — the TARDIS. A second trailer focuses on the TARDIS and presents it in the fashion of the iconic scene in 2001 Space Odyssey, a monolith set against a skyscape eclipsing the sun, inviting us to the idea that the vessels, both Time Lord and TARDIS, are entering a new Time.