Oooooh boy. Has it really only been a week since we found out that the brilliant Jodie Whittaker would be stepping into the TARDIS as the Thirteenth Doctor? It feels like it’s been months of heated debate about how women are taking over all your favorite franchises, though as Steven Moffat, the soon-to-be-departing Doctor Who showrunner, pointed out during the show’s SDCC panel in Hall H over the weekend, it’s all been blown out of proportion by the media. The casting backlash isn’t much of a backlash at all — on social media at least, Whittaker’s casting has an 80 percent approval rating. So by and large Doctor Who fans seem to be embracing change, barring a particularly vocal minority.
And that makes sense! The show is 54 years old, and as mentioned: Whittaker will be the Thirteenth Doctor. There have been twelve dudes playing the role before her! Hell, it’s thirteen if you count John Hurt, and… yeah, the War Doctor totally counts. The companions change, the TARDIS itself changes. This isn’t a show that stays stagnant for long. So everything will be fine, and the hubbub is all much ado about nothing, and there’s nothing left to say on the topic. Right?
Oh goddammit, Peter Davison. The Fifth Doctor himself was also at Comic-Con, and though he praised Whittaker’s talent, saying she would do a “wonderful job” and that he hopes people would watch “with an open mind,” he didn’t let the issue drop there. He went on to say some more stuff to the Press Association. Stuff that sounded like this:
“If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for. So I feel a bit sad about that, but I understand the argument that you need to open it up.”
“As a viewer, I kind of like the idea of the Doctor as a boy but then maybe I’m an old fashioned dinosaur - who knows?”
Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) has already jumped to Whittaker’s defense, clapping back at Davison in the press. And frankly this seems like another load of press-manufactured drama. Yeah, he said some things that maybe he didn’t need to say in an interview, but he also was being honest and certainly not denying Whittaker’s talent or the need to expand on the role.
And you know what? He may have a point. Part of what makes the Doctor such a beloved character is that he (or she!) is so unlike all the other heroes. The Doctor wants to fix things. S/he carries a screwdriver, not a gun, and relies on big brains rather than big brawn to win the day. As Craig Ferguson sang, “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”
And yes, in an era where we are examining more closely the effects of “toxic masculinity” around us, it’s nice to be able to point to this weird British sci-fi show as an alternative example of heroism for boys. But here’s the thing: Girls also need those kinds of role models. In fact, everyone should admire the power of intellect. We need to glorify smarts, now more than ever. Remember that Pew Research Center poll that recently showed Conservative Republicans don’t really like universities? We are in the midst of a war on education — and one thing that boys and girls have in common is brains.
But here’s the other thing that gets me about this whole made-up issue: the Doctor is a FUCKING ALIEN. Oh, he looked like a boy? Well now she’ll look like a girl. You know why? Because that’s how regeneration works on the show! The fact that the Doctor hasn’t yet looked like a woman (that we’ve seen, and no the Joanna Lumley spoof doesn’t count sadly), let alone a PoC, is mathematically absurd. I hesitate to call the character “gender fluid” because gender doesn’t seem to be a concept that matters much on Gallifrey. And that is yet another reason why the Doctor is a great role model for kids. Because this creature from another planet swoops in and shows us how to be better than we are. How to be clever and brave and do what’s right for everyone, human or alien. It’s about breaking down the barriers between us, not building them up. So if you think the Doctor has only ever been a role model to boys in the past, then you’ve been watching the show wrong. Just look at all the cosplay at any given convention to see the how many people identify as the Doctor, gender be damned.