Sunday 7th October will see one of the most radical – and certainly controversial – changes in the programme’s history when Doctor Who returns for its eleventh series (or thirty-seventh season, if you’re old school), with Jodie Whittaker taking over the controls of the TARDIS as the Thirteenth (look, let’s not get into the tedious numbering debate here) – and first ever female – Doctor.
Since the show was revived back in 2005, strong female characters have been touted as supposedly being one of the biggest differences between the new and old iterations. The original run between 1963 and 1989 did have more than its fair share of these as well, including an arguably proto-female Doctor, in the form of Time Lady companion Romana (who even had her own Sonic Screwdriver).
However, the casting of a woman in the lead role for the first time has been one of the most divisive choices since whatever the last one was (there’s a lot of these about if you’re in fandom), although the prospect of this eventually happening has been actually around for a very long time. In fact, the earliest mention of a gender-swap for the Doctor goes all the way back to 24th October 1980, when Tom Baker pronounced that he was leaving the show.
In a piece of pure devilment, he declared to the assembled press corps that he wanted to wish the new Doctor – “whoever he or she might be” – the best of luck. With the ensuing media coverage, the idea took hold in popular culture, and has been something which has come up every time since then that it’s been announced the lead actor will be standing down, with the prospect of a new regeneration on the horizon.
It’s taken almost 38 years since then for a woman Doctor to actually come to fruition on our TV screens, although for something which was originally used partly as a bit of fun, and partly as a clever piece of PR, it’s remarkable how the notion’s gained traction. In a recent interview on BBC Breakfast, Jodie Whittaker said the gender of the character was “a redundant question” for her, yet it’s something which has clearly brought the most attention to the latest run.
The concept of a female Doctor was first given form in a series of fan films which started in 1984, starring Barbara Benedetti, which introduced her as a newly-regenerated Seventh Doctor, as she was still wearing the outfit of Colin Baker’s incarnation when we first saw her. Another unofficial version of the character as a woman came in one of the licensed audio adventures from Big Finish, as part of a concept called Doctor Who Unbound.
This limited series of adventures gave us a “what if?” take on the show, freed from the constraints of continuity, and taking it into new directions. One of these – the 2003 play Exile – cast Arabella Weir as an alternative Third Doctor, who’d escaped justice at the hands of the Time Lords by committing suicide; the story gives this as the only cause for a gender change to take place upon regeneration, and is considered to be a crime in Time Lord society.
Weir’s Doctor is painted as something of a failure, having turned her back on saving the universe and retired to Earth, spending her days working in a supermarket, and her nights in the pub working on her alcoholism. As well as its contentious take on the character, the play is also notable for casting Weir’s one-time lodger (and godfather to one of her children) David Tennant as a Time Lord, only a couple of years before he got cast in some sci-fi show or other, and was never seen or heard of ever again.
Jodie Whittaker isn’t the first time that we’ve seen a female Thirteenth Doctor on screen, as Joanna Lumley took the role in the 1999 Comic Relief special The Curse Of Fatal Death, penned by future showrunner Steven Moffat. Lumley’s Doctor came at the end of a series of different incarnations in the story, played variously by Rowan Atkinson (Ninth Doctor), Richard E. Grant (Tenth Doctor), Jim Broadbent (Eleventh Doctor), and Hugh Grant (Twelfth Doctor).
It seems that Moffat used the opportunity to set out his stall early on, presenting a number of ideas which would feature in the series when he took over in 2010 (e.g. the Doctor getting married; Daleks having chairs, despite not possessing any legs; wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plots; etc.), one of which was the set-up for a gender change of the main character. It’s something which he came back to early on during his tenure on the show, as Matt Smith’s Doctor is seen briefly thinking he’s turned into a girl shortly after regenerating.
The series had already indicated in small ways Time Lords were flexible when it came to taking on a new form, as Romana went through a series of different bodies in a jokey regeneration scene written by Douglas Adams back in 1979, one of which was a diminutive blue humanoid alien. This was mirrored by dialogue in 1996’s ‘The TV Movie’, where Paul McGann’s Doctor states that Time Lords can change species.
Moffat’s era at the creative helm has expanded on this theme, by showing the character of River Song having the ability to regenerate like Time Lords, and changing race when taking on her final body. River Song was also something of a pseudo-Doctor, with the ability to travel through time, and even having a Sonic Trowel at one point. Jenna Coleman’s character of Clara Oswald was also seen impersonating the Doctor on more than one occasion, paving the way for a female take on the main character.
However, it was a throwaway line in Neil Gaiman’s story ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ which really solidified the idea of a male-to-female (and vice versa) transformation, when the Doctor talks about one of his old Time Lord friends – the Corsair – who became a woman at one point. Since then, the idea gained more ground, culminating in the casting of Michelle Gomez as Missy, the first female incarnation of long-time arch enemy the Master, back in 2014.
Moffat has stated in interviews that he was essentially laying the groundwork for a future Doctor to change sex, and it seems that the thinking behind this was down to the fact that as the show had never explicitly said it couldn’t happen, logically it must be a possibility at some point. However, the earliest serious suggestion for this to take place actually came from the person who’s credited with originally devising Doctor Who, Canadian TV producer Sydney Newman.
In a written proposal to BBC One Controller Michael Grade, dated 6th October 1986, he proposed a revamp of the show, starting with bringing back Patrick Troughton for a short time, before casting the first female Doctor to replace him. When Jodie Whittaker appears in her first full episode, it means that it will actually be 32 years almost to the very day since the show’s creator mooted the idea to the BBC, albeit to no avail at the time.
It remains to be seen what the public’s reaction will be to this bold new direction for Doctor Who, but given that Tom Baker once described the role as “actor-proof”, it hopefully bodes well for the future. In some of the first words spoken by Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, it may even prove to be a case of “change, my dear; and it seems not a moment too soon.”
The new series of Doctor Who returns to BBC One on Sunday. Let us know your expectations in the comments below.