Pop Culture

Pop Culture: The casting of a female as the Doctor in Doctor Who represents the future

The casting of a female as the protagonist in Doctor Who will help mainstream the idea that not only men, but also women can fight for justice and equality - and save the universe

"The universe is big," remarks the Doctor, the time-travelling alien at the heart of cult British television show Doctor Who. "It's vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles."

The miracle of the moment is that the Doctor is a woman. British actress Jodie Whittaker, 35, was revealed on Sunday by the BBC to be the 13th Doctor, making her the first woman to play the iconic role in 54 years.

It is a landmark casting decision not just for the show, but also for the male-dominated science- fiction genre on a whole - and has already polarised viewers.

Many have praised the move by new showrunner Chris Chibnall, including actor Colin Baker, who played the sixth Doctor from 1983 to 1986. But the online backlash has also been furious, with many people threatening to boycott the show.

News outlets such as The Sun and the Mail Online were quick to run nude stills of Whittaker from her film Venus (2006), as if to remind readers of the very womanly body about to reinterpret their beloved character and that, before she got the role of one of the most powerful beings in the universe, she was a sex object.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, a 2,000-year-old alien who travels through time and space in a machine known as the Tardis, which is stuck in the form of a British police box from the 1960s.

Whittaker's casting has created the biggest buzz the show has seen since it was revived from dormancy in 2005... Call it political correctness, but (new showrunner Chris) Chibnall's more inclusive direction may be the shot in the arm the show needs to bring viewers back into the fold.

Whenever he is about to die, he regenerates into a different body and a different personality.

There have been many different Doctors throughout the years, from William Hartnell as the first Doctor to the most recent incarnation, Scotsman Peter Capaldi, who announced in January that he would be leaving the show.

But they have all been male. Until now.

Doctor Who asks you to believe in time travel, sonic screwdrivers and baby aliens that can live in your body as blobs of fat.

What also requires suspension of disbelief is how an alien who can regenerate repeatedly into anybody in the universe has managed to reincarnate a dozen times into a white British man.

The casting of Whittaker, best known for playing a grieving mother in crime drama Broadchurch (2013-2017), may come as a shock to many, but the show has long flirted with the idea that a Time Lord could regenerate into a Time Lady.

The Doctor's Wife, a 2011 episode scripted by author Neil Gaiman, teased the idea that a Time Lord, the Corsair, had changed gender upon reincarnation. Last series' adversary, Missy (Michelle Gomez), was revealed to be a regeneration of the Doctor's old nemesis, the Master.

Controversial though it may be, casting a woman as the Doctor seems an inevitable choice. The show is facing falling ratings and has long been in need of some regeneration itself.

Whittaker's casting has created the biggest buzz the show has seen since it was revived from dormancy in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor. Call it political correctness, but Chibnall's more inclusive direction may be the shot in the arm the show needs to bring viewers back into the fold.

This avid fan's interest in the show has flagged in recent years. This is no slight on the talent of Capaldi, who is a fine actor. Rather, I was put off by the increasingly tangled plots and the problematic fates former showrunner Steven Moffat created for the Doctor's female companions.

I loved characters such as Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) - bold, clever women with minds of their own. Yet, somehow, their stories would always be twisted into service of the Doctor's.

The mystery behind Clara's origins, for instance, is that she is a plot device in the shape of a girl, as she sacrifices herself to enter the Doctor's timestream so she can save his many lives.

Whittaker's Doctor will hopefully diverge from this pattern. It is telling that in the BBC reveal, she was depicted not with the Doctor's trademark sonic screwdriver, with its phallic shape and ability to fix anything in the world except wood, but with the key to the Tardis. This changing of the guard means to be one that opens new doors.

Doctor Who follows other female reboots of iconic male characters in major franchises, such as last year's all-female remake of Ghostbusters and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), in which a young woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), becomes the future of the Jedi.

Even now, fans are lobbying for Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame to play the next James Bond.

All these were met with vitriol from fans of a certain purist persuasion and Whittaker's appointment has been no different. Online commenters have described her casting as "political correctness gone mad", demanded a male Wonder Woman (i.e. Superman?) and declared that the BBC has ruined their childhood forever. If one's grasp on childhood is so tenuous that it can be negated by the casting of a woman years later, then one might as well grow up.

Such arguments have lost sight of the point of the Doctor. The defining characteristics of the Doctor should not be that he is male, or white, but that he fights for justice and equality; that he has never met anybody who was not important; that he - well, now, she - is the one who will stand against the many.

I was a teenage girl when I started watching Doctor Who. Back then, it would have been electrifying for me to see a woman leading the fray in the show I adored. Now, I see that reflected in a viral video clip of a young fan's reaction, in which she shrieks, "The new Doctor is a girl!"

A new generation of young girls - and boys, too - will watch a woman fly the Tardis and save the universe and see it as status quo.

More than all the time travel in the world, this is the future.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'A woman flying the Tardis? This is the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe