Making The 13th Doctor A Woman: Terrible Move or Smart Choice?

Was casting a female Doctor a good move? What are some of the pros and cons of the decision?
on Jul 18, 2017 · 29 comments

Things have become wibbly-wobbly in the Whovian corner of the universe. Sunday, BBC revealed the much-anticipated and debated identity of the 13th Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.

Commence the firestorm of opinions.

Reactions range from disappointed and/or disgusted to skeptical to thrilled.

You have to love the Internet, where everyone has thoughts to share about everything. And in the two days since the announcement, the virtual world has exploded as people come to terms with the change.

All of this begs the question, was casting a female Doctor a good move?

Pros of a Female Doctor

1. It provides fresh material and possibilities for the show, one of which is bringing on the first male companion. How new showrunner Chris Chibnall handles this dynamic will prove interesting.

Nothing says the companion must be the opposite gender, but if that’s the case for Whittaker, will her companion prove to be a strong sidekick? To this point, the female companions were anything but weak, sexist-driven stereotypes.

Image via

2. It fits the Whoverse hallmark of change, of offering new adventures, of never letting the storytelling well run dry. As this article stated:

The show owes its longevity to its ability to start over when things are getting stale.

Note that doesn’t assume the show needs a reboot due to becoming boring (though many would argue the storylines are in need of help). It continues the tradition that has allowed Doctor Who to remain popular for decades, albeit it in a radically new way this time around.

3. From what I can tell, nowhere does the Whovian canon say the Doctor can’t regenerate with a different gender. There are no internal worldbuilding violations happening, and the Doctor gains an entirely new body with each regeneration anyway.

4. The switch allows plenty of room to explore the Doctor’s role from a female standpoint. How will that affect her character arc? Every Doctor needs time to readjust to the regenerated self. Having 13 as a woman will make that process unique and present excellent story fodder.

After all, every Sontaron and his uncle knows that men and women are wired differently. That alone should make for some fascinating character developments.

Cons of a Female Doctor

1. The decision feels forced, or at the very least suspect. Was the move driven by pressures from politically correct influence or feminist demands? Or is the new Doctor a woman chiefly for the sake of creating better stories?

An article in The Guardian expressed this well:

But there’s something uncomfortable all the same about the campaign to feminise Doctor Who. Obviously the character could be a woman. But deciding she has to be? That’s different.

This is one area where politics seems to have encroached upon storytelling. The outcry for a female Doctor has become significant in the last few years. Is it coincidence then that the heretofore solely male cast has been interrupted with such flawless timing?

If the Doctor had regenerated as a woman at a time when gender issues weren’t central to the cultural conversation, it would come across as more natural. As a decision to enhance the story. But that’s not the case.

As I said, seems suspicious.

2. With this development, the Whoverse now has no choice but to forge into new territory. Certainly a tradition of the show, but one that may backfire. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

(Not everyone agrees it ain’t broke, which further complicates the matter and goes to show you can’t please anyone all the time, and trying to do so results in pleasing no one any of the time.)

3. The choice, while appeasing the critics, may (and has) upset fans. The question becomes how deep does their loyalty run, and will the benefits of a woman piloting the TARDIS outweigh the resistance to her gender change?

4. If the first point is true, it creates a web of problems for the show’s future. If a story yields to one popular demand without regard for whether it actually makes sense for the storytelling, what prevents that from happening again?

And again?

And again?

At what point does the motivation cease to be telling fantastic stories and instead trying to please whatever cultural trend is sweeping town?

5. In his article the last time this topic surfaced in 2013 with Capaldi’s appointment as 12, Stephen Burnett made a strong case for a male lead: the fact that fans of both genders prefer a strong male hero accompanied by strong women who also fill prominent roles.

Personally, I’m torn. If Whittaker can pull off the role and has excellent writing to back her performance, great! I’m a Whovian and at the most basic level, I don’t really care whether the Doctor is male or female.

What I do care about, however, is the underlying motivation. Has storytelling been traded for agenda-filling? I suspect it has, but at the end of the day, what matters is the show’s quality. Give fans amazing adventures through space and time, and it doesn’t matter whether the Doctor can grow a beard or not.

What’s your reaction to the change? What other pros or cons do you see with having the first female Doctor?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.
  1. Audie says:

    I pretty much gave up on the Doc a few seasons ago, as it was clear where the series was going, and what agenda it was being used to push. This move isn’t all that surprising, it’s just more the same old same old, and even what small interest I might have had in getting back into the series is now gone.

  2. So sorry — apparently my previous comment was interpreted as partially code and got messed up. Lemme try again!

    ” To this point, the female companions were anything but weak, sexist-driven stereotypes. ”

    I’m sorry, what? Classic Who was all about female companions falling off cliffs from perfectly stable ground and needing to be rescued, or literally putting themselves into Cyberman conversion chambers after being told not to touch anything just because it was shiny and needing to be rescued, or running down an ice cave and tripping and falling so the Ice Warrior would catch her and needing to be rescued, or just saying “What’s that, Doctor?” so he could pontificate. We finally got some traction with Donna and then Martha (Yay, Martha! With higher education and life goals and a spine!), but there’s really no way to say that female companions haven’t been sexist stereotypes.

    ” From what I can tell, nowhere does the Whovian canon say the Doctor can’t regenerate with a different gender. ”

    The opposite, in fact. It’s canon that they do regenerate with different genders and that this is not particularly remarkable.

    ” If the Doctor had regenerated as a woman at a time when gender issues weren’t central to the cultural conversation, it would come across as more natural. As a decision to enhance the story. But that’s not the case. ”

    I don’t fully disagree, but I can’t agree, either. This female regeneration has been under discussion since the nineties. It ain’t new. And let’s be honest, if there were a current cultural conversation about responsible pet ownership and the new Doctor had a kitten, few people would be crying “they’re just pandering to the masses and it’s not really about the kitten!” It’s only “suspect” if it doesn’t align with what people like.

    I didn’t especially want a female Doctor — I would have gone for a POC Doctor, if asked, but I wasn’t 😉 — but it’s not remotely a new surprise (gimme-level hints in the scripts!) and I don’t have any problem with it, except the whiners claiming their fandom is ruined because it now has girl cooties on it. 😉

    • Julie D says:

      Laura, if I may comment about the female companions of the past;
      I’ve watched all of the classic episodes, and the general stereotype of the weak female companion never really existed. Or, more accurately, the occasional weakness shown by the female companions wasn’t especially greater than that shown by male companions (or the Doctor, for that matter)
      Just as a sample of classic companion badassery (indicates Doctor):
      Barbara ran over Daleks with a truck (1st)
      Dodo pulled a gun on Doc Holiday (1st)
      Zoe talked a computer to death and defeated a superhero with judo (2nd)
      Victoria Wakefield used her screams to defeat a seaweed monster (2nd)
      Jo Grant resisted the Master’s mind control by reciting nursery rhymes (3rd)
      Leela carried a pouch of poisonous thorns with her and ended her travels on Gallifrey (for reference, the last two companions the Doctor brought to Gallifrey had their memories erased.) (4th)
      Nyssa held the Lord President of Gallifrey at gunpoint (5th)
      Ace attacked a Dalek with a cricket bat (7th)

      • I have seen much less classic Who and I will freely confess I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge. I will only defend my statement by saying that my limited view did include Sarah Jane falling off a flat road and Victoria?? climbing into a conversion chamber just to see what it would feel like. I do know that Ian was intentionally developed as an action hero (though obviously the show later evolved) and so did not generally fall off things or put himself into known and easily avoidable danger.

        I’m not sure I would want most of the classic female companions as role models; I would argue that a handful of good actions over literal decades does not establish a convincing pattern. But I will also readily agree that they were very much products of their time and they often got better with advancing seasons. Ultimately I will concede to your better knowledge — again, I’ve seen only some and a few reconstructions — and hope that I just hit an anomaly of awful moments.

        • Julie D says:

          It’s an easy mistake to make, based on the occasion clip, but similar arguments could be made for some of the NuWho companions too–Rose touching her infant self after specifically being warned not to, for example.

    • Actually, if everyone started showing massive concern about pet care and the Doctor suddenly had a kitten, I WOULD suspect it’s agenda-driven. If everyone said we should stop drinking so much coffee, and the Doctor started saying, “You know, I should stop drinking so much coffee”, then I would suspect it’s agenda-driven. Because it feels forced when, all of a sudden, a fiction series decides to think EXACTLY the same way the current culture is telling us all to think. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – it may, in fact, be a good thing, like having more women’s roles, taking care of pets, and drinking less coffee. But the fact that someone or something other than good storytelling is driving the series is always a concern.
      Personally, I plan to check the first episode and see what they do. I expect good writing, with some reactions the new Doctor has about being a woman now and how she feels about that change – like when Peter Capaldi discovered on his 1st episode that he was apparently Scottish! I expect good things. But the fact that all they’re telling us, and promoting heavily, is that the Doctor is now a woman, is reason for concern. I’m hoping there’s more to the character than that.

      • // Actually, if everyone started showing massive concern about pet care and the Doctor suddenly had a kitten, I WOULD suspect it’s agenda-driven //

        Of course it would be agenda-driven. My point was that no one would be complaining to this degree, because people like kittens. Again, it’s only “suspect” if it’s something we don’t like.

        And referencing a point I made elsewhere, it’s the DUTY of art to engage with social questions, so even if this is 100% a response to modern gender relations, that’s still okay. Art which doesn’t engage and doesn’t say anything is just visual and aural noise, not art. Casting another male would have been something of a statement, too, though most people aren’t considering that.

        But art which does engage but doesn’t have a quality aesthetic is still not good art. And you could say that is the fear here. However, given the sheer number of “issues” episodes in new Who, many of which are excellent specimens, I don’t think that’s an immediate fear. The places new Who has bogged down (and it definitely has at times) have been in misguided plot arcs (introducing a Doctor/companion romance, making the Doctor grumpy and bitter instead of quirky and exploratory) rather than in its message pieces. Unless something drastic happens in the writers’ room, I don’t expect that to change just because the cast did. The cast changes all the time.

    • Zac Totah says:

      When I was first writing the article, I considered saying something along the lines of “A number of female companions were anything but weak, sexist-driven stereotypes” for the reason you mentioned, Laura (though I haven’t seen any of the classic episodes so I’m only familiar with the more recent series’. Thanks for pointing that out. 🙂

      Maybe I should have been a bit more clear about the cultural conversation and included the fact that I was speaking of a divisive topic rather than something less charged, such as pet ownership. 😉

      I agree with your last point. Not crazy about the move, but I don’t have a problem with it *if* the stories are strong and don’t become a vehicle for pushing some agenda.

  3. Julie D says:

    First male companion? I know the general perception is that all companions have been female, but that’s not quite the case. Even if you look at the revived series, there’s Mickey and Jack as temporary companions, and Rory was a package deal with Amy from halfway through season 5 onwards.

    Ian Chesterton was the first male associate of the Doctor’s, starting with the very first episode. There’s also Steven Taylor, Ben Jackson, Jamie McCrimmon (the longest running companion by episodes appeared in), Harry Sullivan, Adric, and Turlough.

    • Zac Totah says:

      Rory and some of the other more recent male companions crossed my mind, Julie, but I was seeing them more as secondary sidekicks, not the central character (such as Martha, Amy, Clara, etc.) alongside the doctor. Amy and Rory were very much a packaged deal, yet I always sensed Amy was the slightly more important half, given her longer history with the Doctor and the fact that Rory was involved mainly through his association with Amy, rather than having been expressly selected by 11.

      Being a rather new Whovian, I haven’t seen any of the classic episodes. Thus my ignorance, and something I should have mentioned in my post. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • I’m glad you mentioned this, Julie, because I didn’t only to shorten my comment. 🙂 Male companions have always been there and at least as important as the female. This is one of the problems with Davies starting new Who with a Doctor/companion romance; it skewed the view of the whole continuum.

  4. Steve says:

    I don’t watch Dr. Who- never have- so I don’t know the idea behind the characters “regenerating”, but on the surface this smacks of the trend to commandeer traditional male characters with female actresses. It’s all the rage, apparently, and slakes the thirst of those SJWs out there dying for gender fluidity.

    Have you ever noticed that traditional woman roles never go to a male? Or traditionally minority casted roles never go to whites?

    Again, just by what I see happening in pop culture in general, it absolutely seems forced. Unless there is a reason for the change that is organic to the telling of the Who mythos- a reason why now, and why not before- this sudden change could potentially damage the brand. I’ll be interested to see.

    Though I still have no interest in watching the show.

    • Have you ever noticed that traditional woman roles never go to a male? Or traditionally minority casted roles never go to whites?

      Because there’s no shortage of roles for white male characters, and indeed a huge preponderance of them? So taking one of those very rare powerful and central roles from a woman or a minority and giving it to a white guy would be ridiculous.

      I would personally prefer the Doctor to remain male, and I am concerned about the modern obsession with the idea that the body is irrelevant and infinitely malleable and only our self-perception matters, which casting choices like this play into. But I don’t think this kind of “women are taking some of our [very large pile of] toys so we should be able to take theirs” argument does credit to anybody.

      • Steve says:

        “Have you ever noticed that traditional woman roles never go to a male? Or traditionally minority casted roles never go to whites?”

        The point being that it is culturally acceptable to take established, pop characters that happen to be white and/or male- Nick Fury (S.H.I.E.L.D.), The Ancient One (Dr. Strange), Johnny Storm (Fantastic Four), etc., etc.- and make them something (someone) different for NO OTHER REASON than the belief that there are too many white men on screen.

        If the feeling is that ” there’s no shortage of roles for white male characters” and that there is in fact “a huge preponderance of them”, the answer is NOT arbitrarily rewriting established characters to fit some quota but actually CREATE new characters to quench your thirst for diversity.

        But, as we well know, creating new characters is MUCH more difficult that hijacking old ones.

        • The Ancient One was originally an Asian character, and a stereotypical one at that. The director was actually trying to avoid playing into a racist trope by casting Tilda Swinton in the role — not that I think it was the only solution to the problem, much less the best one, but I think it was done for sound reasons. (See also the casting of Ben Kingsley as “the Mandarin” in Iron Man 3.)

          And there are too many white men on screen. Statistically, logically, realistically, they are vastly overrepresented in the movies compared to real life and even what we know of history. That’s not to say that white men are evil or that it’s impossible to tell good stories with an all-white or all-male cast (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, for instance, has only two blink-and-you’ll-miss-it female cameos and is otherwise wall-to-wall men, mostly white, but it’s still one of my favorite movies). But I also don’t have a problem, especially in a film which is already playing fast and loose with its source material for dramatic or modernization purposes, with taking one of several white male roles which do not demand whiteness or maleness as an essential part of the character, and casting someone of a different sex or race. So a black Nick Fury in a film which otherwise would have no black characters at all (or at least no significant ones) is fine with me.

          The thing with Doctor Who, though, is that we always have had a central female character on screen who is essential to the story and has her own character arc and plot. So I’m not seeing the need for the Doctor to be female when there’s already a female co-lead sharing his adventures 95% of the time.

          (Marvel, on the other hand, has a serious problem with female representation — either the lack of it or the very limited range of types they know how to represent. There’s a reason that a lot of women who saw WONDER WOMAN warmed to Diana in a way that they never did to Black Widow or Gamora, and it’s not because Diana kicks more butt. And I say that as someone who’s generally always preferred Marvel to DC, movies included.)

          • notleia says:

            I read somewhere that they cast Tilda Swinton as a complete step-around of the problem of alienating Chinese audiences if they went with the Tibetan. Probably also why they set a the last part of it in Hong Kong, too.

          • Yay says:

            “Statistically, logically, realistically, they are vastly overrepresented in the movies compared to real life and even what we know of history. ”

            Compared to gays? It’s not even close.

            Naw, the characters are white because they were designed to be that way. Casting different skin colors because you feel bad for seeing white skin and want to see others is racist. Why else do people celebrate replacing instead of creating? You can bend it any way you want, but there is a skin color you think should be seen less and that is racist.

            If you want more “skin colors” on screen (which is ridiculously racist) then you need to create characters with different skin colors. Lazily turning every redheaded character in superhero shows and movies is not diversity–it’s table scraps.

            The idea that you need to see someone on screen as your sex or race to get excited about them is ridiculous. I don’t need to look at someone the same as me to get engaged in a story. That would be pretty disgusting if I had to be.

          • Steve says:

            Ssooo, the Ancient one was stereotypical and racist because he was written to act like and be an old Asian man? So, are old Asian characters written to BE old and Asian racist by default?

            I find it mildly frightening that the idea of casting an old Asian man to play a character that was written to be old and Asian is now considered playing into “a racist trope”.

            You don’t see the inherent problem with saying that there are “too many white men on screen”? In order to decry this as racist you first must see through racist eyes.

            I personally do not care that a film has all or mostly white cast. The Avengers wouldn’t be any less of a fun flick if they had stayed true to the character of Nick Fury. The ONLY reason to change him was to meet some PC need, and I object to it. (And before you go there, no… I am not white. I am Puerto Rican. …And I couldn’t care less that there were no Hispanics in Braveheart, the LOTR trilogy, or Logan. It. Does. Not. Matter.)

            I’m hearing now that a criticism against the new film “Dunkirk” is that there are no blacks and not enough women in it. Yep. Is that the road you really want to go down?

            If you want to see more black characters then CREATE THEM. I would LOVE to see what they come up with.

            I prefer to remain TRULY color blind, and not sit there counting brown people before I can like a film.

            • Good points raised, Steve. And these are some of my main concerns as well. Unfortunately, I’m white, male, and Christian, so my voice doesn’t carry much weight. 🙂 Which, of course, is a big part of the problem – some people who fall in my category are presumed to be ignorant and to have no credibility – because of their race/gender/religion – in other words, reverse racism.
              I feel we do need more diversity in stories. But I also feel that fans should expect to receive real representation of the original characters they have grown to love, from books or comics. Sometimes it doesn’t matter – such as the issue of a new black Hermione Granger. This seemed odd at first, but as JK Rowling stated no race was assigned to her, it probably doesn’t matter (except for continuity of the expectation set up by the film – if we show an older Hermione, should she suddenly change race??)
              I don’t find the alleged concerns for more diversity to be legitimate, because of this: if we genuinely want to see more ethnicities in film/TV, the first obvious gap to be filled is Asians. Why aren’t Mandarin and Ghost in the Shell (along with the entire cast of that film) being portrayed by Asian actors? Why aren’t there more Asian characters in films at all, let alone Asian leads? And what about other unrepresented races? Why was Johnny Depp cast as Tonto instead of a Native American? These are the ridiculous choices people SHOULD be upset about, when white actors are cast as non-white characters. Not because it’s not ethnically balanced, but because it’s a misrepresentation of a character who PROVIDES ethnic balance, and whom fans expect to see portrayed correctly.
              I fully agree that we writers are the ones who need to fix these issues, not Hollywood casting directors. But while there should be more representation of various ethnicities in various roles, they must also make sense. For example, in my suburb, there are several Hispanics, so when I planned to write a amateur sleuth series years ago, set in my city, I planned to have the hero’s best friend be Hispanic – because that would likely happen. If I wrote a story set in the Southwest, it would make sense to have Native American characters, as in Tony Hillerman’s novels (with Native American leads) and in the Twilight series.
              The big problem is when we write (or cast) foolishly, to appease PC lobbyists, by writing a nonsensical character, like casting Wil Smith as James West, a spy in the old west. The story premise is understood to be a little far-fetched already, but NO ONE is foolish enough to believe a black man in a fancy suit standing in the middle of an Old West saloon would make for a good spy. He would be harassed and likely killed by townsfolk within his first 3 missions. However, if he blended into the background as a slave or servant in that time period, then yes, he could be a spy, but otherwise, no. This is where lazy writing comes in.
              Another example: if Hollywood did a movie of I Dream of Jeannie today, it would fail. Why? Because they would LAZILY cast a white blonde woman who reminded people of Barbara Eden, and no one would buy it. If instead, they did honest writing and thought through the process by casting an Arabic woman as Jeannie, it would work as great comedy, because the right ethnicity would make it believable. This is a huge part of what makes Gal Gadot so convincing as Wonder Woman. Her Israeli accent is so distinct and unusual to U.S. audiences that it’s clear she’s foreign but not clear what her ethnicity is, which makes it easier to believe she’s from an ancient mythological island. Another huge part of the WW movie’s success was that it truthfully portrayed the characters people have come to love – Diana, Steve, Etta, and Ares. Were they exact replicas of the characters from the comics? No. But anyone could accept Chris Pine as Steve Trevor on sight. Etta was never English, and the character didn’t represent the original comic book character, but she retained the essence of Etta’s supportive role from the comics and ’70’s WW show, as a friendly, positive, and utterly loyal “sidekick” character, who essentially looked like someone we could believe as Etta.
              I’m disappointed that Johannsson was cast for Ghost in the Shell and that Depp was cast as Tonto, because I expected to see the esence of the characters as they were written. It doesn’t mater if their original ethnicity is white or something else – I expect to see my heroes portrayed on screen, the way I’ve been waiting to see them portrayed.

              • NO ONE is foolish enough to believe a black man in a fancy suit standing in the middle of an Old West saloon would make for a good spy.

                How soon we forget history, especially if nobody ever bothers to teach it to us. Ever heard of Bass Reeves? He was exactly what you’ve just described, except that instead of a spy he was a US Deputy Marshal and an ambidextrous dead shot, and in his time he was legendary:

                The assumption that historically all black people were slaves or servants, or else rare and lonely visitors from some exotic far-off tribe (instead of being regular residents, citizens, skilled craftsmen, artists, writers, merchants and fulfilling many other roles in Western society) is a false one. Just because a racial or ethnic group isn’t the majority doesn’t mean they’re invisible or don’t exist, or that their stories aren’t just as interesting or significant as the ones we’ve traditionally been told about white people. Bass Reeves was one of the most effective lawmen in the Old West, but when they made a TV show based on his exploits, how did they portray him? As a white guy they called The Lone Ranger. Presumably because “nobody would believe” that a black man could be such a great hero, or that white families would want to watch the show otherwise.

                Now that’s sad.

  5. Lisa says:

    I dunno. I’m not thrilled about it. I haven’t been all that happy with the Doctor lately anyway, I don’t think the scripts have been all that good. In my opinion there was too much of the “love-lorn” doctor. I hope they get away from that (which they mainly avoided during Capelli’s reign. We’ll see.

  6. Raelene Purtill says:

    Hi Zachary. Thanks for your remarks. Good to see some level headed thoughts, rather than some of the reactions doing the rounds. The R in Tardis stands for relative. While the choice does seem forced, it is politically and culturally relative. Also there have been male companions in the past, but how that’s going to work now, I don’t know. Rory and Mickey were kinda there I hope any males companions now aren’t stereotyped or given the role of ‘tin dog.’

  7. Katie Hart says:

    I’m upset by their choice. I’m a diehard fan of the show and will keep watching, but I don’t like this. It’s not that they are recasting a role that is typically given to a man. Each Doctor is the same person as all the others, so they are making the Doctor transgender with their choice for 13. The idea of a Time Lord changing gender has only been mentioned within the show after Steven Moffat took over, so they are retconning 40+ years of Doctor Who to make this happen. And they just did this exact thing with the Master, so it’s not even fresh and new.

    And while Doctor Who used to be a show I could recommend to anyone, it’s increasingly becoming more complicated to share with those who have conservative leanings, like myself. I introduced many friends and family members to the show, and I know this is going to cause several of them to stop watching (one already stopped because of Bill). Instead of family-friendly fun and entertainment, it’s becoming an avenue to normalize progressive agendas. I’m afraid if the show keeps going down that route, it will simply become the British version of Glee.

  8. K.G. Adams says:

    As a Christian feminist, I really hope this new twist will expand and add a new level of depth to the Doctor Who “universe” instead of ending up like the 2016 Ghostbusters where it thinks it’s trying to tell a “girl power” (for lack of a better word) story but completely throws away what made the original special.

What do you think?