On Sunday, after 55 years and a dozen incarnations, the star of Doctor Who will finally be a woman. It is a welcome and long overdue change, notwithstanding the online ravings of the same kinds of supposed fans (and Russian trolls) who could not abide female leads in the newest Star Wars movies. There’s a new showrunner, new writers and directors — and the Whovian universe promises to be more inclusive.
But is it even possible for the show to live up to the expectations and hopes of fans around the world?
When Jodie Whittaker officially takes over from Peter Capaldi, she’ll be stepping into the shoes (and spaceship, called the TARDIS) of a functionally immortal alien who once wiped out their entire planet during a massive galactic war, but who now passes the time solving mysteries with Agatha Christie, fighting alongside Winston Churchill and exploring the furthest reaches of time and space. The Doctor (as the character is always known) is also fond enough of humans to bring at least one along on their adventures for a few seasons at a time.
This new setup frees the show from the tradition of sending a beautiful young woman out into the stars with a strange old man she’s never met.
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Those elements won’t be radically different this time around, although the showrunners have given Whittaker three sidekicks rather than the usual one; two of them are male. A cynical observer might wonder whether the powers-that-be were afraid that a woman Doctor and singular South Asian female sidekick might be one step for devoted, conservative male fans of the show; I certainly do.
This new setup — which frees the show from the tradition of sending a beautiful young woman out into the stars with a strange old man she’s never met — will, however, be a welcome change from some of the most obnoxious elements of the rebooted series, which came back on the air in 2005 after a 16 year hiatus. The show will lose the paternalism and sexism that infected many seasons; with a woman in the TARDIS, saving a “damsel in distress” can be an act of solidarity. Characters, especially female ones, will no longer be defined solely by whether their relationship to the Doctor is romantic or platonic. And if Whittaker’s Doctor has to make a difficult decision that hurts one of her companions, it won’t be nearly as offensive as watching a man override his friend’s wishes because he supposedly knows best.
New show boss Chris Chibnall has hired a diverse staff — as he did for shows he ran before this one — and his previous work on "Doctor Who" and its spinoff, "Torchwood," has been full of LGBTQ characters, women warriors and a few dinosaurs.
And, above all else, Jodie Whittaker proved in three seasons of "Broadchurch" that she can deliver a monologue that will crush anyone’s heart like a black hole, and she’s been holding her own against titans of British acting since she was 24 and starred in "Venus" with Peter O’Toole.
Television has a long and infuriating history of reducing women to a handful of archetypes.
The Doctor has always been a roving force for good, loath to use violence unless absolutely necessary and committed to out-thinking opponents rather than overpowering them. The core of the character has always been heavily tilted towards attributes we generally consider "feminine" — more Hermione Granger of Harry Potter's world or Lyra Belacqua of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series than General Adama and Colonel Tigh of “Battlestar Galactica.” And viewers aren’t remotely used to seeing women show emotion or anger without also being wounded or villainous; any chance to watch this character save the world, scold her enemies and strike fear into the hearts of the cruel and and mansplain-y will be a welcome relief, especially at a moment in which women are deeply in tune with their anger.
But that opportunity has been wasted before. Television has a long and infuriating history of reducing women to a handful of archetypes, and turning Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor into a time-traveling Quirky Art School Chick would be both completely unsurprising and deeply disappointing to dedicated fans looking for a new take on a pop culture classic.
Plus, virtually every fantasy or sci-fi show with a “strong female character” at its center has wasted its heroine by forcing her to suffer for her power in uniquely female ways. Whether through sexual violence or threats to her womb, creators have never been able to figure out how to let a woman just be powerful. So it's an open question whether we will suddenly be forced to endure a seasons-long arc about the Doctor and fertility (a plotline that has threatened to ruin shows from "Battlestar Galactica" to "Orphan Black" to "The X-Files" to the Steven Moffat years of the Doctor).
Doctor Who has always aimed to be a ground-breaking show for the entirely family — albeit one with scary monsters and the constant threat of the End of the World — so perhaps there can be an exception made to what's become a trope of the genre that makes no sense in modern times, and especially times in which women have gained ground as both creators and fans.
There is reason to hope that's true: Sunday’s world premiere is titled “The Woman Who Fell To Earth,” and the reference to David Bowie — the world’s most famous gender-bending real life alien genius — clearly shows that this season really does want to appeal to people who spent their teen years watching MTV rather than just bootleg BBC tapes. The smartest way to follow through on that unsubtle promise is to give its star the room to make the Doctor her own as clearly as the other 12 actors were able to. Every Doctor is someone’s favorite; I speak for many fans that I'm more than willing to allow for the possibility that Whittaker's should be mine — not because she's a woman per se, but definitely only if being a woman is just one of many things she's allowed to be.