On July 16 the BBC finally announced who would replace Peter Capaldi as the 13th person to star as The Doctor in the long-running (since 1963) sci-fi series “Doctor Who.” Fans were shocked/not shocked to learn that Jodie Whittaker would be taking up the sonic screwdriver next season. That’s right, folks—like it or not—The Doctor is now a woman.
Most fans were expecting this gender switcheroo. The idea of making the time-traveling hero a woman has been a topic of discussion for several years. The past few seasons of the show even dropped hints about the ability of Time Lords to change genders as well as faces during regeneration. (Michelle Gomez just wrapped up a fantastic stint at Missy, the female version of The Doctor’s longtime archenemy The Master.) Still, there are a vocal minority of alt-right fans who seem to feel that a female Doctor is a step too far.
Thanks largely to the courage of anonymity that the internet imparts, there’s been a strong uptick in fan-based fury over certain sexual, racial and political aspects of the sci-fi community (from the Sad Puppies’ hijacking of the Hugo Awards in 2013 to 2014’s Gamergate controversy to 2016’s “boycott” of the Ghostbusters reboot). Scroll through comment sections online and you’ll unearth plenty of ridiculous “men’s rights advocates” and their retrograde racist pals screaming and crying about how 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens dared to feature a black stormtrooper (John Boyega’s Finn) and a female Jedi (Daisy Ridley’s Rey) or how the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” is unwatchable because it has a woman of color as the lead character (Sonequa Martin-Green from “The Walking Dead”). The latter is a particularly bizarre complaint, with alleged “fans” equating the yet-to-air show’s diversity to “white genocide”—completely ignoring the fact that racial and sexual equality was one of the main points of Roddenberry’s original series.
The “Doctor Who” controversy is slightly different, because it involves changing an aspect of a preexisting character. Yes, since the character’s creation 54 years ago, The Doctor has been male. But the character has, by and large, been asexual (with the exception River Song, Rose Tyler and maybe Romana). The Doctor is defined by intellectual superiority, technical wizardry, general eccentricity and a willingness to help others. There’s no reason Whittaker—coming off the successful BBC drama “Broadchurch”—can’t embody all those elements.
The real question is whether this change will end up being properly motivated or a simple ratings gimmick. We won’t know until Whittaker makes her first cameo in this year’s Christmas Special. Change simply for the sake of change (or worse, for the sake of the free publicity that controversy generates) isn’t enough. Whittaker, the show’s writers and its producers must embrace this new direction with the correct narrative. Frankly, since “Doctor Who” rebooted itself, showrunners Russell T. Davies (2005 to 2010) and Steven Moffat (2010 to 2017) have shown a talent for the short run, but not the long game. Season-long story arcs—from Davies’ overly foreshadowed “Bad Wolf” to Moffat’s anticlimactic “Name of the Doctor”—have failed to deliver. Poor Capaldi started out at the tail end of the much-derided Clara Oswalt story line—which, despite insisting how indispensable she was to The Doctor’s history, never could come up with a credible reason why. Since then, Capaldi found his mojo in a series of fun, nostalgia-minded episodes. (Yay, Mondasian Cybermen!) So can incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall (who previously helmed “Broadchurch”) find stories that are worthy of The Doctor—both who he was and who she will be? Only time will tell.