Back to IndieWire

The Impossible Girl: ‘Doctor Who’ and the Glass Ceiling

The Impossible Girl: 'Doctor Who' and the Glass Ceiling

As we approach the premiere of Season 8 of Doctor Who and the debut of its dashing new star, Peter Capaldi, it’s perhaps time for another look at the debate about the possibility of a female doctor – and the show’s treatment of women in general, both on and offscreen.

It’s a subject that, to be honest, I’ve heretofore ignored, because I love Doctor Who beyond all reason, and I think it stands for a lot of smart and important and humanistic things. Feminist author Caitlin Moran said it best: “In a world where very little is a surprise, and everything is viewed with cynicism, Doctor Who is a genuine rarity. It represents one of the very few areas where adults become as unashamedly enthusiastic as children. It’s where children first experience the thrills and fears of adults, and where we never know the exact ending in advance. With its ballsy women, bisexual captains, working-class loquaciousness, scientific passion, and unremittingly pacifist dictum, it offers a release from the dispiritingly limited vision of most storytelling.”

So I’ve mostly given the show a pass on its run of solely white men. After all, for a white guy, the Doctor’s a really good one, and if stuffy old England insists on keeping him that way, well, I’ve got bigger, more misogynist fish to fry (plus Matt Smith was cute to a distracting degree). And I am really looking forward to seeing what Capaldi does with the part; he’s a fantastic actor and it looks like he’s going to put a more intense spin on it.

But the rhetoric surrounding Capaldi’s arrival has largely been about making changes to the show, which got me thinking — agreeing, rather, with those who’ve been saying it for years — there’d have been no better (or more obvious) way to shake it up than to cast a woman. Speaking at Wales’ Hay Festival in June, showrunner Steven Moffat discussed making Capaldi’s Doctor stand apart from his predecessors: “I just felt [this season] needs to be a bit more different now. It needs to be surprising again!” Fans who’ve been clamoring for a change of gender couldn’t be blamed for thinking, “Dude. Seriously?”

It’s hardly the first time in the show’s history that the subject has come up. When 1970s star Tom Baker was about to make his exit, he was reportedly asked what kind of guy was going to play the role next. “Well, you’re making an assumption that it’s going to be a man,” said Baker (I’m envisioning him saying it with that toothy grin and a wink, popping a Jelly Baby into his mouth). John Barrowman, who played Captain Jack Harkness on the show and went on to continue the part in Torchwood, sounded off on the gender stasis in 2011: “If Captain Jack can be an omnisexual time agent and an assistant to the Doctor, why can’t we have a female Doctor?”

Why indeed?

Over the course of Smith’s Eleventh Doctor’s character arc, it became clear that he’s a man (er, Time Lord) on the verge. As always, he was capable of being a hero to masses, but he was also plagued by a deep, internal struggle that manifested itself, time and again, as an identity crisis. (Cloying though it was, the question “Doctor who??” became a notable catchphrase during the show’s last couple of seasons.) What better way for the Doctor to reinvent himself – to get in touch with a different side of himself – than to regenerate as a woman? He, more than anyone, has a deep and centuries-old appreciation for women; his ass has been saved by them time and again, most recently when Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) sacrificed her life to save the Doctor’s timeline.

So why not make this non-human, two-hearted alien female for a change? Helen Mirren, at the top of many people’s lists of candidates for the part, has said, “It’s well over time to have a female Doctor.” Eighth Doctor Paul McGann has proposed Tilda Swinton for the role – another mind-blowingly excellent idea. (Peter Davison, whose Doctor I never particularly cared for, has been a lone stick in the mud, saying, “To have a female would be like having a female James Bond. It would be a rather odd thing.” Shh, nobody tell Davison that almost everyone now regards James Bond as an outdated icon with an amalgamation of stupid, sexist character traits. He did his time on the show, now let him rest.) Emma Watson and Kate Winslet were other popular names floated. I’d add Emma Thompson to that list. How about Gina Torres? Joanna Lumley, who actually played the Doctor in a Red Nose sketch once?

But it all comes back to Moffat, who has staunchly refused to be swayed by the increasingly loud chorus demanding a dame for a Doctor. “It will not happen that somebody sits down and says we must turn the Doctor into a woman. That is not how you cast the Doctor,” he has said, and, OK, rightly so: the casting shouldn’t be some sort of begrudging sci-fi affirmative action.

But given the gender breakdown on Moffat’s primary crew, this does beg the question of whether he’s simply unready to open the show up to the female perspective, period.

There have been no female writers on Who since Moffat took over the show, and that depressing trend continues this season. Also, no female directors since Season 5 – until recently, when it was announced that this season’s two-part finale will be directed by a woman. And not just any woman, but the director of Tank Girl, about whose star I recently rhapsodized. Rachel Talalay has understandably not held forth at great length about the show’s lack of gender diversity, though she has disclosed – so likably! – that “I said to Steven Moffat, ‘If I was to read the Internet, I would believe you only hired me because you were pressured to hire a woman.'” (He replied — tersely, I imagine — “I think they need to know I hired you because of your reel and your material and what we believed you would bring to it.”) The tenth episode will be directed by another woman, Sheree Folkson.

So maybe this is the beginning of a promising new age for Who.

Still, Moffat’s reticence on this subject is a curious thing, because so much of the ethos of the show is about equality – albeit with more of an emphasis on species than gender. One of the things I like best about Who is that, when there’s is a monster (and there is usually a monster), the Doctor comes to it with the attitude of trying to figure out what it wants, and how to help it get that without hurting anyone. Of course, sometimes this still results in monster-dispatching, but his first impulse — unlike almost every other adventure show with antagonists — is that everyone’s got a fundamental right to exist, and a valid perspective.

So I’m not sure how this squares with Moffat’s aversion to working with half the population. Maybe he just likes the ladies better when they’re time machines in disguise.

The eighth season of Doctor Who will debut August 23 on BBC America. Watch the trailer below.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,