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18 July 2017updated 04 Oct 2023 10:33am

I never thought I wanted a female Doctor Who – until I got one

Chi Onwurah on her love of the Time Lord – and why she's excited about the new one. 

By Chi Onwurah

You never forget your first. While others may have since risen higher in my affections – Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even, if only for a short time, Blake’s 7Doctor Who was my first love in science fiction, and science fiction my first love on screen.

It was the first joke I could remember the punchline to:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Doctor.

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Doctor Who?

That’s right.

I must have been about eight or nine and I’d already been terrified out of my young mind by the mutant maggots of Doctor Who and the Green Death.

Still I did not think the gender of Doctor Who mattered so much. Perhaps because, while Tom Baker is definitely my favourite Doctor, (David Tennant a strong second), all of them, from William Hartnell to Peter Capaldi brought something magical to the part. There was so much variety in the men who played him, would it make that much difference if he was a she?

Of course I wanted to push the boundaries of the roles woman actors could play but I saw little connection between that and my long-standing campaign to attract more girls and women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem). An engineer for 20 years before coming into parliament, ending the entrenched gender disparity in Stem disciplines – only 9 per cent of professional engineers are women – has long been a personal priority. Not only as a matter of social justice, but to give our economy better access to the skills it so desperately needs and make tech more balanced, more humane, more representative.

I’m now the shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation, and daily it is brought home to me that excluding half our population from the jobs of the future is an economic as well as a social dead end.

I’ve long said women in Stem need high profile role models, and therefore championed everything from the most influential Women in Tech list to International Women in Engineering Day.

Almost exactly one year ago Jeremy Corbyn and I invited 100 female engineers into his office for what was a fantastic celebration of the contribution women have already made to engineering.

And I have always argued that better media representation of women in Stem could make a huge difference, and even called for a TV series about a complex, flawed but ultimately engaging woman engineer. But it did not occur to me that a woman starring in Doctor Who could have a role to play in inspiring girls. After all, the Doctor is a fictional, multi millennia-aged, two hearted, regenerating, time-travelling alien. Would a woman Doctor really be an easy-to-identify-with role model?

Having seen the 55-second trailer for the new Doctor Who and been unable to prevent myself breaking into a huge smile as Jodie Whittaker was revealed, I now know the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

We do not yet know what kind of Doctor Jodie will be, the exact mix of intelligence, humour, superiority and compassion. But we do know she will have ownership in four dimensions of an awful lot of complex technology – including a Tardis , which unlike Philip Hammond’s trains, has often proved itself too difficult for male Doctors to drive.

Even if I had not been personally inspired by the new Doctor, the blatant sexism and more subtle misogyny of so much of the negative reaction would have convinced me that it mattered. So really, there are people out there who find being a woman the least believable part of the Doctor’s story? Whose lives will be materially worse if the fictional, multi millennia-aged, two-hearted, regenerating, time-travelling alien is not male? I’ve spent decades adoring 12 male Time Lords and they can’t bring themselves to even tolerate one female one? It reminded me of some of the response to John Boyega’s black Stormtrooper in the Star Wars galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. When fictional diversity brings on a major mind malfunction then you probably had a problem to begin with.

So now I am left hoping that Doctor Who’s Jodie Whittaker will slay a few sexist demons in her improbable journeys, as well as altering the dynamics around diversity in Stem. With a woman Doctor, literally, anything is possible.

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