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17 July 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 5:36am

Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is the heroic female super nerd we’ve been waiting for

Doctor Who isn’t any old show, in the same way that a wedding isn’t just any old party.

By Laurie Penny

It’s about time. After years of febrile speculation and fan-theory, it’s now official: Doctor Who will soon be played by a woman, and the iconic five-decade-old BBC science fiction behemoth will regenerate into a series with a modern understanding of gender. The paroxysms of delight from the show’s legion of female, queer and progressive viewers have been met by a chorus of horror from people who are outraged at the idea that a fictional time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey could possibly be a woman. The argument that they cast the best actor for the job, and the best actor happened to be Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker, fails to convince those for whom the future can never be female, and time can never be rewritten, and unlikely heroes can never win the day, and tradition should always take precedence over justice, equality and fairness It’s just possible that those people have missed the point of Doctor Who.

This is a family show, and the writers always give you plenty of warning so you can hide behind the sofa when a particularly scary apparition stalks onto the screen – like a living statue that can kill you faster than blinking, or a woman playing your favourite character. In the final episode of the last series, The Doctor, in their latest incarnation as Peter Capaldi, explained to his companion that yes, Time Lords are indeed flexible on “the whole man-woman thing”.

“We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.”

This is too much for some fans, who have poutily announced that Doctor Who is ruined forever and they won’t watch it any more. They said the same thing ten years ago, when former show runner Russell T Davies made a point of including explicitly gay and bisexual characters in almost every episode. That didn’t hurt viewing figures one bit – and for those of us who were queer teenagers at the time, seeing people like us have adventures in space was like letting out a breath we’d been holding for years.

Doctor Who isn’t any old show, in the same way that a wedding isn’t just any old party. It’s a mishmash of emotion and tradition bogged down by the pressure of meeting so many clashing expectations, and no matter how magical it turns out, someone’s always going to go home in tears. For the same reason, Doctor Who is by no means the best show on television – it’s something else entirely, a steaming juggernaut of collective cultural storytelling that can’t change course without sirens blaring across the nerdsphere. With so many different fans to disappoint, Doctor Who will never please everyone – but just like at a wedding, gender-swapping the major players still has the power to move an old story in an exhilarating new direction.

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When I told my mum that Doctor Who was a woman now, I wasn’t sure how she’d react. In fact, she was remarkably accepting. “After all this time,” she said “I’m just happy for you. I know you’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s practically normal now. I hear they’ve even got female Ghostbusters these days.”

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Mum has never really understood my life choices, but she always knew I was different – when other little girls were dreaming of white weddings and handsome princes, I wanted to grow up and go on a quest or save the world from an invading horde of Nazi salt shakers. The millions of other baby weirdos who happened to be women never got to read or watch stories where girls like them could really rewrite the course of history. Even now, female protagonists are still rare enough in popular culture, and most of them tend to win the day by showing up in undersized perfect hair and kicking people in the face. This is the sort of female hero we’ve learned to tolerate, the “fighting fuck-toy”, in Anita Sarkeesian’s immortal words – damaged but sexy, a stock figure for whom “well-rounded” is a strictly physical description.

Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world.

Naysayers have complained that if the Doctor is not male, nerdy young men will lose a key role model – a hero in the lone eccentric genius mode who does not resort to violence to win the day. The loudest dissenting voices come from adult male fans for whom the idea of ever relating to a female hero is a threat to their core sense of self. Children are more malleable. Tell a little boy whose bedroom is covered in posters of daleks that the kindest and cleverest person in the universe is a girl now and he’ll probably be right on board.

The prospect of little girls getting to watch an eccentric genius save the day and see themselves in her is pretty darn gleeful – but the idea that little boys might do the same is just as exciting. Finally, young men will grow up having to accept, as young women have for so long, that the hero might not always look just like you. Finally, little girls won’t have to settle for stories where we can travel in time and space, but only if we are young and pretty and manage to attract the attention of a brilliant older man. Finally, little boys too will grow up watching a different sort of story – one in which anyone can embody interplanetary competence, even a girl.

These are the kind of stories that have been told about men for generations in popular culture, generations which clung relentlessly to the idea that “strong” women would always be token figures, would always have to stand a few paces behind the protagonist, waiting for him to explain the plot, rescue her, or both at once. Time after time, the most iconic and complex female characters on screen have been created when a woman wound up cast in a role originally written for a man. From Alien‘s Ellen Ripley, to Battlestar Galactica‘s Starbuck, when writers aren’t bogged down by all the cliches about what women can and can’t do in a story, characters can breathe and grow. The same rule applies to the real world. We can only become what we can imagine.

Of course, there are infinite ways that this could go horribly wrong. I’m going to have my bingo-card out for blonde jokes, period jokes, offhand comments about women drivers in the Tardis, overplayed romantic subplots and any and all reference to or reliance on “feminine wiles” to save the day. The Doctor does not need feminine wiles. She’s thousands of years old and once brought down an invading alien army with a satsuma. I’d also be grateful, in general terms, if we could call a moratorium on any future planet-eating crises being solved by the power of love. 

I’m certainly not going to give up the international nerd sport of complaining that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be, because that’s part of the point of the show. No matter how much we whinge, most real fans will carry on watching regardless, because we love Doctor Who like you love your obstreperous relative with a lot of madcap schemes for whom, let’s face it, changing gender after fifty years is completely in character.

I suspect that some of the protests are being played up with an ulterior motive in mind. I’ve an inkling that the fans who are yelling the loudest about the casting of Whittaker as political correctness gone mad, as an insult to of the spirit of the show and proof that feminism is poisoning this and every other inhabited planet, are just hoping that the Doctor will notice that they’ve become trapped in a 1950s time warp and show up in the Tardis to save them. They needn’t try so hard. The Doctor will always come and save you, including from your own worst impulses, and if you’re ready to follow her through time and space, there’s no telling where the story will go next.